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May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
The Last of a Half-breed / on The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch
Welch’s sad book is set in mid-70’s rural Montana somewhere on the outskirts of the Fort Belknap Indian reservation. In this tragic story, cheap alcohol fuels a prevailing sense of alienation and longing for an imagined elsewhere—life should be better somewhere else. A perennial overgrowth of American Indian under-education, alcoholism and infighting captures the reader in a depressive continuity of life’s potential for hopelessness. Welch gives us a masterful retelling of boredom amidst the desolation of failed dreams. This is an American Indian story of existential angst that goes far beyond a clichéd and ghettoized other. Welch leaves us with a narrative that calls into question the very real confrontation with Jim Loney’s identity as a so-called half breed (Gros Ventre/Anglo), his broken family, his restless love life, and his hard-to-place value as a fallible man. James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney soberly regards the plight of the American Indian, troubled personal identity, and the existential problems that arise from filial neglect and societal estrangement.
We always have to be cautious when confronting racial issues and how they are addressed, especially with regard to the personal bias we bring to such matters. Although Welch does write about an American-Indian, he tells the story from the uneasy perspective of Jim Loney and his immediate relationships. This story is one of human identity, an identity that’s become displaced, and then broken. We already come to the novel knowing that American-Indians have been displaced in their own land, but in The Death of Jim Loney existential problems of belonging lie underneath the poverty of Loney’s day to day circumstances. If any American-Indian issues are politicized in the book, they are carefully implied and are not overt. In fact, such issues of displaced identity are suggested by Welch with graceful subtlety. For example, when Welch writes about Loney’s half-breed status, he has Loney’s girlfriend Rhea suggest to him that to be a half-breed is to be lucky to choose from one set of ancestors or the other: “Oh, you’re so lucky to have two sets of ancestors. Just think, you can be Indian on one day and white the next. Whichever suits you” (2008, p. 13). The naïve irony of his girlfriend’s comment does little to comfort us (and him) since we know that society doesn’t give us this choice. Here in America, if you are born half white and your other ethnic half is a minority group, you must identify as that minority group, if you don’t, you’re flatly dismissed as being in a state of self-hating denial.
If you happen to belong to a minority group, any resulting problems of racial and personal identity are left for you to sort through openly, or not. If you don’t have the tenacity to deal with it, this can lead to strong feelings of displacement and a general sense of not belonging. But is this is somehow a uniquely American-Indian dilemma? We already know that it’s not; we don’t have to be American-Indian to question our place in the world. One doesn’t need to be a minority to contemplate one’s existence. However, with this said, we’ll have to acknowledge that a minority status can lead to feelings of alienation. Displacement from the larger group can lead one to feel like an outsider.
This takes us to the philosophy of Existentialism. The general focus of Existentialism is on the existence of the individual and the choices he makes from there, if he is able to recognize that his existence relies on his own self-determinism and not on an external morality, or objective standards of living. In the strictest sense, he always has the freedom to choose one way or another. Let us be sure to make the point that Welch’s Loney never tries to philosophically solve his existential dilemma, we’re only left with his broken family life, his semi-romantic love life, his tenuous friendships, his alcoholism, his violence, and his eventual demise. We are matter-of-factly presented with all these unresolved problems of his existence that lead Loney to a self manipulated death. In Colin Wilson’s first book The Outsider he covers the Existentialism of the alienated outsider from the philosophical perspective of many authors and thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche wrote at length about overcoming the status quo, about questioning existence and the power of the individual to forge a new path above and beyond the prevailing norms. Welch’s Jim Loney is precariously at the precipice of this kind of rejection of the way things are—he is on the very edge of transcendence—yet he never gets there, he just doesn’t know how. “He [Loney] tried to think of all the little things that added up to a man sitting at a table drinking wine. […] all the people and events were hopelessly tangled as a bird’s nest is his mind” (Welch, 2008, p. 18). Loney inadvertently shows us that personal growth can’t flourish if we absent-mindedly drink away our thoughts. In The Outsider, Wilson speaks of the way Nietzsche had to reject the complacency of traditional values in a society that stifles free thinking: “Unless he can evolve a set of values that will correspond to his higher intensity of purpose, he may as well throw himself under a bus, for he will always be an outcast and a misfit” (1956, p.142). Loney never gets to a higher purpose. His goal is not to challenge tradition. Loney’s choices are (self) limited.
Loney’s existence awkwardly stares at him, and by extension we try to think of how this reflects our own lives. It’s only by his inability to squarely lift himself up from his plight, do we confront a desire to do this for ourselves. This problem of Loney’s is carefully expressed by Welch when Loney watches a neighbor hanging her laundry. He does this while contemplating where his life should lead from here. “He wasn’t ready to do anything but sit on his step and think, and so he watched the two shirts twist and knot around each other and he thought, not of Seattle, but of the blue veins on the backs of his neighbor’s legs” (2008, p.42). This kind of contemplation with the bare facts of reality recall Jean Paul Sartre’s character Antoine Roquentin in the book Nausea, and his famous existential epiphany with a chestnut tree, yet with one critical distinction: Loney can’t see a way to transcend his basic choices. He can’t grasp his own basic existential freedom. In Nausea Sartre writes: “Existence is not something which lets itself be thought of at a distance: it must invade you suddenly, master you, weigh heavily on your heart like a great motionless beast—or else there is nothing more at all” (1964, p. 177). For Sartre man’s very confrontation with nothing and of existence impels him to grow into what he wants to be. Loney doesn’t know he can change, therefore Sartre would say he was acting in ‘bad faith.’ When we’re acting in bad faith we are not acknowledging our freedom to choose another way, we’ve blindly accepted our so-called fate. In bad faith we are the victims of circumstantial fatalism.
Welch’s Loney is opaque and inaccessible to himself, he “…couldn’t sleep because if he slept he would dream, so he stared into the blackness of the small bedroom” (2008, p. 94). A few lines later, Loney thinks of the next day where he’ll be hunting bear with his sometime friend Myron Pretty Weasel, where he blankly thinks: “After tomorrow’s slim purpose I will simply exist” (Welch, 2008, p. 95). These are frightening thoughts when we learn later that Loney will shoot the curiously named Pretty Weasel, presumably mistaking him for a bear in the cattails. In Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic/philosohical work Strangers to Ourselves, she details the complex ways an outsider is perceived and how they perceive themselves. It’s made clear that the foreigner internalizes much of their perceived self-identity and hatred, as much as society imposes these insecurities onto the other. We’ll be safe to suggest that American-Indians have been a kind of native foreigner, sadly thought of as foreigners on their own homeland. This becomes a kind of self-exile enacted by Loney’s futile escape from belonging to his family or anywhere else as he eventually runs headlong unto his death at Mission Canyon. Kristeva writes: “…according to the utmost logic of exile, all aims should waste away and self-destruct in the wonderer’s insane stride toward an elsewhere that is always pushed back, unfulfilled, out of reach” (1991, p. 6). Although Kristeva is not an Existentialist, her views on foreigners, the stranger, the other do coincide with Loney’s lack of belonging that leads to a feeling of being exiled within his own family and community. Loney is never ‘at home’ in the world.
We never really understand where Loney’s going except down. The rambling intensity of his actions are magnified by the coldness of his estranged father Ike, especially when Loney suggests that their situation could’ve been better. Ike ignorantly questions this: “Shit, what would we have done but drink ourselves to death?” (Welch, 2008, p. 132). After this, Loney walks away from his dad’s trailer and shoots into one of the windows with the shotgun his dad gave him minutes earlier.
If we return to the very first page of the story, we find Loney recounting an odd Biblical passage that sticks itself in us because of its bald pessimism. “Turn away from man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Welch, 2008, p. 1). We’re not told that this is from Isaiah 2:22, but that doesn’t matter when we think of what it means, and what it might mean for Loney. Turn away from a breathing man, because there is not accounting for him because he’s mortal. This has to be a Biblical way to emphasize the fallibility of man against an all perfect God. Yet, for our secular use here, the haunting phrase speaks to a darker message: no one living is to be trusted. Loney came from the chaos of a broken home. As we witness his confused adult life, his options are few. Loney in his depressive complacency barely trusts anyone. Midway in the book, a little boy named Amos After Buffalo watches Loney cut his dead dog from the frozen mud on Thanksgiving day—a day that’s not really an American-Indian holiday. This little boy is recalled before Loney dies where Loney talks to a stray black dog in Mission Canyon. “You tell Amos that Jim Loney passed through town while he was dreaming. Don’t tell him you saw me with a bottle and a gun. That wouldn’t do. Tell him you saw me carrying a dog and that I was taking that dog to higher ground. He will know” (Welch, 2008, p. 147).
James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney carries us over to a deep sense of sadness. This in-depth sadness is brought about by Loney’s inability to maneuver his circumstance to even a slightly better place. His displaced existence glares at him and it hurts us to have read about it. It is in this liquor-fuelled alienation that we can learn to empathize with people, as we can recognize such tendencies in ourselves. It is as the philosophers show us, that it is our choice to blindly accept fatalism, the status quo, the norms, the way-it-should-be, or not. If we can’t do this hard work of liberating ourselves nobody else can do it for us. This ultimately reveals how James Welch has helped us, by showing what life looks like when we refuse to see ourselves as full of potential, and when we fail to see ourselves as living with pure possibility.
Kristeva, Julia. (1991). Strangers to ourselves (Leon Roudiez, trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1964). Nausea (Lloyd Alexanader, trans.). New York, NY: New Directions.
Welch, James. (2008). The death of Jim Loney. New York, NY: Penquin Classics.
Wilson, Colin. (1956). The outsider. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
September 18, 2011 § 9 Comments
Deleuze and Nietzsche on Death Mountain
The following dream report is a fictional account of the 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze. The dream is narrated by Deleuze and is concerning the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It is well known that Deleuze wrote extensively about other philosophers: Spinoza, Hume, Bergson, Leibniz, and of course Nietzsche. Deleuze was famously contra Hegel, so his exploration of other thinkers noticeably positioned his thought far away from the absolutions of Hegel. This moving away from Hegel for Deleuze, is detectible with Nietzsche’s death of god. The death of god began to alleviate the philosophical need to ‘bring it all together.’ Philosophy was taking this radical turn with Nietzsche, to then be steadfastly affirmed with Deleuze. Importantly, Nietzsche’s ideas on force and forces (the will to power) are fundamental to his notion of affirmation. Affirmation is a life force, whereas ressentiment (reactionary force) is life-denying. This is what the dream transformations are all about. The reason a dream report is used here as a backdrop, is to reference the creative side of philosophy that both thinkers continually ascribed to. This creative force is to be countered by the notion that philosophy need only to be preoccupied with defining truth, bringing things together, or unifying a systematic way of thought. All of that was Hegel’s job, as it was Plato’s work too. When we actually read Deleuze and find the words: affirmation, difference, and multiplicity, these (with many others) all stem from his close re-reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche offered a way out of the old ways and Deleuze takes this seriously enough to be heavily influenced by his self appointed teacher/s. With this said, bear in mind that Deleuze’s way of implementing ideas still follows a great tradition in philosophy, which is to return those who have come before us. Yet, this is a radical return to find the new in the ideas of the old. It is a way of passing through knowledge to find less of an identity and more of what is unfamiliar, thus creating another frontier for anyone to look for an alternate way of seeing things—over and over, never to be the same again. —Aurelio Madrid
These days working in Vincennes exhaust me like a sedative taken when one cannot sleep, and precious sleep itself becomes work to find fresh again. The last few weeks have seen me becoming listless enough to begrudge what I can’t have. All this has been reminding me of what’ll never be the same and is always lost. To be sure, we share in what’s gone. The best of these dark days have been sleep worthy. I’ve been dreaming again, entering that valued space where a waking fantasy cannot recreate what the dreaming mind will manifest on its own.
I’ll write of a specific dream that causes me considerable worry, but not enough to become frightened off by the powerful images that are to be remembered as I make note of them here.
Shivering, I found myself near Heidegger’s hut on Todtnauberg (Death-Mountain), located in the Black Forest somewhere in obscure southern Germany. This tiny place is the famous retreat of Heidegger’s, where he’d eventually put together Being and Time. He found his peace here, away from them, the crowds he hated so much. In this setting I was expecting to find the old woodcutter busy at his typewriter, instead I found a dirty white-haired Nietzsche wrapped in a sleeping-bag as if he were homeless. I could safely say he was homeless here on Death Mountain, as summer was wearing off and a withering fire was put in motion to affect a little warmth for the now run down place. I instantly knew this was an older Nietzsche, a man who was here after death. Here we were together in my dream, Mr. Deleuze and Mr Nietzsche looking through each other for the first time.
While my mind’s eye pieced the scene together, he pulled out an insistent translucent arm and pointed near to where I stood, “See, this is the tarantula’s hole! Do you want to see the tarantula itself? Here hangs its web: touch it so that it trembles.” I immediately knew to what he was referring to, and I was a little put off by the idea that he could be referencing himself as the tarantula. I had to quickly dismiss this because I detected that characteristic ironic sneer. The tarantulas in his Zarathustra were there to represent the poisonous people who sit around and wait self-righteously to attack those who are living freely, as he saw it. The life-affirmers live instead of contemptuously waiting to react and bite like the spider. He wasn’t here waiting for anyone, let alone me.
Although I shuddered at his macabre reference, I had to agree with him, to barely mutter under my breath, “Everywhere we see victory of NO over Yes, of reaction over action.” His blurry crossed eyes glared towards me, he then stared out to the single window, and then Nietzsche became fixed on an odd photo of an overburdened camel on its fore-knees. The camel carries the heavy load of past morality, those tired values that are not yet gone and weigh the poor animal down, just like we are weighed down. No one had to tell me what this symbolized once I recognized it in the picture, tossed there on that greasy floor.
Surely, I had been toying with all these ideas of his lately, which could explain why he was performing as he was, without so much as an obligatory hello. It is unfortunate that philosophy should have ever become a condemnation of life. Thought over life is not worth living.
“Of all these heaviest things the carrying spirit takes upon itself, like a loaded camel that hurries into the desert…” His outsized yellow-white mustache looked to be a burden as he said this. The legendary facial hair was a part of the mask he couldn’t do without. We want put these burdens upon ourselves as the ancients did when they privileged lofty thought over the fallible body. His mask was faded, yet couldn’t ever be an equivalent to these age old restrictions.
“We are always asked to submit ourselves, to burden ourselves, to recognize only the reactive forms of life…,” I half said this aloud and to myself. I couldn’t tell if he knew I was still there. He was still listlessly looking out the window. I walked over to look out too. To my amazement, I could see a bright golden lion wandering around a clearing in the forest some hundred feet away, his fur was more radiant than blond. The animal’s presence over there assured me that I was in the company of my god-less hero, the master of allegory, a man of health and of suffering, this was a man of foreword looking visions.
His cracking voice then lightened and became youthful as he talked about the lion, “Once it loved ‘thou shalt’ as its most sacred, now it must find delusion and despotism even it what is most sacred to it in order to wrest freedom from its love by preying.” This was the golden lion of my homeless visionary, the critic and destroyer of stagnancy that was tirelessly represented by the old ways. Nietzsche had to proclaim the death of god as a way to solidify his place in the transvaluation of Christian nihilism, as he was also the harshest critic of the requisite nihilism that resulted with god’s absence. Man could be empty without a god, getting rid of the divine solved only a fraction of man’s problems. We had to look for answers from within ourselves, and we had to crawl out of those arcane devotions to those ascetic religious and secular illusions with the new-found courage of a lion.
I had to leave the hut to get a closer look at the precious lion. I’d never see it again, this was my last chance to say goodbye to that myth of his. Walking out into the clear air only revived my fear that this beautiful scene would be ending soon. Everything is to return only as difference, a repetition of movement becoming a force of will. Becoming is a force of life immanent in our lives moving forward, changing us always. This will never be the same, and it’ll never be the self-same drama of our dreams again. I walked out and found no lion, and I easily cried, thinking that these tears would somehow replace that which once was. Acceptance of our pain only brings about a minor comfort. Life requires creative and experimental force to keep us from devaluing it any more than we should.
I held my head down to return to the hut, as night was encroaching. I opened the door and didn’t find my Nietzsche. I had to rub the tears from my face to believe what I saw there inside the warming room. There on the bed, where the old man once was convalescing, a calm baby sat upright reading a book. He noticed me right off, and with his delicate infant hand turned a page and waved to me to come nearer to read from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a wheel rolling out of itself, a first movement, a sacred yes-saying.”
I awoke with these last words and all I could say, as strange as it sounded on my lips, was ‘YES to life! YES to life!’ Only a child that once was the now dead Nietzsche in my dream could help me see this as I never have before. This was all I needed to move on, to think ahead and to live my life as never before.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, eds. Adrian Del Caro and Robert B. Pippen, Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, p. 76.
 Deleuze, Gilles, Nietzsche / Pure Immanence – Essays on a Life, intro. John Rajchman, trans. Anne Boyman, New York: Zone Books, p. 75.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich, op. cit.: p. 16.
 Deleuze, Gilles, op. cit.: p. 71.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich, op. cit.: p. 17.
 Ibid.: p. 17.