Monday, November 28, 2011

Cormac McCarthy As Ransom Stoddard; Jonathan Lethem's Postmodernism As Liberty Valance

Among the many delights of Jonathan Lethem's new book, The Ecstasy of Influence, is a comic philosophical essay entitled "Postmodernism As Liberty Valance."

Lethem says, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an allegorical western that I am now going to totally pretzel into an allegory for something else entirely," namely, the relationship between modernism, high modernism, and postmodernism.  And more.

"The chewy center of TMWSLV is a gunfight.  A man (Jimmy Stewart/Stoddard) stands in the main street of a western town and (apparently) kills another man (Lee Marvin/Liberty Valance).  The victim--for this is, technically, murder--represents chaos and anxiety and fear to all who know him, and has been regarded as unkillable."  After his death, the witnesses lavish praise on the killer (Stewart/Stoddard) and put him up for public office.

Not all praise him--his political opponents denounce him for shooting a leading citizen (Marvin/Valance) down in the streets.  Hearing this preys on Stoddard's conscience (despite the obvious self-defense rationale) and he considers withdrawing his candidacy until John Wayne/Tom Doniphon explains to him that he did not actually kill Valance, that he (Wayne/Doniphon) shot him with a rifle from an alley where he was hidden from sight.  Stoddard then gets back into the race and becomes a successful politician.

"The film allegorizes the taming of the western frontier, the coming of modernity to the form of the lawbooks and the locomotive, and memorializes what was lost (a loss the film sees as inevitable)." 

Before giving us his own interpretation of the film, Lethem presents several definitions of postmodernism from several critics, which of course vary since no one seems to agree on exactly what it is.

"...the avowed, self-declared postmodernist school of U. S. fiction writers: Robert Coover, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, John Hawkes, and a few others, many of them one another's friends, and many of them influential teachers. . .This clan, when Barth and Pynchon were scooping up major prizes, rode high enough that they seemed worth knocking down.  This is the epoch John Gardner tilted against in On Moral Fiction.'

"True, this tribe once had the effrontery to imagine itself the center of interest in U. S. fiction, but if you still hold that grudge your memory for effrontery is too long.  To go on potshotting at these gentlemen is not so much shooting fish in a barrel as it is shooting novelists who rode a barrel over Niagara Falls twenty or thirty years ago.  Or the equivalent of the Republican Party running its presidential candidates against the memory of George McGovern.  (Of course, both are done routinely.)  We'll call these guys Those Guys. . .' 

"I'd like to suggest that the killing of Liberty Valance in order to preserve safety and order in the literary town is a recurrent ritual, a ritual convulsion of literary-critical convention.  The chastening of Those Guys, and the replacement of their irresponsible use of Free Power with a more modest and morally serious minimalist aesthetic sometime in the late '70s, was a kind of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a point of inception for the ritual.'

"Who first played the role of Stewart/Stoddard, the true-of-heart citizen shoved into the street to take on the menacing intruder?  Was it Raymond Carver?  I think Raymond Carver might have been the original man who shot Liberty Valance.  Who's played the role recently?  A few:  Alice Munro, William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy..."

In Lethem's interpretation, John Wayne represents the critic who sets up the author of high modernism to stand against the low-life postmodernist Liberty Valance, order versus chaos.  Lethem's arguments are witty, much more involved, and run several pages--you should grab his new book and read it all.

I'd now like to offer my own take on his take.  Cormac McCarthy is indeed a classical author who represents high modernism well.  I don't see Those Guys as much different from McCarthy, especially since Lethem includes Pynchon as one of them.  I do see the divide between High Art and low art, and I am content to let Charlie Sheen, late of 2 1/2 Men, represent low art, chaos, superficial id-dominated ego.

In my interpretation, looking only at this trinity in the story and not the other parts, John Wayne/Doniphon would represent, not just literary critics, but the entire population of readers who have learned to appreciate High Art, the domain of human universals, of empathy, compassion, of true love rather than self-aggrandizing possession.

To go back and use the body, mind, and spirit analogy in the original story, Lee Marvin/Liberty Valance is the id-dominated body, Jimmy Stewart/Ransom Stoddard is the mind-dominated one, and John Wayne/Doniphon is the super-ego dominated spirit guide in this trinity.

Or, if you prefer, Liberty Valance is a laissez-faire Republican; Stoddard's a bleeding-heart liberal Democrat; Doniphon's an independent existentialist/libertarian and the more evolved man.

I previously discussed Dorothy Johnson's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" at this link.

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