nov. 15

The Searchers

1.  The Searchers revolves around the question articulated by its very first word:  who is Ethan?

Ethan’s apparent aim is defending or establishing a home in inhospitable circumstances.  But this aim is complicated in two ways:
First, Ethan’s definition of home is evidently very vague and changeable (he fought for the Confederacy but also became a mercenary, and now is fighting the Indians to secure the west for white Americans even though he doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the U.S. government and doesn’t respect the customs (such as the funeral service he interupts) of the white community he’s defending).  Ethan mocks the captain of the rangers for also wearing the hat of reverend, but Ethan himself may be guilty of an even graver hypocrisy if it is the case that he is the lover of his brother’s wife, effectively undermining the home he would defend.  The film director John Ford joins Ethan in mocking at least the artifice and perhaps also the fraudulence of the captain’s dual roles when the latter is shown putting on a fake white shirt to serve as reverend in Laurie’s wedding.  However this whole issue of hypocrisy is itself complicated by the fact that Ford also and even moreso emphasizes how endearingly human such hypocrisy is in the carnivalesque scenes of domestic life he displays throughout the film.  Could one conclude that a certain duplicity and ambiguity are integral to home itself?
Second, Ethan also deeply identifies with what he views as the enemies of home, the Comanches, and he acts out violently in ways which directly demonstrate this identification:  digging in the sand after discovering Lucy’s raped and murdered body, shooting out the dead indian’s eyes, and finally scalping his nemesis (this latter, like the moment Ethan goes into a rage killing as many buffalo as he can just to deprive the indians of food)  is even an excessively barbaric act–more barbaric even then any barbarism he could impute to the indians:  because Ethan did not kill Scar but came upon his corpse, Ethan had no right of warrior’s honor to Scar’s scalp.  He desecrates corpses to steal an honor even he can’t believe in, the lowest of the low, by his own lights. A raging self-contempt is a crucial part of Ethan’s character.
An analogous conflation of hero and villain is involved in the pivotal shock of the movie, which happens when we realize that Ethan is not trying to find Debbie to rescue her but to kill her. Ethan apparently believes that any white girl raised to be an Indian squaw would be better off dead (although this is never explicitly articulated) and the brutality of this intention and the ferocity and near insanity with which it is pursued stuns the viewer.
But it would be a mistake to reduce this insanity to an idiosyncratic crazyness peculiar to Ethan; Laurie, the longtime presumptive fiancée of Martin, is a minor but crucial character. We learn to admire her for her beauty, generosity, intelligence, spunk and humor, all of which are accentuated in the wedding party scene in which she is dressed in virginal white. Laurie seems to represent the most innocent, unreflectively held and common views and hopes of her social environment.  Thus it is terribly jarring when Laurie  offers exactly the kind of explicit rationalization of Ethan’s insane plan to kill Debbie which Ethan himself never voices.   “Fetch what home? The leavings of Comanche bucks, sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own? Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain! I tell you Martha would want it that way.”
Does Ethan obtain a kind of Darcy-like weight through his reticence, his refusal to articulately explain himself?  If so, the fact that Ethan is in another respect defined in very anti-Darcy-like terms as totally property-less, rootless, is striking.  What are the implications of making the Darcy figure, as the film’s theme song puts it, wander far from home?
The movie’s final shot, which so dramatically and famously emphasizes Ethan’s persistent outsider status – his inadmissibility into the home he is responsible for reconstituting (remember that not just Laurie but basically everybody else had given up on Debbie, except signally the halfbreed Martin) – should be taken with a grain of salt since the insiders like Laurie are evidently deeply complicit in at least some of the dangerous barbarity that would seem to keep Ethan outside.
Note that the insiders do not exactly reject Ethan in this final scene. They rather ceremoniously ignore him. They pretend he does not exist; no one speaks to him, says goodbye, tells him he can or cannot come in. He is instantly “forgotten,” as if literally invisible.  I take this as Ford’s indicating some aspect of their willful ignorance of their own racism (or their blindness to go back to the theme Ethan invokes after shooting out the corpse’s eyes:  “Ain’t got no eyes, can’t enter the spirit land”.)

So if the Searchers’ conclusion gives us a family that is somewhat fraudulent, and that threatens to enclose the audience in its deception, then what would it mean by contrast to have eyes and genuinely see?

The audience is potentially similarly blinded by the humor we are invited to indulge about Martin’s inadvertent “wedding” to the squaw named (not coincidentally) “Look.”  This humor turns vicious and ugly when he kicks her brutally down a hill. And the jocularity appears especially cruel when we later find Look killed at the hands of white soldiers.
The incredibly frank treatment of racism in the movie consistently suggests that the heart of the problem is both the fear and fantasy of transcultural sex, the cultural intermixing that was evoked by the film’s first shot of the white homestead festooned with Indian blankets.  The film’s persistent question–what does it mean to break and transform established social boundaries?– was an explosively topical issue in 1956, the time of the Montgomery bus boycott and the murder of Emmet Till.
So although the insider/outsider distinction is central to racist thought, the film seems to encourage us both to accept and resist it; can you explain why?
2.  Following conventional movie logic we’re unlikely to expect that Ethan will ever actually kill Debbie.  But we are preparing for Martin to stop Ethan somehow, and not for whatever internal transformation leads Ethan to lift Debbie aloft (just as he had done in one of the movie’s earliest scenes, confusing her for Lucy) and say “Let’s go home.”  But exactly why Ethan does what he does here, and even what exactly it is that he does, what happens to him, is left unexplained. 

So the defining question posed by the movie–Why does Ethan seek to kill Debbie?—isn’t answered so much as compounded by the question Why doesn’t Ethan kill Debbie?

What does it mean that Ethan’s own expectations about himself turn out to be wrong?  And what does it mean that all of us were wrong who shared Laurie’s certainty, if not her enthusiasm about it, that Ethan fully intended and desired to put a bullet in Debbie’s brain?

3.  What is the significance of the fact that the second marquee star of the film, Nathalie Wood, doesn’t appear until so late in the movie?  For The Searcher’s original viewers, the question of when the recent star of Rebel without a Cause would make her appearance must have weighed increasingly heavily until she ultimately shows up only in the film’s final chapter.  In a way, from Wood’s fans’ point of view, her absence from the bulk of the film parallels Debbie’s absence in the film’s narrative. This compounds the significance of the fact that when Wood finally does appear she’s wearing an exotic Indian costume, speaking Indian language, and above all she appears in a group of Scar’s concubines and then holding several of his trophy scalps.  So Woods is not only withheld from her fans for most of the movie; when she’s finally revealed she’s basically framed in the the sights of the hero’s gun, the emblem of everything the movie’s disparaged up until then.  Ford is clearly toying mightily with his audience’s affections:  just as he has the lovely Laurie spew the movie’s worst racial invective, he has its biggest female star and sex symbol appear as the very embodiment of the racist caricature Laurie describes; why?


1.  on the third page Lethem names two kinds of worry provoked by the film; what are they and how are they related?

2.  “By overestimating it, then claiming myself as its defender, I’d invented another, more pretentious way of underestimating it.”  Explain what this means both in Lethem’s life and in the movie.  how does this relate to the essay’s conclusion:  “…caring has worm me out.  The Searchers is…too willful to be bounded in my theories…The Searchers strides on…everywhere shrugging off categories, refusing the petitions of embarrassment and taste, defying explanation or defense as only great art or great abomination ever could.”

Radical Hope

nb.  this is simply amazing; i really encourage you to take the time to read and absorb it.

1.  Explain the difference Lear emphasizes on p. 4 between a claim about the world and a claim about one’s psyche (which amounts to the difference between saying i am or my people are depressed and saying events or history or the world has come to an end).

2.  The wager of Lear’s book is that the latter claim offers some “insight into the structure of temporality:”  (5) that at a certain point things might stop, and that this possibility is an aspect of human vulnerability generally (6).  like Zizek’s second death Lear casts this at a higher order than other familiar human vulnerabilities, and says it’s a vulnerability we “inherit” as a “a result of the fact that we essentially inhabit a way of life” (6); this relates to the claim that “an event become such as it is interpreted” (9), but there can be no ‘cultural’ way of responding to the devastation of one’s culture; like the second death the possibility of such devastation “will tend to be the blind spot of any culture” (83).  So for Lear Plenty Coups’ claim that ‘after this nothing happened’ is “as radical a claim as is humanly possible” (10): it’s a claim about the death of the possibility of (interpreting) events; an (implicitly sublime) limit-case of claim making.

3.  What makes the planting of the coup stick “an existential declaration of impossibility”? (14)

4.  What does Lear mean by saying “there is a certain symbolic excess in counting coups”? “Why should the tribe treat such an act as bravery, rather than as unnecessary, and thus as foolhardy showing off?” (16)  This question is tantamount to the question of what distinguishes the fight for recognition from the fight for survival (16), and both serve to highlight what it means to live “in a way of life,” and for events to depend upon interpretation.

5.  How does the law of the excluded middle relate to Lear’s account of the cultural destruction (25)?  what is the difference between “failure” to fulfill a certain cultural norm and lapse in “insistence” upon the relevancy such a norm (34)?

6.  what is the difference between the question of who gets to tell a narrative and that of whether one has or hasn’t “lost the concepts with which they would construct a narrative” (32)?  what does Lear mean by saying that “the planting of a coup-stick has ceased to be an intelligible act” (32)?  To what extent could this problem of having lost concepts to interpret action apply to Ethan’s actions in The Searchers?

7. Why does Lear say “the Crow ran out of time” (41)?  What’s the difference between describing something as part of a way of life and as a symptom of the loss of a way of life?  One symptom of the loss of the Crow way of live according to Lear is that a new irony becomes possible, namely the question:  “among the Crow is there a Crow?”  (44ff).  The irony juxtaposes a use of the term Crow (or warrior, or chief, etc.) as a merely empirical identity label, and another use linked to the lost Crow way of life; so the question is tantamount to:  among those whose ancestors lived the Crow way of life, is there one who still lives the Crow way of life?  According to Lear this is particularly the case because “the idea of a Crow subject requires more than [merely empirical identification].  It requires internalizing the ideals associated with the standards of excellence associated with social roles.  And it requires making those ideals a life’s task” (43); “part of what it is to be a Crow subject is to be aiming at being excellent as Crow” (49).  Would you say that this is true of your subjectivity identity?  how would you evaluate the question?  can one ask, for instance, ‘among the students is there a student?’

8.  What is the point of Lear’s chess analogy on pp. 48f?  Why does he claim that “intending and hoping and wondering and desiring are not just up to me:  they are not just a matter of exercising my will.  And my inability to do so is not just a psychological issue:  it is a question of the field in which psychological states are possible” (49)?

9.  Explain the following statement (reminiscent of Nietzsche on friendship and nemesis):  “One of the ironies that comes to light is that groups of people can be the bitterest of enemies in real life, yet ontologically they are on the same side; and a real-life ally can turn out to be one’s ontological nemesis” (50).  Do you agree?

10.  Why does Lear claim that poetry is the condition of hope in the face of cultural devastation?  what does the following mean?  “the possibility for such a poet is precisely the possibility for the creation of a new field of possibilities.  No one is in a position to rule out that possibility” (51).

11.  What’s the difference between saying that anxiety is “about nothing,” an emotion without meaning, and saying that “with anxiety there is a systematic and enigmatic unclarity as to what it is about” (76)?  how does Plenty’s Coup’s dream provide an “unusual resource” for dealing with the latter (76)?  what makes this dream “an act of radical anticipation” (78)?

12.  How does the dream “use the chickadee to radicalize a second-order virtue” (82)?  Lear’s term for this second order virtue is radical hope, the notion that it is possible to be practically committed to a kind of goodness or value without understanding it (95). Do you share Lear’s belief in this possibility?  why does Lear say irony is the condition of such commitment? (97).  Consider such commitment in comparison with Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (92), Benjamin’s angel, and to Lacan’s claim that the “ethical imperative is the mode of existence of the real in the symbolic.”

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20 Responses to nov. 15

  1. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    Something a few of us were talking about on the way home from the screening last night was Ethan’s relationship to Debbie and Martin. We were suggesting that perhaps Martin and Debbie were Ethan’s illegitimate children. Martin from a part-native mother and Debbie from Martha– Ethan’s brother’s wife– so that they were essentially half siblings from illegitimate mothers. Which was one reason Ethan didn’t think of Debbie as the rightful owner of the homestead– not just because she was captured by the natives but because she actually wasn’t the rightful heir. It would also explain why Martin was to receive the contents of Ethan’s will. He was the eldest perhaps? And better a halfbreed heir raised as a white person than a white heir raised as a native?

    Whether that’s got anything to do with it or not I suppose doesn’t actually matter, but it adds another layer to his character. Could Ethan’s behaviour have been his own quest for purity– to wipe away the sins of his past? And his eventual decision to accept Debbie, the choice to accept himself, accept his past? To redeem himself not by wiping out his past, but through nurturing the good parts of himself?–ie raising his kids to be white?

    Just a quick thought…

  2. boearle says:

    one way or another the quest for purity definitely plays a key role. (it’s got to in any project to distinguish insiders from outsiders i guess). a good question then is where does this quest (or *search*) end up? a number of you are writing papers on the distinction between desire aimed at conquest, capturing/consuming a certain object, and desire that pursues objects not to attain them (maybe not even caring if they’re real to begin with) but for the sake of desiring as an end in itself. does the nature of ethan’s quest change by the end of the film?

  3. Aron says:

    I want to discuss the definitive moment when Ethan is chasing Debbie and “decides” not to kill her. I think that if Ford really wanted Ethan’s character to make a decision to change his murderous intentions against Debbie, he would have accounted for it, if not before the moment in question, then afterwards. As it stands though, the moment when Ethan acts with mercy towards Debbie seems out of place and, considering the development of the spectator’s understanding of Ethan’s character as he parallels the childishness and barbarity he sees in the ‘Indians’, undesirable:
    The reflective audience member (excuse my generalization) wants Ethan to kill Debbie, NOT because the audience feels like that such an action is the fair and rational thing for him to do, but precisely for the opposite reasons, because the audience has grown to laugh at and reject the flawed ‘American Western Hero’ that Ethan plays and for him to redeem himself and not stick to his guns at this point would soften Ford’s blow to the narcissistic sense of identity of someone who considers John Wayne’s American West as an iconic manifestation of some precursor to a contemporary ideal, the manly and unmerciful courage of white American settlers/pioneers.
    The reflective audience member wants Ethan to kill Debbie because throughout the movie, he, and his band of foolish and hypocritical white men, have been shown as unforgivably flawed in a way lacking any bigger-picture perspective. The reflective audience member doesn’t want to feel personally a part of this satirized white group of people and can only fully separate him or herself from such an identity if Ethan’s character is, by the end, utterly and irredeemably repulsive. So when Ethan finally does ‘decide to change’, the reflective audience member thinks, “NO!”, now I’m back on the side of the fucked up white hypocrite, which for almost all viewers of the film in North America, is entirely the case.

    If Ford hadn’t allowed Ethan to change and Ethan had killed Debbie, the viewers who in reality are (not so consciously) responsible for the aboriginal genocide, would have gotten off completely guilt free without having to, in any way, identify with the cruel buffoon Ethan who is Ford’s caricature of the viewers in question. For when he saves Debbie, the relief in the reflective audience member can’t help but to reattach a viewer, in some degree, to Wayne’s Ethan.

    • boearle says:

      but if the reflective audience member ‘doesn’t want to feel a part of this group of white people,’ and if that group, emblematized by laurie and the rest who either positively wanted ethan to kill her or were perfectly happy to let him do so, shouldn’t the reflective audience member identify rather WITH debbie and against this group? my sense is that ford uses the starpower of nathalie wood in the unusual way he does in order to encourage such identification.

  4. Carmel Ohman says:

    The fact that Ethan does not kill Debbie is not reflective of a change in his character, but rather acts as an illustration of the hypocrisy by which he is defined. Ethan’s character, his sense of identity, consists of a set of violent contrasts; as noted by Dr. Earle, he is the ultimate outsider in his blatant disregard for the law, and yet he establishes himself as the defender of “home,” a concept with stands in sharp contrast to his status as an outsider. He abhors the Indians, championing the “us-them” mentality, but at the same time shows personal engagement with “savage” customs from which one might expect him to distance himself: the scalping practice, for example. In the same contradictory way, he cultivates a hatred for Debbie while nursing a love for her as a function of “home,” an abstract realm which he holds above himself as a kind of dangling carrot.

    When he chases after Debbie, then, it seems to me that he is in no position to “decide” how he will react. This moment is the passionate embodiment of his inner struggle, the moment in which he must, in one way or another, reconcile the stark differences in his belief system. But it is in fact passion, obsession, which drives him, thereby negating the possibility of rational thought. It seems to me that, when he catches up to her, he has no conscious participation in the “decision” to take her “home.” At this point, the tension between opposing poles is so great within him that its release could just as easily result in her death.

    Dr. Earle said: “Ethan’s apparent aim is defending or establishing a home in inhospitable circumstances” (Nov. 15th posting). I would argue that, beyond the literal level of a family’s survival in a harsh environment, Ethan is trying to maintain the pristine, Utopian IDEA of home in the inhospitable landscape that is his tortured mind. It is almost as if the conflict within him is being projected outwards – that the entire film could be interpreted as a man’s struggle against himself.

    In any case, it is the fact that Ethan is constantly oscillating between two poles that makes his character so engaging. The degree to which the struggle between “Good” and “Evil” manifests itself in this heroic, yet equally repugnant, man, is such that the audience can’t help but identify with some aspect of his character. In watching the movie, my thoughts and feelings were divided, as if in sympathetic response to the contrasts in his identity. His character made me hyper-sensitive to my own hypocrisies, and I wonder if this is not the effect it has on a lot of people.

    • boearle says:

      good; yes i think there are a number of places in the movie where we get a sense that ethan doesn’t know what he wants, loses touch with his own mind in a way: when he stabs the earth after discovering lucy’s body, when he sees the traumatized girls in the army outpost, after he scalps scar, and even the final scene where he looks on as the reconstituted family files past him into the home: his stance is so awkward. all these scenes show a kind of intense baffled passion that doesn’t fit the clear binaries of racist thinking

  5. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    Well said Carmel. I’ve been thinking about this as Ethan’s struggle with two passions– love and hatred. One thing that occurred to me when he caught her and lifted her up was that he was offering her as a sacrifice to whichever passion proved more powerful than the other– obviously it was love.

    I suppose love, essentially, is the opposite of “purity”–in that it demands a distillation of one’s other passions. Elizabeth and Darcy have to change the way they view the world in order to love each other right? So Ethan’s quest for “purity” failed because “purity”–if we define it according to Ethan’s racial and social standards–does not admit love. And obviously love was the winning passion in his case.

    I dunno.. what do you think?

  6. Lauren Weatherdon says:

    To address question #3 regarding Nathalie Wood…

    By casting Wood “as the very embodiment of the racist caricature,” Ford undermines the very caricature itself. Debbie, rather than Ethan, seems to adopt the role of hero(ine); in my view, she subverts the role of “damsel in distress,” proudly embracing the Native culture. Of course, the audience would be aware of the conventional roles, and feel this pull between convention (pitying Debbie for her “confusion” about her family) and what I would refer to as “reality” (recognizing that, perhaps, the true evil exists in racism itself, as embodied by Ethan). Indeed, in the final scenes, Debbie is being saved from the looming danger of Ethan, not the Natives. By placing Wood in this role, the beautiful young girl is victimized—and, by extension, the Natives—by “White” prejudice. Ford brilliantly transfers our fear of the Natives to a fear of Ethan; the film is disturbing enough, making it unnecessary (in my view) for Ethan to kill Debbie.

    The scene in which we first see Wood, which would have been a much anticipated moment, would provoke a complicated response from the audience. Her beauty is by no means tainted by Native garb—rather, the clothes are flattering and exotically appealing (a merging of fetishizations: the Other and the Hollywood sex symbol). The trophy scalps, however, contrast with her beauty, leaving us uncertain of an appropriate response.

    One would expect to feel a sense of relief and fulfillment with the search “resolved” (although it is more a manhunt than a search), but the beauty of the film is in its ability to prolong our discomfort; we are not meant to leave the film feeling contented. In “Defending The Searchers,” the narrator endeavours to justify the film’s blatantly racist content, yet fails to derive a satisfying explanation: I believe the answer lies not in the content itself, but in the affect of the content. The film is justified by its ability to provoke a response—be it good or bad—from its audience. By complicating conventions, the film inspires necessary debate on a subject which people usually avoid. We are expected to recognize moments at which we are complicit, and to experience a sense of discomfort and horror.

  7. Madeline Fuchs says:

    I’d like to address question number one – who is Ethan – but more specifically the comparison to Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice.

    I have to say it was difficult to fully get a grasp on Ethan in this movie – partly because of my lack of familiarity with old Western films, and also because of what I’m sure is meant to be, his distancing from the audience and other characters. Undoubtedly there is a similarity here to Darcy in their isolation. I believe that this isolation is partly more an autonomous choice of their own, rather than being forced to be an outsider. For example, the final scene where Ethan chooses to remain outside and slowly walk off into the landscape – there is a key word here : chooses. He could easily follow them inside, and join their domestic life; however, it’s clear here that he chooses not to.

    Also – pulling from Lethem’s article “Defending The Seachers” – which I’m pretty sure got cut off in the end? Maybe that was just mine? Anyway – he comments on the tomrenting, broken character that John Wayne plays – and now I’m wondering – why exactly do we give these isolated characters this description? Is it simply because they are obscure (to use Burke’s vocabulary) – that we quickly assume they are tormented? Maybe he’s just a quiet guy? (I know probably not the case but still it needs to be suggested). I’m not sure if I 100% support this viewing or reading, but how come we don’t look at characters like Ethan and Darcy as (excuse my language) rude assholes? I’m sure there’s many loopholes and faults to my argument – but I would like to pose it as a question. Do we jump to conclusions too quickly regarding these characters’ obscurity and isolation?

    • Alyzee Lakhani says:

      No madeline my Lethem reading was cut off too, and my Radical Hope reading started mid-article I think – was it like that in your course packet?

      By the by, what do you all make of the bipolar climate in The Searchers? Does it really snow for weeks in Texas?

  8. Natassia Orr says:

    I think Ethan’s “change of heart” isn’t just a question of “who is Ethan?”, but also “who is Debbi?”. Ever since we see her face to face with the Comanche warrior, not only where Debbie is, but also what has happened to her and who she has become are left unknown. Ford could have shown through interspliced clips what is happening to Debbie, but he doesn’t. That, I think, would have made an essentially different movie. Like Ethan, the audience knows that The Searchers is about a search, but we are not entirely sure what the search is for.

    Over the course of the movie, we are presented with two different ideas of who Debbie is after the five years that she has been living with the Comanches. Martin seems to think of Debbie as a young girl that was taken from her family. Laurie presents her as a woman who has integrated into a Native-American society. (Interestingly, both seem to think of her as other–little girl/grown man, native woman/white woman). Debbie is, I’d argue, both–a woman who was taken from her family at a young age and has integrated into the society of the people who took her. Ethan, entrenched in a binary world of black and white, kin and not-kin, friend and enemy, can only see Debbie as one thing at a time: a lost girl or a native woman, but not both.

    When the audience finally sees Debbie near the end of the film, she is presented as a woman who has integrated into the Comanche society. When she seeks out Ethan and Martin and asks them to leave, she is showing herself as a Native-American woman. It is then shown that Ethan plans to kill her–I’d argue that Ethan hasn’t shown a strong decision either way until that moment. Ethan’s quest becomes a definitive quest to kill the Comanche woman that Debbie has become. But then, when Ethan chases her to the cave, Debbie trips and falls. When we see her laying in the dirt, then looking up at Ethan, she looks fearful and young. At that moment, like an inversion of the one before, it seems as if it has been Ethan’s intention to take her home all along.

    I’d argue that Ethan’s plan from the beginning was to kill Debbie if she was a Comanche woman, and rescue her if she was a lost child. As such, Ethan’s “change of heart” wasn’t really a change of heart at all…

    • Vlad Cristache says:

      I agree with you completely. It’s important that Ethan cares more about (at least in my interpretation) saving Debbie than saving Lucy. And this is because Debbie is young and virginal: when he finds out that she’s no longer so he wants to kill her. This is the only way to make sense of Ben’s outburst at the very beginning when Ethan says ‘hi’ to Lucy that “She’s got a fella, and kisses him too” – as a way to signal that Lucy is deflowered and therefore not worth saving for Ethan (hence also his insistence to Brad: “if they’re not already dead” – he’s referring to Lucy).

  9. Mandy Woo says:

    The first worry Lethem has is for the “film on the screen [which] is lush, portentous” (3) which means that the film is all at once “ominous[,] marvellous[,] [and] pretentious” (OED). How can this be so? The Searchers is a movie that defies the audience’s desire to work themselves into the traditionally “simple” (Lethem 3) setup of the genre, into the shared “joke” (3) of the Western. Any form of easy camaraderie with the film is denied and there is the sense that you do not belong here any more than any of the characters and caricatures do. Indeed, Lethem’s second worry is that “John Wayne’s a fucking monster! So are the Indians!” (3). There is equality achieved in a shared monstrosity. By ending the paragraph this way, Lethem asks the reader, as the film does its viewers, what are you going to do now that you have been denied connection, a way into the film?

    By placing “Now you’re worried in a different way” (3) in its own paragraph and letting it stand alone, Lethem conveys a sense of dread in how the audience will react to the film. Some of the audience react by “laughing and catcalling” (4), while others “had been laughing from the start, at the conventions of 1950s Hollywood” (4) and some, like Lethem initially, are “confused by the film, […] speak[ing] to me in its hellish voice, though I didn’t understand what it was saying” (4). The danger, though, is engaging in “boil[ing]” (4) resentment of the reactions of others to the film, as Lethem shares how at the time he “sat trembling, hating the crowd, hating myself for caring, and praying the film wouldn’t break again” (5).

  10. Vlad Cristache says:

    Re: Searchers #1

    Warning: The following will be an over-reading.

    The way I read the movie is as the remembrance of a trauma. And then the procedure to patch up its destructive effects. I’m not going to go into the significance of reading the movie in this way, and somehow link it to Freud and Benjamin, I’ll leave that as an open question, but I will make a small gesture towards defining what I mean by trauma. For Lacan, who’s main subject of study wasn’t the neurotic (as it was for Freud) but the psychotic, psychosis was based in the lack of symbolic castration. But this psychosis didn’t show up – the patient didn’t become a psychotic – until quite late in life, when he or she had a certain experience which threw them into psychosis. The experience that Lacan saw as pushing one into that state was becoming a father (for males) and therefore somehow re-living the coordinates of symbolic castration. The point to be taken away is that trauma has no effect until it is remembered, until it comes the second time. And this is precisely what I think Ethan represents in this movie.

    First of all, there are more than enough little details that make the back-story to “The Searchers” quite clear, even if not completely so. Others have already pointed out that Ethan and Martha had a love affair in the past. This is evident not only in the fact that Martha smells Ethan’s coat but also in the fact that she continually watches him, like he’s her idol or something. Finally, when he comes back to the burnt-down farm he doesn’t yell “Aron!” but “Martha!”

    Now, the significance of this affair has to be explored, because the writer wouldn’t have merely left it there. We could say that it pushes things further and that Debbie, as someone has already mentioned, is Ethan’s daughter. The evidence for this is that the last time Ethan came by the Edwards household was right before going to war. The difference between the start of the war in 1861, and Ethan coming back in 1868, makes for Debbie’s age. In other words: it’s quite possible that Ethan and Martha had an affair right before Ethan went off to war. In fact, Ethan may have gone off to war precisely because of his shame at subverting his brother’s marriage. The question, then, of why he hadn’t come back for 3 years is answered: he was too ashamed and tortured to face having had a daughter by his brother’s wife (he must have learned about it from letters). Where do we find evidence for this? First of all in the extremely tense conversation we see unfold between Ethan and Aron:

    Aron: “You stayed beyond any real reason. Why?”
    Martha: “Aron, please –“
    Ethan (getting up furiously): “You asking me to clear out now?” (gets his backpack, throws money at Aron) “I expect to pay my way.”

    This exchange, I claim, is Ethan and Aron’s way of talking around the happenings I described above. Reading between the lines:

    Aron: “I know why you stayed longer. Because you were ashamed to come back and face what you did.”
    Martha: “Aron, don’t mention this now, I don’t want you two to fight.”
    Ethan (getting up furiously): “Why are you bringing it up again, are you saying you aren’t my brother anymore, and that you want me to leave? Here, will money allow me to stick around?”

    The tension between the two men, the fact that Ethan gives Aron money and that Aron doesn’t refuse it, points toward a conflict between them. They are no longer brothers, they are two men who need to deal with each other in exchange. If, then, Ethan represents the man who Martha had an affair and even a child with, the man who almost broke up Aron’s family, then he functions as a past trauma that the family has been able to climb over (note that “Aron” means “mountaineer”). His coming back is the catalyst for an unfolding of destruction: it is important to note not only the dog barking at Ethan in the first scene but also the resemblance between the first scene in which Ethan is heading towards the farm in the morning and the scene when it’s the Comanches that are approaching the farm, this time at dusk. Ethan and the Comanches are the same force but it’s only the latter that we see destroying the farm.

    Before going into the importance of representing the “evil” force as Comanches, I’ll try to extend my interpretation of Martha and Ethan’s past even further. It’s not hard to draw yet another parallel at this point: that between Martha and Ethan’s relationship, and Martin and Laurie’s relationship. Is it not possible that the wedding between Charlie and Laurie that we see almost taking place toward the end of the film actually happened in Ethan’s case: that while he kept on leaving Martha, she married Ethan’s brother instead? Seeing as Martin is shown as a sort of double of Ethan, this structurally makes a lot of sense. The love that we see Martha feel for Ethan at the very beginning of the film is replicated closely by the love we see Laurie feel for Martin.

    I think that in order to interpret the Comanches most accurately we have to make reference to Zizek’s own (often repeated) interpretation of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. The way Zizek sees it, anti-Semitism was a way of dealing with the inner-contradictions of Germany itself. Instead of admitting such inner contradictions, the problem was externalized: it’s the Jews that are destroying Germany. I think the exact same logic is either manifested throughout the film or pointed towards by it. The Comanches are an externalization of the conflict between Ethan and Aron, Martin and Charlie, and finally South and North US. On the political scale, the Comanches are hated and represented as evil precisely because a peace has been called between the North and the South. The best way to stop the war was to externalize the problem: the Comanches are destroying our social cohesion.

    On a personal scale, Aron and Ethan’s conflict (described above) is covered up by the bigger threat of the Comanches. Who knows what would have happened and come out between the two men, had not the Comanches attacked? All the battles against the Comanches, then, are merely “imaginary” battles, fantastic battles in which Ethan is “cool” and “suave” and “heroic.” This is because they are as such only psychologically constituted, these battles are not the “real” battles, they’re merely the battles fantasized in order to get away from the “real” battles: between Aron and Ethan, Martin and Charlie, North and South. It’s significant that the only “real” battle represented is so anti-tragic, so hilarious and awkward: the one between Martin and Charlie. Their fight is almost absurd: Martin begins by taking off Charlie’s coat and hat, as though he were his servant; Charlie than takes a log and puts it between the two men telling Martin to “Spit on the piece of firewood” – a completely ritualistic and non-sensical gesture; the two men fight like children, in a completely unheroic way, biting each other; at some point Charlie stops and says: “Hey, wait a minute Marty, somebody’s fiddle.”

    The movie then is about a split in the heart of the US itself, and in the heart of one of its families. A family that Ethan, knowing that he was the cause for their destruction, tries so hard to reconstitute. But this reconstitution comes at the price of killing many Comanches. Is there social criticism on John Ford’s part in his way of almost echoing the Holocaust? The first scene and last scene in which we see the dark interior and Ethan outside of it, approaching it, is complemented by yet another scene: the dark interior of the little outside barn in which Ethan finds Martha and Aron’s dead bodies. What this signifies is a reminder of gas chambers, as well as an attempt to cast a long shadow over the prototypical American family: what we keep taking as the warm inside of the house in both the first and last scenes of the movie, are in fact the cold interiors of gas chambers.

    • Vlad Cristache says:

      Oh, and I forgot to mention: the fight between Martin and Charlie is finally broken off when Lieutenant Greenwood arrives and announces the fact that the Comanches are nearby. As is the conflict between the Reverend and Ethan: isn’t it odd that Ethan is no longer arrested by the Reverend at the end of the film?

  11. Arin says:

    Ethan is a spectator of life. He is a nomad and a wanderer. Ethan is an interesting character because he embodies the hero and the villain, brutality and kindness in such an odd way that leaves us wondering “who is Ethan?” That is an extremely simple answer. He’s Ethan. We cannot definitively pin who Ethan is because of his two conflicting sides and everything that encompasses them. He is as tricky to identify as his idea of home. He is central to the idea of home because he is the one who saves the white Texans from death, but he also exists outside of the bounds of the home because of his brutality and viciousness. We cannot forget that the Texans stole the land from the natives; however, with the opening scene we are supposed to view it as white land being invaded by the natives. This is the opposite case though, it is the white settlers who have stolen the land from the natives, and so this complicates the idea of home and Ethan’s character even more. So what is home if Ethan’s family never truly owned the land? There is a certain amount of duplicity and ambiguity involved in building this fraudulent home of Ethan’s because it is a lie. The settlers have to fool themselves into believing that the rest of the world will adhere to their code of civility when they stole from the natives in the first place. And what is left of this ambiguous home by the end of the movie? By Ethan’s own words he does not have any blood kin left and he staunchly refuses to let Martin call him uncle Ethan. His shadow of a home was burned down and laid to ruins. So what is this obligation he feels towards Debbie when he knows that she is instinctively dead to him? It all ties back into the main question, “who is Ethan?” What makes him chase ghosts so desperately? What makes him become for villainous than his enemy? He is called “he who searches” by Chief Scar, but what is he truly searching for? We know he is not searching for Debbie; she died the minute he found her doll near the tombstone, so if not her, then what? Is he searching for home? A place to belong? Understanding? Why does he go through five years of searching to find a
    “dead” girl? Vindication? Revenge? On whom?

  12. Alyzee Lakhani says:

    In response to: “So if the Searchers’ conclusion gives us a family that is somewhat fraudulent, and that threatens to enclose the audience in its deception, then what would it mean by contrast to have eyes and genuinely see?”

    In the last scene, it is unclear whether Ethan wants to come in and be a part of the reunited family (that would be the end of Ethan as we know him) or whether he hangs back intentionally, separating himself from the clan. His face has an awkward smile, as if he’s embarrassed, and though he walks away he does so slowly and somewhat unwillingly. The viewer feels especially tender towards Ethan when the family ignores him entirely, as Prof. Earle points out, without even a thank you or invitation to join the party. I felt so sorry for Ethan that I almost wished he had a horrible Comanche hunt to articulate his consuming passion/desire, the source or object of which remains baffled.

    Ethan is almost always a central figure for the both families when he is around – to them he is an exciting, admirable and uncommon presence, a promise of victory, a noble sort of outlaw – and so his marginalisation by the family in the final scene is especially pronounced. When the enemy (the Comanches) seem momentarily overcome with Debbie’s return, the family ignores Ethan entirely, perhaps because without an enemy he is a) no longer a weapon useful to them b) without the strongly defined identity that made him charismatic and attractive – notice that he seems to deflate when he wanders off into the sun at the end, he lacks the proud, “full of hot air” saunter that he had earlier in the film c) because Ethan reminds the family of unpleasant blood feuds that would taint the affected purity of their receiving Debbie – blood feuds which they support and are implicated by.

    Kidnapping Debbie was one of a series of ongoing offences from both sides, so getting her back could seem like a war victory/reclaimed booty. But central to the family is the denial of having any ideological stance or position in the war, since, as Rhiannon points out, it is love (and not hatred) that is meant to be the operating principle within the inside/family/home sphere. When Debbie returns dressed in native
    clothing, it is critical that the family ignore her otherness, and see it as irrelevant and external to her, because associating Debbie with the Comanche would stir up their hatred and would make her homecoming too complicated – at best, she’d be seen as a war trophy and this attitude would contaminate the restored family with its hatred of the Indian outside. Perhaps Ethan’s presence would cause Debbie to be contextualized in this way, since during the film how brutally ranged he is against the Comanches is what defines him. It is only through externalizing and abjecting their own monstrosity in the character of Ethan that they can maintain their war-perpetuating hypocrisy.

    Taking this view, we see that there is tremendous pressure on Ethan to embody a sense of disgust that the white settlers have for the natives but do not always admit to. Laurie’s gory confession of how she thought Debbie out to be killed, that she was no longer human, came only under the great stress of losing Martin again after having just canceled her wedding for him. Martha appears the model of a meek and kindly housewife, but Aron says in one of the earlier scenes that “Martha won’t let a man quit [fighting the war]”. Martha’s unexplained “idolisation” of Ethan might even be gratitude to him for embodying the hostility she feels toward the Comanche, one that she cannot act upon or express, being a lady and a homemaker for a 1956 audience. Ethan makes eradicating the comanche a personal crusade “beyond all real reason” – I think he does this in part for Martha, who may be extended to be a figure for other white settlers who want a war but pretend to be uninvolved victims of it. Martha’s necessity to have her hatred for the impure other silenced may be why she admonishes Aron and her son for pressing Ethan to reveal his racist motivations, which are really her motivations. She doesn’t want to hear them spoken, not even from another’s pov.

    Martha represents “home” and its purity. This “home” attained by colonial takeover and genocide, must never acknowledge its violent basis – it must remain a source and symbol of safety, kindness and hospitality, otherwise it loses its appeal and “whiteness” no longer appears good. Ethan’s obvious love of “home” and its idea, embodied in Martha, might explain his tenacious embodiment of brutality – the more brutal he becomes defending his home, the less brutality his home will have to acknowledge in itself, as Ethan allows home to externalize it. Ethan makes sure that everyone else can think of home as a place that is good and pure, but that he must do so makes it very clear to him that the “home” whose honour is defending is not pure of hostility and hypocrisy. I think this singular conflict is what underlies Ethan’s self-contempt – he never behaves like a righteous hero, fighting for the good, because he knows what he is fighting for is already desecrated. This view sheds new light on why the rapes of Lucy and Martha were especially traumatic for him – they were desecrated despite Ethan’s titanic efforts to keep the purity of home, a purity he knew never really existed.

  13. Tina says:

    A recent article I read has been haunting my mind recently. It’s been days. It consumes my thoughts and it weighs heavy on my heart. I haven’t had a wink of peace since reading it as my nerves are totally shot.

    The article sparked a fury of protests on the blogosphere, particularly amongst members of the asian canadian community. It is a Maclean’s article entitled “Too Asian”? It’s basically a jumble of racial profiling and lazy journalism all mixed into a molotov cocktail. I would encourage you to read it (it really is a fascinating read) but it’s not necessary to what I want to say here.

    What I want to respond to (and what makes it relevant to this blog post) is racism.

    No, I am not playing the shrill hysteric – I want to deviate from the old sanctimonious “outsider looking in and screwing everything up” rhetoric. Instead, everyday I wake up with this rage, this rage of people not understanding me on the basis of my race and culture, this rage that I’m trapped forever in a skin that makes me a perpetual outcast. It’s a rage alright. I hear people taking the easy street by calling this a homogeneous identity and it absolutely enrages me – it sends me into this blind unexplainable fury. Somehow reading the macleans article gives me strength, some sort of validation that my rage is right, that my rage is real.

    Now I make an awkward transition to the topic at hand-

    The Searchers is a comic horror, a surreal joyride that’s somehow made plausible and even heartily enjoyable because of the prevalence of the american mystique. I call it a mystique because the white settler’s conquest of the native land is a victory that we all share in. It’s a victory that has somehow become an inert knowledge when we communicate (look at disney!) and till this day secures the superiority of the white race. The natives will forever be consecrated into a horrifying mystique. They embody all the things that we are naturally averted to – to magic and the supernatural, to scalps and corpses and rapists and murderers, barbarians.

    But –

    What I find particularly disturbing is our desire, our selfish desire, to speak up on behalf of the comanches. Why do we feel the need to give them a voice that is not their own? Why do we feel this, obligation, to politely apologize for Ethan’s bad manners (to the Comanches, to Martin, to Debbie)? Dear Laurie, bless her, imposes her voice upon them when she launches on a lustrous spew about comanche bucks f*cking and reproducing (not jarring at all, she’s simply the only one who’s speaking out the truth of the situation). But the cruel irony behind it all is that ethan is the only one who understands them.

    And what is this language they speak in? It is rage.

    Outrage – or simply rage, a delirious, indecipherable, primal rage.

    For justice, for land, for family, for life.

    So case in point, we will never understand Ethan and the Comanches. We should never aspire to. That will be understanding racism, and why should we aspire to?

    I say, Let them rage. The animosity between ethan and scar goes far beyond the manly scuffle during Laurie’s wedding. Ethan and Scar see eye to eye. But who’s the real barbarian here? It’s pointedly obvious that they both are the outcast, the voiceless. Above all, they both rage. Do you need to attach reason and thought to the rage?

    What is racism? Can we ever define racism? Especially when it’s very nature consists of ludicrous generalizations and blatant falsehoods? Can you ever put racism into the words that will convince everyone that it appeals to them, that it speaks to their own individual experiences?

    I do apologize for this incredibly delirious and irrational post. I’m well aware that I’m not answering the question at all. But please forgive me, it’s been a bad week.

    If anyone of you read the article and would be interested in talking about it, please let me know.

  14. Raquel Baldwinson says:

    Lethem Question #2.

    In Signs Taken for Wonders, Franco Moretti theorizes that there are two ways that we address a text: we read the text itself, or we talk to other people about the text/read theories on the text/read reviews/study the text-book on the text. Both methods work together to produce the critic’s response to text– whether it is well received, detested or ignored. “How to respond?” is the question that Lethem takes up in The Disappointed Artist.

    Lethem shows us his self-conscious artistic ego. His overwhelming concern about this movie is how to respond in a performative, social context. He opens the piece by narrating his process of dressing in bohemian-artistic garb—the uniform of his class. Why does Lethem need to talk about class in order to begin to talk about The Searchers?

    Class is this totally contingent category, an imagined value affixed to something real, one of Zizek’s ‘leftovers.’ The ways that we talk about The Searchers, and indeed the ways that we talk about lots of films, and lots of art and books—involve identifying schools of theory and criticism, then participating within them. Academia, theory, criticism and reviews are all like class in the sense that they are affixtures that we heed automatically. They are our traditions.

    It is precisely because Lethem is involved in canonical criticism that he isn’t able to “get” this film. He feels he missed out on locating the meaningful interpretation of this film in an article: “I’d sensed something missing in my knowledge, something central, a body of Hollywood texts the European directors revered like a Bible” (3). He’s not going to be able to get the film because the film eludes theoretical abstraction.

    “A body of Hollywood texts the European directors revered like a Bible.” This phrase powerfully illuminates the parameters of artistic appraisal. Requisite to appreciation the critic must be versed in the spatial boundaries that we use to contain artistic traditions (Hollywood as commercial; Europe as more experimental, as having greater snob-appeal). The critic must also be versed in temporal boundaries. (Is it a campy old artefact of 50’s American racism? Or does it actually have something to offer “our generation,” something that transcends its temporal birthdate?)

    Shelley lends an ideological purity the problem of how to appreciate art. The art in The Searchers can be seen as taking up cultural scripts and traditional narratives. We love to do this kind of thing, Shelley reminds us. We love to take the world around us and to abstract values from things and work with symbols. We love to operate in this symbolic order, talking to each other about the thing, but never engaging directly with the thing. Ya, Lethem did so much research that he became an expert on how to think about The Searchers who hardly had any grasp at all on it.

    Good art, Shelley argues, is when the art piece interrupts existing cultures of thought. It makes you experience the thing directly—cutting through the “knowledge network.” He says, “It creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies that bold and true word of Tasso: ‘Non merita nome di creatore, sennon Iddio ed il Poeta’.” God is the only poet: even the poet cannot grasp; she can only peel layers away.

    Lethem was confused that The Searchers seemed to take up the hero tale, and the racism subject, but quickly perverted and subverted them. He looked hard but never at The Searchers directly. It became a glaring, blinding source of light that he could not look directly at. The Searchers encourages us to “feel what we perceive, and to imagine that which we know.”

  15. Amy Miles says:

    Lear #4

    When Lear says “there is a certain symbolic excess in counting coups” he raises the idea that the action itself, because of its impracticality, must be important because of its symbolic meaning. We’ve come across this notion several times, notably with Zizek: the thought that an action can become more than itself because of the symbolic netting we attach to it. Lear, as his argument continues, is addressing the question of what happens when that netting unravels and leaves the discrete elements flapping in the proverbial wind—when the fight for recognition, for the dominance of your symbolic order over another’s symbolic order, transforms into the fight for the survival of your symbolic order, even in tatters. Counting coups can be seen as an act of bravery only in the context of a symbolic order that gives legitimacy to that interpretation, as the Crow’s symbolic order did. It becomes an obvious necessity, then, to fight for the recognition/dominance of the symbolic order that recognizes that bravery. In the context of tribal warfare, of course, this becomes a literal fight, which continues to feed the symbolic order.

    As Lear argues, once the cornerstones of the Crow way of life were erased, their ability to anchor the Crow symbolic order is lost. It is abruptly no longer a matter of getting other people to recognize the dominance of your symbolic order. It becomes a matter of holding on to whatever pieces of that order you can. Once the cornerstones are lost, it is no longer possible to live the way of life that was inscribed by the symbolic order. It is necessary to reinterpret and make sacrifices—meaning for form (as in a ritual that is still performed even though the original meaning is no longer applicable) or form for meaning (as in a ritual that can no longer be performed, because its form has been lost, though the meaning may still survive).

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