By Izeth Hussain –
Understanding Fundamentalism – Part II
The notion that the tale should not be interpreted in terms of the intention of the writer does not mean that all the facts about a writer, his biography, are irrelevant to the interpretation of the tale. This was argued by one of the great literary critics of the last century, William Empson, in his book Using Biography. In this case the biography of the High Noon director Fred Zinnemann is certainly central to the interpretation of the film as he was a European Jew who lost both his parents in the Nazi Holocaust. The best of his kind could therefore be expected to have an exceptional hunger for justice. Gary Cooper’s daughter said that she had heard someone on the set asking how on earth it had come about that a European Jew was making a Hollywood Western. The answer of course is that Zinnemann was using the genre of the Hollywood Western, which has quasi-universal appeal, to make a point that has universal appeal: a society that does little or nothing to counter Evil, as in Nazi Germany, is doomed to self-destruct. We saw that happen in Sri Lanka after 1977.
The standard interpretation of High noon is in terms of the outsider, the non-conformist, who is in opposition to the corrupt society, a figure playing a central role also in other films by Zinnemann. The hero played by Gary Cooper marries a Quaker female in a Quaker Church, both of whom are therefore outside the mainstream society. The Mexican female who is portrayed sympathetically is an obvious outsider in the predominantly Anglo-Saxon society. The only two who offer to stand by the hero in his final showdown are a boy, who has not yet entered the adult mainstream of the society, and a one-eyed alcoholic who is an obvious outsider. So an interpretation of the film in terms of the theme of the outsider would be substantially correct.
But that interpretation seems to me incomplete because it leaves out the religious dimension altogether. I would approach that dimension by noting the relevance of the myth of the frontier.
According to that myth the settled society inevitably becomes corrupt, leaving the hero no option but to leave it and go West to the frontier. This theme figures in many ways in the American arts. At the end of Huckleberry Finn, the book from which all American literature derives according to Hemingway, the hero just can’t stand the prospect of being civilized by the Widow Douglas and lights out for the frontier. At the end of Hemingway’s story The Killers, the boy Nick comes to understand the corruption and brutality of his society and leaves town. In one of John Steinbeck’s best stories, The Leader of the People, the hero reminisces nostalgically about his days of “Westering”. And at the end of High Noon the hero throws down his Sheriff’s badge and leaves the town with his wife, in what has become one of the iconic moments of American cinema.
The myth of the frontier seems to me incompatible with the Enlightenment ideology represented by figures such as Voltaire, the ideology that shaped the American Constitution. That ideology gives central importance to rationalism and secularism and its politics were based on the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In terms of that ideology, the hero should try to effect improvements in the settled society, not abandon it to start life anew at the frontier. The latter impulse however fits in with another aspect of the Enlightenment ideology represented by Rousseau with his myth of the Noble Savage. That aspect has behind it, I believe, a basically religious impulse. Anyway it would be mistaken to read High Noon only in terms of the myth of the Outsider because the religious dimension is not just there but is obtrusive. The most important debate in the film on whether or not the hero should be given community support takes place in the mainstream Church, presumably Anglican. The female who persuades the wife to stand by her husband, who predicts that after he dies the town would disintegrate, is Mexican and presumably a Roman Catholic. She is outside the religious mainstream because Catholicism became important in America only after the Irish took it there as their greatest gift to the nation. The film begins with the hero marrying the Quaker female in a Quaker Church. It is not clear whether he himself becomes a Quaker but he certainly opts for a Quaker way of life by wanting to run a store with his wife, abandoning his superlative performance as the Marshal with the gun. The Quakers were a pacifist fundamentalist sect. The film exemplifies fundamentalism in a benign form.
My next exhibit is Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring to music by Aaron Copland, on which I can be brief as I have already made some of the essential clarifications on fundamentalism. Graham, who has iconic status as the creator of modern American ballet, requested a ballet score from Copland with the stipulation that it should be quintessentially American. He responded with a score inscribed A Ballet for Martha without making any suggestions about the content of the ballet. But he used the most famous of the Shaker hymns Simple Gifts in the score and that inspired Graham to choreograph a ballet celebrating the Shakers, a fundamentalist sect that broke away from the Quakers. She herself had a strict Presbyterian upbringing, and perhaps that fundamentalist background enabled her to empathize with the fundamentalist Shakers.
The words of the hymn are significant for pointing to the revolutionary potential that there might be in some forms of fundamentalism. It begins “’Tis a gift to be simple/ ‘Tis a gift to be free” and it ends “Where true simplicity is gained/ To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed”. There we have an implicit protest against dominance, oppression, hierarchy, and the aspiration to liberty, equality, and fraternity but with a religious foundation. However the Appalachian Spring ballet that I saw in London in 1954 with Martha Graham dancing the lead role had nothing revolutionary about it. It was on the contrary a lovely projection of prelapsarian innocence and bliss. It was a celebration of fundamentalism in a benign form.
My main purpose in this article has been to establish that there is no nexus between fundamentalism and violence. The term “fundamentalism” arose in the late nineteenth century to designate Christian sects that insisted on the inerrancy of the Bible and the need for its literal interpretation in answer to the theory of evolution. There was nothing violent about that, nor was violence a characteristic of the many fundamentalist sects that had arisen in America. In the Islamic world the best-known fundamentalist movement for several decades was the Moslem Brotherhood which had nothing violent about it. Violence has been a special characteristic of Wahabism and its clones: the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Boko Haram and the IS. That violence is best understood, in the brilliant theorizing of Emmanuel Todd, in terms of the transition to modernity. The point on which I want to insist in conclusion is that he drive to return to the fundamentals of a religion in order to seek the renewal of a society is something that ought to be respected, provided that that drive does not become violent.