A palimpsest is a piece of writing (commonly – though the term is sometimes used to refer to other media, even architecture) which has been written over an older text, such that at least some of the previous text can be detected. It is a blending of past and present, often unintentional, as the past bleeds through the text that was intended to obliterate it. All narrative necessarily partakes of this dynamic, building as it does on previously established themes, cultural constructs, and the personal experiences of the narrator among other things. The avant-garde, especially insomuch as it tends to attempt a break with past forms, is palimpsestic in nature. It cannot escape its roots no matter how hard it tries, and its struggles merely bind it more tightly to its origins.
Dhalgren often reads like a stochastic mixture of pulp and literature, never quite settling comfortably into any particular genre, long passages drifting unsteadily in no discernible direction, having the same disregard for narrative formality that we find in our own lives, yet revealing a common set of themes in a manner which marks the difference between life and art. The book dispenses with narrative tropes, yet embraces them in more subtle ways. It is almost as if Delany were trying to demonstrate the fact that there is no escape from traditional notions of theme and recurrence in art.
In this chapter, Kidd finds a warehouse filled with the very objects that have most mystified, identified, and transformed him throughout the story: boxes of mirror/prism/lens chains, animal light balls, brass orchids and red eyes. These objects, endowed with significance and power, would seem to be reduced to commonplace novelties, shattering any trace of meaning within Kidd’s mind.
On the other hand, they may be seen as props to be used in a sort of initiation. Initiatory props have no significance outside of their ritual context, yet within that context they contain great transformative power. A sheaf of wheat, commonplace in itself, was said to be shown to initiates at the climax of the Eleusinian Mysteries, resulting in cathartic transformation. It is as if Kidd has been engaged thus far in a ritual reenactment of the Masonic search for the lost Word. He has now been shown the holy of holies, shattering his illusions and suggesting perhaps that his Word is just a common name after all. But is this the final revelation, or is there more to come? Will further revelations reverse the meaning of this mystery as this one has done to those which were revealed before it? Kidd wonders briefly if he will forget the incidence, but ultimately acknowledges that it has left a mark on him: “More likely it is one of those things that I will never be able to speak of, and never forget.” It is worth noting that Kidd steals a brass orchid from this holy chamber, as he were Mercury, the lord of thieves, or perhaps Prometheus stealing one last flame from heaven.
The endowing of an ordinary object with special power based on the context in which it is found relates again to the theme of the palimpsest. Delany seems to take delight in ambiguity – is the warehouse a Holy Temple of the Mysteries masquerading as a common building, or is it the other way around? Is the chain an initiatory mark or a simple decoration? Meaning is given and taken away in layers, each additional layer bearing in some way the significance or lack thereof of all of the layers beneath it. We are being shown, as in an initiatory drama, to find the hidden meaning inherent in our own lives and to descry the themes which dominate our existence, to find our own lost Word, and yet always to beware of regarding anything as absolute, to never be so rigid in our perceptions as to deny the possibility that life is meaningless after all.