Because it seems to me that the things in Cooper that make one so savage, when one compares them with actuality, are perhaps, when one considers them as presentations of a deep subjective desire, real in their way, and almost prophetic. – D.H. Lawrence
Economists produce conjectural histories, where myths become models and quantification becomes cause. Prophets, on the other hand, produce gnostic histories, where the living population is always haunted by the dead, and human causes are subordinate to and serve the signs and wonders of the poets. D.H. Lawrence was a literary prophet – he had an overabundance of the two main requirements, a crackpot metaphysics and a lifetime store of indignation. How else to explain his deep sense of American myth, when he had not had contact – magic word – with white settler America for any significant length of time. Not Africa-America, not black magic, nor immigrant America, but white settler America, the America forged in the violence – the “contact” – between the settlers and the Native Nations. Perhaps even here the Native Nations to him were more Etruscan than Huron, or Wendat, an irresistible correspondence for any European who knew his ancient Greek myths. Still, Lawrence grasped the hunter plot – hunting deer, hunting the great white whale, hunting bear, hunting, above all, Indians – that has such large effects on the American imago that Americans are still enthralled by the elements of that primitive story. I would claim that the story is now in its decadence, ending its life prosperously in action movie after action movie, newer and newer weapons at the ready (but the same old magic when it comes to bullet trajectories, which magically miss the hopscotching hero).
Lawrence’s study comes after William Carlos Williams In the American Grain, of course. That gave him many hints. But his instinct grasped the place of hunting. This was America’s first freedom – and perhaps why, in spite of the slaughtered children and every mass murder and knowing that it is we, or our children, who could be in the rifle’s scope, the cold dead grip of white Settler America is still around its guns. As Terry Ellingson has pointed out, the “noble savage” myth didn’t originate in a Rousseau-ian view of tribal life. The term noble did not originally mean “morally elevated” when applied to the Indians. The first appearance of the phrase “noble savage” in English occurs early in the 17th century, in a translation of Marc Lescarbot’s account of French Canada. Why did Lescarbot call the Indians he met noble? Because they hunted, a privilege legally reserved in Europe, with some exceptions, to the nobility.
“Upon this privilege is formed the right of hunting, the noblest of all rights that be in the use of man, seeing that God is the author of it. And therefore no marvel if Kings and their nobility have reserved it unto them, by a well-concluding reason that, if they command unto men, with far better reason may they command unto beasts…
Hunting, then, having been granted unto man by a heavenly privilege, the savages through all the West Indies do exercise themselves therein without distinction of persons, not having that fair order established in these parts whereby some are born for the government of the people and the defense of the country, others for the exercising of arts and the tillage of the ground, in such sort that by a fair economy everyone liveth in safety. [Ellingson, 2001: 23]
Lawrence doesn’t mention Robinson Crusoe in the context of the American hunter, but – borrowing from Marx’s notion of Crusoe as the legitimating myth of the classical economists – surely Natty Bumppo, or Daniel Boone, play the same role in the American climate, give us the our methodological individualism buzz, American style. As always, of course, history discretely precedes pre-history – these self-made hunters use weapons that represent the cutting edge of the factory and distribution system. Even in the deepest woods of the Six Nations, they are parasitic, in a crucial sense, on the world economy – going in with the gun, coming out with the pelts, or the scalps – whatever sells. And, as Olson points out about Moby Dick, hunting and the factory system combine in the whaling ship. By taking the ship and making it into the vessel of his own vengeance, Ahab departs from the hunter’s program, the telos of the pelt or whale oil that is brought back, and this is a mark of his madness. There’s a nice story about this parasitical situation in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. An expriest tells the kid a story about the Judge over the scalphunters fire one evening. In the story, the expriest and a band of other hunter/desperados are being chased by savages into the malpais, the great salt and quartz wastelands in Sonora or southern Arizona. The band has run out of gunpowder. And then they come upon the judge – just like that. The judge scales flakes of silicon and sulphur from the rocks about with his knife, and mixes it up, and then has the whole company piss on it (“He’d took out his pizzle and he was pissin into the mixture, pissin with a great vengeance”) and kneads the mixture and lets it dry, and the band uses that powder to fight off the surprised savages. This is self-sufficiency, but it is also a parody of gunpowder manufacture, a reminder of the factories and mines behind the Daniel Boones. But even if the hero of methodological individualism ends up pissing into a pile of mineral flakes to survive, you can’t entirely take the aura away from Daniel Boone. Literature happens because myths don’t hold – and so it is with Ahab and, much later, with the boy in Faulkner’s The Bear – but the myths also fight back.
Then there is the woods themselves – and the ocean and the malpais, other forms of wilderness, easily transformed, by metaphor, into a woods, and vice versa. When the Boy goes into the woods for the first time in Faulkner’s story, the sensation of moving among the immensity of trees is compared to a sensation the boy has much later – the first time he goes onto an ocean going ship. The woods, though, are European as well. After all, Dante as well as Daniel Boone found himself in a forest, and Ortega y Gasset begins the Meditation on Quixote with an essay on the forest. In America, the hunter maps the woods, and the map kills the hunter – for of course he is followed by the world system, the farms and manufactures. In Europe, Ortega y Gasset’s forest is also inhabited by what used to be there: “When we arrive at a small clearing in the verdure, it seems as if a man had been sitting there on a stone, with his elbows on his knees, his hands on his temples, and that just as we were arriving he got up and left…. The forest is always a little beyond where we are. It has just gone away from where we are and all that remains is its still fresh traces. The ancients, who projected their emotions into corporeal and living forms, peopled the forests with fugitive nymphs.” In America, of course, the man was there when the Americans got there – and he was gone by the second, the third, the fourth generation, ‘vanished’ – as it used to be said in the old educational films of my sixth grade. The ‘vanishing’ American Indian. The ‘vanishing’ buffalo. In truth, the hunter’s last real moment in American culture was in the 1870s, when factory, hunting, and ethnic cleansing were put together as the army contracted out the extinction of the buffalo. Here, the peculiar genius of General Sherman showed itself:
“In a letter on May 10, 1868, Sherman mentioned, sardonically, one possible method of resolving the conflict of the White Settlers and the Native Nations, writing to Sheridan that “I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England & America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all. Until the Buffaloes & consequent(ly) the Indians are out from between the Roads we will have collisions & trouble.” On June 17, 1868, Sherman wrote his brother John about the buffalo and the railroad: “The commission for present peace had to concede a right to hunt buffaloes as long as they last, and they may lead to collisions, but it will not be long before all the buffaloes are extinct near and between the railroads, after which the Indians will have no reason to approach either railroad…” (Sherman, 1894, p. 320)”
This was the end of the hunter as the classic American hero, the myth inside methodological individualism. It was the end, too, of the hunter’s forest – the American forests of turns, where hunter and prey could switch places. The hunter as a hand is the cowboy — an entirely different figure, a hireling with a gun, poor boy.
Don’t take your guns to town.
I said earlier that the story is in its decadence. Its decadence is part of the larger debauching of the narrative intelligence in that America dreamt up by Tom Paine and William Blake – and it is a gender-coded decadence. Its site, over and over, is the homme moyen sensuel, with a highschool diploma or a B.A., business school graduate or technician, a C.V. of video games and porno knowledge under his belt. It is not an accident that it is in such masculine precincts that the hunter’s myth has died, however – the discourse of hunting, like the discourse of individualism, has always been gender-coded. Read twitter, read any list group of young men – or read the economists – and you will soon get the picture. Underneath methodological individualism is the boy just hatched from college, no longer in his parents’ house, on his own, so to speak, and taking that ephemeral situation (which was achieved in large part thanks to others, to all the free lunches that have filled his belly) as the very pattern of all humanity, if only they would just get their lazy asses in gear.
I have to add a ps, one of the signs and wonders that I know fit into some gnostic codex, even if I don’t know where. In Fintan O’Tooles biography of Richard Sheridan, The Traitor’s Kiss, there is a marvelous anecdote that crosses all the wires of the American myth, from Natty Bumpo to minstrel culture:
“On March 6, 1786, the American Company’s production of Robinson Crusoe or Harlequin Friday was performed in New York ‘For the entertainment of the Indian Chiefs of the Oneida nation, now in this city.” Probably devised by Elizabeth Sheridan with assistance from her husband, this pantomime seems, from surving accounts, to have been itself a strange fantasy of meetings between European travellers and New World natives. The first half follows the outline of Daniel Defoe’s novel. But in the secnd, set in Spain, Crusoe disappears back to England, leaving the black man Friday – played by one of the first black face performers to appear on the American stage – in the arms a white Columbine. The lovers are rescued from various distresses by a black magician and transported back to the island, where “the Piece concludes with a Grand dance of Savages.”
And so Robinson Crusoe and the Prospero myth are unfurled before the Indian nation that will provide Cooper with his enemy/models for Natty Bumppo. Oh, how our symbols turn into events and our events turn into symbols in this strange new world!