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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

_Warlock_ by Oakley Hall, 1958

Posted by Ray Davis on 08/06/05 at 01:10 PM

The judge nodded. "Just a process," he said. "That's all you are. What are men to me?" He rubbed his hand over his face as though he were trying to scrape his features off.

Warlock's prose is solid, sturdy, heavy less lively than Elmore Leonard's; less introverted than Charles O. Locke's and sculpts its characters into familiar forms: noble lawman, autocratic rancher, Byronic gambler, open-hearted cowboy, drunken judge, liberal doctor, the good angel, the wicked lady, the vacillating chorus of shopkeepers, the comic counterpoint of the dime-novel mythologist....

Familiar enough to disappoint if you've heard the book puffed as revisionist. Hall didn't aim to be the Western's Suetonius but its Thucydides.

Warlock remains very much a Western. It would have to be.

Hall isn't interested in refuting the appeal of courage and virtue. Instead, he wants to show the uses and limitations of that appeal. Yes, we see people fail (sometimes fatally) to make an immediate difference. But (unlike, say, a Pynchon novel) Warlock particularly attends successful intervention towards some newly configured sense of justice.

"It is war, not a silly game with rules."

"There are rules, Morg," Clay said.

"Why?"

"Because of the others I mean the people not in it. [...] Because he will have to pretend there are rules whether he thinks there are or not, just like he had to today. And if he has to pretend, it means he is worrying about the others pretty hard."

These newly shared ends, though, are always provisional in their turn, and the potential target of new champions. The true antagonists of Warlock are value systems. And any meeting between them is tense.

It occurred to him all at once that Blasedell was trying to make contact with him in some way, and immediately what he had hoped was going to be an easy conversation for him grew taut with strain.

* * *

From Leatherstocking on up, American value clashes found a home in the Western.

With few exceptions, Warlock's are familiar: the overlapping claims of elected, appointed, or volunteer sheriffs, marshals, deputies, posses, vigilantes, and federal troops; the ambiguous jurisdictions of nation, territory, county, town, property, and home; the competing interests of ranchers, cowboys, miners, entertainers, gamblers, outlaws, merchants, and corporations.

(Exceptionally, an early labor struggle is included. Thematically, that back-and-forth between middle class charity, organized worker action, and management crackdown resembles other Western fights for the moral high ground. Historically, one can draw a not-too-indirect line from hired peace officers to Pinkerton's strike-busters. But it's never become a standard genre element, given the inconvenient questions which might rise: "Order" as determined by who? "Public safety" for who? A decent place to raise whose family? Traditionally, the genre describes an incoming ethical system's victory over a decrepit ethical system. But here we have several new communities emerging at once.

There are, for instance, the miners, the bulk of the town's population. Are they intelligent and responsible enough to be entrusted with the vote? They are not, we feel, perhaps a little guiltily. Then there are the brothel, gambling, and saloon interests.... Our projected state was thus gradually whittled down, to become a kind of club restricted to the decent people, the right-thinking people, the better class of citizens....

If anything, Hall stacks the deck in favor of sustainable democracy by adroitly maneuvering Warlock's thin strip of middle class into alliance with the workers.)

(Exceptionally excluded are the Indians. Warlock's native population appears only as the memory of a once common enemy, deployed when a gesture toward unity might profit some otherwise losing party.)

* * *

But most of the Westerns I've read declare a winner and then stop.

Warlock lays value clashes out in sequence, taking advantage of the compressed lifespans of American frontier settlements like Warlock, built around a set of mines or like my own home town, built around a railroad track (which closed) or, potentially, like the thousands of suburbs dangling precariously from highways, piped water, and power lines.

The book's uniqueness is structural. We begin with "The Fight in the Acme Corral". The disguise is thin; the fight's centrality is assumed; it's finished in about 140 pages. With 330 pages to go.

But Hector is dead, and what is there left for Achilles to do?

Warlock's people fight and kill over matters of principle. However, Warlock's people build, burn down, and re-build "matters of principle" even faster than bars or cathouses. No alliance is maintainable, because individuals themselves are divided. No settlement is final. Warlock's crops are staggered so that some conflict is always near harvest, until the soil's completely played out.

* * *

The novel includes extensive excerpts from the observations and analysis of a fair-minded intelligent contemporary eyewitness, who (in the novel) is always ludicrously mistaken as to character, motives, and outcomes.

These ironic expositions reinforce a generic convention: The straightest shooters hold the strongest principles and the clearest insights.

"I guess you will understand me. It is a close thing out there, you and the other. But I mean it is like two parts of something are fighting it out inside before there is ever a Colt's pulled. Inside you. And you have to know that you are the part that has to win. I mean know it."

As I said, it's conventional. But it conventionalizes a feeling we recognize. The people we've known and worked with and admired most did combine those things; they were more productive, and more certain of their plans and their goals and of others' positions and goals. We can sometimes almost feel them combine in ourselves: a broadly engaged clarity, and a barely-after-the-deed conviction that we knew the right way to play it.

To what extent this combination of literal and figurative grasp, this energizing overlay of rightness and righteousness, is illusory is difficult to say. Certainty in itself can exert influence, principles can be swayed by example, and the playing field adjusted to match the diagram.

"Real" or not, though, it can be lost. Rectitude can be muddied and clarity confused. Or simply trampled by those who refuse to listen: Moral deafness is learnable. It may even be a duty. What's sociopathy except loyalty to a value system which precludes parley? The Indian fighter bereft of Indians; the blood-feuding patriarch faced with rule of law; the CEO valuing stock price over customer or worker; the born-again valuing catchphrase over deed....

He began to check it through, calculating it as though it were a poker hand whose contents he knew, but which was held by an opponent who did not play by the same rules he did, or even the same game.

And so the investor pulls out, the team is laid off, the state stops funding, the cops start busting heads, the troops open fire, the amendment passes almost unnoticed....

And then it's gone. The godhead lifts. The champions fall.

I will confess that for a time I subscribed to a higher opinion of our Deputy than I had previously held. That was yesterday. Today the mercury of my esteem has sunk quite out of sight....

What's left to defend but some contested graves? When pressed, we remember with a mix of pride and embarrassment our own sincerity, and with confused bitterness the sincerity of others who lost more.

And horribly, there's no choice but to start again. We change our subscriptions, re-enlist in a different army, but the pattern stays the same. We again pledge allegiance to these manufactures a job, a family, a project, a movement, a church, a party, a town and, forever lacking control, we dedicate or squander our lives to mere hope for influence.

Again the abstraction seems miraculously held aloft, transfixed by the combined intensities of our good wills and again crashes down.

Was there a jostle? a lapse of attention? We walk or we're carried away from the gambling table we took for altar.

Better luck next time?

When he looked up to meet the eyes that watched him from the glass behind the bar, no longer friendly, he saw that what had been bound to pass had already quickly passed.

* * *

The Western takes as an interesting given that peculiar American expectation: a mobility neither exile nor nomadic, making a (discardable) home within communities nesting out from self, to family, to neighbors, to fellow laborers, and on to Mr. Smith in Washington, all able to simultaneously satisfy some rudimentary sense of justice, offer some hope of personal advancement, and satiate the wealthy.

The Western yokes action with negotiation, idealized characters with real history.

Warlock isn't a great novel "in spite of" its genre. Its atypical power is thoroughly drawn from the generic.

To quote Hall's frequently quoted "Prefatory Note":

... by combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened.

"What might have happened" doesn't encompass "what could not have". "Should have" allows the heroic. "Did" requires the tragic.

"I have thought," the judge said bitterly, "that things were so bad they couldn't get any worse. But they have got worse today like I wouldn't believe if I didn't hear it going on. And maybe there is no bottom to it."

"Bottom to everything," the sheriff said, holding up the bottle and shaking it.


Comments

My library has three books about Oakley Hall, but none by him.

By on 08/08/05 at 07:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, that’s the typical story with academic libraries and genre fiction. It’s particularly hard to research Westerns now, since they’ve been squeezed out of most used book stores and aren’t being reprinted.

In this particular case, we can be grateful to Pynchon and the NYRB Classics line—as of December, anyway!

By Ray Davis on 08/08/05 at 09:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

While my local library does seem to stock Hall, they seem only to have a filmed version of Warlock. I wonder whether the Ambrose Bierce series is as good?

Additionally, I don’t quite understand how you distinguish the heroic and tragic - and I understand even less when you link to the Poetics.

By on 08/08/05 at 10:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I liked this post.  And I read all the links.

It seemed lamenting, and unashamed to wax sentimental in a certain humble, perhaps even gently sarcastic manner.  Still, I’m left wondering just what makes this power “atypical”, though.

Warlock isn’t a great novel “in spite of” its genre. Its atypical power is thoroughly drawn from the generic.

What’s left to defend but some contested graves? When pressed, we remember with a mix of pride and embarrassment our own sincerity, and with confused bitterness the sincerity of others who lost more.

Could this mixture of pride and embarassment (would the word ‘shame’ be too strong?) be due in part to the ways in which “sincere speech”, especially that which exhibits a more or less continuous need to proclaim its own sincerity, often cannot help but to fall short, as if trapped in its very proclaiming? 

The concluding of the sentence with “others who lost more” does seem to carry a whiff of melodrama, but maybe that is also part of the point?

As for the posts above, if you’re going to erase the comments and apologize, wouldn’t it also be appropriate to delete the post itself?  You know, the one with all the false and lazy accusations in it?  I mean, if you’re not going to permit people to defend themselves, indeed even erase their responses…

If on the other hand you’re simply hoping to deter someone, well, welcome to our world and good luck.

By Matt on 08/08/05 at 11:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The comments are still in fact there if you go to the permalink.

By Adam Kotsko on 08/08/05 at 11:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, how about we take this discussion over to your site.  No reason Ray’s thread should be cluttered up with this material.  I’ll be glad to explain myself there and you can subject me to all the derision you wish.

By on 08/08/05 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, that’s not my wish, but I didn’t think I had anywhere else to comment.  I think you need to explain yourself here, or in your post above, but you’re welcome at my site any time.

By Matt on 08/08/05 at 11:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s appropriate in a way that the brawl moved here. One of the points of a good Western is that brawls & mobs are both more than they set out to be, & you sometimes don’t know which was which till you wake up the next morning & see who’s left to talk to.

pf: I’m working on the movie post, but (SPOILER) one of the points will be that it & book have nothing to say to one another.

“Heroic” = the characters are abstracted upwards to reduce distraction: “Well, Alan Alda was the problem. Arnie woulda laid that Clytemnestra right out.” “Tragic” = the action shows the limits of even idealized characters, & therefore the limits of what can be done. Aristotle = tragedy is defined by action more than character. Middlebrow realism is character driven, & character confined. The Western genre gives us access to the tragic via stereotype. I suck for not getting the Aristotle links laid out well enough to make that plain. You know this stuff a lot better than me—in the original, even. Any suggestions?

Matt: Thanks for the kind words. (I’m not so hot on these flame wars, but as you know I like your site a lot.) What makes Warlock “atypical” is that most Westerns restrict their elegaic mood to the admirable losers of a single ethical battle, & Warlock goes meta: losers & winners eventually end up with the same pot. And yeah, I did try to inject melodrama into the essay, to try to show how to get something from a genre that most of my readers don’t read at the same time as describing an atypical work within the genre. “Lost more” tries to refer to the same ridiculously wide range of sentiment-triggerers as the set-ups: The people who lost their jobs when we didn’t. The adjunct who never got on the tenure track. The author who thought it was enough to write well. The arbitrarily arrested protestor. The pariahs worse treated for no plain reason whatsoever. The teenagers who didn’t bicycle to Planned Parenthood. The ones who died while we got through. It looks too over the top when I spell it out, though, because it’s an essay & we’re not in a Western.

“Shame”? Maybe, if there’s a shame that’s private & impossible to pin down to any particular sin. I don’t think proclamation has much to do with it. Us loudmouths aren’t the only survivors who feel weird about surviving.

By Ray Davis on 08/09/05 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I need to explain myself?!  This really tries the patience.  Please see your blog, Matt, for an effort to tamp down the rhetoric.  I’ll refrain from sending ethical commands your way.

By on 08/09/05 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, these are the most comments I’ve ever garnered, but it’s probably best that I not grow accustomed to the attention. I’ll try a general mopping up tomorrow morning before going to work.

[It’s now tomorrow morning. I’ve deleted the non-Warlock comments that were completely dependent on non-Warlock comments.]

By Ray Davis on 08/09/05 at 01:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It looks too over the top when I spell it out, though, because it’s an essay & we’re not in a Western.

This makes sense to me, actually. 

Anyway I liked the post.  A ‘Ray’ of different personality makes a difference ‘round here.

ps. Sean, see my response.

By Matt on 08/09/05 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

NYRoB is reprinting Warlock? Thank goodness. My old paperback is falling apart. (And checking their page, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books on walking through the Balkans between the wars. Yay! Ahem.)

Hall’s recent Ambrose Bierce mysteries aren’t bad—they’re very good, in fact—but they stay within the genre. Although this bit of dialogue has stayed with me:

“He was a prince of a man.”

“He was a president of a man,” Bierce said.

I’ve removed the context because, hell, it’s a mystery. But Bierce is not being cynical, the narrator knows Bierce is not being cynical (and is not commenting), and Hall knows that Bierce would not be cynical in this context, even though at the time of the novel’s setting, the office of the President was even more corrupt than in our current gilded age. Hall, through Bierce, is making a comment on responsibility, sacrifice, and the proper role of the hero in a manner that’s very Warlockian, in the space of two lines.

It’s pretty neat.

By Carlos on 08/10/05 at 07:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Carlos, that’s fascinating.  Would you mind giving the title for that particular prince/president novel?  I’d love to read it.

By on 08/10/05 at 09:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, it’s Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks. One of several mysteries Hall wrote set in Old San Francisco with card-related titles (and has anyone ever studied how that gimmick became the mystery genre norm?).

By Carlos on 08/10/05 at 06:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Carlos!  I look forward to reading it. 

I don’t know of any study along those lines, but there’s a great essay by Erving Goffman, “Where the Action is?,” that points to a good reason for the connection--emphasizing the role of “action” as a theater of character display common to both gambling and thriller narrative.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a fascinating piece.  The book I mentioned a few posts ago (Junk Aesthetics) also has some related and interesting things to say along these lines.

By on 08/10/05 at 08:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A companion post on the movie is at my home site.

It’s shorter and has pictures.

By Ray Davis on 08/12/05 at 09:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I liked this post.  And I read all the links.

It seemed lamenting, and unashamed to wax sentimental in a certain humble, perhaps even gently sarcastic manner.  Still, I’m left wondering just what makes this power “atypical”, though.

Warlock isn’t a great novel “in spite of” its genre. Its atypical power is thoroughly drawn from the generic.

What’s left to defend but some contested graves? When pressed, we remember with a mix of pride and embarrassment our own sincerity, and with confused bitterness the sincerity of others who lost more.

Could this mixture of pride and embarassment (would the word ‘shame’ be too strong?) be due in part to the ways in which “sincere speech”, especially that which exhibits a more or less continuous need to proclaim its own sincerity, often cannot help but to fall short, as if trapped in its very proclaiming? 

The concluding of the sentence with “others who lost more” does seem to carry a whiff of melodrama, but maybe that is also part of the point?

As for the posts above, if you’re going to erase the comments and apologize, wouldn’t it also be appropriate to delete the post itself?  You know, the one with all the false and lazy accusations in it? I mean, if you’re not going to permit people to defend themselves, indeed even erase their responses…

If on the other hand you’re simply hoping to deter someone, well, welcome to our world and good luck.

By Hal on 02/11/08 at 09:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Most awesome spam comment I’ve ever received. But Valve administrators? I suggest editing the link out of the question mark and out of “Hal’s” home webpage if you don’t want to be inundated over the next week.

If on the other hand you’re simply hoping to receive comments, well, welcome to our world and good luck.

By Ray Davis on 02/11/08 at 11:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By the way, the algorithm is easy enough if you’d like to try this bot at home: fetch a comment from a thread and repost it with a few new links. There are no flagwords for a spam filter to catch (unless they’re embedded in the URLs) and it looks realistic to any human who doesn’t remember the thread and doesn’t look hard at the markup.

By Ray Davis on 02/12/08 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dude, Hal is awesome.

By John Holbo on 02/12/08 at 10:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Most awesome.

By Ray Davis on 02/12/08 at 02:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This review is like a bad English paper.

By on 07/02/11 at 12:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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