Monday, February 16, 2015

The Western Mythology

I’m a collector of words and the ideas those words convey. When I come across a passage I think is significant or a passage I like—for no other reason than the way it sounds, its texture, its presence—I write it down. I save it. Then I go back and re-read it. Not often. It may be months or years from that initial contact to our next meeting. It is always out of context because the passage is no longer encapsulated in its original narrative, and I find something more—or sometimes less—than I did on that first introduction. There is such a passage I recently re-read in Brian Garfield’s fine novel Death Wish.

The protagonist Paul Benjamin—an antihero that is less hero, anti or otherwise, than terrified everyman—is fresh from his first successful encounter with a teenage mugger more frightened than he. He sits in his New York City apartment watching a horse opera on television, and for the first time he understands the Western story. Its mythology and power. The story of the strong exploiting the weak. The appearance of an outsider who, against his own self-interest and without any hope of ever belonging to the beleaguered class he defends, appears to make things right. A black and white justice. Good versus evil—

“Cowboys picking on sodbusters and a drifting hero standing up for the farmers against the gunslingers. He watched it for an hour. It was easy to see why Westerns were always popular and he was amazed he hadn’t understood it before. It was human history. As far back as you wanted to go, there were always men who tilled the soil and there were always men on horseback who wanted to exploit them and take everything away from them, and the hero of every myth was the hero who defended the farmers against the raiders on horseback, and the constant contradiction was that the hero himself was always a man on horseback. The bad guys might be Romans or Huns or Mongols or cattlemen, it was always the same, and the good guy was always a reformed Roman or Hun or Mongal or cattleman; either that or a farmer who learned to fight like a Hun. Organize the farmer into imitation Huns and beat the real Huns at their own game.”

The Western as history. Not just American history, but all human history is a big idea. It is also an idea that—in bottom line general terms—is accurate. There have always been, and always will be, those that take everything if left unchecked. The corporate robber barons. The Nazis. The Soviet Communists. The local neighborhood or schoolyard bully. All of us are looking for a hero, or at least an heroic act, to believe in, and the Western is a uniquely American vehicle of delivering that mythology. And one I admire very much.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Ben, I enjoyed reading this piece — thank you very much. Since my early teens I have been fascinated by the image of the cowboy hero on horseback, a quiet and mysterious stranger who rides into a lawless town and stays back to restore law and order and honour, to the eternal gratitude of its fearful inhabitants. My first and in many ways my lasting impression of such a hero or vigilante has been British author Oliver Strange's eponymous hero Sudden whose on-screen persona, in my opinion, would be Clint Eastwood, the man with no name. Nowhere is such a mythical hero more pervasive than in frontier fiction. All other fictional heroes pale in comparison.

Ben Boulden said...

Prashant. I'm not familiar with Oliver Strange's work, but your description makes me think I need to make amends and find some.

Thanks for the kind words, too.


michael said...

Great piece Ben. The American frontier is the ideal context for this mythology because it fulfills the main requirement for such myths to flourish, i.e. 'if left unchecked'.