On Fort Apache, The Iliad, and Complexity in Art

First off, this is not a post about trigger warnings, or free speech, or any other potentially thorny hot button issue. This is a post about how we see, and our tendency to close off experience too quickly.

Among the many problems that arise from a mode of thinking focused on quick moral categorization rather than slow, reflective judgement, one of the most fundamental undermines the whole exercise from the get go: the arrogance of assuming that we can swiftly and thoroughly understand what a work of art is "about". Does it conform to our rigid understanding of what art should do and what social change it should enact - or at least gesture towards? In the increasingly hectic world of online evaluation, the easiest way to know what culture to consume is to examine what boxes it checks. Amy Schumer sketches? Anti-patriarchy, so good (except when she's maybe a little racist, in which case, bad). 

The list goes on and on. And maybe, for something short and uncomplex like a TV sketch, this rubric works acceptably. But what can we make of big, sprawling works, novels or films that contain Whitmanian multitudes? Does gathering a list of the ways in which Moby Dick is problematic tell us anything about whether it's worth reading? I would suggest that a move away from making things problematic and toward opening up problematics (matrices of evaluation) would do a lot to further our understanding of works of art.

I'm in a film class at the moment on American genre films, which allows me to make a start on filling in holes in my least viewed genre: the Western. This week's film was John Ford's Fort Apache; not among his best known films, but a striking one in its own right. Throughout the film I could not help but wonder what modern online trendsetters and language policers would make of this deeply conflicted film. On the one hand, it reenacts the archetypal Western plot of cavalry versus Native Americans, in ways which definitely conform to its period (immediately after the Second World War). On the other, it presents a subtle but damning critique of the Army's treatment of Native American tribes, essentially laying full responsibility at the feet of the government. Geronimo, that specter haunting so many Westerns, appears here as a minor character just getting his start; that he witnesses the betrayal of his tribe by the Army clearly connects to his status as full blown outlaw by film's end.

Then there's the film's coda, which makes the already dusty morality of the film even more complex. John Wayne's York, who has taken over command of the fort after the death of Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda), gives a rousing speech to some newspapermen about the courage of the men of the cavalry, their willingness to sacrifice and keep marching. Then the troops march out, flags waving, to a stirring anthem.  On the surface this ending contradicts what Ford has laid out before, and it's easy to read the ending as Ford losing courage and backing down in favor of mindless patriotism. In other words, problematic.

But watch the ending a little closer. Witness Wayne's extreme discomfort as he tells the men how brave and wise Colonel Thursday was. For those willing to accept dialectic complexity, another reading of the ending emerges. York, caught between his private admiration of the Apache and his need to fulfill his duty, chooses to lie about what has gone before. To shatter the illusion would be too much for most men to bear, so York absorbs the burden of his own hypocrisy instead. On this reading, the ending has a striking resemblance to the famous ending of Heart of Darkness, where Marlowe lies to Kurtz's fiance in order to preserve her vision of Kurtz as a noble man. It's a bitter choice.

Or take The Iliad (which we've been reading in the class for which I TA). It's the most famous paean to violence ever, with death scenes that would make Eli Roth say "Whoa, Homer, take a step back and chill". It's full of easily condemned parts -- not just violence, but misogyny and other troubling aspects. What's it still doing in the canon, anyway?

This is the sort of interpretation that emerges when we assume that depiction equals endorsement. To be fair, it's very easy to assume that Homer endorses the violence of the epic, strewn as it is over nearly every page, in lovingly crafted detail. Dig a little deeper, though, and the poet clearly betrays a troubled attitude toward the ravages of war. In Book 6, for instance, he includes this chilling encounter between Hector and his infant son:

In the same breath, shining Hector reached down
for his son -- but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror --
so it struck his eyes.

In one brief moment, Homer radically subverts the text of his own poem. War is not a glorious march for glory: it is the machine that transforms men into monsters. If we have eyes to see, it becomes clear that Homer struggles throughout The Iliad with the ravages of war and what it means for soldiers and their families, and indeed all of society. Yes, if you are faint of heart it can be difficult to wade through all the violence, but without it Homer could not build to the most heartbreaking ending in all of literature, the meeting between Achilles and Priam. And who, having read that, would wish it unread?

When we are willing to trust works of art, to move beyond simplistic division into good and bad, we can encounter a rich dialectic ground where ideas struggle with each other and open up new interpretive possibilities. When we approach works of art not in a spirit of fear or of asserting ourselves against them, and instead let ourselves be borne along by the currents of their complex inner logic, we end up changed by the encounter.