Adorno’s Alternative Aesthetics, part II by Reinaert de V.


lily van der stokker / money / 1999 / silkscreen print

…& here is the 2nd installment on adorno’s aesthetic theory by reinaert de v. …reinaert de v. writes: “Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery.” this line exemplifies one of adorno’s challenges to place art in a semi-indefinable range of possibility & potential. once we are able to view & think of art as unclosed & “non-identical” & with parts that are essentially “irreducible”, we can then start to see how this leads to adorno’s important concept of “negative dialectics” which unravels the rational closure of hegel’s speculative absolutions & propels us away from the surety of the enlightenment. again, this is unlike the way we commonly think of aesthetics, but where would critical theory be without it?

“Natural beauty is suspended history, a moment of becoming at a standstill. Artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension are those that are justly said to have a feeling for the natural. Yet this feeling is – in spite of every affinity to allegorical interpretation – fleeting to the point of déjà vu and is no doubt all the more compelling for its ephemeralness.” (AT, p.71)

Sentences like these are commonplace when dealing with Theodor W. Adorno. His fragmentary or aphoristic style, combined with a highly cerebral and condensed way of putting things, while often exhilarating, can also be quite daunting at times. Every single sentence seems super charged with meaning and part of a complex circuitry that aims to shock and electrify.[1] With the way themes get introduced and developed, it would not be stretching the truth to say that Adorno – who after all was a musicologist too – ‘composes’ his philosophy. But even though everything is intricately interconnected with everything else, making it very easy to get stuck or lost, one obviously has to start somewhere. So I wish to begin my exposé by unpacking this first cluster of sentences, which I believe is crucial because it lies at the centre of his finely spun web of subtly interwoven layers of meanings. By gently pulling this thread – which I have to admit, is more like a lifeline to me – I hope to get hold of, or make sense of “a voluptuousness for the mind in a train of thought he can never fully unravel…” (AT, p.63)

By defining Natural Beauty as “a moment of becoming at a standstill”, one can almost picture it, and indeed one should ‘picture’ it. Because “artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension” – be it paintings, photos, novels, movies or whatever – are not unlike snapshots of a process. Albeit, a very elusive and peculiar kind of process, one that needs an unwavering eye to capture it, the eye of a true artist. It is by no means by accident that Adorno speaks about “suspended history in this context, for it is actually human history, or our historical development in relation to nature, as mirrored in art, that is the subject of his aesthetics. Which brings us to the second part of his definition: the affinity of the feeling of momentary suspension to “allegorical interpretation”. On the one hand, and despite this affinity, he contrasts it with allegorical interpretation, due to the ephemeral nature of this feeling. What he means by this, I think, is that through allegorical interpretation meanings have usually become fixed or stabilized, and thereby appropriated. While the affinity he has in mind has to do with allegory’s potential for creating new meaning, which happens when something stands in for something else – or, as happens in nature, when something changes or seems to change into something else. So it is the allegorical intention (AT, p.71) that creates the momentary suspension – a state of reverie – which functions like an opening for an associative or kaleidoscopic process to take hold[2]. Every artwork that successfully captures or duplicates it, basically turns it into a still, or ‘distills’ it, by tapping into but only capturing part of it, because in actuality it is a natural process of recurring and continual change. Thus, while sharing in it, in the end it is a richness the work can merely evoke or allude to. And it is this ephemeral process, which feels like déjà vuthat makes artworks resonate with Natural Beauty.

“According to the canon of universal concepts [Natural Beauty] is undefinable precisely because its own concept has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70)

Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery. Due to nature’s inherent indeterminateness, as being essentially non-human, or something foreign and sealed-off from thought, it makes ascribing a priori statements about what Natural Beauty consists in into a futile enterprise. Nonetheless, without these efforts Natural Beauty as a concept would remain empty and silent – like an empty canvas or a blank screen with nothing to project on. Leading Adorno to conclude that if Natural Beauty is to be sought in anything at all, it must be in the way that natural ‘non-man-made’ things, and those things taken back into nature’s fold, tend to speak to us, or “resonate”. In other words, beauty is to be found in their eloquence (AT, p.70), in that which enables these seemingly random objects to reach out to us, and makes them shimmer as if “luminous from within” (AT, p.70), and appear as “more than what is literally there” (AT, p.71). It is through the spell they cast, binding us to them, that ignoring, or denying their individual worth and uniqueness, becomes impossible[3]. Gaining in voice to the degree that they are foreign, other, new, or left out – in proportion to which they elude us. It is this feature that makes them stand out and that lets us experience them. And yet,

“Without receptivity there would be no such objective expression, but it is not reducible to the subject; natural beauty points to the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71)

Adorno takes great pains to point out there is something, though mediated, that is irreducible in its foreignness and externality, that is doing the talking – albeit, through us. There is a good reason for this, for without what he terms the primacy of the object, there would not be any ‘talking’ going on, in fact there would not be anything to convey. There would solely be the subject caught in a gilded self-made cage, built around pleasurable and self-congratulatory feelings. And according to him, such a life, cut off from the outside world, would not simply amount to self-amputation, but eventually end up being, to quote Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” – a fact Adorno believed two World Wars had borne out. Luckily for us, the “objective expression” found in Natural Beauty implies “receptivity” on the part of the subject, for without it there would be nothing to receive, nor any reaction to it. At the same time though, this receptivity should not be taken for granted, because there is a threshold: in order for the object to be received it should not be merely external to the subject but nonidentical (AT, p.4) as well. What he means by this, is that through familiarizing ourselves with the world, which at first appeared to us as a chaotic and heterogeneous whole, we not only came to master it by dividing it up – making it more manageable – but we re-created it into our image along the way, expulsing what could not be accommodated. We quite literally ‘subjected’ the world around us, making us lose track of it in the process. In this sense, objects identified as ‘part of this world’ are not really external anymore but have become extensions of the subject, making receptivity – since they would be ‘more of the same’ – superfluous. For the potential to relate implied by receptivity, demands conscious effort on our part. It suggests responsiveness, and a need to grapple with what is ‘outside’. It implies a challenge.

[coming up] more on Natural Beauty and its relationship to Art.

[1] Since Adorno’s philosophy is essentially about ‘openness’ and the creation of what is wholly new and original. Thinking, especially in the free and undelineated form of an essay – which has a certain artfulness about it – is (his) philosophy put into action, because it is a thought processor an experience in and of itself: a place where the particular and the personal are allowed to speak, where variety and the fragmentary are not shunned.

[2] “Allegorical interpretation” in this way is closely related to Adorno’s concept of mimesis. Because even though ‘nature’s continual and recurrent change’ speaks of a wealth that man can merely allude and aspire to, it was while being under nature’s mercurial spell – a state of dreamlike reverie – that he was forced to imitate its cruelty and fickleness to stay afloat. And so it is through our original interaction with nature – a complete surrender to the outside – that we absorbed a plethora of forms through which we learned to express and externalize ourselves, thereby gaining an abundance of idioms. In other words, “allegorical interpretation” in this sense, is a kind of imitation without full understanding, that has allowed man to acquire nature’s formal language. “Déjà vu”, however, points to the fact that each expression seems to contain a reference to something else, outside itself, from which it originated and sprouted forth. Given all this, we can conclude that man’s slow but steady progress resembles awakening from an often frightening and fitful sleep; after all, we only become fully conscious of our actions after initiating them.

[3] There is a subtle dialectic of binding and unbinding at work in “Aesthetic Theory”. Where, if pushed to excess, both nature’s binding and society’s unbinding can blind us – see footnotes 7 and 12 on detachment and survival. It is therefore all about finding the proper balance or critical distance. Even so, both nature and society cast their respective spells, for though we are driven in the arms of society to escape nature’s bonds, we can only hope to resist society’s universal bondage by offsetting it with the unique and particular found in nature. Hence, at first sight art seems to function as Aufhebung of thesis (nature) and antithesis (society), by carrying both to another level. Yet on closer inspection art turns out to be both nature’s and society’s “pure anti-thesis” (AT, p.62), since society is actually the sublimation and adaptation of nature’s drive to domination and objectification. “The song of birds is found beautiful by everyone; no feeling person in whom something of the European tradition survives fails to be moved by the sound of a robin after a rain shower. Yet something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed. The fright appears as well in the threat of migratory flocks, which bespeak ancient divinations, forever presaging ill fortune. With regard to its content, the ambiguity of natural beauty has its origin in mythical ambiguity…” (AT, p.66)

Adorno’s Alternative Aesthetics: Introduction by Reinaert de V.

folkert de jong

folkert de jong / chop chair / 2005 / styrofoam, polyurethane & silicone rubber

…this post is the long awaited 1st installment of reinaert de v.’s comments on theodor adorno’s book “aesthetic theory.” adorno’s philosophy might be perceived by some to be difficult & obscure, but reinaert de v. easily brings us to his brilliant & radical ideas with fresh eyes—indeed a way to think of art & aesthetics as ever more then we’ve normally imagined. …& yes, thanks again to reinaert de v. for this fine work. we look forward to learning more.

“In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.”

(G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, 1: 11)

This bold but brilliant statement by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was like a flash of lightning, its legacy, an ominous thunder that has reverberated throughout modernity ever since. In a single stroke Hegel had made it impossible for artists, thinkers, and theorists alike, to approach – or look at – art in the same way as they had done before. Whatever one might think of the statement itself, or of Hegel’s idealist argumentation underpinning it, no one can deny it has set the agenda for generations afterwards, or that art has never been quite the same since. Merely walking around any modern museum today suffices to illustrate that point. Which brings us to Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno’s (1903-1969) masterful meditation on art and society, which opens with the famous first line: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” Clearly Adorno, like Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) before him, – whom he vociferatedagainst – took Hegel’s challenge to heart, and thereby situated himself firmly in its tradition. And how could he not? After all, the future of art was at stake and even, as we will see, that of modernity itself.

Aesthetic Theory” (AT, University of Minnesota Press, 1997) is therefore an attempt to meet this challenge head on. For in contrast to Hegel, who simply thinks of history as a stage for Spirit’s inevitable development towards emancipation, Adorno, influenced by two World Wars and the Holocaust, does not share his optimism. Instead Adorno believes that one cannot have a healthy society without art “maintaining its earlier necessity”. Even so, he does subscribe to Hegel’s thesis that art ‘contains the seeds of its own demise’, because as he says: “the revolt of art, teleologically posited in its “attitude to objectivity” toward the historical world, has become a revolt against art: it is futile to prophesy whether art will survive it.” (AT, p.3) The reason for this, however, does not lie in the fulfillment of its historical role as a carrier of Spirit, but in the fact that art is first and foremost a product of history, and as such must have its substance in what lies outside itself: in the constellation of historical forces which at each separate moment brings art, in all its singular splendor, into being. This is why there is nothing about art itself that guarantees its continued existence, and yet it is precisely this fragility – its intrinsic transitoriness (AT, p.3) – that not only helps individualize each historic epoch, giving it its own distinct look and feel [1], but at the same time grants great works of art their invaluable and irreplaceable uniqueness, and thus makes art, art. Furthermore, the “revolt of art” which follows from its “attitude to objectivity”, shows that true art is not simply a passive ‘registration’ of a historically conditioned state of affairs, but rather a conscious reaction to (or even rebellion against) it. Art, in this way, signifies both society’s capacity for self-awareness as well as its sense of direction and development, and thereby not only mirrors society, but becomes intimately and indissolubly bound up with it – sharing a common fate with it. Which means that, the worrisome ‘disconnect’ between art and society that seems to have occurred with the advent of modernity – as Hegel’s statement clearly illustrates – left society senseless, rudderless and ultimately defenseless, with, as we saw, devastating results for both. Because, according to Adorno, this state of malaise or disorientation, found its climactic conclusion in the unimaginable catastrophes of the 20thcentury.

This “revolt against art” therefore, points towards a reaction that aims to remedy the situation where art seeks to resist man’s tendency to transform the world into his image, i.e. to make art subservient to man’s needs [2] – which finds its strongest expression in idealist aesthetics (AT, p.14). Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay. I would like to argue, in line with Adorno, that it is in some way thanks to its very success – if one can use such a word in this context – that modernity has grinded to a halt: locking the subject up in itself and cutting it off from the outside world, precisely because the aim of society was to ensure man’s autonomy by releasing him from the bonds of nature. But in doing so, it has caused man to become estranged from his origins, with the result that he no longer knows how to relate to himself, his fellow man, or the world outside him – leaving him disorientated and isolated. And this development, instigated by nature itself, has led to the dire situation art now finds itself in – merely subsisting in its diminished state. At the same time, art also points towards a way out, because in its very structure it embodies that relationship with the outside which we had to sacrifice in order to attain independence from nature. Art, however, contains it in such a way that it does not require us to give up our hard won autonomy, because on a fundamental level, art is our autonomy as put into practice. And so, modernity can only be revitalized by reclaiming via art that connection which had been lost – it would be modernity, albeit in a wholly new and profound way: “artworks recall the theologumenon that in a redeemed world everything would be as it is and yet wholly other.” (AT, p.6) What art speaks of therefore is of a new engagement, but an engagement for its own sake, for the betterment of humanity – and not only for the limited purpose of self-preservation. Perhaps it is a promise art can never fully fulfill, but at least it compels us to action and to start living again.

In the next few weeks we will be taking a closer look at this alternative approach to aesthetics.

[1] See in this context also The Rise of Modernity, part IIfor the many similarities with Charles Baudelaire’s conception of beauty.

[2] ”The revolt of art [against art]” is a direct consequence of man’s growing influence and control over his environment, which led him – almost unconsciously – to transform and suffuse it in accordance with his needs and desires. A process at first abetted by art since it coincides with man’s (drive to) freedom and autonomy, as well as his artifice. But this newly arranged and artificial environment – molded into man’s image – becomes the new “objectivity” against which art has to rebel in order for it – and man – to remain free. For it is through art that man regains control and the freedom to shape himself. You could therefore say that art functions as a dialectical motor, which mirrors nature in its continued demand for change and growth – for what is dead is petrified. Another way to keep this motor running, as we will see, is that art never fully matches up with our idea of nature – nor does nature for that matter.

the mexican immigrant generation


José Posada, “The Seven Vices” zinc etching, date unknown

The Mexican Immigrant Generation

The story of the Mexican poor at the turn of the last century is one of great complexity and turmoil. We continue to experience echoes of this past and how it affects our American story as much as it’s the history of our southern neighbor. It is in our best interest to view this history by observing the journeys of the poor voiceless immigrants, since it is in their hands that this struggle has plainly grown, worked and sorted. These days a leisured consumer culture obviates any pressing need to regard the voiceless. Such indifference allows us to celebrate affluence at the total expense of those who are in need. Let us also be careful to not take the typical route to demonize the rich (to be sure, the wealthy are not the only ones who are guilty of hating the less fortunate), instead let our thoughts of the Mexican immigrant poor be a subtle critique on the attitude of indifference itself.

The historian Manuel G. Gonzales tells us, in his book Mexicanos, the period leading up to, during, and after the Mexican American War, was one of political disarray in Mexico. He notes that “…the presidency [of Mexico] changed hands seventy-five times from 1821 to 1876…” (115). This chaotic time leads to the extreme leadership of Profirio Diaz (1830-1915), who is known as a president of Mexico, who then became a dictator. His off-and-on thirty-something year rule is commonly referred to as: “El Profiriato.” During El Profiriato Diaz had many incongruities that mainly favored the entrepreneurial sectors of Mexican society. Yes, this helped the Mexican peso, but the also pushed the Mexican workers downward. If you didn’t happen to own a grand Hacienda, and you had the misfortune to live in poverty, then you were treated like a second-class citizen, and in some cases, you were treated like a slave. This transition from an agrarian way of life to one of manufacturing, mining, foreign investment etc. left the Mexican peasants and the ever-downcast Indians to continue to immigrate northward, to an American way of life, but not always a better way of life.

The numbers of north-bound immigrants during El Profiriato didn’t really match the staggering numbers of refugees, workers, and countless others who wanted to get away from the tumult of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910. The antiestablishment idealism of Ricardo Flores Magón (1874 – 1922) led the battle cry against Diaz and the corrupt El Profiriato. The importance of Magón’s message was radical and it was a cry for the peasants, the over-worked, the poor and the so-called peons. Magón was a journalist, and head of the leading revolutionary paper: Regeneración, famous for its anarchist fervor. He hated Diaz and his cronies, “…the Old Buzzard [Diaz] watches from his perch high on the rocks, fixing his eye on the giant that advances without even understanding the reason for the insurrection, because tyrants simply do not understand the right to rebel” (159). Magón’s life may not be a success story, but it is a story whereby he fought for those couldn’t see a way out.

Magón’s message was clear; he disliked Diaz, as much as he disliked government in general. He believed in dissent, the right to rebel, the necessity of discord. With a definite unconscious ring of Hegelian (dialectical) philosophy Magón writes: “All is transformed be discord: it dissolves and creates, destroys and creates” (272). For Magón, if the peasant didn’t rise up to save himself and to (crucially) bring with him his fellow man, it was his own fault. None of this anarchistic thinking helped Magón personally—although he was favored by the revolutionaries, he was essentially exiled by El Profiriato to a very un-anarchistic America. His anarchy aimed not to replace government, but to do away with it in favor of a decentralized communal leadership. This radical position makes sense if you grew up poor in nineteenth-century Mexico, a country that shuffled through political challenges with dizzying rapidity. His affinity with Marxism is hard to trace, yet there are strong similarities in both. Magón’s anarchist ‘bible’ was The Conquest of Breadby the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, first published in 1892. Magón wasn’t a success story and he died in an American prison. He was a martyr for working-class people and for his radical thought.

If we are to focus again of the Mexican peasant, we can’t say with any assurance exactly how willing s/he wanted to stay in Mexico amidst the chaos of revolution. People will get tired of stepping over dead bodies, and the best of the bad choices had to be to head up north. As we know, great swaths the American Southwest once belonged to Mexico. This was part of what eased the transition from one country to the next. Add to that, the fact that America was quickly becoming ‘the land of opportunity’ (more so if you were white, but the resilient Mexicans didn’t let this stop them). That the Mexican immigrants had to settle for agrarian work comes as no surprise, Diaz worked hard to pull away from an agrarian Mexico. For a good segment of the Mexican poor of that time an agrarian life was all they knew.

How infrequently do we recognize the insufferable conditions these people had to face in those days? Because of the trenchant American racism and the need for cheap labor, the Mexicans lived in squalor in small shacks by the fields they worked. José Aguayo, in his essay Los Betabeleros, recounts the stats: “Between 1900 and 1930, more than a million Mexicans came to the United States to work…Forty-five thousand came to Colorado in search of rumored high wages in the tending of sugar beets” (108). A lot of effort was spent to recruit Mexicans to this kind of hard field work here in Colorado, and the workers were frequently exploited and humiliated in the process. In the fine book on the Spanish-speaking peoples of the Southwest North from Mexico, Cary McWilliams also talks about the not so sweet conditions of the downtrodden sugar beet workers. When the workers had to be transported, the driver would throw a tarp over the heads of the workers packed onto bed of the truck: “outwardly the truck looks as thought it were loaded with a cargo of potatoes” (168). Evidently the people had to be treated like mere cargo, since the employers were working under the fear of the ‘Emigrant Agent Law’ of that time. The not-so-Great Western Sugar Company’s history rests on the sweaty backs of all those un-named workers it abused for the sake of profit and progress. Karl Marx aptly writes in the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (57). Yet, the ability to question, critique and rise above such problems, is up to the workers themselves. After all, they are the ones who have to sell their labor to the bosses. It is in the realization that this labor creates the value that the peasant can then decide to transgress the dominant ideology that binds him in the alienating practice of exploitation, greed and willful subordination.

When workers do find it within themselves to organize, the effort doesn’t always turn in their favor. A case in point were the strikes against CF&I (Colorado Fuel and Iron Co.), in the early part of the twentieth-century. That the Colorado coal strike began in a snowstorm is prescient in its apparent bad luck. M. Edmund Vallejo details the strike in his essay Recollections of the Colorado Coal Strike 1913-1914. “On September 23, 1913, eight thousand miners and their families in the Colorado coal fields left their company owned homes in the mining camps during a blinding snowstorm and moved into tents…” (90).The workers didn’t get what they wanted, in fact the violence culminated in the Ludlow Massacre of April 20th, 1914, resulting in several deaths, including women and children. The strikers were of many nationalities and there were a significant amount of Mexican immigrants that worked in the mines and fought the losing labor battles. It’s made clear by such turmoil that the narrative doesn’t always end happily. Marx and Engels’ urging to create the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as cited by V.I. Lenin, looks good in theory, but who is usually to be counted among the dead?—the proletariat.

At the very least, we can empathize with the labor struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium. Recent reactionary trends continue to ostracize the Mexican immigrant. It goes without saying that the controversy has its (now covert) racist elements. Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, a vigilante volunteer group who ‘police’ the Mexican/American border, writes an elaborate mission statement on the Minuteman website that talks a lot about assimilation, or better said the Mexican immigrant’s refusal to assimilate into the American way of life. Assimilation is basically where the immigrant is tacitly required to become wholly a part of the dominate culture. A more humanistic stance would speak of acculturation, whereby the immigrant works to become part of the dominant culture, while respectfully retaining his/her own cultural heritage. Gilchrist is too flat to envision such nuance. His job is to instill fear and paranoia: “The huge amount of money, maybe even hundreds of billions of dollars, saved annually, by eliminating the extraordinary costs of sustaining an impoverished illegal alien population, could be diverted to programs for the betterment and enhancement of the nation’s infrastructure and its society…” Just think of all the money we can save if everybody thought exactly like this. Gilchrist’s idealism doesn’t propose reform the current immigration laws. He simply reacts and wants to fight in the name of the status quo. If we keep everything the same, the world will be a better place, multiculturalism is simply an aberration. The overheated immigration debate morphs people down to one category: illegal. The anarchist Magón comes in handy again to challenge the lazy notion that things are better left as they are: “While the poor acquiesce to being poor, while the oppressed acquiesce to being slaves their will be no liberty, there will be no progress […] Blessed be discord!” (272).

We can’t be afraid of the negative to stir up the order of the same. The indifference of our leisured way of life doesn’t always grasp this, the more we look away, the more people’s lives are lost. If we can’t see them, they don’t exist. Mexican immigration isn’t new. Their plight is an American story too. Our commonly accepted history denies this, probably because it doesn’t fit into the typical Anglo narrative. It is in this denial of the Mexican contribution to the American story that the truth is lost and real people are overlooked. Indifference breeds ignorance whether we face it or not. When we close our eyes, we close our minds.

Aurelio Madrid

Works Cited

Aguayo, José. Los Betabeleros (The Beetworkers).De Baca, pp. 105-119.

De Baca, Vincent C. ed. La Gente.Denver, CO: The Colorado Historical Society. 1998. Print.

Gilchrist, Jim. Essay. The Minuteman Project. Georgetown University School of Law (?). 2008. Web.

Gonzales, Manuel G. Mexicanos. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Print.

Lenin, V.I. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Marxist Internet Archive. n.d. May 6, 2012. Web.

Magón, Ricardo Flores. Dreams of Freedom, A Ricardo Magón Reader. Eds. Chaz Bufe and Mitchell Cowen Verter. Oakland, CA: AK Press. 2005. Print.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. Joseph Katz. Trans Samuel More. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. 1964. Print.

McWilliams, Cary. North from Mexico. New York, NY: Praeger. 1990. Print.

Vallejo, M. Edmund. Recollections of the Colorado Coal Strike 1913-1914. De Baca pp. 85-104.

the last of a half-breed

fort belknap montana

fort-belknap, montana, by mitch wahlsten

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.

Aurelio Madrid


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.