Afterimages (the American West)

19th Century Light  John R. Campbell

19th Century Light

John R. Campbell


I was traveling from Missoula, Montana, to Portland, Oregon, following the Columbia River west. It was March: it happened to be my birthday. Rain and snow obscured my view. Exhausted, with the dusk deepening all around, I pulled off the highway to sleep in a parking area over the water. 

Eventually, I awoke disoriented in a dark car. Stumbling out onto the asphalt, I glimpsed the signage that informed me where I stood. It happened to be the site where the Columbia River is backed up behind the dam that, in the year of my birth, obliterated Celilo Falls. 

“It happened.” “To be.” Again I return to the existential West, a place both familiar and strange in its thoroughgoing aura of loss. A place that forces numerous apologia. A wayside. A necessary aside.

Celilo Falls was an ancient fishing grounds, a place where innumerable salmon leapt in their season. For centuries, a diversity of tribes, some of whom traveled great distances, would gather there to share in the abundance. Carl Safina writes: “The Celilo Falls area became a major communication center where diverse cultures made alliances, exchanged stories, and spoke about religion and their history . . . When the Dalles Dam backed up the river in 1957 and Celilo Falls was submerged, Indians stood on the bank, watching. Some wept.” 

Safina also notes this about the falls: “Its removal deforms the figure almost too hideously to look at directly. Perhaps that is why, although there is a black-and-white photo of Celilo Falls in almost every home and office I enter, I have never seen it hung as the center of attention. Usually it is off to the side, or on a mantle with other memorabilia.”

So the memory of the obliterated falls is veiled in obscurity. Obscurity descends where grief and respect mingle. Once I mentioned the falls to James Lavadour, a remarkable artist of the Walla Walla tribe. He gently corrected my pronunciation: see-lie-low. And then he fell silent.

Elizabeth Woody writes: "Today we know Celilo Falls as more than a lost landmark. It was a place as revered as one's own mother. The story of Wyam's [Celilo's] life is the story of the salmon, and of my own ancestry. I live with the. . . absence and silence of Celilo Falls, much as an orphan lives hearing of the kindness and greatness of his or her mother."

Let’s not etherealize here. One of the implicit means of Western expansionism and Manifest Destiny was genocide. The flooding of Celilo Falls was a capstone of that very effort. And so every act in the American West is post-genocidal. Though various Indian nations live, they also live in a post-genocidal state. Our best philosophies have no solvent to abolish this historical fact.

After the long atrocity there is only hollow commentary. Maybe. But there is also the afterimage, the wide, glossy water over Celilo Falls. Water drowning water: what purports to obliterate the memory of the falls actually preserves it. The replacement-image, in its coy falseness, its utter difference from the original, does the opposite of depict, but in so doing it constantly summons the original image to mind. 

Is the image of lost Celilo Falls really so peripheral in our vision, like all those off-placed photographs? Perhaps it is in fact so pervasive that it becomes as a filter, strangely atmospheric, through which we view the world.



History and culture hold lessons for us all. Native peoples have their heritage to consult. But what about the descendants of Europeans?

Consider our Western American provincialism, our reluctance to learn from Europe. Don’t we still cast Europe as the old oppressor, the elitist culture? Europe’s a fine vacation spot, maybe, but don’t we like to think that history begins, essentially, on American soil? And yet, in some aspects, Europe, scorned as our past, may well portray our future. 

To generalize: Americans treat violence as a natural given. Europeans know violence as a historical and cultural outcome. 

Zbignew Herbert, the late poet and leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland, writes of a certain Cleomedes, a mythological anti-hero who hails from an obscure and nearly featureless Greek isle. Given the gifts of strength and beauty, Cleomedes the athlete is sent out into the world. The problem, though, is that his sense of self, of individual style, is weak, and that it certainly pales in the presence of his great gifts. He is short on subjectivity, this Cleomedes.

So when the Olympics roll around, Cleomedes is slated to compete as a boxer, an area in which he has no expertise, but "a context in which he could achieve form, that is, individual shape, and at last become someone defined who could be distinguished from others without difficulty or hesitation. For what is boxing? A battle that is open, masculine, even more an allegory of war, a prefiguration of the struggle between life and death. . . . [T]his would force him to mobilize all his dormant forces to answer aggression with aggression, to be rid of his provincial shyness once and for all and become at last a convincing, distinct, happy victor."
Problem: Cleomedes kills his opponent in the ring. He is denied victory by the officials. He “was plunged into sorrow and despair. He rejected the world, which he had never understood anyway.” 

Cleomedes returns to his native isle. “He sets out in the direction of the city. A school building is next to the road, and the madness of the unfortunate Olympic athlete is vented upon it. The wooden columns collapse. Under the rubble sixty children find their death.”

By this point Cleomedes has completely abandoned his already weak subjectivity, and in the process has denied the subjectivity of all. He chooses now as an object among objects. Here of course are echoes of occupied Poland, but also, closer to home: of our ongoing terrorist anxiety, of the Oklahoma City bombing, of horrendous shootings on school grounds. The mythological American West resounds with senseless violence. 

No: the actual West resounds. Forget the “frontier character.” Forget the “Wild West.” Notice instead that some marginal figure has absconded with justice. Notice the moment when injustice is no longer merely the lack of justice--it is the lack of meaning altogether. 

Nature, as morally neutral, allows and destroys without meaning, as a result of undeniable forces. This fact is as mysterious and irrefutable as gravity. But the story of Cleomedes takes place, as Herbert says, “on the frontier between human affairs and the phenomena of nature.” Just like the story of the American West. “Down the steep slope of a mountain, or a narration, crushing everything in its way, rolls a boulder,” Herbert writes. “Only ruins and victims remain. But catastrophes after all are innocent.”

This last statement leads us to consider a terrifying form of innocence, doesn’t it? The site of Cleomedes’ slaughter is a place of nonmeaning, neither meaningful nor meaningless. Here meaning is no longer a standard, or even a consideration. Here objects react to other mere objects. Innocence in this world cannot be an absence of culpability, as objects are not capable of blame. This new innocence distorts and disfigures nature's deep neutrality; it is objectivity in service of a lost subject. 

Such crude objectivity runs against being. It allows for all sorts of atrocities wherein one not only dehumanizes his victim, but actually removes her--first her subjectivity, and then her objective presence--the way one might stow a pair of shoes so as not to stumble in one’s own house.

In a culture that subscribes to happiness via material acquisition, a milieu where individualism might devolve into a state of crude objectivity, certain objects will require removal on a regular basis. And these objects need to be owned, first, in order to justify their manipulation. So when we ask the question, “What possessed that high school boy to calmly assault his classmates?,” we are always lacking an answer, but at least we’re phrasing the question correctly. That rifle-wielding boy, like Cleomedes, was not only an object among objects— he must have been, in his own mind, in the possession of those objects. Those who deprived him of his subjectivity apparently owned his soul. How much choice he had in the matter is unknown to me. But his final choice is all too obvious. Removing his victims from the face of the earth was his form of ownership. Now he possessed them, at an incalculable cost.

Call it what you will. Absurdity. A perversion of late-phase capitalism. But don’t call it an aberration. Recognize this random quality. Doesn’t it infect our entire history? Doesn’t it defy our very conception of history as discernible patterns? (So how might history describe it?) That schoolhouse happened to be along Cleomedes’s way. There is no pattern to nonmeaning. 


Randomness is especially graphic in the landscapes of the American West. As I travel, usually by car, and often in winter when the deserts are still and the mountains muted by snow, I sense the arbitrary nature of our human settlement. The animals and plants all have their niches, their ambits, their migration patterns over time and space. Each habit is firmly grounded in the demands and benefits the land presents. We, on the other hand, though we gladly exploit waterways and soils, have largely settled according to outmoded cultural conventions or short-term exploitation. 

Boom and bust. Boom and bust. We’ve placed town squares in the path of resource extraction. We’ve placed cities where they can not survive without exacting a huge environmental price. We’ve built “communities” based solely on recreational opportunities. We’ve built too many and too massive dams. We’ve let mercurial economic demands direct our considerable energy, ignoring the need to sustain the necessities: water, local food production, a limited population. 

Though the Industrial Revolution has allowed this disregard, our flawed vision predates modernity. Randomness is embedded in our history of settlement. To the settlers, the land was all chaos and potential. Their attempts to impose order--The Northwest Passage, Manifest Destiny, homesteads, grids--had limited durability on the actual terrain. To the settlers in their predicament, there was no historical panacea available. There was only destiny. Even as their inappropriate settlement patterns were informed by European culture, they failed to recognize the deeper European legacy of ethnic warfare, forced resettlement, religious intolerance. The impetus towards an American empire seemed to them unprecedented, new. 

So gazing deeply into a random, mercurial, and capricious West, the settlers adapted to their own misapprehension. They acted no differently than we do today. Their motives--self-interest, faith in American expansionism and progress--were both noble and despicable. Though they were for the most part peaceful, law-abiding peoples, the settlers acquiesced to the worst among them. Our history became arbitrary: frontier violence, greed, land grabbing, environmental havoc, and acts of genocide against native peoples. But also: utopian visions, self-sacrifice, meaningful inhabitations, wilderness veneration. What a dizzying mix. Valiant and contemptible acts, each meticulously shaded, exist side-by-side, or are more often nested within one another. 

Mere contradiction might be tolerable. All history is infused with it. Contradictions might be understood as causes and effects. They at least have an element of meaning. But sometimes, hidden inside contradiction lies the unmeaning world. It awaits its expression, which will always be unexpected, even as it, too, is ultimately tolerated. 

Our tolerance for human absurdity: that’s our ultimate failure. That’s the afterimage of the violent flash that we can’t evict from our eyes.