Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645

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Slinger takes the cowboy film or story as its subject because it is the essence of modern Western ideology: The subject of the cowboy film is a white male hero who overcomes the forces of evil in other white men, the adversities of the environment (wolves, raging fire, storms) or the perversities of so-called primitive peoples such as American Indians and the “half-breeds” south of the border. What is said to triumph in such heroic tales is reason itself—cold, empirical logic set against wild nature. Dorn’s perspective runs directly counter to each of these assumptions. His sympathies are squarely with Indian America, with wilderness, the unspoiled frontiers of the New World that the European immigrants contaminated and largely destroyed.

Dorn’s purpose in this mock epic is to puncture his readers’ illusory certainties and attack their cultural assumptions. The Gunslinger is modeled on the figure of Charles Olson, a kind of philosophical and ideological outlaw who is opposed to the conventional roots of modern reality. Behind Dorn’s beliefs lies the century’s heritage of new thinking, which is redefining nature as harmonious balance and creativity, and rediscovering in the primal societies colonialized by Western imperialism secrets to living in harmony with the earth. The new villain of modernism and postmodern writing is not the wild Indian or the savage beast of the forest, but the predatory ingenuity of Western society itself.

The cowboy story is the place to set up Dorn’s mocking denials; here is the lode of images and themes by means of which Western society propagandizes audiences, preaches its gospel of progress and rationality. All of Dorn’s figures derive from the typical cowboy tale but reverse their stereotypical roles. “I” ceases to be a hero and becomes a mere vessel to hold lysergic acid; he is “retired” from literature in this tale. Even the drifters get a new image; they are not menacing, but rather helpful marginal figures. The horse, Claude, is intelligent, witty, wry, and more rational than a human. Nature itself is intelligent, more balanced in its dynamic than is human thought.

The journey that begins at Mesilla, New Mexico, is intended to reach Las Vegas, the mecca of Western greed and artificiality in the desert, but it gradually turns into a pilgrimage to the Hopi shrine at Four Corners. This shift in goals is the serious point buried beneath the poem’s satirical surface: It marks in the characters a turning away from the neon-lit excesses of contemporary urbanism toward the ineffable mysteries of nature encoded in Hopi religion. The characters themselves are a microcosm of fringe culture in America—the hippies, gurus, poets, and artists who have been composing alternative visions since the end of World War II. Indeed, Slinger belongs to the “drug culture” of the 1960’s, which is now thought to have mocked and satirized rationality itself by means of “trips,” descents in the mind, visions, psychedelic hazes, and similar methods.

Slinger’s place in contemporary literature is with other bohemian classics of the era: with the work of the Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; with the plays of Sam Shepard, which treat the modern West from a similarly jaundiced viewpoint; and with Thomas Pynchon’s satiric novels, all of which explode the underlying psychology of destruction in Western thought and propose antidotes in the form of primitive mysticism and myth.

For a time in the early 1970’s, Slinger enjoyed the reputation of a cult text and was passed around reverently by younger readers who shared the passionate conviction that the West was hurtling toward technological suicide. Slinger’s outrageous satire has faded over the years, and its views seem a bit quaint and light-hearted in an age that is reeling from environmental catastrophes and ravaging plagues. Like many good works of literature, Slinger was prophetic in sounding the alarm.