Sunday, April 28, 2013

Notes on Dhalgren, Chapter 4: In Time of Plague

Several parallels are drawn throughout the book between the nature of narrative and the experience of various types of mental illness. The fourth chapter is very much tied to the seventh (The Anathemata: A Plague Journal). The former explores the theme of mental illness insomuch as it relates to narrative, while the latter is more focused on narrative as it relates to mental illness.

The reference to ‘time’ in the chapter title refers, among other things, to Kidd’s tendency to lose significant stretches of time. Kidd seems to be entirely absent during the spaces of time which he has lost. Nobody sees or hears from him during these periods. It is as if he has simply vanished for a time, then re-appeared again some time afterward.

Kidd’s tendency to lose time is explicitly referred to as an illness in the book. Perhaps he’s simply experiencing a break in the narrative, a section of the story in which he doesn’t appear. In any story, there are times in which one character or another ceases to exist. The story follows other characters or jumps to a different time, and the character in question perhaps reappears later in the story. Can the character be said to persist when they are not being followed by the narrative, especially if there is no indication of what the character was up to during that time? A character in such a circumstance seems to exist in a kind of limbo. If something of this nature were to happen to a person in the outer world, a real person as opposed to a character in a story, their experience (or lack thereof) might resemble Kidd’s.

It seems that Delany may have endowed his protagonist with extra-narrative tendencies and abilities. Instead of receiving god-like powers, the character who has received these gifts is crippled by them, and can only relate to them as a sort of illness.

Somewhere in the middle of the fourth chapter, Kidd is doing a run on the shopping mall with several members of the Scorpions. At one point he gazes into a mirror and appears to see Delany himself reflected therein. The mystical experience of the created looking upon the face of its creator is deflated, for Kidd is merely confused by this and fails to attribute any special significance to the apparition. The symbol of the mirror is one of the main motifs of the book, and it’s clear that many of Kidd’s experiences are drawn from various points in Delany’s life, the former mirroring the latter. On the other hand, maybe the object through which Kidd and Delaney gaze upon each other isn’t a mirror at all but a lens. Or maybe it’s a prism, dividing a single light into the twin poles of creator and created, that each may be analyzed independently of the other.

Of further interest is the fact that Delany’s image in the mirror seems to be holding Kidd’s notebook. The notebook itself, containing as it does several of Kidd’s own thoughts, seems to have somehow found its way into the story from the outer world. The notebook seems to act almost as if it were a power object or fetish of some sort, bestowing upon Kidd his unasked for powers. Perhaps it is the very means of his ‘illness’. Delany is a cruel god to bestow such gifts on his creation. But then the gift of poetry is classically bound with some sort of affliction, so much so that it is often said to be an infernal rather than a divine gift.

The time of the plague, of course, refers also to the span of time during which Bellona is afflicted. At some point Bellona was presumably a relatively normal city. The constant fog that permeates the city is perhaps of the same nature as that of Kidd’s absent periods. The stars, those lights in the heavens which orient the traveler and aid in navigation, are almost entirely blotted out by clouds and smoke. It is impossible to see anything at a distance other than vague forms. It is this that allows the city to shift and re-arrange its streets and byways, for what is not known cannot me mapped or charted. Even when one is afforded a view of the city from an elevated place, whole stretches of it are blotted and obscured, the flare of burning buildings through the mist and smoke serve as wayward stars in an inverted night sky that drifts and strays according to no known plan or structure.

“The night? What of it. It is filled with bestial watchmen, travelling the extremities of the interstices of the timeless city, portents fallen, constellated deities plummeting in ash and smoke, roaming the apocryphal cities, the cities of speculation and reconstituted disorder, of insemination and incipience, swept round with dark.”