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"Distance," Desire, and The Ideological Matrix of Winter in the Blood
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"Distance," Desire, and The Ideological Matrix of Winter in the Blood
Stephen Tatum
University of Utah
Stephen Tatum

Stephen Tatum's recent publications include essays on Willa Cather and on the Banana Republic catalogs. He is completing a manuscript on the artist Frederic Remington's writings, and is beginning a book-length study of Native American fiction from the early twentieth century to the present.


1. See Don Kunz's discussion for a classification of the various kinds of "distance" posed by the novel. Ultimately, Kunz stresses how the narrator's eventual realization of an "aesthetic distance" leads to the "acquistion of a knowable and valuable self" (99). Rather than recuperating the text as a progressive drama of individual regeneration, my own discussion, by contrast, interrogates this key word in the novel so as to reveal the contradictions resulting from an effort to resolve esthetically what can be called the pardox of desire. What can be restored in the process is how the novel critiques such conclusions by dramatizing how the relations between sexes in the novel reveal the imprint of, not an escape from, the dominant culture's general ideology.

2. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, being becomes problematic because the subject is "split" both during its mirror-phase and its entry in the symbolic order of language (see Ecrits). While the mirror-phase produces a split between the "I" which sees and the "I" which is seen as Other in the mirror, the subject's entry into language occasions a further splitting, that between the "I" which speaks and the "I" which appears in the discourse. This particular gap is marked in Winter in the Blood, for instance, by the telling sentence, "I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon" (2). A fundamental bind occurs with this entry into language: on the one hand, access to the symbolic order of language allows one to articulate needs as demands; on the other hand, according to Lacan, the division between the self which speaks and the self which appears as conscious subject in the discourse allows the unconscious to emerge. With the unconscious defined not as a universal human "given," as in the Jungian collective unconscious, but rather as a construct of "repressed and pre-linguistic signifiers" (Belsey, Critical Practice 64), we must confront the fact that language necessarily fails to articulate the human subject's unconscious needs. And we confront the further fact that the human subject cannot be regarded as a coherent, non-contradictory entity if only because it can never be a master of its psyche, a point that the dreamwork recorded in chapter sixteen of Winter in the Blood dramatically illustrates. There the promptings of the narrator's unconscious appear as a set of bizarre and somewhat grotesque images which elude the narrator's inner censor and trouble his conscious efforts to evade the conflicts they signify.

3. This problem of narrativity is explicitly dramatized in Welch's novel The Death of Jim Loney. In this text Loney realizes that "he couldn't connect the different parts of his life, or the various people who had entered and left it. Sometimes he felt like an amnesiac searching for the one event, the one person or moment, that would bring everything back and he would see the order in his life. But without the amnesiac's clean slate, all the people and events were as hopelessly tangled as a bird's nest in his mind . . ." (20-21). See also Kathleen Sands' helpful discussion of Winter in the Blood, which links the episodic nature of the narrative to the novel's theme of alienation.

4. Here I am employing Garrett Stewart's phrase as advanced in his discussion of Virginia Woolf's style for presenting death scenes in her fiction (217-18).

5. As Peter Beidler says in his preface to the special American Indian Quarterly number on Winter in the Blood, most critics agree that the narrator does grow and achieve some wisdom (95). In addition to Kunz's conclusion (quoted in note one above), A. Lavonne Ruoff suggests that Welch's "I" is "renewed through his verbalization and revelation," able...