Are You Living In A Western Or A Detective Story?

One of the more engaging (if dense) reads I had during my literary studies was Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.

Are You Living In a Western or A Detective Story?

Now in the book Frye makes the case that all the stories we tell – from Coco to the Handmaid’s Tale – have their origins in mythical archetypes, which were in turn developed in response to the natural seasons and cycles.

One implication of the book is that, in some ways, our different ideologies – religious, political, social – have to do with the stories we find ourselves in, the stories we tell ourselves about reality, which determines the way we interpret reality.

One way to make sense of this is to think about your worldview, or your personal myth. It’s what you think is true about reality.

Along these lines, it strikes me that our dominant social divide – progressive and conservative views, let’s say – correspond to two types of genre fiction: the Western and the detective (or better yet, noir) story. Put another way, those of us who lean conservative tend to live in a Western and those of us who lean progressive tend to live in a noir detective story.

Let me explain.

In a Western novel, there’s usually a settlement of good, hardworking folk or innocent homesteader beset by evil from outside the community. It might be a cattle baron, or attacks from the natives, or a gang of outlaws, but the violence and evil is external. The hero’s job is to defend the community against the outside evil and restore order. There’s a built-in romantic notion of the past as an age of heroism and virtue. The lawman gets the bad guy and the virtuous social order is preserved.

In the noir detective story, the hero is usually an outcast already, at odds with a corrupt system. As the detective follows the trail of whatever case comes their way using logical deduction, skill, and wit, they usually find corruption, deception, and greed at the heart of the social order.

One is a romantic story about courage and character, virtue and values defended from the center of a community. The other is a story of disillusionment, an outcast’s search for truth from the margins in the face of corruption both high and low. The dominant value is the individual’s dogged pursuit of truth regardless of where it leads.

It seems like these stories live side by side in our own communities, our own families, sometimes even our own marriages.

Some of us see ourselves as part of a tradition of defending our virtuous community from corrupting influences, and tend to see issues from that point of anxiety. We feel the need to play the heroic role of defender, and we switch through a set of perceived threats to that security. Our collective virtue is something we already have and need to defend.

Some of us see ourselves as marginal individuals unmasking the corruption at the heart of our society. We’re on the lookout for evidence of the corrupt power structure all around us: a corrupt oligarchy, the 1%, the inevitable systemic oppression of the marginalized by the powerful, inequalities of race, class, and gender. Collectively, the virtue and purity we claim to have is a superficial veil and character is something we have yet to achieve as a society. We’re on the lookout for evidence of the corrupt power structure.

Both can lend themselves to a radical victim mentality depending on the community we identify with.

So what the heck does this have to do with contemplation?

In a state of awareness through practice, we see these patterns at work in our own minds, and are then much more aware of them at work in the world around us. We recognize our own tendencies, our need for heroism, or addiction to victimhood. We’re far more able to see it at work in others from the perspective of loving-kindness, not blanket condemnation.

This makes room for grace and understanding, a way to transcend the entrenched binary categories we place ourselves in. Oppressor and victim. Center and margin. These outer layers become more permeable and there’s a chance for inner change to occur.

Usually for this to happen, we have to walk through a different kind of story walking the inner road of the hero’s journey, there are dangers, a guide, adversaries, allies. We leave the known and finally come to the very end of ourselves, confronting our own shadow side, our own destructive tendencies. This allows us to identify our own inner wound, to see our unskillful mental emotional patterns, to understand our own conditioning.

What neither the Western nor the detective story allow us to do is stop and ask: how do we need to change?

On the other side of this process is the freedom to choose. Instead of a state of blind reactivity from within our unconscious story, we can act from a state of balance and peace, without projecting ourselves as hero or outcast, and without slotting everyone around us into the rigid categories in our own minds.

Going Further

Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism or for the time-conscious, a Wikipedia summary

Richard Rohr on Contemplative Consciousness

The Contemplative Practice Course from Contemplative Light

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