The American Sublime in "Fargo"

Richard Gilmore

I read the Coen brothers’ movie "Fargo" as a lesson in the ways of the American sublime. I take as my starting point on the sublime Kant’s discussion of it in the third Critique. For Kant, the sublime is subjective, something that happens inside us, not objective or in the external world, and so I consider the possibility of there being ways of being that are peculiarly American, which would lead to something that could be called an American experience of the sublime. I argue that in the American tradition there are two classic ways of coming to the sublime, one healthy and one unhealthy, and I see the characters of Marge Gunderson and Jerry Lundegaard as representing these two possibilities.

"Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather, vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me…."
--From Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale"

"Fargo" begins in a mist of whiteness. It is an undifferentiated, pervasive, blankness, not unlike Anaximander’s primordial apeiron, from which all things come, and to which all things go, according to some unrecognizable principle of justice. From out of this whiteness will emerge first a bird and then a car hauling a trailer. I take this initial blankness to be a visual trope for the sublime. I read the movie as a whole to be a kind of commentary on peculiarly American ways of encountering the sublime. I will call this the American sublime, but that describes more a particular attitude toward the sublime, a particular way, or ways, even, that the sublime manifests itself because of particular American kinds of attitudes about it.

The opening moments of the movie are not unlike an encounter with the sublime itself for the audience. That is, we are confronted with a visual scene of which we can make no sense, find no point of reference, determine no rational order. The scene threatens a certain violence to our imaginative abilities to construe a plausible narrative. We must wait, somewhat passively, and hope that some pattern will emerge. Rob Wilson in his American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre describes the American sublime as "Founded in a mythology of detextualized whiteness, the American sublime comprises, on some primary level, the all-too-poetic wish for a phantasmic blank ground, or tabula rasa…." That is, in the American fantasy of self-creation, we both long for, and are terrorized by the fantasy of a clean slate. The dynamics of this kind of encounter with the sublime are already outlined in Kant’s third Critique.

In the Critique of Judgment Kant describes the sublime as a subjective phenomenon, that is, the sublime occurs inside us, not outside us in some object (as Kant says, "Sublimity…does not reside in anything of nature, but only in our mind…."). The experience of the sublime itself involves the encounter with some phenomenon, some object, that defies the ability of our imaginative powers of mind to present some delineated idea of the thing. This confrontation with an inability of our own mind is distressing to us. Kant says, for example, "the feeling of the sublime may appear, as regards its form, to violate purpose in respect of the judgment, to be unsuited to our presentative faculty, and as it were to do violence to the imagination." Kant distinguishes a mathematical sublime, in which the cognitive faculty of the mind is confounded, and the dynamical sublime in which our desiring faculty is confronted by a force or an object that would overwhelm it. In both cases, however, the basic trajectory of the sublime is that of a confrontation with something that would seem to defeat us, that is therefore terrifying to us, and yet leads us to realize something about ourselves that shows us that we are not defeated.

The experience of the sublime shows us that we have powers that are immune to the apparent immediate danger of the sublime object. This is a transcendental experience, an experience of transcendence over an initially perceived threat to our integrity, our wholeness as human beings. This experience of transcendence, however, can only come at the price of a certain amount of fear, a certain amount of anxiety. Thomas Weiskel, in The Romantic Sublime, generalizes the experience of the sublime saying, "the transcendence of the sublime is intimately and genetically related to anxiety." What is so powerful about the sublime, however, is that the initial anxiety is overcome, and, as Kant formulates it, "the sublime is that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of sense." Kant will later describe this capacity of thinking, this faculty of the mind, as "supersensible." We have powers than transcend the merely empirical, and it takes the experience of the sublime to apprise us of that fact. Since anxiety is so characteristic of the postmodern condition, the sublime would seem to be an especially important phenomenon to consider as a possible corrective for this ubiquitous anxiety.

The part of the pleasure of the sublime is in this discovery. It is anagnorisis, in Aristotle’s sense, "a change from ignorance to knowledge." This discovery aspect of the sublime might seem to make it a mystical concept. That is, it seems to be a kind of knowledge that depends on having had a certain kind of experience which cannot be articulated in any clear way to someone who has not had that type of experience. I take it, however, to be no more mystical than Aristotle’s notion of the pleasures of virtuous actions, which are similarly occult to those unfamiliar with the virtuous dispositions themselves. Of course, you can only know the pleasure of being generous by being generous, and generosity to the ungenerous will look like a kind of stupidity, but that does not make generosity mystical, it just affirms the necessity of a kind of training. A similar training seems to be required by movies as well as the sublime.

Kant attributes to the sublime a sense of movement, as opposed to the beautiful, which yields "restful contemplation." He says, "The mind feels itself moved in the representation of the sublime in nature…This movement may be compared to a vibration, i.e. to a quickly alternating attraction toward, and repulsion from, the same object. The transcendent…is like an abyss in which it fears to lose itself…." This description of the sublime is paradoxical. This reference to the transcendent as like an abyss is paradoxical because "abyss" suggests something ‘bottomlesss’ where as "transcendent" refers to something above (in German the words that Kant uses are Abgrund and Überschwengliche). This paradox is peculiarly appropriate given Kant’s description of the oscillating movement that the experience of the sublime induces in us. That is, it is as though we feel both drawn to something larger and higher and fear falling into some black pit into which we will be lost. I see this as a place from which to move to the American sublime because of the invocation of the idea of the transcendent here by Kant. This invocation has its American echo in what is referred to as the American Transcendentalist movement, the premier exemplar of which is Emerson. I take whatever it is that makes America peculiarly America to find its origins in, or at least is reflected in, the works of Emerson.

In "The American Scholar" Emerson speaks of an ancient oracular wisdom that says, "All things have two handles: beware of the wrong one." Whatever the American sublime is it would seem to be one of those things that has two handles. I see the movie "Fargo" as exploring, if not lecturing on, the two ways of grasping the American sublime. "Fargo" explores the two handles of the American sublime by, as it were, pitting against each other two characters that grasp it by its two handles. I see the character of Jerry Lundegaard (right) as enacting the wrong  way to grasp the American sublime and the character of Marge Gunderson (left) as enacting the right way.

Harold Bloom in his essay on the American sublime in Poetry and Repression picks up a passage from late Emerson (1866) that Bloom claims characterizes the American sublime. Emerson says, "There may be two or three or four steps, according to the genius of each, but for every seeing soul there are two absorbing facts,--I and the Abyss." Bloom then says, "the American sublime equals I and the Abyss." I find this a provocative suggestion, and I want to unpack it a bit, especially in light of Kant’s account of the sublime, to try to find a way of characterizing the Americanization of the sublime. The problem we are left with after Emerson’s and Bloom’s reference to the Abyss, is to say what this Abyss is. Since, for Kant, the sublime is ultimately a subjective response, i.e., something about us, not something about objects in the world, what characterizes a given experience of the sublime might depend on what we bring to the experience. The question that this raises for me is whether there can be said to be something about us as Americans that would make for a peculiarly American Abyss, and hence a peculiarly American sublime. I want to suggest that the features of the American Abyss derive from features of the American myth: the myth of newness, of being traditionless, the myth of the wild west which is a myth of open spaces, of closeness to nature, of a certain comfort with violence. Another great American myth, which is also part of the American Abyss, is the myth of the American dream.

I take the lineaments of the American dream to be the lineaments of the idea of self-creation. One version of it is the idea of the self-made person, pulling herself up by her own bootstraps, to be a self-made millionaire before one is thirty, to transcend, by one’s own powers, the limitations of class, prejudice, tradition, and one’s own past. This version of the American sublime is consistent with Kant’s analysis of the sublime, both mathematical and dynamical, as an encounter with something that the mind feels attracted to and threatened by and which it cannot completely fathom. The confrontation with this sublime inevitably engages a movement of the mind. It is at this point that the American Sublime can become extremely dangerous.

In "Fargo" the character of Jerry Lundegaard, played by William H. Macy, has had his mind moved by an encounter with this manifestation of the American sublime. Within the context of the movie the experience is characterized not in terms of terror, the usual term for an encounter with the sublime, but as "trouble." As Jerry says, "I am in a bit of trouble." He has summoned two men, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), to the bar "King of Clubs" (a reference, perhaps, to the aleatory nature of the undertaking at hand) to initiate his plan to get out of trouble. Just what trouble he is in is never made quite clear, although, for all that, it is clear enough: Jerry is failing at the American dream. It is not clear, however, how clear Jerry’s trouble is to Jerry. When one of the men he meets at the bar asks him, "What kind of trouble are you in, Jerry?" Jerry replies, "Well, that’s, that’s, I’m not gonna go inta, inta—see, I just need money." It may be that Jerry’s trouble is too complicated to explain, or too personal, although it is hard to imagine a problem more personal than having one’s wife kidnapped for the ransom money, or it may be that Jerry does not really know what his trouble is. It may be that all he really knows is that he needs money, and even that he is wrong about.

Jerry Lundegaard is a salesman. Selling is the underside of the American dream of limitless buying and endless consumption. The desperation of selling is the reality beneath the dream. To fail as a salesman is to fail at the American dream and Jerry is nothing if not a bad salesman. He cannot sell anyone anything. Some of the most painful scenes in the movie are of Jerry trying to sell people things: the two men on his plan, the couple the truecoat undercoating for their new car (which they had already explicitly declined), his father-in-law on his plan for buying a lot, the policewoman Marge on his casual innocence and on his status as a salesman. The moment he begins to try selling something people begin to feel suspicious.

In, I will say, fear and trembling, Jerry has decided to give up selling and to make a play for the American dream by other means. It is at that point that we see him driving through a mist, across the vast open spaces of Minnesota, hauling what he has to exchange, a "brand new burnt umber Sierra"…., heading for Fargo, North Dakota.

I take "Fargo" to be a name for the location where one encounters the sublime; more, perhaps, a state of mind than an actual physical location. Like the Chinatown of Roman Polanski’s "Chinatown" or Malcolm Lowery’s Farolito in Under the Volcano, it is the place where when you have to go there it will take you in, but at an extremely high price and perhaps it will destroy you. It is the place of the forbidden, at the outskirts of society, which, I believe, is how people in Minneapolis, Minnesota actually regard Fargo, North Dakota. Not only is Jerry Lundegaard from Minneapolis, but so are the Coen brothers. For everyone, however, there is presumably a Fargo, a place where children are told not to play and even adults tend to avoid unless to do things out of sight of the regular members of the town society.

Marge Gunderson is Jerry Lundegaard’s opposite in her approach to the American sublime. She exemplifies a peculiarly American kind of healthy-mindedness. She grasps the American Abyss with an unflinching openness that is as undaunted as it is self-reliant. There seems to be no aspect of the sublime that she cannot face, from death and mutilation, to craziness and sexual deviance. Her first confrontation with a messy dead body looks problematic since she seems to get sick, but it turns out that the problem is only morning sickness. When it passes, she is ready for breakfast. She is pregnant, and that condition is a kind of objective correlative for the positive potential of encounters with the sublime. Emerson’s word for the condition of pregnancy is genius. That is, to come to the sublime in the right way is to come at it with the potential for radical transformation, the potential for radical creative production.

Jean-Francois Lyotard in "The sublime and the avant-garde" describes the aesthetics of the sublime as "witness to the fact that there is an indeterminacy." This description is, it seems to me, a brilliant extension of Kant’s account of the sublime. That is, what the sublime will demand of us is an acknowledgement of the limitations of our own powers and a recognition that there are things about the world that we cannot definitively understand. Stanley Cavell identifies the opposite of this kind of acknowledgement as "clutching" and sees in Emerson’s essay "Experience" (with lines like "All I know is reception") a call for a refusal of this way of going to the sublime. The opposite of clutching is allowing oneself to be attracted or drawn to what is before us but which resists easy conceptualization. Cavell associates this attitude with a certain passiveness, a willingness to experience loss or even being lost, that will make possible the recovery from loss. Cavell cites Thoreau’s line from Walden, "Not till we are lost [or turned around], in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."

Jerry Lundegaard is a clutcher. He is what Simone de Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity, would call a serious man or a "sub-man." He takes values, as well as the world, as ready made and determinate. He denies ambiguity. His refusal to acknowledge ambiguity and indeterminacy is a sign of his own lack of self-knowledge. He is terrorized by what Lyotard calls "the sublime in capitalist economy," the idea of "infinite wealth or power." Instead of acknowledging the ambiguity and indeterminacy of this idea, he attempts to clutch at it. It is not, however, an idea that can be grasped. Jerry’s self-deception concerning the nature of the American dream leads him to avoid a confrontation with the real American sublime and so it consumes him. Marge does not avoid it, and so rides it like a wave back to the loving security of her marriage bed.

I see "Fargo" as being in the tradition of the American jeremiad. That is, the characters do not develop and change so much as exemplify and so proclaim to us ways of being that are better and worse. Carl Showalter and Graear Grimsrud are like emissaries of the American sublime, summoned up by Jerry in his desperation. Like Dante’s demons in Cantos twenty-two and twenty-three, they are Nemesis to the humans they are invoked by,  and, comically, each other’s own worst enemy. A strangely troubling scene is the one in which Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrüd) stumbles wildly through the snow, trying to run away from them when her hands are tied behind her back and her head covered in a bag. Showalter laughs at her, and, I am somewhat horrified to say, I laughed too. I take this scene to be emblematic of the human condition from the perspective of the sublime. We are comic in our struggles, in our blind and constrained attempts at escape.

I have intimated the demand for a certain kind of passivity or receptivity that the sublime would make on us. I have suggested that this is something that we must, to some extent, be trained in or prepared for. I see what the Coen’s are doing in "Fargo" as attempting to do just that. It is a movie whose images are fraught with implicit significance. There is a sense of not only something comic underlying the whole works, but also of something serious. For me, one of the great challenges of the movie is the character of Marge herself. I find her very compelling and attractive, but also a little bit repellent and even frightening. I find her frightening because of what strikes me as the absolute blandness of the life she has chosen for herself. She is obviously very smart and capable, and yet seems to want nothing more than a good buffet and some conversation about duck stamps. The banality of it is terrifying.

The challenge of accepting indeterminacy is not one to regard casually. Perhaps the most sublime experience of all is the abyss of other people. Marge’s abyss is not just American, it is a peculiarly mid-western, Minnesota abyss. Slavoj Zizek, from his psychoanalytic, Lacanian perspective, says, "This is, perhaps, the only possible psychoanalytic definition of sin: an intrusion into the fantasy space of the other whereby we ‘ruin his dreams.’" A couple of pages later Zizek goes on to say, "…we can acquire a sense of the dignity of another’s fantasy only by assuming a kind of distance toward our own, by experiencing the ultimate contingency of fantasy as such, by apprehending it as the way everyone, in a manner proper to each, conceals the impasse of his desire. The dignity of a fantasy is its very ‘illusionary,’ fragile, helpless character."

It is impossible not to respect Marge for her dignity, and the challenge is to accept her fantasy as it is for her, even if we cannot share it. This is itself a confrontation with the sublime. It is a confrontation with the arbitrariness of my own fantasy, and so the arbitrariness of everything about me, which is a way of thinking that does violence to my imagination. And yet, that is exactly what the challenge of the sublime, the bearing witness to an indeterminacy, the acknowledgement of ambiguity requires. This is a becoming lost that will make possible a new way of being found, a new way of founding oneself. This level of subtlety strikes me as quite intentional in "Fargo." Fargo, in the end is not just a word for what is dark and forbidden in America, but it also represents a vision of America that is sublimely hopeful and meaningful. It is a word for a vision of American that is not just sublime, but the sublime, or, in Emerson’s words from "Experience," "a new yet unapproachable America."

Dr. Richard Gilmore teaches philosophy and film aesthetics at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.

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