20 July 2014

The Unconscious in the Wild West

The unconscious appears when we surprise ourselves.  This has notably been demonstrated in slips of the tongue (or parapraxes as Freud called them).  But I find that it often happens in a more subtle way – we say something and, as it resonates, we find that it has deeper meaning than we thought.  Language has ‘taken us up’ and moved us forward.  Things will not be quite the same again now that we have said what we did.  The best example I have seen recently was when I was watching Tombstone (again) and enjoying Val Kilmer’s famous performance as Doc Holliday.  

Doc puts himself in harm’s way repeatedly on behalf of his friend, Wyatt Earp.  The following piece of dialogue is between a minor character, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, and Holliday:

Turkey Creek Jack Johnson:       Why you doin' this, Doc?
Doc Holliday:                               Because Wyatt Earp is my friend.
Turkey Creek Jack Johnson:       Hell, I got lots of friends …
Doc Holliday:                              … I don't.

(You can watch a clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRVhtVCfzo8)

By saying this Doc realises just how much he loves Wyatt.  He has told himself a fundamental truth of his existence, one on which he can literally stake is life.  Kilmer delivers the line beautifully, with spontaneity and feeling. 

I sense something similar in the very famous brief interaction between Pike (William Holden) and Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates) in The Wild Bunch.  Pike has decided to embark on what will almost certainly be a fatal course of action, to rescue Angel, a gang member who has been captured and tortured by the Mexican forces.

Pike:                     Let's go.
L. Gorch:              Why not?

Whenever I see this I am always struck by the rhythm: two syllables, two syllables.  Pike explains nothing to the Gorch brothers, yet Lyle’s rhythmic reply seals their fate.  They are taken up in the dance of language and yet it is in precisely this moment that they become truly human subjects.  Here they are not only accepting their destiny, they are taking responsibility for it – and are doing so with a style of their own.

Lacan has a very definite way of interpreting Freud’s Wo Es war, soll Ich worden.  He translated it as Where It was, I must become (or I must come into being).  Thus the human subject comes into being when he owns his own unconscious desire (Doc Holliday’s love of Wyatt Earp, Lyle Gorch’s desire to die with style and arising out of his own act) and this unconscious desire reveals itself when we allow language to lead us, when we free associate.  And no, it doesn’t always mean you have to kill someone or die; that's the Wild West.  Sometimes the unconscious brings the more challenging implication of having to become truly alive.