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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Whose National Myth?

Any of us can easily recall numerous examples of the appropriation or reinterpretation of the mythic narratives and characters of the Old West by creative artists and writers from outside America—particularly in film, we think of Akira Kurasawa’s Seven  Samurai, Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti  Westerns” in the 1950s and 1960s or even more recently Willem Dafoe’s “le cowboy” character who arrives to console a grieving Parisian mother in Nobuhiro Suwa’s contribution to Paris, Je t’aime! (2006)  The appeal of the Old West myth with its larger-than-life characters and spaces seems to be global, rather than national.  But what can these reinterpretations of the Old West by creative artists from outside the US tell us about the cultural values that motivate them?  Are the elements of the Old West myths so universal that they can fit into any cultural context with a consistent meaning?  

My approach takes an intentional transatlantic context by comparing examples from 20th century American and European, particularly German, interpretations of the Old West and its characters.  Through this approach I hope to show that the myth of the Old West is infused with values that reflect ideas and attitudes which are more indicative of European rather than American concerns.
Although his writings are hardly known in North America, the novels of the Wild West by the late 19th century German author Karl May have exerted an influence on the national psyche of Germany for over a century, forming a fixed image of the American West for several generations of Germans that simply cannot be supplanted by the more recent imaginary visions of TV and film Westerns or by any actual first-hand experience of the American West.  In contrast to the North American stereotypes of Western characters, in May’s Western novels the Native American is the “good guy”, the hero, rather than the Cowboy.  May’s admiration for the Native American follows the European tradition of the “noble savage”, but May develops this stereotype even further as he imbues his fictional Western characters, the Apache Winnetou and his white (German) companion Old Shatterhand with personal credos and world views that reflect the author’s own commitment to the principles of the late 19th century International Peace Movement.
Separated from May by two World Wars and much of Germany’s terrible recent history, in his famous 1974 performance piece, I like America and America likes Me, German artist Joseph Beuys revives the concept of the encounter with an essential spirit of the American West that can catapult modern man into a new ideal relationship with his surroundings.  Winnetou’s murder at the end of May’s trilogy signals the end of this noble race and Beuys begins his encounter at this tragic moment: “I believe I made contact with the psychological trauma point of the United States’ energy constellation: the whole American trauma with the Indian, the Red Man.”  Just as May’s vision of the American West was infused with the philosophical ideals of the International Peace Movement, Beuys too filters his conception of the American West through a philosophical system: the philosophy of spiritual freedom found in the writings of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy.
Finally, the films of German director Wim Wenders present a much less utopian view of the American West.  From Paris, Texas (1984), his first collaboration with Sam Shepard, through Land of Plenty (2004) and Don’t Come Knocking (2006), his most recent collaboration with Shepard, Wenders examines the legacy of the Old West in the increasingly desperate lives of modern Westerners as they struggle with the loss of that legacy in the face of the social, psychological and political realities of the contemporary America.
What I hope to suggest is that the meaning of the Old West for an entire European nation over several generations can be vastly different from the meanings that our American culture imbues in this national myth.  This can have a significant impact on international understanding and particularly on the practice of and on the premises and purposes of American Studies in the US in comparison with our academic counterparts Europe.
Steven Bradley, Colorado Mesa University

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