James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
This page is: http://www.oneonta.edu/~cooper/articles/suny/1995suny-daly.html

From Paradox and Aporia to Cultural Hybridization and Complex Adaptive Systems: New Theories and the Uses of Cooper at the Present Time

Robert Daly
(SUNY Buffalo)

Presented at the 10th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1995

©1999
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 10), Papers from the 1995 Cooper Seminar (No. 10), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 23-31)

Return to SUNY Seminars | Articles & Papers

Though specialists have long done valuable work on them, Cooper’s writings seem to have occasioned in other Americanists a strange ambivalence. Cooper is frequently mentioned in passing, or used as a point of comparison or departure, or taken to task for not fulfilling the promise of his own writing. Though examples could be multiplied, these recent ones suggest a pattern so familiar that we hesitate to find it remarkable.

In 1989 Emily Miller Budick acknowledged that Cooper examines "the failure of historical consciousness to penetrate the fictions of the American mind," that he even, in her words, "hits on" (20) what she considers the key scene in America’s failure "to step meaningfully into history," the scene of "the sacrifice of the son by the patriarchal father, what is called in the Hebrew Bible the akedah or binding of Isaac" (19). Yet as her use of the phrase "hits on" suggests, he seems to have done it all by accident, since he "stages this scene curiously and obliquely, not deciphering its relevance to the problems of American history and American historical consciousness that he himself recognizes. Cooper’s failure to follow through on his own insights contributes to a perpetuation of the ahistorical, mythic imagination that troubles his inheritors in the literary tradition" (20). Budick is both precise and honest. Cooper’s writing sparked her interest, then, after closer examination, disappointed it.

Where Arvid Shulenberger had noted that "Cooper has been praised by such diverse novelists as Balzac, Thackeray, Conrad, Melville, and D. H. Lawrence" (3) and William Charvat had added Tolstoy and Goethe to the list (v), Kenneth Dauber, in 1990, extended it to include Bryant, Parkman, Simms, Longfellow, and Whitman, then asked, "And yet, is there not something more than a little odd in this unanimity about Cooper’s speaking for us?" (81). Dauber demonstrates cogently that Cooper does not speak for us, that Cooper is an American writer rather than the American writer. He goes on to argue that "Twain is not after all wrong in faulting Cooper for what he sees as mimetic inadequacy" (94), and Dauber constructs, by way of evaluation, an elegant paradox: "Cooper has always seemed a not especially acute intelligence whose writing yet defines the dilemmas of his nation more fully and more sharply than anyone else in his age" (103). Once again, Cooper’s writing bears importantly on his nation but fails to fulfill its promise as either literature or history.

In 1992, Nina Baym remembered in detail her earlier argument that "Cooper’s female depictions were more diverse than previous criticism had recognized" (19). She even acknowledged that he was "no admirer of New England patriarchy" (25) and that he had created, in his treatment of Alice and Cora Munro, a significant complication and undercutting of the convention of passive ladies who maintain social values and active women who threaten them. But then she reflected on Cooper’s "rigid hierarchical view of society" (20) and his division of women "into those who can be married and those who cannot" (20). These reflections led her to the paradoxical conclusion that in portraying active and admirable women, "Cooper was apparently recognizing that castigating and denigrating women readers...was not the best way of selling books to them" (35) and that he may have been inspired by the example of Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie. To be sure, Cooper did praise Sedgwick and did court readers, but it is worth noting that he created Alice and Cora after he was already selling well and before Sedgwick created Faith, Hope, and Magawisca. Of course, Nina Baym knows these things as well as I and has a right to her own choice of emphases. I write this essay less to quibble with her and other critics than to note a pattern in their responses and to explain why we might want to explore other patterns.

In 1993, in his excellent book on twelve nineteenth-century American authors, Jerome Loving skipped directly from Irving to Hawthorne, leaving out Cooper, who merely "thought that, after Brown, he was the first to make effective use of the native landscape." Again, Loving is a perceptive scholar, with no discernible animus against Cooper. He acknowledges that Cooper "did, of course, investigate the duality of the American political experience by setting his historical tale [The Spy] in the `neutral ground’ of political sentiment," but having based his view of Cooper on this "duality," Loving immediately concludes that "the Revolution, or its fictionalizing in Cooper, merely precedes-and never anticipates -- the Evolution that followed it -- that of the American consciousness waking up to a world already made" (9). Again Cooper is read through a "duality," a theoretical two-step. Through this simplifying lens he appears promising but disappointing: "In one way, The Spy is another national allegory in the fashion of The Sketch Book, yet Cooper’s novel lacks the psychological penetration of Irving’s book" (9), and Loving drops it and Cooper from his own twelve-writer overview of the American nineteenth century.

[24] In 1994, Martin Gilmore considered Cooper in greater detail but still tended to see a simple duality that at first attracts attention, then disappoints it: "If the realms of ‘love’ and ‘war,’ sentiment and civic life, are not completely integrated in The Pioneers, they are handled with greater assurance, and the tension between them recedes to the minor but chronic irritant it remains throughout Cooper’s work" (684). It is possible, of course, that this irritant really is in Cooper’s writing and that those of us who love it are doomed to articulate that affinity through the familiar rhetorical stances of defensiveness, defiance, or (worse yet) the balanced view (another two-part strategy).

But it is also possible that the fault lies not in our star but in ourselves, or at least in a familiar habit of mind left over from the theories that were hegemonic during most of our careers. The New Criticism went looking for apparent contradictions that could be resolved into taut and tense but coherent paradoxes. Structuralism read, beneath a merely apparent complexity, the deep structures that turned out, to no one’s surprise, to be bipartite -- langue/parole, raw/cooked, inside/outside, up/down. And deconstruction freed us not from the prison-house of language but from the prison-house of structuralism by inverting the familiar hierarchies and showing that the supplement could and should be read as the dominant term. This mode of reading explored irreconcilable contradictions that could not be reduced to paradox, aporias that could not be adjudicated. Yet though it deplored binary oppositions, it did not move beyond them. Even the New Historicism turned out to be binary, enacting (in its description of culture) a salutary move from synecdoche to chiasmus but reading the merely apparent complexity of contingent history to be the traces of a binary structural history of oppressor and oppressed and no other need apply. Having learned from every one of these theories, I remain grateful to them even while simplifying their simplifications for the sake of clarity, brevity, and point.

The point is that new theories always race ahead of their applications and even further ahead of the wide-spread and self-conscious adoption of the habits of mind they enact. Several of these theories (among them ecocriticism, post-analytic philosophy and postmodern ethics, and finally rhetorical hermeneutics and literary anthropology) lead us to numbers larger than two, to multiple cross-pollinations and hybridizations, to out-crossings and interactive economies of forces within and among complex adaptive systems.

Ecocriticism

Before considering ecocriticism, the first of these new theories, I shall begin by trying to avoid the familiar dichotomy in which the new is read as the polar opposite of the old. The theories explored in this essay grew out of the more familiar theories (deconstruction, feminism, semiotics, Marxism, psychoanalysis) sometimes grouped under the rubric of poststructuralism. The older theories are neither dead nor bankrupt, and the newer theories do not tidily supersede them. Indeed they all share certain family resemblances. All consider theory and action, knowledge and power, to be inextricably interwoven. All critique those institutions of tradition and authority in which, in the words of SueEllen Campbell, "humans matter more than other creatures, men more than women, Europeans more than Africans or Asians or Native Americans, logic more than emotion, reason more than dreams or madness" (202). All, then, embrace a rhetoric of change, if not revolution, and all begin by inverting the familiar bipartite hierarchies, arguing that the supplementary term is more valuable than the dominant.

Nevertheless, there has been a change of emphasis that has opened up new strategies of recognition and response. Though both ecocriticism and the familiar theories have little truck with the old humanist notion of a world centered on the individual human self, though both embrace a notion of decentered networks or webs, the older theories focus on language, the text, and textualized frames of reference. Derrida’s dictum that there is nothing outside the text (which I take to signify only that all signs signify other signs) has been resituated in ways that make the world and textuality coterminous. Ecocriticism accepts intertextuality among the texts about which we know but emphasizes the reality of things and forces as yet unknown to us. These things are indeed outside our texts, but they remain real and important. Culture may indeed other itself as nature, viewing the world through lenses of its own preoccupations, but nature contains real things as yet undreamed of in our philosophies, real things that affect us independently of our interpretations. Where the poststructuralist celebrates (a usually deferred) liberation from the tyranny of self and other, the ecocritic urges caution in the face of our unrecognized intermingling, at the permeable border of self and other, with things and systems we have yet to notice.

Aldo Leopold, for example, writes of a hill in Germany on which grew a valuable kind of oak. During the Middle Ages, the north slope was cleared and settled, the south kept as it was as the hunting preserve of a bishop. Later, when the north slope was replanted for forest, the oak would no longer grow there. Its soil had lost something necessary for the oak, something that two centuries of conservation and human fiddling have not been able to put back (Campbell, 204-5). Whatever it was or is, it remains outside our texts but still real, important, effective. In the words of SueEllen Campbell, "we belong not only to networks of language and culture, but also to networks of the land" (211), networks of which we have only partial understanding, over which we have only partial control, networks and systems in which the one law we can depend upon is the law of unintended consequences.

[25] For that reason, ecocriticism resists a tidy definition and a single manifesto. Sean O’Grady suggests that "a useful, ecologically informed criticism will not be steeped in any monolithic theory, but will be a practice that is eclectic and experiential. It too will resist definition" (Love, "Pastoral" 196). And Lawrence Buell describes it as "a multiform inquiry...more expressive of concern to explore environmental issues searchingly than of fixed dogmas about political solutions" (Environmental, 430). Nevertheless, family resemblances among the great variety of ecocritical writings suggest a collection of interests that may afford us an admittedly porous and operational description. The term refers first to nature writing, second to a habit of mind that enacts the caution and circumspection of a gatherer rather than the focused gaze and linear thought and action of a hunter, and finally to the ability to take multiple or collective points of view, to move from anthropocentrism to biocentrism or perhaps to a decentered repertoire of points of view.

For example, John Muir wanted to imagine "the opinion of an alligator or a grizzly" (Campbell, 203); Greta Gaard explores the need to move from "a sense of self that is separate, atomistic," to "an interconnected sense of self" (2-3); James Applewhite argues that we need to develop "the capacity to deal with other essential relationships: to history, to character, to the cause-and-effect sequences" (15) of our lives within the webs of the world, to recognize that a "depth of memory and involvement remains available" if we shall avail ourselves of "human memory and its long association with the earth" (16) and resist the notion of "value illicitly dissociated from a referent in nature" (17); Ariel Salleh argues that for deep ecologists to attempt to subsume ecofeminism within their own discourse as merely a special instance of it is to make again precisely the mistake they rightly deplore, the sublation of alterity within a dominant and totalizing rhetoric. If one wishes to learn from nature one must also learn from women, must acknowledge a connection that is not a uniformity and not a subset, but a distinct voice and important perspective (203). In dealing with these irreducible others, who can be subsumed neither into a corporate self nor into a single other to which the self can relate in a binary opposition, the old Hegelian Aufhebung, in which we swoop down on the other, gather it in our talons, and at once lift up, destroy, and preserve it as part of ourselves, simply will not work. We must develop a particular mode of attention and concomitant power of imagination.

For this ability, Johann Gottfried von Herder coined a new word, die Einfühlung. It was a "feeling into," the projecting one’s mind into the object of one’s contemplation, of seeing and thinking and experiencing from its perspective and so coming to understand it better, of turning it into a subject and oneself into the object of its gaze. This ability was necessary because there was, for Herder, no universal pattern for societies or history. Society should be considered without imposing any single pattern upon it, least of all a pattern derived from one’s own culture. Instead, one should project oneself into other perspectives: "gehe in das Zeitalter, in die Himmelsgegend, die ganze Geschichte, fühle dich in alles hinein" (37). As F. M. Barnard’s translation makes clear, this is a willed action rather than a passive sensitivity: "penetrate deeply into this century, this region, this entire history, plunge yourself into it all and feel it all inside yourself" (182). The alternative is a sublime egotism in which one takes oneself to be the measure of all things: "Quintessenz aller Zeiten und Völker? das zeigt schon die Torheit!" (37). As Barnard translates, "it would be a manifest stupidity to consider yourself to be the quintessence of all times and all peoples" (182). The English translation of Herder’s term is empathy. If sympathy is the sharing of another’s feelings, on the assumption that such sharing is possible and that we really can feel another’s pain, empathy is an active ability, a willingness to forsake temporarily one’s own perspective for another, not so much to hug trees and strangers but to try to understand them (and their interactions with us) from their points of view. For that reason, we need to move, in Lawrence Buell’s terms, from a "hermeneutics of skepticism" to a "hermeneutics of empathy" ("American" 3).

Many of Cooper’s writings are reading lessons in precisely this hermeneutics. His characters start out reading ethnocentrically, each according to prejudices of the sort attributed to Hawk-eye. In the course of the narratives, some learn to read better; some do not. We as readers, with effort and luck, also have a chance to learn, to move from the ambivalence with which we began to a multivalence that attends to the multivocality that pervades Cooper’s books.

In these narratives, there are rarely just two cultures in conflict. Indeed, Hawk- eye’s attempts to reduce multiplicity to binary opposition provide some humor at his expense: "to me every native, who speaks a foreign tongue, is accounted an enemy, though he may pretend to serve the king! If Webb wants faith and honesty in an Indian, let him bring out the tribes of the Delawares, and send these greedy and lying Mohawks and Oneidas, with their six nations of varlets, where in nature they belong, among the French!" (Mohicans 50). No empathy here, no complexity, just a reductive binary opposition. Indeed, Cooper is quite clear on the epistemological limitations of "the inveterate forester, whose prejudices contributed so largely to veil his natural sense of justice in all matters which concerned the Mingoes" (114). One difficulty with this conflation of multiple others into a single category of enemy is that Hawk-eye tends to dismiss the French along with the Mingoes and thereby, through ignorance, to render himself a less likely friend and less powerful foe that he might otherwise have become.

[26] Hawk-eye does not speak French and, when challenged in that language, is completely at a loss: "‘What says it?’ whispered the scout. ‘It speaks neither Indian nor English!’" (137). He is far less multilingual than America is at this time. In the earlier America, the liminal America to which Cooper adverts in many of his fictions, many different tribes of Native Americans, many different tribes of Europeans and Africans, compete, mingle, and mix, and the more languages, coinages, cultures, and perspectives one inhabits, the better the chances of one’s survival. Dividing this world into only two categories, self and other, or friend and foe, is just not a good strategy. Without the formerly inept Heyward’s ability to project himself into the perspective of the French sentinel, Hawk-eye’s heroic goose could be well and truly cooked.

So it’s Heyward, of all persons, to the rescue. But neither Heyward nor Cooper will translate the French for us. In a book filled with explanations, footnotes, and parallel stories for those readers who did not quite catch the point the first time around, we are given no help with the French. If we are not conversant with it, our ignorance stands as one more evidence of what we have lost as a culture.

But Heyward (knowing French language, culture, class, and social maneuver) can project himself into the perspective of the French sentinel and can use that ability to his and his companions’ advantage. Heyward knows that the effective answer to "Qui vive?" (Long live who?) is "France." When the sentinel asks "Etes- vous officier du roi?" Heyward knows that the effective answer is "Sans doute, mon camarade; me prends-tu pour un provincial! Je suis capitaine de chasseurs." Cooper immediately adds in parentheses and in English that "Heyward well knew that the other was of a regiment in the line" and thereby tips us off that, in addition to speaking French, they are speaking class, wealth, knowledge, rank, and power. Both know that officer, Paris, and cavalry outrank sentinel, provinces, and line.

Heyward knows how to mirror others. So does Cooper. So do the landscape painters who inspired Cooper and those whom he inspired in turn. So does nature. Like the landscape painters, Cooper believes that representing nature is itself a natural process, since nature does it in the reflections on still water. As the painters composed their landscapes around reflecting pools, so Cooper composes his around, for example, the "crowded mirror of the Horicon" (Mohicans 181), and he endows the river at Glens Falls with an artistry similar in kind but better in degree than that of human weavers: "the fine cobweb-looking cloth you wear at your throat, is coarse, and like a fish net, to little spots I can show you, where the river fabricates all sorts of images, as if, having broke loose from order, it would try its hand at everything" (55). Unlike fish nets, nature’s images are all the more artistic for being a little beyond our use and understanding.

Whether we value use or beauty more highly depends upon cultural situation. Cooper observes in an 1831 footnote that "the application of the water to the uses of civilized life has materially injured its beauties" and that "men always prize that most which is least enjoyed" (55). For that reason, "in a new country, the woods and other objects, which in an old country would be maintained at great cost, are gotten rid of, simply with a view of ‘improving’ as it is called" (55-56). This passage does more than situate its readers in times and places different from their own: it calls attention to one of the ways in which our being situated shapes our perspectives and values. There is no Archimedean place to stand, outside the world, from which to view all things objectively. In this sense, alienation is the impossible dream, and the belief that one has attained it is illusory.

Like the pools and the painters, the writer is part of a complex adaptive system, not an alien standing outside nature and viewing it with distrust. That latter perspective is a modernist stance, one that we are only now recognizing as historically situated and therefore beginning to move beyond. It takes a modernist like Picasso to look at a swan, swimming breast to breast with its own reflection, and see something sinister, a swan inverted and becoming a scorpion. Cooper lived too early to take the modernist perspective for granted, we too late.

Ecocriticism suggests the epistemological limits and practical dangers of alienation. In doing so, it affords us a good set of perspectives for reading Cooper as Hawk-eye’s maker, not his twin. Where Hawk-eye divides, Cooper weaves, as his epigraph from Gray’s text, "The Bard," suggests: "Weave we the woof. The thread is spun. / The web is wove. The work is done" (Mohicans 167). Both text and house derive from an Indo-European word for weaving, a working of different strands together. Where his characters sometimes insist on distinctions of race, class, and gender, Cooper marks, in Notions of the Americans, the occasions on which these are, or will be, woven together. He notes an increase in the population of Chickasaws, hopes that "a race about whom there is so much that is poetic and fine in recollection will be preserved" and suggests that, since "there is little reluctance to mingle the white and red blood" and since the first families of Virginia are proud of their descent from even earlier first families, "I think an amalgamation of the two races would in time occur" (490). Class distinctions are also more porous in Cooper’s America than in Europe. When Cadwallader gives pride of place to "a domestic" so that she may sit next to her mistress, the "Travelling Bachelor" is "a little surprised to see that Cadwallader quietly conceded the place to this Abigail" (36). He tactfully broaches the subject in German (which they both speak but which Abigail, presumably, does not) and is informed that class distinc[27]tions are sometimes trumped by other considerations. He concludes, "I begin to deem the omens propitious!" (36). He even imagines, as many men have over time, that women are on the very brink of equality, since in America, the wife "is often the friend and adviser of her husband, but never his chapman" (96).

Examples could be multiplied (James D. Wallace argues cogently "that The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish is not about the horrors of miscegenation but the glories of amalgamation" [207]). These, however, suffice to suggest that ecocritical notions of multiple hybridization and complex adaptive systems may afford us useful ways of reading Cooper, especially in our own time of "cross-cultural affinities" when, as Lawrence Buell has recently argued, "cultural hybridization seems to be in the process of becoming the American norm" (20). One indication of this change is the advent of a new journal, Terra Nova: Nature and Culture, that the MIT Press will begin publishing in January of 1996.

Post-Analytic Philosophy and Postmodern Ethics

A homologous change has taken place in philosophy. In analytic philosophy, as Robert Nozick argued, the emphasis was on winning an argument with one other in the familiar combination of binarism and hierarchy. As any debater knows, the intrinsic advantage is always with the negative, since it is easier to question than to convince. This preference is evident in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Like Wittgenstein, he is concerned more with correction than explanation, and his habitual stance is one of skepticism. He writes that "[p]hilosophy is not separable from skepticism," that "[l]anguage is already skepticism," and that "the history of Western philosophy has been a refutation of transcendence" (57). But if skepticism has a natural advantage in any argument between two sides, it has the disadvantage of being inescapably derivative. It can doubt and negate the propositions of others but cannot generate any of its own. For that reason, Levinas argues: "My task does not consist in constructing ethics. I am simply trying to find its meaning" (71). It will come as no surprise that that meaning is infinitely deferred, at least in Levinas.

Analytic philosophers and the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle tended to deify the rigorous logic of argumentation, a valorization that, according to Giovanna Borradori, "led the analytic movement to think of the truth as victory over an interlocutor" (18). But post-analytic philosophers "will not admit that philosophy can be reduced to a pure science of argumentation" (18) and consider it "more morally legitimate and more epistemologically creative to stimulate the interlocutor to alternative ways of thinking" (19).

Post-analytic philosophers (like Robert Nozick, Zygmunt Bauman, Mary Midgley, and Alasdair MacIntyre) aim less at proof that at values, objectives, and knowledge. Borradori considers this shift in perspective, from proof to an explanation that stimulates new thinking, to be Robert "Nozick’s principal contribution to the post-analytic turn. The objective of knowledge cannot be reached through the presentation of an infallible proof so much as in the moral improvement of the individual, pushed to deepen his or her own vision of the world and to communicate more freely with others" (19).

Yet Nozick himself carries the argument still further, sounding almost ecocritical in his suggestion that "[o]ur fundamental relation to the world is not explanatory, but one of relation and trust" (53). We do not examine and explain the world from without. We participate from within, and the value of the knowledge we gain is precisely that it aids that participation. This view foregrounds value and virtue, two notions either evaded or proscribed in earlier theories. Considering these as anything other than illusions takes us some distance from modernism and into the field of postmodern ethics.

Zygmunt Bauman suggests that since there are no "unambiguously good (that is, universally agreed upon, uncontested) solutions" (31) to moral problems, we cannot simply depend upon "the wise (the code name of the mighty)" (30) to provide them for us. Nor, however, can we simply cry "aporia" and declare all things adiaphoric, or morally indifferent. Static codes of morality are indeed aporetic, since "virtually every moral impulse, if acted upon in full, leads to immoral consequences" (11). Moral heteronomy, then, is a form of social domination, but Bauman argues that moral responsibility is a starting point, without foundation or determining factor, that a common moral condition precedes the tribal parochialisms that attempt to speak for it and short-circuit it into an imposed uniformity. Like other post-analytic philosophers, Bauman argues for a provisional trust in the absence of a proof that, while frequently expected, never quite arrives. Morality, unprincipled and without foundation, comes first. We just tend toward self-scrutiny and the keeping and settling of accounts. This moral sense makes society possible: "It is society that is made possible by the moral competence of its members-not the other way around" (32). What is postmodern in Bauman’s argument is his notion that "it must be the moral capacity of human beings that makes them so conspicuously capable to form societies" in the absence of the social and philosophical "‘foundations’ which we allegedly cannot do without to be good and kind to each other" (32). This post-analytic and postmodern perspective "brings ‘re-enchantment’ of the world" and an increasing trust in "human spontaneity...drives, impulses resistant to prediction and rational justification" (33).

[28] Like Bauman, Mary Midgley resists modernist "claims to a monopoly of explanation" (46) as a lingering concomitant of "academic imperialism" and the desire of those "who have found an intellectual scheme which fits their thinking to feel sure that it must be the only right one" (47). The best immunization against this common problem is to move beyond our own perspective into a recognition of other perspectives and other cultures which also make good sense from within. Midgley does not urge, however, the suffering liberal abnegation of one’s own perspective. The trick is to trust that and others: "For instance we trust...most of the evidence of our own senses and memory, and of the reasoning powers by which we assess them. We also trust most of the utterances of those around us" (53). We can question these things in the particular only "by using the mass of other unsuspected data as standard." And despite undergraduate flirtations with solipsism: "In order to trust people in this way, we have also to credit them with an inner life comparable with our own" (53). Such "basic trust in the world" is, for Midgley, a necessary precondition for reasoning, and a person incapable what she calls "this faith would not rank as a specially perceptive, critical thinker, but simply as being autistic or insane" (54). Such trust or faith in the value of various human perspectives is, in short, a virtue, another word much more in use now than formerly.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s theory of virtue begins in practice and "proceeds through three stages: a first which concerns virtues as qualities necessary to achieve the goods internal to practices; a second which considers them as qualities contributing to the good of a whole life; and a third which relates them to the pursuit of a good for human beings the conception of which can only be elaborated and possessed within an ongoing social tradition" (273). Virtue is relational and contextual. It is not autotelic, and it is not the keeping of a code. And yet neither are its relational meanings and values infinitely deferred. It is the developing and use of a recognizable, if complex, ethical character. Borradori argues that, for MacIntyre, "[v]irtue is not a universal and metahistorical category, but a pluralist and shared value" (139). And MacIntyre adds recently that virtues help one to do well, to lead an ordered life, and to contribute to the common good: "Virtues are those qualities of mind and character without which the goods internal to such human practices as those of the arts and sciences and such productive activities as those of farming, fishing, and architecture cannot be achieved. Second, virtues are those qualities without which an individual cannot achieve that life, ordered in terms of those goods, which is best for him or her to achieve; and third, those qualities without which a community cannot flourish...." (Borradori, 148). Such virtues, then, are established and judged by criteria external to the individual but neither absolute nor transcendent nor completely external to all the various human communities such virtues make possible.

For example, Ellen Wade, in The Prairie, may not be a complete moral and cultural paragon, but she has the virtues of courage and informed intelligence. Faced with armed men approaching the shabby fort of Ishmael Bush, she recalls stories of situations homologous to her own, selects the one "most nearly assimilated" to her own mind, and uses her empathy with the characters in that story to steady herself and to see through the blatherings of Obed Battius. In The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, Meek Wolfe and Dr. Ergot attempt to force one (personally convenient) code onto all cultures within their devouring reach, but Cooper sets them up to be read better than they read. The meek wolf is easy enough, but scholars have tended to see only meaning of ergot as dominant. So I shall begin by agreeing with James Wallace’s reading Ergot as a quibbler and a squabbler, but add that Ergot is also spouter of ergot, or jargon, and his likely effect on anyone who takes him seriously is likely to be that of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus that grows on rye and some other grains.

Cooper’s complex way with character is also evident in Wyandotté, where Captain Willoughby uses only the British army and white America to try to understand the African, Indian, Dutch, New England, New York, and British cultures swirling around him. He does badly, since those cultures will not collectively simplify themselves to either a British unity or a binary opposition. His son Robert is not, by any standard moral code that I know of, a better human being. He is, however, more capable of empathetically projecting his own consciousness into the perspectives of others: he therefore learns more virtues and develops a richer character than his decent and sympathetic but impercipient and doomed father.

Rhetorical Hermeneutics and Literary Anthropology

Cooper’s writings, moreover, do not simply mirror or represent or urge a cultural complexity. They have designs on us as readers and on America as a multicultural culture, with both the complexity and coherence that that oxymoron suggests. Where Kenneth Dauber has argued that, in Cooper, "[t]he writer is removed from any active role in creating democracy" (92), I believe that Stephen Mailloux’s notion of "rhetorical hermeneutics" enables us to see "the political effectivity of trope and argument in culture" (xii), and to "interpret the rhetoric of a text" as not merely reflecting or representing but as "participating in the cultural debates of a specific historical period and place" (104). Texts begin as contributions to the debates of their own time and place. For that reason, they can be read, in Wolfgang Iser’s formulation of literary anthropology, as "indicators of particular anthropological needs" (93). But since "literary fictionality...crosses boundaries and opens up a network of connections" (92) that enable "the text to play itself out [29] beyond the boundaries of its own individual world" (229), literature continues to speak, not so much for us as to us and many others, in conditions quite different from those in which it began. In Iser’s argument, fiction serves its transient cultural functions precisely by always going beyond them: "fiction becomes the chameleon of cognition, which means that as a sort of repair kit for conceptualization, it must inevitably transcend the concepts it seeks to encompass" (165). It excites initial interest by engaging immediate needs, then disappoints us and serves larger needs by going well beyond our expectations.

Culture is both public and private. Our minds, like Ellen Wade’s, draw on both stories assimilated and experiences remembered, including the experiences of hearing and reading, telling and writing stories. Our culture consists of all the epistemological templates we use to make sense of the world and our lives in it. Since these and such virtues as empathy can be learned from the reading lessons enacted and available in Cooper, I should like to suggest that Cooper’s writings not only participated in the cultural debates of his time but also continue to participate in those of ours. These texts are themselves cultural hybrids in which such cultural hybrids as the Dutch-English-American Cornelius Littlepage writes the little pages that offer us still some traces of a cultural complexity that American history was already losing by Cooper’s time. His most interesting characters strive to see and experiment beyond their own cultural givens, and the tales are less of scouts and Indians than of that complex, necessary, and endless quest.

Democracy is a good name for that quest, a willingness to be governed, for a time, by any people from whom we can learn and benefit. One contemporary view of the term is Hilary Putnam’s: "I want to stress that I don’t think democracy is just a Western phenomenon" (Borradori 64). Putnam argues that if democracy and socialism were merely ethnic or local, they would not have been seized upon, in so many various ways, by peoples having little enough to do with Greece, Iceland, the United States, or Russia. Putnam suggests that democracy is a habit of mind and a good one: "I hold democracy to be a value, not just an ethical value, but a cognitive value in every area. Democracy is a requirement for experimental inquiry in any area" (64), since it does not prescribe what one will learn from the experiment. It opens up a cognitive possibility of mistake, surprise, freedom.

Cooper’s America remains forever liminal, a nation made up of other nations both home-grown and imported, a complex adaptive system full of continuing cross-pollinations and culturally intertextual. In Nations without Nationalism, Julia Kristeva argues for exactly this kind of pullulating heterogeneity. If a text is a space in which "several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect" (Desire 36), then our nation can be seen as made up of combinations of other nations. This view affords us an immunization against the temptation, prevalent in the 1990’s, to be "captivated by the mystical calls of the Volk" (Nations 45). Those who succumb to such temptation begin with "a hatred of those others who do not share my origins" (2) and end with a "hatred of oneself" in which "individuals despair of their own qualities" and "withdraw into a sullen, warm, private world, unnameable and biological, the impregnable ‘aloofness’ of a weird primal paradise-family, ethnicity, nation, race" (3). Cooper’s writings call us out of that paradise to larger worlds. They enact Kristeva’s notion that "the fact of belonging to a set is a matter of choice" (15-16) and Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s observation that "those with cultural power and commonly other forms of power as well" are those with "competence in a large number of cultural codes" (51). They continue to signify both in America and in the world, in a culture Frederick Buell has described as uncontainably pluralistic: "Increasingly...instead of culture unifying us in groups divided from one another, it promises to disaggregate us from those centered unities and interconnect us in more ways than we can easily conceive" (342). Cooper’s writings accord us good preparation for such a world.

They offer us less the pastoral dream of unconscious ease than an American Georgic, the Hesiodic virtue of ponos, labor for the common good, and the sense that there is always work to be done. These democratic writings engage us in virtues needed for worlds larger than we are and still expanding, and they continue to disappoint all schemes for their final meaning, including mine.

Works Cited

Return to Top of Page