Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Notes on Dhalgren, Chapter 5: Creatures of Light and Darkness

To wound the autumnal city is to upset the balance between light and darkness.

The themes of light and darkness run light a thread throughout every aspect of the book. A mirror is quite meaningless, after all, without any light to reflect. The same holds true for a lens or a prism, and light is defined by darkness.

In the creation myth recounted in Genesis, the stellar luminaries of the sun and moon divide the night from the day. In Bellona their enlarged twins loom large in the heavens and are adopted by its citizens as part of the city’s mythology. George is associated with the monstrous moon, the raw force of unrestrained sexuality. Countering this is the civilizing force of June, who circles around George like the moon ought to circle around the sun, but in Bellona all things are skewed and many things reversed. June doesn’t represent the established order so much as that which is entrenched within it, and it doesn’t seem quite right that she should be associated with the gigantic sun that strikes terror into the hearts of the inhabitants of the city (excepting Kidd). June, her name designating the month of summer solstice but rhyming with “moon”, seems more to indicate the moon’s moon, a satellite circling a satellite, not so much George’s consort as his follower. George’s true consort is Bellona Herself, and it is She who appears in the sky as a tremendous blazing light which stirs panic amongst the natives, just as it is She who sets the buildings afire, and She who brings the bombardment that finally causes Kidd to leave the city.

“But the arcane and unspoken name of what rose on this so extraordinary day, for which George is only consort, that alone will free you from this city!”

If the solar force, typically associated with light, represents poetic vision in both its creative and destructive aspects, the darker lunar force is more visceral, animal, and immediate. It is the experience of raw sexuality and violent impulse. Kidd maintains a foot in both worlds. He is truly a creature of light and darkness.  This is true even in the color of his skin (people generally assume that he’s of Native American descent). Part of the theme indicated by this particular chapter title is concerned with cultural assumptions regarding race, about which there is so much to say that it almost requires another set of essays to explore in full. Ambiguity is liberally employed to highlight the reader’s own preconceptions about race and culture.

The interplay of light and darkness is further demonstrated by the Scorpions, who hide themselves with light forms, veiling their bodies with those of animals. The shields used by the scorpions have little to do with the poet’s shield referred to by Newboy. Rather, these shields are employed to conceal instead of reveal. They form darkness out of light. If Calkins has a garden for each month, the Scorpions are like a wayward zodiac, forever circling around the house on the top of the hill, never allowed to enter except but once during the celebration for the publication of Kidd’s book of poems. The celebration itself appears to be a sort of equinox in which the light and the dark are brought together in equal measure. Again, there is a sense of ambiguity – is it the Scorpions or Calkins and crew who represent the darkness here? The Scorpions operate with little to no foresight, bound to their instincts as they drift rudderless along the shifting tides of the city of chaos. On the other hand, they are the true eyes and ears of the city, while Calkins serves as a false prophet of sorts, a beacon of misinformation desperately trying to maintain his hold over the minds of the populace.

The establishment and the counter-culture each maintain a hold on certain aspects of the light, while yet grasping at the parts they cannot quite reach. Both seem plunged, in equal measure, into their own particular darkness. Kidd appears to play the part of the wounded hero (a cultural icon who did indeed manage to manifest enough to make a discernible difference in the latter half of the 1960s). He has come to wound the Autumnal city, to shift the balance of light and darkness fortuitously against those who seek to control the flow of information so as to impose rigid limitations upon the culture. Or perhaps he’s simply another aimless wanderer, more at effect to the vacillations and unpredictability of the city that at any sort of cause, having as little say in the shifts of balance between light and darkness as the reader has in the events that occur throughout the course of the narrative.