07 February 2013
The Self-Murdering American Democracy
Chapter 5 of Studies in Classic American Literature, "Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels," (audio) by D. H. Lawrence.
Yet one day the demons of America must be placated, the ghosts must be appeased, the Spirit of Place atoned for. Then the true passionate love for American Soil will appear. As yet, there is too much menace in the landscape.
But probably, one day America will be as beautiful in actuality as it is in Cooper. Not yet, however. When the factories have fallen down again.
And again, this perpetual blood-brother theme of the Leatherstocking novels, Natty and Chingachgook, the Great Serpent. At present it is a sheer myth. The Red Man and the White Man are not blood-brothers: even when they are most friendly. When they are most friendly, it is as a rule the one betraying his race-spirit to the other. In the white man - rather high-brow - who 'loves' the Indian, one feels the white man betraying his own race. There is something unproud, underhand in it. Renegade. The same with the Americanized Indian who believes absolutely in the white mode. It is a betrayal. Renegade again.
In the actual flesh, it seems to me the white man and the red man cause a feeling of oppression, the one to the other, no matter what the good will. The red life flows in a different direction from the white life. You can't make two streams that flow in opposite directions meet and mingle sooth- ingly.
Certainly, if Cooper had had to spend his whole life in the backwoods, side by side with a Noble Red Brother, he would have screamed with the oppression of suffocation. He had to have Mrs Cooper, a straight strong pillar of society, to hang on to. And he had to have the culture of France to turn back to, or he would just have been stifled. The Noble Red Brother would have smothered him and driven him mad.
So that the Natty and Chingachgook myth must remain a myth. It is wish-fulfilment, an evasion of actuality. As we have said before, the folds of the Great Serpent would have been heavy, very heavy, too heavy, on any white man. Unless the white man were a true renegade, hating himself and his own race-spirit, as sometimes happens.
It seems there can be no fusion in the flesh. But the spirit can change. The white man's spirit can never become as the red man's spirit. It doesn't want to. But it can cease to be the opposite and the negative of the red man's spirit. It can open out a new great area of consciousness, in which there is room for the red spirit too.
To open out a new wide area of consciousness means to slough the old consciousness. The old consciousness has become a tight-fitting prison to us, in which we are going rotten.
You can't have a new, easy skin before you have sloughed the old, tight skin.
And you just can't, so you may as well leave off pretending.
Now the essential history of the people of the United States seems to me just this: At the Renaissance the old conscious- ness was becoming a little tight. Europe sloughed her last skin, and started a new, final phase.
But some Europeans recoiled from the last final phase. They wouldn't enter the cul de sac of post-Renaissance, 'liberal' Europe. They came to America.
They came to America for two reasons:
(I) To slough the old European consciousness completely.
(2) To grow a new skin underneath, a new form. This second is a hidden process.
The two processes go on, of course, simultaneously. The slow forming of the new skin underneath is the slow slough- ing of the old skin. And sometimes this immortal serpent feels very happy, feeling a new golden glow of a strangely-patterned skin envelop him: and sometimes he feels very sick, as if his very entrails were being torn out of him, as he wrenches once more at his old skin, to get out of it.
Out! Out! he cries, in all kinds of euphemisms.
He's got to have his new skin on him before ever he can get out.
And he's got to get out before his new skin can ever be his own skin.
So there he is, a torn divided monster.
The true American, who writhes and writhes like a snake that is long in sloughing.
Sometimes snakes can't slough. They can't burst their old skin. Then they go sick and die inside the old skin, and nobody ever sees the new pattern.
It needs a real desperate recklessness to burst your old skin at last. You simply don't care what happens to you, if you rip yourself in two, so long as you do get out.
It also needs a real belief in the new skin. Otherwise you are likely never to make the effort. Then you gradually sicken and go rotten and die in the old skin.
Now Fenimore stayed very safe inside the old skin: a gentleman, almost a European, as proper as proper can be. And, safe inside the odd skin, he imagined the gorgeous American pattern of a new skin.
He hated democracy. So he evaded it, and had a nice dream of something beyond democracy. But he belonged to demo- cracy all the while.
Evasion! - Yet even that doesn't make the dream worthless.
Democracy in America was never the same as Liberty in Europe. In Europe Liberty was a great life-throb. But in America Democracy was always something anti-life. The greatest democrats, like Abraham Lincoln, had always a sacrificial, self-murdering note in their voices. American Democracy was a form of self-murder, always. Or of murder- ing somebody else.
Posted by Douglas Storm