Tag Archives: historical truth

Tarantino’s “Paranoid”

About halfway through The Hateful Eight, bounty hunter John Ruth is starting to worry that the people at Minnie’s Haberdashery aren’t who they say they are, or at least “one of them fellas (meaning Bob or Joe or Oswaldo or Chris) is not what he says he is.” John Ruth and Major Marquis Warren (and for that matter everyone at Minnie’s) will soon learn the hard way that these suspicions are well founded; but at this point in the story, John Ruth might just be imagining things, so Major Warren asks:

Are you sure you’re not just being paranoid?

The rest of the dialogue in this scene was lost on me, because I was taken out of the film and left wondering how or why Tarantino (and, for that matter, all the people who read the screenplay for Hateful Eight) had let this glaring anachronism stand.

The first known use of “paranoid,” according to Merriam Webster, is 1904, probably in connection with the introduction of paranoia as a clinical variety of dementia praecox by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin; the screenplay sets the action of The Hateful Eight “six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War,” roughly in the 1870s. The term paranoia was around before Kraepelin, having been first introduced into English in 1857, but it didn’t come into use among English-language medical writers until the 1890s, and even then, the word in this more pristine form would not have been available except to medical specialists.

Major Warren’s casual and colloquial use of “paranoid” might have been possible as early as the 1950s, when psychoanalytic parlance became more widespread. I suspect the actual provenance of the Major’s “being paranoid” lies somewhere in the haze of late 60s and early 70s drug culture, a full century after the action of The Hateful Eight. Or maybe even later than that: “Almost Cut My Hair,” recorded in 1970, opts for “increases my paranoia” — casting paranoia as a constant affliction of varying intensity — as opposed to the Major’s use of the present continuous “being paranoid,” which suggests only a momentary lapse.

Not that Tarantino is trying, at all, to be strict about these things. His story might be set in the nineteenth century but his characters belong to the twenty first, and this is hardly the only anachronism in the language of the screenplay. (To take just one instance, O.B. proposes that he and Chris set out a line to the outhouse, because no matter how bad the blizzard gets, the people gathered at Minnie’s will have to “take a squat from time to time.”) To characterize these as slips or oversights — like the anachronisms I wrote about in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis — would be to miss the ways in which Tarantino is playing self-consciously with anachronism throughout The Hateful Eight, from the opening Sergio Leone Close Up of the snow-covered crucifix to the mix of Ennio Morricone with Roy Orbison. We’re invited at nearly every turn to appreciate this directorial self-consciousness and to revel in this film’s constant references to other films, other stories and other times.

What strikes me about “being paranoid,” however, is how telling it is. The Hateful Eight presents a world in which everything (proper names, stories, letters, a song, coffee, the stew, the table, the floor, a peppermint stick, the gang in Red Rock, history itself) is contrivance. The most brutal, bloody violence is conventional and contrived, and artifice will either kill you or put you at risk of death. Even the act of dying can be wildly theatrical (like the deaths of John Smithers, John Ruth and Daisy Domergue) or one final act of deception, and there is no way out of deceit and contrivance except death. So it’s only fitting that Chris and Major Warren die together at the end of the film sharing and appreciating the finer points of Major Warren’s forgery. This is a world in which everyone is always plotting and everything is a plot. You’d be crazy not to be paranoid.

On the Reference I Made the Other Day to ‘The Middle Ground’

In a previous post, I said that asking creates a kind of “middle ground” where power – and everything else – is up for grabs. The concept of the middle ground is one I borrowed from a wonderful book, Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. It was a passing reference, and it may have been a little careless, I now concede. Here I want to talk a little about the concept as White develops it, and try to connect it with what I had to say about the power of asking in my earlier post.

In White’s book, the middle ground is both a real place – the pays d’en haut or “Upper Country” of the Great Lakes Region – and a complex human terrain where the French and the Indians created “an elaborate network of economic, political, cultural and social ties to meet the demands of a particular historical situation.” For Europeans and Indians in the pays d’en haut, the middle ground described a place of mutual agreement, exchange and concession, to conduct everything from judicial proceedings to the regulation of sexual mores to the fur trade. White calls the middle ground “the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages.”

In this place, Indians and Europeans staged a creative, cross-cultural, ad hoc exchange of words, forms, rituals and practices. This conversation accomplished what force or violence could not. Or, to put it more precisely, the middle ground emerged at the limits of coercive power and violence. The Europeans in the Upper Country “could neither dictate to the Indians nor ignore them,” White writes; and where they could not conquer, command or go it alone they had to yield, concede and share. That went both ways.

The middle ground depended on the inability of both sides to gain their ends through force. The middle ground grew according to the need of people to find a means, other than force, to gain the cooperation and consent of foreigners. To succeed, those who operated on the middle ground had, of necessity, to attempt to understand the world and the reasoning of others and to assimilate enough of that reasoning to put it to their own purposes.

Understanding and assimilating the world and the reasoning of others: another word for that is translation. And that’s how White sometimes describes it: the middle ground was a place made up of “creative, but often expedient misunderstandings” – fictions – that allowed the Indians and the Europeans first to see each other as human beings, then to construct “a common, mutually comprehensible world.” They forged a new language, new meaning and a new world together: “the older worlds of the Algonquians and of various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and exchange.” Gift-giving, calumets, the covering of the dead – all these Algonquian rituals were brought into play, but it wasn’t simply a matter of carrying old forms across languages or cultures; in the middle ground, they were transformed into something new.

It would be a mistake to think that the French and the Indians somehow deliberately set out to create this middle ground after first encountering one another. The middle ground did not emerge because both sides had dedicated themselves to a spirit of cooperation – hardly! — or because some “magical affinity” (as White puts it) or mist of peace, love and understanding hung over the pays d’en haut in the 18th century. Short-lived, fragile, often unique and irreproducible adaptations and improvisations made up the middle ground; in White’s account, it emerges and disappears then re-emerges while the French are the primary European presence in the pays d’en haut. They abandon it from time to time, resorting to force and violence (as do the Algonquians). After the defeats of the Iroquois and the French in the Seven Years war, and the ascendency of the English as a power in the Upper Country, the middle ground is all but lost.

While some readers of The Middle Ground talk about the way White’s work unravels and disassembles the concept of the frontier, I find myself moving in an entirely different direction. I tend to think of pays d’en haut as White describes it in his book almost as an Atlantis, a world residing somewhere between myth and history; or, better, as a historical world created by mythmaking. It exercises a hold over my imagination as few places have — except, maybe, the city of Naples, which is, for me, also a place both real and imagined and to which I return in my mind over and over again.

1755_Bellin_Map_of_the_Great_Lakes_-_Geographicus_-_GreatLakes-bellin-1755

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why the French Upper Country has a hold on me: here the history of the Great Lakes region (which I discovered in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre) comes together with my interest in non-coercive forms of power. So it’s not surprising that I should have made a passing reference to White in my previous post about the power of asking; in fact, it’s much more surprising to me that I didn’t go on more about it, as I have here.

On the other hand, I recognize that this is all very problematic. White is a historian, describing as meticulously and carefully as he can the cultural politics of the Great Lakes region in the 18th century; I’m reader of history, and I tend to take what I read and start imagining things. I’m familiar with Philip J. DeLoria’s warnings against “oversimplification” of White’s work, and his worry about misreadings that make White’s middle ground “analytically portable” to the point where it becomes “simply a trope for human give and take.” But there is, there has to be, something portable in everything that one reads; the act of reading is itself a carrying back and forth, an exchange, an importing and exporting. It’s an act of give and take, as DeLoria himself wryly admits.

This is not just to say that White’s study of the middle ground echoes themes found in, say, James C. Scott’s work on the Upland peoples of Southeast Asia, or Pierre Clastres’ work on the Indians of South America, and that there’s some common trope that all these books describe. It might be to say that reading itself is an exercise of non-coercive power, an act that involves transference, translation, transmutation and creation of new meaning, a kind of dialogue between author and reader, the practicing historian and the images we make of history.

Not much new in that thought: for the moment, I simply want to offer that I seem to have carried my interests, imagination, intellectual habits and stories into White’s work, assimilated it, and now I seem to be putting it to my own purposes, as an illustration of what can be accomplished through the exercise of non-coercive power. It remains to be seen how that illustration will help advance or complicate my thinking on this point. But I guess it’s pretty clear that all this situates the act of reading in the territory of cultural production White describes in The Middle Ground.  I say that knowing full well that I am probably going to be accused of misreading.