- Riders of the Virtual Sage:Zane Grey, Cormac McCarthy, and the Transformation of the Popular Western
It is hard to imagine the evolution of the American novel into its first great movement—the American Renaissance—without the vulgar and transgressive power of the popular to set it into motion and to give it the stores of images, themes, plots, character types, and resentments. A profane energy resonates in Walt Whitman's democratic embrace of the masses, in Herman Melville's rough-edged metaphysics, and in Nathaniel Hawthorne's perverse communities. Indeed, the link between popular culture and "serious" art has become a starting point rather than a point of contention in cultural studies. The echo of crime reportage in House of the Seven Gables, the rhythms of jazz in the novels of Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin, and the textures and voices of sensational fiction and anime in the bold work of Quentin Tarantino have all been convincingly argued for. What I wish to add to these arguments is the distinction between two forms of influence, one based on potentiality—which I will describe as the influence of transportation—the other based on a concept introduced and elaborated by Gilles Deleuze in Difference and Repetition—the "virtual," which I will describe as the influence of transformation.
Potentiality is best described as a form of transportation—especially in the case of literary influence, although Aristotle himself cannot escape the metaphors of displacement between states—because in the movements of literary influence we are often gratified to see an idea, a character type, a social conflict, leave a setting in which it cannot unleash all of its force of meaning to enter another one where it rises to a more stringent set of expectations. We will take a few moments to clarify this transportation of potential, as it will provide the necessary contrast for our later discussion of virtual transformation.
To be more specific, let us look at one of the canonical American novels of the nineteenth century, Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, and, later, one [End Page 433] of the arguably greatest American novels of the late twentieth century, Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing, the second novel in his Border Trilogy. The former, I assert, depends upon a relationship with popular culture that must be characterized as "potential"—that is, it is able to borrow from popular culture images, characters, and attitudes that can still be recognized as popular images even on the other side of the transportation that Hawthorne carries out. McCarthy's The Crossing, however, does not realize the possibilities of popular culture, but rather makes popular elements undergo a kind of ramifying problematic mutation, a transformation that must be characterized as "virtual."
We must understand the difference between the virtual and the term with which it is too easily confused, the potential. The virtual in many ways has a wider scope than the potential, because it can cross the space of difference. Perhaps the best elaboration of the limitation of the possible is Aristotle's in Metaphysics. His two great examples of the limitations of the possible are the transformation of wine into vinegar and of the human seed into a human being. Aristotle tells us, first of all, that wine is not potentially vinegar. Wine as a substance, as a this, does not become vinegar. Wine may become many things—hot, cold, sour, agitated, mobile—and all the while remain wine. So this is the first condition of possibility: a thing may manifest as many possibilities as it will, so long as it remains itself. Consequently, wine does not have the potentiality to cross the threshold that makes wine wine. But we know that wine does in fact turn into vinegar; it does in fact cross the threshold, but only by differing from itself. So we might say as a first rule that the limits of substance are the limits of possibility, whereas the virtual proceeds by differentiation. Aristotle also tells us that the seed is not potentially a human until it has been fertilized; indeed it is not potentially human until it has started irrevocably (except by external accident) on the...