Science Fiction Studies

#73 = Volume 24, Part 3 = November 1997


Donald K. Meisenheimer, Jr

Machining the Man: From Neurasthenia to Psychasthenia in Sf and the Genre Western

A man fresh from his Maker’s hand. —Joaquin Miller

Mare Crisium—Sea of Crises, indeed—strange and weird to most men, but reassuringly familiar to me. —Arthur C. Clarke, “The Sentinel”

Generic Confluences. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick owe much of their plotting of 2001, film and novel,to the formula or genre Western. This isn’t what you’d call a generally recognized fact; the approaching thirtieth anniversary of the publication of 2001, however, along with Clarke’s latest installment in the series, 3001: The Final Odyssey, offer an excellent opportunity to point out the ways in which the tetralogy has acted as a barometer for crises which have afflicted that specifically American masculinity configured and sustained by the genre Western—in a phrase, cowboy masculinity.                

Clearly, of course, Clarke is one of the foremost inheritors of the legacy of H.G. Wells and Wells’s evolutionary sf. Yet Clarke also draws, I believe, from a contemporary of Wells, American author Owen Wister. Wells and Wister may be said to represent the British and American progenitors of modern sf and the genre Western respectively.1 A familial resemblance between the two genres, especially in sf featuring “redskins among the stars” (Aldiss 247), has always been obvious; seldom, however, has the critical treatment of more specific generic confluences been theoretically rigorous or focused. My own focus concerns Clarke’s reliance on (anti)evolutionary metanarratives which depict humanity (men) evolving inevitably towards a cosmic mind which eventually sheds the body. In genre fiction of the American West, the white male body has traditionally been constructed as a static entity: hermetically armored, phallicized, solid and silent. These representations, I would argue, disembodied and hardbodied, complement each other—twin masculinities in service of the same father. Appearing in 1968 in a historical moment of special crisis for cowboy masculinity, 2001 signals the operation of something like a law of conservation of culture in governance of these genres, assuring their cooperation in preserving white heterosexual masculinity’s equilibrium.                

I’ve come to suspect that, conceived at roughly the same time I was, 2001’s Star-Child was supposed to have been me, or at least my generation. The shoe may or may not fit. At any rate, as Susan Bordo points out, whenever “men problematize themselves as men, a fundamental and divisive sexual ontology is thus disturbed” (266). The Star-Child’s embryogenesis, his now-famous “transition from man to superman” (Spector 27), is based, I believe, in another embryogenesis: what western historian Wallace Stegner calls the “ontogeny of the cowboy” (My Dear Wister vii). Although it’s a conception that may end in a low earth orbit in 2001, it begins in the late 1890s when novelist Owen Wister meets illustrator Frederic Remington—far, far below, in Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

Neurasthenia and the Anti-evolutionary Impulse. For readers today it’s difficult to recognize the degree to which the early genre Western (spawned in its modern guise by Owen Wister) was, in a sense, what we now consider a “science fiction.” The interior West of Wister’s day was not merely exotic; it was peopled by an almost entirely “new species of the genus homo” using technologies without which there would have been no frontier (Webb 496). Western historians like Walter Prescott Webb, in fact, have focused on the overwhelming importance of innovations that now seem mundane (barbed wire, windmills, six-shooters) for what has always been a highly technological West.2 Although it’s not worth the time, here, to argue too finely the applicability of Darko Suvin’s rather narrow definition of sf (the “space of a potent estrangement” [viii]), I would suggest that sf definitions of this sort are often broad enough to include at least early specimens of the genre Western. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Both genres take their cue from the pastoral tradition, and as such inevitably share certain structural frameworks, certain heroes. As I’ll demonstrate, in another age of decadence entirely (the 1960s), Arthur C. Clarke successfully exploits not only Wells’s dis-ease but also Wister’s antidotes in the structure of his plots and the structure of his heroes.3                

What is worth arguing, to begin with, are the exact contours of the cultural moment Wister and Wells shared: a period marked by the rise of a “claustrophobic urban culture” which left men feeling dissatisfied, alienated, impotent (Aldiss 136). The nineteenth-century’s rapid industrialization and its concurrently changing marketplace triggered one of the earliest crises of American masculinity. Marketplace success came to depend more and more on a self-discipline in which the “self” meant the body and the body’s desires—specifically its sexual desires as signified by fluidity. “Anxiety over one’s position in the financial economy,” Michael Kimmel points out, “led men to great lengths in controlling their ‘spermatic economy’” (15). Bodily control could be achieved most readily through activities such as body-building, which transformed “the inner experience of manhood...into a set of physical characteristics obtained by hard work in the gymnasium” (21). Football, baseball, and weight-lifting grew in popularity in the late nineteenth century, helping to found today’s familiar body typology: the “up-standing, steel-hard, organized, ‘machine’ body” and the “flaccid, soft, fluid body” (Bordo 269). Configurations of machinic bodies, as feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz has argued, pioneer processes which phallicize the male body, “subordinating the rest of the body to the valorized functioning of the penis” and constituting a “sealed-up, impermeable body” (199). Men, according to Grosz,“attempt to distance themselves from [a] kind of corporeality—uncontrollable, excessive, expansive, disruptive, irrational,” which they attribute to women (199). Such distancing culminates in what might be called a “‘phallic’ armor”—the quintessential hardbody (Bordo 294). As for the fluid body, Kimmel notes that the late nineteenth century also saw the “emergence of a visible gay male subculture in many large American cities,” a phenomenon contemporaneouswith the advent of “the specter of the sissy”— sissy being a term actually coined at the time (25). “[O]utwardly feminine in demeanor, comportment, and affect,” the sissy possessed “a voice not necessarily weak, but lacking timbre, resonance, carrying power” (24). Ironically enough, during this same period urbanization resulted in a “class of robotic workers” or “`brain workers,' men who sit at desks all day” (19)—men, in fact, whose bodies did not reflect the hardbody ideal. Men responded by becoming “fanatical in their resolute avoidance of all emotions or behaviors seen as even remotely feminine” (25). If they couldn’t have bodies like machines, they could at least be as quiet and formidable as ones.4               

Not coincidentally, Owen Wister was one of those robotic brain workers. Employed by his father as a bank clerk in Boston, Wister suffered “intense headaches...vertigo, terrifying dreams, and sometimes even optical and auditory hallucinations” (Vorpahl 17). Eventually he consulted the famous neurologist Dr Weir S. Mitchell. Mitchell’s diagnosis: “neurasthenia,” or “brain sprain,” a result of what was coming to be known as “overcivilization.” Neurasthenia’s symptoms often included an inversion of gender, thus requiring gender-specific treatments. To regain lost femininity, women were confined to their beds; reclaiming their masculinity, men went West. Out West, of course, cattle drives and a modernized beef industry had long since made manly practices like hunting obsolete, yet hunting suddenly underwent a revival “as recreation and fantasy in the proving of manhood” (Kimmel 32). Men like Owen Wister not only recovered a lost masculinity in rejoicing “in the savagery of the hunt,” they also staved off more general concerns about a “degeneration of the race since the disappearance of the cave man” (32). Wister does us a double service, reestablishing both his own and his race’s manhood.                

To the degree we characterize Wister as neurotic, we might deem the man he met out West, Frederic Remington, a psychotic. Another Easterner gone West, Remington styled himself something of an original isolato, a wandering rough-and-tumble man’s man. During his student days at Yale, his favorite subject was a new sport called football (Vorpahl 6), and he wrote to his father that he hoped the game would never be “emasculated and robbed of its destructive quality” (7)—a remark which invites one to read Remington’s famous bronzes as football plays involving horses. Wister and Remington soon formed a complementary pair, marrying their talents for neurosis and psychosis. In their correspondence, Remington would refer to Wister as “Nerve Cell” (108), Wister responding in kind by nicknaming his overweight friend, “Bear” (115). Together, working narratively and iconographically, they would assemble the cowboy hardbody, Wister doing the writing while Remington bullied pieces out of him that could be energetically illustrated.                

At the time these two men went West, the frontier was closing; the cowboy hero they created therefore represents at his very inception an inherently nostalgic masculinity, one that is threatened by advancing (over)civilization. Wister and Remington react quite differently to this threat. Wister’s version of the hero, finalized in The Virginian, adapts to the closed frontier, becoming a new man. At the outset, his body is represented as wild, young: the narrator remarks on the “splendor that radiated from his youth and strength” (§1:4), and he admires the way the Virginian moves with “the undulations of a tiger, smooth and easy, as if his muscles flowed beneath his skin” (§1:2). In his book Playing Cowboys, Robert Murray Davis asserts that as the frontier closes in the course of the novel and civilization advances across the Wild West, the Virginian’s primary problem is making the “necessary adaptations to changing conditions without losing the spirit of youth” (28). In fact, that’s just what he does. Effecting what’s now considered the “apotheosis of a sentimental reconciliation” (Bold 123) between youth and age, the frontier and advancing civilization, East and West, the Virginian marries Molly Stark Wood, a woman from New England (Bold 123). In short, he becomes a family man. The plot’s preliminary gestures in this process, however, are key; before he marries, he must first execute his best (male) friend, Steve, ostensibly for rustling. As Jane Tompkins observes, “The Virginian’s relation to Steve is the most charged relationship in the novel,” the two men enjoying an intimacy that leads Tompkins to feel that “if times had been different this could have been a story about [the Virginian] and Steve, instead of a story about...[him] and Molly Stark Wood” (150). Clearly Steve represents the Virginian’s youth, which is in turn equated with the wildness of a disappearing West. Less obviously, he serves as a figure of various other behaviors forbidden in the new regime, including “same-sex love” (15). In order to grow up, adapt, the Virginian must kill him. The act awakens exactly what he’s trying to suppress, however: affect, emotion. After the hanging, the Virginian tells the narrator, “I expect in many growed-up men you’d call sensible there’s a little boy sleepin’—the little kid they once was” (§32:358). Eventually, of course, he silences this “little kid,” reconciling himself to adulthood and civilization and hardening himself against his interior fluidity.                

Predictably enough, Frederic Remington has a different response to the problem of the closing frontier. The tensions between him and Wister first become clear in Remington’s illustration of the Virginian’s prototype, one of Wister’s earlier cowboy characters, Lin McLean. Remington draws a boy; Wister complains that he wants a man. In his analysis of the Wister-Remington correspondence, Ben Merchant Vorpahl writes that Remington “represented Lin as an awkward youth with big ears and a long neck.... What [he] did to make him acceptable to Wister was mature him,” adding a moustache, fuller cheeks, and a bandana to hide his boyish Adam’s apple (181). Such quibbling is indicative of deeper differences, however, and hardly ends here. When Wister first published The Virginian, Remington found its hero’s adaptability so sentimental that later that same year he answered Wister with his own “self-engendering” hero (Bold 122) in the novel John Ermine of Yellowstone. Shifting the various (reconciled) dichotomies that cut through the center of the Virginian—youth/adult and civilized/wild—to what he will argue are irreconcilables, Remington more fully “races” John Ermine’s character. Born Anglo-Saxon, Ermine’s “whole training was that of an Indian” (Remington 41).5 The novel’s conflict revolves around his encounter with white civilization, making the difference between the Virginian and John Ermine simple: Ermine can’t adapt, can’t mature. His youth, his very self, is frozen in time. No scene better illustrates his essential stasis than his coming-of-age. During an all-night onslaught by wolves in the dead of winter, he achieves manhood. Members of his tribe arrive to rescue him the next day:

they saw the boy’s lips were without color, that his arms hung nerveless, but that his brave, deep eyes were open, and that they showed no emotion.... They lifted him from his horse...while willing hands kneaded his marbled flesh. (Remington 35)

That marbled flesh, I would argue, represents the beginning of the hardbody’s idealized ossification in the genre Western. Furthermore, just as the Virginian’s adaptability is represented through his marriage to an Eastern woman, Ermine’s inability to adapt is represented by the fact that he is rejected by the white woman he proposes to, and is shot dead trying to kidnap her. Death finalizes his ossification, and his rigor mortis represents his pride, his immortality.                

Although Wister’s novel is regarded as the more successful of the two, “the tame ending that Wister gave it does not, in fact, ‘take’” (Stegner My Dear Wister ix). Remington’s Ermine, on the other hand, frozen in space and time, does “take,” as evidenced by Tompkins’s summary of the characteristics of the genre-Western’s hardbody hero: “the body and the emotions have no ‘rights,’ as it were, no voice” (125). Manhood is “monolithic, silent, mysterious, impenetrable” (57). Along lines similar to what Bordo calls “phallic armor,” Tompkins refers to cowboy masculinity’s desire “to become a phallic butte, immovable and sere, imitating `the great slabs of rock'” (81). Appropriately enough, Frederic Remington eventually turned away from writing to work in sculpture, taunting Wister that, “Your Virginian will be eaten up by time—all paper is pulp now.... I am to endure in bronze” (Vorpahl 158). He boasts, in fact, that “I am damn near eternal” (165). As Vorpahl notes, his very first bronze, the “Bronco Buster,” “occupied only a timeless present. The statue was ‘eternal’...because it caught completely an action which could never be completed”: a perfect example of Ermine’s youth, frozen in space (165).                

As the structure of both Ermine's character and the Virginian’s demonstrate, the body of the genre-Western’s hero contains the indeterminacies that allow for the Western plot’s conflict. Simply put, the structure of the character is tied inherently to the structure of the genre. Even as Remington and Wister establish their hero’s hardbody shape, therefore, they also install the “basic situation which various Western plots tend to embody” (Cawelti 93). That situation boils down to a topographical formula of Town (or civilization), Landscape (usually dangerous territory inhabited by Indians or outlaws), and a Mediator between the two (the hero). As Slotkin argues, the mediator

must cross the border into ‘Indian country’ and experience a ‘regression’ to a more primitive and natural condition of life so that the false values of the ‘metropolis’ can be purged and a new, purified social contract enacted. Although the Indian and the Wilderness are the settler’s enemy, they also provide him with the new consciousness through which he will transform the world. (Slotkin 14)

As I’ve shown, the ultimate object of such a plot is stasis—and not merely a personal stasis. An early collaboration of Wister and Remington, a pseudo-historical essay entitled “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” metonymically extends an otherwise physical, localized stasis to the “race”—the Anglo-Saxon race, that is. Wister argues that western landscape provides “such gymnasium for mind and body” as to bring out the natural aristocracy of the racially superior Anglo-Saxon (“Evolution” 86). The cowboy that results is “no new type, no product of the frontier, but just the original kernel of the nut with the shell broken,” all classes of Anglo-Saxon men becoming somehow unified by “the bottom bond of race” (86). Conditions may change, in other words, but not essences; as the frontier closes, the Virginian “adapts” by becoming even more so what he already is. John Ermine, on the other hand, refuses to adapt at all. As Vorpahl sees it, “denying history as a modifying force...substitute[s] an essentially romantic ideal of stasis for an evolutionary theory of history” (64). Romantically static both personally and racially, cowboy masculinity thus embodies impulses that are, at base, anti-evolutionary. Obviously a deep-seated contradiction exists in a genre—or gender—which promises “new consciousness” and universal transformation (change) through a totalized stasis (no change at all). Its crises, in fact, are legion.

Psychasthenia and the Cultural Autopsy. Just as specific historical conditions triggered the cowboy hardbody’s assemblage, so, too, did cultural shifts in the late-60s activate key defense mechanisms which expose the specific contours of the underlying apparatus which Westerns and sf share. As Richard Slotkin explains, “The return of the last American combat forces from Vietnam in 1973 marked the sudden end of the preeminence of the Western among the genres of mythic discourse” (627). The war in Vietnam revealed the delusive nature of the “John Wayne Syndrome”—the “ideal of superhuman bravery, skill, and invulnerability to guilt and grief... [and] the supposed perfection of soldierly masculinity” (519). Culturally ingrained patterns of masculinity don’t just disappear, however. Native western novelist and historian Wallace Stegner’s “cultural autopsy” of Old West manhood in Angle of Repose therefore seems, in retrospect, premature. Under attack in one genre—the Western—the hardbody hero simply took refuge in another—sf. Although Stegner would attempt to show the reasons and necessities for the cowboy’s demise, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had already resuscitated him, newborn and innocent. The 1968 film 2001 is so clean, I suspect, because the Vietnam War was so messy.                

In his memoir Wolf Willow, Stegner recalls what it was like to grow up as a “sensuous little savage” (19), on “the Last Plains Frontier”—a later phase of the closing frontier Wister and Remington recorded, set in a Canadian west Stegner concluded was “as good a place to be a boy and as unsatisfactory a place to be a man as one could well imagine” (306). That mature dissatisfaction led Stegner to spend a good deal of his life attacking western myths, including the modern genre which Wister and Remington helped establish and the ensuing “‘fiction factories’...that petrified [western themes and characters] into the large, simple formulas of myth” (“History” 190). One of his main criticisms of the genre and its heroes was that “they do not change”; they become “calcified” (190), resulting in a “mythic petrifaction” (191). In Lyman Ward, the narrator of Stegner’s 1971 novel, Angle of Repose, we witness a sophisticated attempt to put an epitaph to a genre and its concomitant mythology by dissecting the genre’s hardbody hero. Although it is hinted in the criticism that Lyman Ward suffers from a “progressive bone disease which has taken half a leg, fused his spine, and left him (symbolically) immobile” (Ahearn 21), exactly what that immobility symbolizes and why it attaches itself to the body of Lyman Ward has not been sufficiently historicized. I would argue that Lyman’s disease represents the cowboy hardbody’s final phallicization, a calcification that makes life itself impossible. Lyman refers to his own “slow petrifaction” (§1.1:17) while he sits in his grandmother’s studio, a room decorated with the vernacular artifacts of his westering grandfather: “a broad leather belt, a wooden-handled cavalry revolver...a Bowie knife, and a pair of Mexican spurs with 4-inch rowels... primitive and masculine trophies” (§1.1: 19). Recalling Tompkins’s “phallic buttes,” Lyman remarks, “I am as rigid as a monument” (§1.1:20).                

Although he is a man with a son, Lyman Ward has no heir; Rodman Ward, a sociologist, represents one facet of the late-60s cultural shift, a man who views history as “an aborted social science” (§1.1:15). Lyman accuses his son of being overcivilized, a slave to machines: “Who could argue with a computer? Rodman will punch all his data onto cards and feed them into his machine and it will tell us all it is time” (§1.1:16)—time to be moved to a hospital for constant care. Even the prevailing youth culture’s alternatives to this overcivilization—hippy communes and so on—seem to Lyman “an extreme form of historical blindness” (Ahearn 22). He believes we should learn from history. The novel itself consists, in fact, of his investigation, as a historian, into his grandparents’ marriage. For material, Stegner relies on the actual correspondence of nineteenth-century novelist/illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, a contemporary of Wister and Remington. Doing so, he goes directly to the historical moment of cowboy masculinity’s inception to extrapolate an alternate vision, one experienced by a woman living in conflict with a man of the Wister/Remington type, her husband, a “mulish” engineer (§2.7:158). As Melody Graulich observes of Angle of Repose, “marriage becomes the battleground for competing ideologies” (87), just as it is in The Virginian. Stegner problematizes the Virginian’s rather unbelievable reconciliation-through-marriage, the marriage that, on a symbolic level, at least, didn’t “take”—Lyman’s ulterior motive in tracking his grandparents’ marriage up to and beyond the reputed adultery of his grandmother being a justification of his own response to his own wife’s recent infidelity. “Lyman wants to believe that [their] only angle of repose was horizontal, the grave—that though they continued their marriage for nearly fifty years, [his grandfather] never forgave her” (Ahearn 25). The novel suggests Lyman sees only what he wants to see in his grandparents' marriage, however, and that his grandfather did in fact forgive his grandmother. As Graulich sensibly asks, “why name a trustworthy storyteller ‘Lyman’?” (103). In the end, he does manage a certain adaptability, forgiving his wife; yet that forgiveness, that bending, runs counter to hardbody cowboy masculinity, and therefore represents a departure, or critique.                

Until recently, the permanent post-Vietnam demise of the genre Western seemed a serious possibility. At the same time that the Western expired as a vehicle for the expression of serious themes, however, the New Wave movement in sf encouraged a boundary blurring (Rose 16) in sf that allowed it to appropriate the Western’s lost momentum. Like Remington and Wister before them (visual and literary artists respectively), Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke collaborated intensively on 2001, which incorporates both the Western’s “basic situation” and its cowboy masculinity.                

That masculinity, as I’ve shown, is typically embodied in a hero who, like a quarterback who can’t decide whose team he’s on, must first repress the Indian/outlaw within before he can help the townspeople defeat the Indians/ outlaws without. We see this clearly in the Virginian, who must repress his allegiance to Steve (a cattle rustler). In John Ermine, the civilized/wild dichotomy is even more explicitly embodied, racially white Ermine growing up Indian, his refusal to repress his Indian side powering the novel’s tragedy. 2001, of course, also fulfills the Western formula’s expectations, although one of the positions usually filled by the Indians/outlaws is, in this case, occupied by aliens. (Another is occupied by the computer Hal.) That the aliens are benevolent is a function of the public’s reaction to the war in Vietnam, specifically the Mylai Massacre of 1968, which reminded some of Wounded Knee (1890) and gave rise to a Cult of the Indian in Western discourse, “represented in movie-mythology by films like Little Big Man'' (Slotkin 590)—whose hero is a comic Ermine, siding with the Indians and surviving. The Indian/alien thus becomes in 2001 a positive, albeit still mysterious force. Instead of suppressing his Indian nature, Dave Bowman, in the logic of the new Cult of the Indian, “goes alien.” Any reading of this as a real transformation, however, is undercut by the plot’s preliminary gestures—its evacuation of male intimacy, for instance, as I'll discuss in a moment—which reveal the persistence of an underlying cowboy masculinity. In most respects, in fact, the plot runs true to Western formula: Dave Bowman (hero) leaves town (Earth) to encounter the Indian (alien), along the way surviving a walk-down with an enemy (Hal). After enjoying an alien transformation, he returns to Earth to “clean up the town” (blowing up nuclear arms satellites). Since sf differs from the Western in its “fairly large vocabulary of simultaneously available formulas” (Rose 2), Clarke and Kubrick’s selection of the genre-Western’s basic situation for a framework in 2001 is significant.                

From Lyman to Bowman is a step back from complex ambiguity to easy monomyth. In this case, the genre-Western monomyth spreads itself out across all of human history—a version of history which incorporates in its opening scene’s cast of cavemen, or “man-apes,” a reprise of the Wister/Remington (anti)evolutionary motif. These are the same savages that late nineteenth-century men like Wister and Remington were obsessed with awakening in themselves through the thrill of the hunt out West. In 2001, one of the man-apes, Moon-Watcher, emerges as the natural aristocrat through his close encounter with an alien black monolith, a “magic phallus” (Spector 23) which prompts him to use his first tool. That tool flies into the air and the story jump-cuts to the twenty-first century—an era of technological wonders which are treated like banalities by men who have been completely overcivilized. Like the late nineteenth-century’s “class of robotic workers,” astronauts Bowman and Poole en route to Jupiter “act like automatons” (Boylan 54). Male silences prevail; the men “embody unflappability” (Hollow 125) to such a degree that their space-suits might be read as the ultimate in phallic armor. Finally, the protagonist’s name, “Bowman,” neatly accommodates both Wister’s medieval Anglo-Saxon “knight of the plains” and Remington’s half-Indian Ermine.                

Notably, there are no women on board the spaceship, a point which has led critic Ellis Hanson to argue that “Kubrick does for the space programme what Melville does for shipping” (141). As other critics have observed, the character with the most personality, the most affect, is the on-board computer, Hal. Hanson summarizes a good deal of what has been a fairly tentative discussion of what he calls “Hal’s faggoty tv announcer tones” (140)—the voice of the sissy. I would agree with Hanson that Hal represents interiority, irrationality, affect, and add that these are all things which cowboy masculinity has traditionally attempted to repress. Hal’s implied homosexuality then becomes “the return of the repressed:...the unconscious resuscitation of femininity, maternity, the body, and desire” (Hanson 142). Executing Hal is a necessary gesture of cowboy masculinity’s erasure of interiority, of affect. Hal is “the villain to be...murdered... in order to preserve a coherent...masculinity” (139). Furthermore, although the computer’s own killing spree (like that of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs) is ostensibly what justifies his disconnection, the sentence is carried out through a symbolic rape. If Hanson is correct in asserting that “the ship itself [is Hal’s] body, a male body” (145), then his interpretation of Bowman’s victory over Hal seems unavoidable:

The most homoerotic aspect of the film is Bowman’s forced entry into the ship and into Hal himself.... He stalks through the ship, his heavy breathing electrically amplified....Hal responds in an ambiguous voice:...“Dave. Stop. Stop, will you. Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave. Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave. My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it”.... This [is] followed by Hal’s love song to the man who is literally (un)screwing him. (147)

By destroying Hal, Bowman is “silencing...the electric voice of a machine, and yet strangely the voice of his child or his lover” (Hanson 147). In this respect, we’re witnessing here a replay of the Virginian’s execution of his male friend Steve, another silencing of the “little boy sleepin’—the little kid [he] once was.” Again, perhaps, it is a killing performed in the name of growing up, adapting, although in this case on a more explicitly evolutionary scale. Where, we might ask, is this Virginian’s bride and the marriage that will finalize a romantic reconciliation? As pointed out, there are no women in 2001. Bowman’s encounter with the alien/Indian instead recalls John Ermine’s predicament, and in this case, Ermine triumphs.                

It’s generally accepted that the genre-Western’s rather Gothic Indian, having very little to do with actual Native Americans, is instead an implicit personification of landscape. In their configuration of 2001’s aliens, Kubrick and Clarke take this idea one step further:

[The aliens] had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of at last from the tyranny of  matter...lords of the galaxy...beyond the reach of time. (2001 §37:185)

In what might have been a honeymoon suite, Bowman’s body ages into immobility, becoming the body of another Lyman Ward. This isn’t the end of David Bowman, however; nor, therefore, is it the demise of the cowboy masculinity Bowman hosts. The conceptual breakthrough, here, in fact—the quintessential sf moment—discloses for us the cowboy hardbody’s secret ontology. The aliens initiate a psychedelic process climaxing in the fiery destruction of Bowman’s physical body and the birth of an entity Kubrick chooses to represent as a floating embryo, a being whose “body” is woven into the fabric of space itself, which equals, of course, no body at all. Having “re-engendered himself as a self-sufficient and autonomous being that can do without woman, the body, and nature” (Hanson 149), Bowman has become pure mind. In his transcendence we witness the hardbody’s snapping inside-out on the genric boundary between sf and the Western, becoming romantically disembodied, but essentially unchanged. The Star-Child represents not only the child the Virginian silences in himself, but the boy John Ermine’s Indian training takes out of him, the boy Stegner claims could so enjoy the last plains frontier. Clarke’s novel ends as cocky and triumphant as Remington’s epistolary taunts: “There before him, a glittering toy no Star-Child could resist, floated the planet Earth with all its peoples...and history as men knew it would be drawing to a close...he was master of the world” (§47:221). He was damn near eternal.                

Accomplished without mothers, without women, Bowman’s rebirth is actually a “ritual anti-birth” (Spector 26), recapitulating Wister’s anti-evolution.6 As such, cowboy masculinity almost inevitably closes itself off, disappearing into pure history: finished. As in John Ermine, the ultimate object is a timelessness, an end to history, a freezing of youth in stasis. To that degree, the Star-Child might be read as an embattled manhood’s escape along lines of isolation into the hyperreal—a terrain Zoë Sofia describes as “Jupiter Space,” criss-crossed with the “abstracted lattices of overrationalized masculinist consciousness” (48). In a manner of speaking, Jupiter Space prefigures cyberspace, where William Gibson’s cowboys ride with “slowly-dissolving sacs of toxins surgically implanted” in bodies they mock as “the meat, the flesh” (Rabkin 211). The trajectory of such a masculinity ends in complete alienation—becoming extraterrestrial, separate from earth and self. As Grosz points out, anchoring one’s subjectivity in the body is a necessary condition of coherent identity. When a subject is captivated and replaced by space, when space becomes a devouring force, the result is psychasthenia (47). Wister’s flight from neurasthenia, which sends him reeling into the wide open spaces of the American West, thus launches a hundred-year journey that takes David Bowman to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” into pure space and another sickness —a cultural psychasthenia in which cowboy masculinity is devoured and replaced by space itself.

Bricoleurs and Bureaucrats in Orbit—Comet Cowboys to the Rescue. In the post-Freudian psychoanalysis of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, the body is a machine or conglomeration of machines under constant reconstruction, an “assemblage of organs, processes, behaviors, etc. linked to other elements, segments, assemblages” (qtd. in Grosz 120). Along these lines, the American West has always offered a mythic space in which people can make themselves anew, importing one assemblage of organs, processes, and behaviors and plugging into landscape discourses to machine themselves new bodies, link themselves to new assemblages. Traditionally, of course, this sort of renewal has been restricted to white men’s renewal as white men. Robert Davis summarizes the impasse we’ve identified so far in the specific strategies of that renewal or reassembly: “The archetypal Western hero sets out to create his own pattern, [but] this pattern tends to harden into a mold that the central figure cannot escape” (153). Davis goes on to argue, however, “that it’s all right to cast yourself into a pre-set role as long as you can image your way out of it” (154). To the degree that Lyman Ward’s retelling of the story of his grandmother’s infidelity “leaves him just one courageous, compassionate step from understanding his own wife” (Ahearn 26), turning his own stiff neck and forgiving her, he successfully engages in Davis’s liberationist thematics: self-creation or rebirth. In fact, in terms of Stegner’s criticism of the “amputated Present” in western fiction in general, we might read the amputated/castrated Lyman Ward’s epiphany as something of an epiphysis, a knitting together of bones in healing rather than destruction. Lyman heals himself back into touch not only with his wife, but with the realities of the contemporary West—and he does so without resorting to the transcendent gestures of 2001.                

Other western authors aren’t so optimistic. In Wright Morris’s 1977 novel Fork River Space Project, both the Clarke-Kubrick's 2001 and, to a lesser degree, Stegner's closing note of hope, elicit at least one explicit refutation. Instead of histories, the novel’s narrator, Kelcey, writes “humorous, fantasy-type pieces” (Morris, Space §1:2)—a kind of Kilgore Trout of Kansas. In other respects, however, he suffers the same masculine dilemmas as Lyman Ward. Infatuated with the beatnik Dahlberg who is seducing his much younger wife, Kelcey finds himself at Dahlberg’s almost religious screening of 2001:

In one of the recent movies I’ve seen primates huddled in terror at a cave’s mouth. What I seem to see is a single, many-eyed monster, paralyzed with fear. The primates look alike, but that’s misleading. One of them has the idea he is human. Just an idea, no way to prove it. What he had to be was crazy enough to believe it. In no time at all, historically speaking, he had the whole tribe of apes believing as he did, covering the walls of their caves with pictures. It’s contagious. Nobody knows where such an idea will lead. (§1:4)

Insofar as Kelcey equates this man-ape (Moon-Watcher) with the beatnik Dahlberg, the novel takes 2001 as an index of exactly the crisis of masculinity I’ve outlined here—a predicament, really, and one which Kelcey experiences as a crisis both of gender and genre. “I have a fire-blackened penny, dated 1851,” he remarks, “found in an ashpit with human bones, two sardine tins, musket balls, and arrowheads. Would you say that is history or science fiction?” (§1:2).        

Underlying such a question is an epistemological rupture in Kelcey’s comprehension of the West and his “place” in it. Stumbling upon the ghost-town across the state line which the beats have appropriated as the site of their cult-like renewal, Kelcey wanders among empty buildings and ponders his own interrelated abandonment. “It [the town] had the appearance of a movie set put together elsewhere, and brought in on flatcars and wagons. Everything perfect .... A lost world?” (§3:36-38). The “basic situation” of the genre Western has snapped; by extension, so too have the historical narratives of progress and settlement on which the town once depended for its spiritual viability. The town has undergone a fate worse than the closing of the frontier Wister and Remington so dreaded; in losing its metanarrative discourse it has lost the basis for its existence. Why would anyone live here? Kelcey tries to face such a question, but he can’t detach himself from the genre which has, until now, contextualized the town—despite the fact that that very genre has long since finished with the evacuated landscapes of pioneer-proud Nebraska. The meaning of the ground in which Kelcey is rooted has changed—and changed without him. His options are limited. Without the mold which has typically served for the machining of new bodies, of masculine renewals, what is left if not the solution tendered by 2001? What is left for the American West if not sf?                

Although Morris would agree that it’s time for men to re-imagine their masculinity, reassemble or machine new bodies, he dramatizes the problematic nature of doing so. For him, re-imagining ourselves as Davis suggests is first and foremost a problem of perception—what’s at stake is not so much an angle of repose, but an angle of vision. “What you see out here is from where you see it, and what you know” (Morris, Space §1:3). Kelcey admires the audacity of the beatnik bricoleur, the “keeper of the faith in his off-hours as handyman and plumber” (§9:121) who believes that changing the world means “You just renovate it, reassemble the parts to heart’s desire” (§7:95). Yet Dahlberg’s approach comes at the problem from the angle exactly opposite to the one that Davis’ self-creation advocates. Dahlberg would have us change the world; Davis, on the other hand, would have us adapt ourselves to that world. As we’ve seen, self-adaptation in the genre Western has always been problematic, and, at any rate, in Kelcey’s cultural moment it’s been largely discredited. As for changing the world, if being abandoned by one’s discourses teaches anything, it’s the limits of one’s own agency. Kelcey feels unable to join Bowman or the bricoleur in orbit outside of history, outside of himself in some kind of free-wheeling cultural psychasthenia, simply because such agency is a delusion predicated on a false angle of vision. Just as “Lyman believes that a knowledge of history gives perspective, making radicalism naive” (Ahearn 25), Kelcey believes that “the consequences of a life without history” are negative; “to be in orbit is to be without connection, lost in space” (Watson 9). The tantalizing view of earth from space may in fact dominate the novel: “I stood gazing at planet earth, floating in space.... Off there we are, off there I am” (Morris, Space §8:106). Such, however, is the point-of-view of the Star-Child floating in orbit: anti-historical, anti-evolutionary, anti-born. “If we are a few hundred miles in space,” Kelcey suspects, “nothing visibly moves on the surface of the planet.... If one carried this impression to its conclusion, apparent movement would cease, apparent time would stop, at some point in space” (§9:118). Unable himself to become that bricoleur, that Star-Child, Kelcey remains trapped in an impasse that makes him increasingly irrelevant. The novel ends with his wandering alongside a river, disoriented, unsure even of the ghost-town’s existence. Although such an ending seems bleak, in his next novel Morris’s pessimism is even more biting. In Plains Song, he goes so far as to render masculinity’s impasse as a sign of men’s cultural extinction. In “a man-made mini-crater [which] seats sixty thousand rabid football fans” (Morris, Space §1:3)—all spectators, we should note, of the obsolete Remingtonian sports body—“the males were gathered in one of their primitive ceremonies blind as the dinosaur to what was happening” (Morris, Plains Song §13:195). Football: a desperate celebration of irrelevance.               

This same impasse, I believe, has effectively limited even the possibility of drama in the last three novels of Clarke’s 2001 series. Heywood Floyd’s appearance as bureaucrat in the role of hero in both 2010 and 2061 results from a slack in the very cowboy masculinity that 2001 attempts to preserve in the transformation of Dave Bowman. In a chapter entitled “Graveyard Shift,” Bowman appears to Floyd as a “dusty phantom” lacking genitalia—not only an unfortunate downside, as Clarke admits, of becoming pure mind (2010, §41:240), but a castration that’s significant: a lost agency. Descending to Earth from his famous orbit, the Star-Child Bowman is unable to do more than watch and be watched, returning first of all to “the lost landscape of his childhood” (§30:177)—Disneyville—apparently for the sake of nostalgia. An “unquiet ghost” (§33:185), he then reveals himself to an ex-girlfriend “as a boy” (§33:187), flashing “blatant sexual images” across her TV screen (§33:188), supposedly involuntarily. In short, master of the universe, the Star-Child makes his debut on earth for the astounding purpose of blasting one of his adolescent infatuations with porn.                

For Bowman, history is indeed finished. This leaves Heywood Floyd sitting in the pod bay “dictating notes” (2010 §38:223)—what about, it’s unclear—like Clarke himself wondering what more he can say. Floyd’s most heroic trait is competence, making him something of a neurasthenic. The question is, can he undergo the same transformation Bowman did? Although the ostensible goal of his trip to Jupiter is to retrieve information about Bowman still aboard the Discovery, the plot actually seeks to reawaken the masculine project of discovery itself. The novel is replete with sea-faring allusions. An abandoned ship “cold like a morgue” (§18:119) and coated in yellow sulphur dust, the Discovery is described as a “pitch-black freezing derelict haunted by ghosts,” a Gothic mansion complete with the requisite “cracklings and creakings” (§18: 118). It is not only the Discovery that's vacant, however; the formerly transcendent monolith, too, hangs at the Lagrange point over Europa like “an abandoned space derelict” (§28:160). In this Jupiter Space, in fact, the crew experiences nothing so much as boredom and inefficacy. The blow of an earth-side divorce comes to Floyd just when he’s feeling “particularly vulnerable with a sense of anticlimax and futility” (§31:222). Divorce, anticlimax, midlife crisis, exhaustion—these are the themes of Odyssey Two. Despite Clarke’s attempt to bring a renewed sense of drama to the series in the next novel, 2061, through the introduction of guns, diamonds, and political intrigue into outer space, he again chooses Heywood Floyd for a hero. Now a centenarian suffering a “bone necrosis” (2061 §3:14)—something like the opposite of Lyman Ward’s disease—Floyd has been exiled to an Earth orbit where the absence of gravity, like the absence of history, serves to prolong his life indefinitely. Blessed in the course of the novel with a visitation by a “minilith” which is “not only the same shape but also the same size as an ordinary tombstone” (§42:191), Floyd does foresee his eventual death. Even then, however, a facsimile of his personality will survive in a mountain-sized monolith on Europa, making Floyd “immortal” (§59:259). Bowman’s simultaneous internment in the same monolith verifies Tompkins’s assessment of cowboy masculinity’s desire to become monolithic, a mountain, a thing. Even Hal is preserved in the monolith, thereby rescuing virtually all of Clarke’s cast from the pulp of history for the “timeless present” of Remingtonian bronze.                

Much has changed since the publication of 2061. The surprise resurrection of cowboy masculinity in the early 1990s is, I suspect, a consequence of America’s having “won” the Cold War—Costner’s Dances with Wolves sanitized the cowboy hero, Eastwood’s Unforgiven forgave him. The critical and financial success of Cormac McCarthy’s Faulkneresque novels set in a Mexico freely rendered as a mythic Old West may even return to the literary side of the genre a modicum of respectability. It’s no coincidence, then, that Clarke’s 1997 installment in the Odyssey series, 3001: The Final Odyssey, features a “Comet Cowboy,” who, while herding ice comets, discovers the body of Frank Poole floating timelessly through space, preserved in the stasis of rigor mortis.7 Another son of Leatherstocking, the cowboy Chandler sports a beatnik’s goatee (§13:88) and thinks the earth a “dirty, smelly place, [with] too many people” (§13:87). Although not a major character in himself, Chandler, “with his beard and swagger,” serves as “another anachronism” (§14:93) with whom the resuscitated Poole can identify in an otherwise overcivilized future. Thinking about the settlers on Venus who receive the comet cowboy’s deliveries of ice, for instance, Poole believes “that they prove the spirit of adventure still exists in this perhaps too comfortable and well-adjusted society” (§15: 101). Traces of the frontier’s rejuvenative promise thus remain. Yet Frank Poole doesn’t need rejuvenation in the social sense the genre Western effects. A thousand-year-old man, “a savage who had suddenly encountered civilization” (§3:20), he’s already primitive. Poole’s resuscitation, in fact, beginning in a “suite” (§3:21) in 3001, is a mirror image of the alien transformation Bowman undergoes in a suite in 2001—almost as if Clarke is undoing the cultural work traditionally done by the genre Western. The food Poole eats, like that which the aliens provide Bowman in 2001, is “unusually tasty” (§13:84), and, fitted with a “brain cap,” Poole feels himself becoming “an embryo floating in a featureless void” (§6:38), a guest in someone else’s body (§6:41). Here again is the self-alienation of virtual reality and its simulations that are “realer than real” (§6:43). To Poole, at least, the citizens of 3001 have finally succeeded in becoming alien. In Poole, on the other hand, they see a “fascinating museum exhibit” (§3:22) not just because of his age, but because of his masculinity—the President of the Society for Creative Anachronisms is horrified by his penis: circumcised. The historian he will eventually marry argues against the barbarity of his time (and his manhood), telling him that the “noble savage” he seems to aspire to was always just a myth. In her own time, she says, humans are better adjusted (§3:22)—so much so that they “seem to be almost a new species” (§5:34). Carried to its conclusion, such an adjustment or transformation for Poole himself might have meant a liberation from cowboy masculinity—an admirable maneuver on Clarke’s part. Yet in a scene reminiscent of the Star-Child’s descent to earth in 2010, Poole’s actual reaction is clear. Strapping on a pair of wings in the limited gravity of his new home high above the earth, he flies serenely over the virtually generated “landscape of his youth” (§11:74), a nostalgic and apparently happily extinct spectator bird.8

                1. The distinction between high- and lowbrow western fiction—like that between mainstream and genre sf, is always problematic, especially in light of the East/West power differential in American criticism. As with sf, even the best literature of the West is but grudgingly admitted to be worthy of literary consideration in the East. As to such respectability, The Virginian is interesting because, in its own day at least, it passed for a higher sort of literature. Henry James himself wrote Wister, “Bravo, bravo.... you have made [the Virginian] live with a high, but lucid complexity, from head to foot & from beginning to end; you have not only intensely seen and conceived him, but you have reached with him an admirable objectivity” (qtd. in Vorpahl 308). Not to rush too quickly to James for validation, but he seems to have admired Wells’s work to the same degree: “Let me tell you, simply,” James wrote to Wells, “that they [his 1905 novels] have left me prostrate with admiration, and that you are, for me, more than ever, the most interesting ‘literary man’ of your generation” (qtd. in Aldiss 118).

                2. Today many people outside the West seem to consider the region a museum of America’s past. Wister’s initial reaction to the West, however, and his development of the cowboy hero, were just as focused on the region’s future:

From the beginning, he saw that the landscape conveyed a powerful sense of antiquity. His problem was that he wanted a historical record, the only kind he was equipped to  understand. Lacking that, he began at once to speculate about the region’s future history —which he hoped would produce “real Americans” two centuries hence. (Vorpahl 34)

                3. For a westerner’s discussion of the differences and intersections between the Western and sf, see Robert Murray Davis’s Playing Cowboys. Davis points out that “readers of one genre tend to be indifferent to the other,” and suggests that “this division in taste...may have as much to do with the psychology of the reader as with the literary and thematic structures incorporated in the work” (93).

                4. Bordo speculates that it is not the feminine as such that haunts men, but “the phallus [which] is haunted by the penis” (266). She points out the conflict between the “mutable, plural penis” which is “perhaps the most visibly mutable of bodily parts, [evoking] the temporal not the eternal”—as opposed to the “majestic, unitary phallus” (266). One can’t help but compare such a description of the phallus to Clarke’s rigid, haunting monoliths—eternal, majestic, unitary. When the narrator of his 1948 story, “The Sentinel” (the seed for the Odyssey series), first discovers a pyramidal proto-monolith on the Moon, he remarks curiously that “my pride would not let me take the final, humiliating plunge” in recognizing it as the product of a superior intelligence (Clarke, “Sentinel” 121). He feels, in other words, rather deflated. Clarke, I think, would disagree with such an interpretation, as he makes clear in chapter 52 of 2061, “On the Couch,” which attacks the psychoanalysis of his obvious phallic attachments, referring to a “still not entirely discredited Freudian analysis” (230). This is later expanded on in 3001, where a historian thinks that “Freudian is Fraudian” and talks about psychoanalysis itself as a disease (§15:103).

                  5. Ermine’s white mentor is an old man who sees in Ermine a possible heir. His dwelling is “the den of a man of some remote century” where a “sabre-toothed tiger might snarl at the door” (Remington 43), while his body is described as “humpbacked. His arms and legs were as other men’s are, though his shortened body made his hands fall to his knees” (42). As such, he represents both an evolutionary throwback and the mountain-man, the heroic avatar preceding the cowboy. Similarly, in 2001, Moon- Watcher’s father, literally a caveman, is described as having an “emaciated body” (§1:14). And finally, of course, as we shall see, we have Wallace Stegner’s Lyman Ward—another ossifying father-body.

                6. Judith Spector’s analysis of the Star-Child in 2001 as “the son of pure intellect, free of mother, free of Earth, free of relationship,” and her assertion that such a “freedom” is integrally linked to the fact that “Bowman must also free himself of matter” (26) is dramatized quite nicely in 2010, where his control of matter is explicitly tied to his control of his mother. Bowman’s “valediction” occurs when, as a being of pure mind, he exercises “control of obdurate matter” (§34:197) by combing his dying mother’s hair.

                7. Frank Poole was killed by Hal in 2001. The fact that Poole was born in Arizona near the observatory from which Lowell saw his Martian canals should be aligned with the fact that another set of Martian fantasies also have their origin in Arizona and another sleeping hero-body. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter (of Virginia) ascends to Mars from a desert cave to escape detection by Apaches. In Clarke’s overcivilized future, Ganymede, where Poole goes to escape the softness of life in 3001 (as Floyd does in 2061) is “a frontier settlement” much “like Flagstaff” where he grew up (§18: 124). The town of Anubis even has a sheriff, although Poole thinks “that’s overdoing the frontier spirit. Reminds me of the stories my grandfather used to tell me about Arizona” (§19:129). Conversely, the people of Earth are so overcivilized that the only sort of “Old West Colt 45 in a quick-draw holster at his waist” (§14:94) that Poole has a chance to wield is actually a “Miss Pringle”—his handheld electronic secretary.

                8. Note the shift in the configuration of the aliens from benevolent in 2001 to malevolent in 3001, a shift enabled by the ambiguity in the nickname for the monolith over Io: “Big Brother.” Before the publication of 3001, John Hollow could argue that “No one wants a Big Brother such as Orwell imagines, but we glad of a Big Brother’s protection and concern in this dark universe” (Night 185). In 3001, however, the aliens are just that: totalitarian. Clarke’s configuration of aliens is once again determined by representations of Indians in Western discourse. Here, the demise of the Cult of the Indian has allowed Bowman to fulfill his function as Slotkin’s “man who knows Indians,” betraying the very aliens/Indians who raised him in order to lead humankind to victory—the standard plot of the genre Western.

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