Frontier Psychiatry: Introduction

If I tweet it, it must be so. You can’t go back on blog promises that have made it to the tweet stage.

I’ve said that I wanted to do something like this on the blog already, having confessed to something of an American literature / American West obsession in the midst of last year, and now that I’m currently working these thoughts into my “Egress” book I want to give even more of a life to these ideas.

I wasn’t sure exactly what form this would take but then it seemed obvious.

My favourite discovery of last year was undoubtedly Leslie Fiedler. Found in a footnote in A Thousand Plateaus, unearthed by Ed Berger, I ended up reading the whole of Fiedler’s psychedelic trilogy of American literary criticism — Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Waiting for the End (1964) and The Return of the Vanishing American (1968).

I ended up applying most of my reading to a series of posts on Westworld and I really enjoyed following this lineage. In fact, Westworld is arguably all about this lineage and not a lot else. It’s not about AI — it’s about the fact that the American psyche can never get past the primal wound of lost promises and traumas that define the “birth” of the nation and, particularly, how this period continues to be associated with the American frontier.

I was already writing a lot about the relationship between state and subject in my patchwork posts at the time but here, read via the immediate influence of Gilles Deleuze, I found example after example of failed geophilosophic liberations. I ended up wanting to read every book Fiedler wrote about but I just couldn’t keep up with my own desire. I read a few of them, mind you, and even ended up going beyond, carrying his writings with me in my readings of Cormac McCarthy and even The Hunger Games. I never wrote about any of these things on the blog though. The moment passed and I moved on to other things.

Having been consolidating and building on my Westworld posts considerably for my new book, however, I’ve caught the bug again and I want to have a way of scratching this itch on the blog, maybe even extending out the project. But I’ll never keep up with myself if I do it with books. I thought maybe I could do it with films instead.

For some reason, as a teenager, I was obsessed with Clint Eastwood. I had a thing for the Dirty Harry movies, trying to collect all the films in the series on DVD through this mail order Clint Eastwood filmography thing that I’d discovered in WHSmith or some other shop. At my parents’ house, I still have Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The Dead Pool, and maybe The Enforcer. This same mail order thing also included some of his Westerns too (and also Space Cowboys — yikes). The main ones I remember are Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

The Outlaw Josey Wales was a film I watched again and again and again, and I thought it might be the perfect first selection. But then I thought about the rest of his movies and realised, perhaps for the first time, that this is what they share in common.

The character of “Dirty Harry” is essentially a frontiersman out of time — I mean, that’s who Clint Eastwood seems to think he is in real life too, right? He’s an “Old” American, a sort of Classic Man, the very embodiment of what Fiedler calls a “Higher Masculine Sentimentality”.

Fiedler writes in Love and Death in the American Novel:

Primitivism is the large generic name for the Higher Masculine Sentimentality, a passionate commitment to inverting Christian-Humanist values, out of a conviction that the Indian’s way of life is preferable.

He continues:

From this follows the belief that if one is an Indian he ought, despite missionaries and school boards, to remain Indian; and if one is White, he should do his best, despite all pressures of the historical past, to go Native.”

This is Clint Eastwood in a nutshell, isn’t it? The abjectly stoic white man who loves to “go Native”? How interesting that this is something that spans his characters, whether they’re meant to be alive in the 1860s or the 1960s.

Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about, one movie at a time.

I want to watch a bunch of westerns here and write individual posts about them, their historical context — fictive and actual — and hopefully, with screen shots and the like, we’ll explore the ways that these films depict interesting schisms and tensions within the American (but also, more broadly, Western) psyche as a whole. I want to watch classic westerns and new westerns and movies wholly unrelated (stylistically) to the genre which nonetheless transpose its tropes, and see what they say about the minds of a people who just can’t get over the closing of the frontier.

Watch this space for Frontier Psychiatry #1 — maybe something I’ll work on at the weekends. In the meantime, click here to explore the new “Frontier Psychiatry” tag where all these future posts will be collected together and where, at the moment, I’ve added all the old Westworld posts and a few other relevant posts too.


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