Monday, April 06, 2009

The Western and the Irrational

The problem with the plot of Stagecoach, John Ford’s classic western, is that it is just one cliché after another. [Spoilers follow] For instance, there is a motley band of misfits and characters thrown together by adversity who must learn to get along. We get John Wayne’s outlaw turned hero and the inevitable pregnant woman who gives birth half way through. The stunt work is impressive but comes straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And would you believe it, the cavalry ride over the hill in the nick of time at the finale. [Spoilers end]

What’s that? You say that Stagecoach was made in 1939 before all its motifs were mercilessly plundered by other directors. So it’s not derivative at all but so influential that it now seems familiar even to people who have never seen it before.

If E.R. Dodds was alive today, he’d be familiar with the way that seminal work can become jaded because it becomes commonplace. His lectures on The Greeks and the Irrational, published in 1953, revolutionised our view of the ancient world. He repopulated it with oracles and gods, fate and the transmigration of souls. But reading the book now, it actually appears quite tame. When he first alerted us to the cult of Asclepius it was utterly alien to what we expected of classical Greeks. Dodds dismissed the cult as so much tosh. But nowadays a miraculous cure of blindness forms part of the plot line in the standard Greek course for schools. We have left Dodds far behind. Like Stagecoach, The Greeks and the Irrational has been so assimilated that it no longer shocks or even surprises.

As we have learnt more about the ancient world we have realised that of course they were irrational. The heroes of reason were just so much upper class froth floating on a seething population with more deities and rituals than you could shake a stick at. Today we try not to be too judgemental about this. But Dodds was appalled by what he had discovered. He saw the rise of reason in the fifth and fourth centuries BC as a thoroughly good thing and the subsequent decline into neo-Platonism, astrology and Hermetism as a complete disaster. Christianity was a symptom of the rot that had set in centuries before.

When we watch Stagecoach today, the simply dichotomy between good whites and bad Indians is shockingly racist. Dodds is almost as bad. He regularly refers to primitives as if that word is an acceptable category for non-Europeans. More touchingly, for him Freud is still a cutting edge thinker whose theories are entering into their prime as a universal explanation of human behaviour. What shocked or thrilled Dodd’s contemporaries is normal to us. But, like John Ford, he also carried some of the commonplace attitudes of his age that now appear hopelessly out of date.

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