Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Notes on Dhalgren, Chapter 3: House of the Ax

The name of the building that the Richards occupy, and with which much of the 3rd chapter is concerned, is The Labry Apartments. This bears a close resemblance to the word labrys, which is the term for a symmetrical double-headed axe which was originally found in Crete. The labrys is considered to be one of the oldest symbols of Greek civilization (it’s also curiously known as a “bipennis”).

The palace of Knossos, thought to be the place of the labyrinth in which Theseus fought the minotaur, was known as “The House of the Double Axe”. The palace was said to be made up of five great complexes of labyrinthine complexity, comprised of over one 1500 rooms. Deep within this network of buildings was hidden the ritual center. (Interestingly, Calkins’ complex has five towers in the back for servants, of which there are said to be fifteen).

“He had a momentary image of all these walls on pivots controlled by subterranean machines, so that, after he had passed, they might suddenly swing to face another direction, parting at this corner, joining now at that one, like a great maze – forever adjustable, therefore unlearnable – “

The theme of the labyrinth also calls to mind that of the quest. Kidd is, willingly or otherwise, immersed in a quest to find his lost name. This very much mirrors the Masonic quest involving the discovery of the lost Word. The name, as with the Word, would theoretically be found at the center of the labyrinth, which represents the end of the quest. Bellona presents itself as a labyrinth, with its shifting geography and seeming lack of consistency, and thus Kidd wanders through the city streets and living spaces. The thread he lays down, mirroring that of Ariadne who accompanied Theseus on his quest, is his poetry, written on the unused pages of the journal. It must be observed that he does indeed find his way back out of the maze by the end of the book. It seems that the journal contains parts of the book Dhalgren, offered to us perhaps as a thread by which to find our way back from the inner depths of the novel.

Later on in the book, in the final chapter, Kidd finds himself daydreaming while in the midst of orgasm. He pictures himself holding hands with someone, and “running among leafless trees laced with moonlight while the person behind me kept repeating: ‘…Grendal, Grendal, Grendal…” A short while later Kidd realizes that he’d arranged the syllables the wrong way. That the word that he’d heard repeated over and over was “Dhalgren”.  At this point in the book, it seems quite feasible that Kidd is in fact William Dhalgren, whose name appears listed among several others in the journal.

Several parallels exist between the story of Beowulf and Grendal and that of Theseus and the minotaur. The stories of Beowulf and Theseus each involve a character who comes to the aid of a city that is not the city in which he lives, and which is menaced by a mysterious beast. Each cross a body of water; Beowulf crosses a body of water to get to Denmark, and Theseus crosses the Aegean to get to the minotaur’s labyrinth. Beowulf swipes a magic sword from the treasury of Grendal’s mother and uses it to kill her as well as her wounded son. Theseus is directed, by his mother, to reclaim the sword of his father from beneath a stone as his birthright. Both heroes use their weapon to decapitate their enemy.

Kidd resembles both Theseus and Beowulf. The optical chain, found in a cave upon a rock ledge, is his weapon. With this weapon, Kidd defends the wasted city by analyzing the nature of the light which has destroyed it, as well as by reflecting that light and focusing it through a series of lenses.

Later on in the book it is strongly suggested that Kidd is not Dhalgren at all, that William Dhalgren is a reporter working for Calkins. Dhalgren as the reporter represents the enemy. Where Kidd allows himself to descend right down into the mud and muck of the labyrinth, grappling with it in all of its gritty chaos, the reporter chooses to stand back in an attempt to understand the city from afar. Kidd becomes directly involved with the light, using poetry not only in order to represent it in all of its rawness, but also to come to terms with it himself. The reporter, conversely, attempts to confine the light to ‘facts’, eschewing both poetry and direct experience. Kidd is the savage hero, and the reporter the civilized beast. Kidd’s poetry is intended as a wound to the engine of distortion presented by the press, which, in its quest for facts, distorts and ultimately loses touch with the true nature of the light of experience.

On second thought, perhaps Kidd is closer in nature to the beast. He has come to wound the city after all, not to defend it. Both Theseus and Beowulf become kings after having defeated their enemy. Beowulf, after defeating Grendal, returns to Geatland and there becomes the Lord of the Geats. Theseus, after defeating the minotaur, becomes the king of Athens. The name Theseus is thought to be descended from a Greek root word meaning “institution”. Kidd is certainly depicted as the enemy of institutions. Much of the book in fact is built upon the tension between the roles of Kidd and Calkins. The newspaper is the largest institution in Bellona, and Calkins clearly considers himself owner and king of the city. Kidd, on the other hand, quickly becomes somewhat of a legend, and is naturally adopted as the leader of the scorpions (ironically, since each member of the scorpions choses an iconic name, whereas Kidd’s has been given to him). Kidd is arguably the true, if unintentional, king of Bellona.

The ambiguity between hero and villain, king and usurper, outlaw and institution, is one of the keys by which to navigate the book, which itself appears as a labyrinth with seven centers instead of one.

“Like everything else in town, you just hear about it until it bumps into you. You have to put yourself at the mercy of the geography, and hope the down-hills and up-hills, working propitiously with how much you feel like fighting and how much you feel like accepting, manage to get you there. You’ll find it eventually.” 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Notes on Dhalgren, Chapter 2: The Ruins of Morning

Bellona is a city in ruins, a place in which civilization has collapsed. There are no laws, no official agencies, no government of any type. Even the laws of nature don’t run a stable course, the sun and moon behave erratically and the stars overhead are blotted out by smoke and fog. This is a place of total freedom. There are no guidelines, no social order, no justice. The days and months and years revolve upon the whim of Calkins, self-proclaimed overseer of the city, who himself seems to be completely out of touch with the people in it, secluding himself as he does within his mansion.

Every character in the book responds to the freedom of Bellona in a different way. Some keep to themselves, others form groups. Some are violent, others promiscuous. Some, such as the Richards, attempt to carry on as if nothing had happened. What meaning is to be found in the autumnal ruins must be created by the city’s inhabitants, and I think herein lies the key to the theme denoted by the title of the second chapter – when the rules and conventions by which we live fall away, what do we make of the wreckage?

The book itself is subject to this same freedom. It is unrestrained by the conventions of standard plot and narrative. Setting, exposition, central conflict, climax, resolution - all of these things have been laid to waste. The novel unfolds amidst the ruins of its elements. The book is the Bellona and Bellona is the book. As readers, we are left to find meaning amongst the wreckage in much the same way as are the city’s inhabitants.

Discerning meaning from chaos is the method of the diviner. The elements of chance and randomness in divination enable the fortuitous conjunction of intuition and narrative by which the unknown may be brought into greater light. The city of Bellona, and hence Dhalgren as a book, resembles a deck of tarot cards which has been shuffled. What meaning is to be found therein is up to the diviner, who must assemble the impressions laid before them into a coherent story.

This is not to say that there is no inherent meaning in the book. Rather, one of the methods by which the book is made to reveal itself is through the use of chance or randomness. This level of meaning is not entirely under the control of the author (or the reader, for that matter). There is nothing so chaotic as to completely eschew meaning. The human psyche is gifted with an amazing capacity to find a coherent narrative in anything. By presenting us with a city, and a book, in ruins, Delany has given us a rich field of chaos from which to derive something of worth that he as author could not provide in its entirety on his own.

The title of the second chapter of Dhalgren is a little tricky. I prefer to think that it refers to an event that occurred in the morning, leaving the city in ruins. An alternative would suggest that the ruins are found in the morning, and that they are presumably the result of a cataclysm that occurred in the night. The former interpretation suggests that it was none other than the rising of the sun, the shining of a devastating light, that wreaked havoc upon the city.

Imagine a city blinded by the light of greater awareness. The light slowly fades, but nobody can forget what they had seen. Most of the cities inhabitants leave town in an effort to forget the light and get on with their normal lives. Those that stay can never live the way they’d lived before. They are changed through and through. What remains of the city may be the ruins of morning, the unalterable result of the cataclysm of sunrise. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Notes on Dhalgren, Chapter 1: Prism, Mirror, Lens

Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren has been called “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.” I would contend that any book that has a “solution” is somewhat shallow. Literature at its best reveals depths of mystery in which any given solution merely gives way to greater depths. Mystery creates a debt which can only be repaid (though never in full) by engaging with the questions which it raises. In such engagement do we find meaning, the debt and its repayment being mere devices which serve to facilitate the art.

Seven distinct themes seem to run like rivers through Delany’s book. These themes are indicated by the chapter titles. The themes are interrelated, yet each stands on its own. Each is highlighted in its particular chapter, yet is explored throughout the whole of the book.

The chapters are as follows:
I           Prism, Mirror, Lens
II         The Ruins of Morning
III        House of the Ax
IV        In Time of Plague
V         Creatures of Light and Darkness
VI        Palimpsest
VII      The Anathemata: A Plague Journal

Somewhere in the depths of the 3rd chapter, the poet Newboy pontificates upon the “shield of the poet” as he calls it. On one side of the shield is written “be true to your art so that you can be true to yourself”, and on the other, “be true to yourself so that you can be true to your art”. The shield, he says, first appears as a mirror, then becomes a lens, and then a prism. So does the poet’s narcissism slowly transform into the means of observation, at length refining into an instrument by which the very nature of light itself may be analyzed.

In the title of the first chapter, it is the prism which comes first. A prism divides light into seven particular rays. It is fitting that the prism is indicated first in the chapter title, as the table of contents is the first thing in the book that the reader encounters. Delany seems to indicate that the seven themes that run throughout the book each have their source in a single light, but, in order to analyze the nature of that light, it must first be broken down into its constituent parts so that each part may be understood independent of the rest.

After determining and naming the components into which the light has been divided, it is indicated that this light will serve as a mirror. The mirror is intended to reflect the image not only of the reader and of the author, but also of the main character. After all, having forgotten his name, he is not without need of one. Lastly, the light will serve as a lens through which to see not only ourselves but something of the world in which we live.

Thus is the intent of the book encapsulated in three simple words. The fact that the main character (we’ll call him Kidd) has forgotten his name makes him an appropriate mirror for the reader. It’s easier to identify with a character that has no official name, just as it’s easier to identify with a simple image than it is with a complex image. The lack of particularity and distinction allow us to project our own image upon the ambiguity. The fact that Kidd is bisexual (and androgynously monikered) may be an attempt to allow readers of both sexes to identify, at least to some degree, with this character.

A river, reminiscent of the river Lethe, runs along the border of Bellona. A river makes a lousy mirror. The waters are ever flowing and constantly changing, unlike a pond who’s waters offer a still surface for reflection. This river, appearing as it does at the beginning and end of the book, calls to mind the first sentence of Finnegan’s Wake, which is wrapped around from the end: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

The first sentence of the first chapter of Dhalgren, as with the Wake, is pregnant with a thousand meanings: “to wound the autumnal city.” Strangely, the first sentence doesn’t wrap around so perfectly with the last, “I have come to”. The ‘to’ is repeated. Is this a pun on ‘to’ and ‘two’? The result of the ‘wound’? A typo? It seems somehow fitting that the end of the book would jar ever so slightly with the beginning.

A city in the autumn of its years is a city who’s time is nearly up. Bellona is the name of a Greek Goddess who is also called the waster of cities. She has come to wound, indeed. Autumn is also the time of the equinox, a time when light and darkness are equal. After the autumnal equinox the light descends toward the time of greatest darkness in winter. Both aspects of autumn will be explored in greater depth in the analysis of the remaining themes.