The text of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren makes at least one thing about itself hopelessly clear: it is inexhaustible. It is inexhaustible because it encompasses its own inexhaustibility, mirrors its own limitlessness. It is a text within a text, and neither one ever appears to begin or end. The jacket and publication information that bracket the narrative are superfluous. Nowhere can the text be said to actually start. As William Gibson writes in his introduction to the Vintage 2001 edition, the novel is a “prose-city, a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any one of a multiplicity of doors” (Gibson xi). This enigmatic, circular, reflexive nature has led many readers to speculate on the secret of Dhalgren, the answers to its underlying mystery: what happened in Bellona, who is the first-person narrator/third-person protagonist (are they even the same person?), why is he in Bellona, and what is his damn name? The novel never says, and there are those who debate whether it has to. Gibson writes: “Dhalgren is not there to be finally understood. I believe its ‘riddle’ was never meant to be ‘solved’” (xi). Many might agree, but I do not, although not in the sense that readers may think. I do not disagree with Gibson over whether we, as readers, are “meant” to solve the puzzle of Dhalgren. I disagree that there is a puzzle to be solved at all.
Assuming the presence of a puzzle implies some order to the chaos. Dhalgren, much to the contrary, delights in chaos as its basic, most fundamental element, but not an element of essentiality. Dhalgren rejoices in illimitability. It celebrates the utopian dream of desire, not the ideological dream of values. Dhalgren cannot be solved because it is not a mystery, and its author knows this. Delany knows there is no answer. The answer does not exist, and yet the bewildered reader will cower before his text in reverential awe, as the nameless first-person narrator (who may or may not be the novel’s nameless protagonist, referred to only as Kid, or Kidd) does before Bellona itself:
I am limited, finite, and fixed. I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind bringing no knowledge I can take on. I commend myself up to what is greater than I, and try to be good. That is wrestling with what I have been given. Do I rage at what I have not? (Is infinity some illusion generated by the way in which time is perceived?) I try to end this pride and rage and commend myself to what is there, instead of illusion. But the veil is the juncture of the perceived and perception. And what in life can rip that? Is the only prayer, then, to live steadily and dully, doing and doubting what the mind demands? I am limited, finite, and fixed. I rage for reasons, cry for pity. Do with me what way you will. (Delany 583)
This is Delany’s ironic acknowledgement to the reader. This is his testament to how he knows his readers will approach his novel. This is Delany laughing. His text will do with its readers what way it will, but its way will not be Delany’s. He leaves his text, abandons it upon putting down his pen for revisions (which, as certain students of literature will know, are yet to be completed). It is no longer his. Delany is the deistic clockmaker who built the machine, wound it, and sat back to watch while nursing a drink. Trying to wind Dhalgren back up from within is an exercise in futility, and trying to discuss every aspect of the novel is impossible in the amount of space a blog affords. I would prefer to discuss the novel’s profound position in the history of American literature and Science fiction, and what it possibly represents for American culture.
I. “A city came to be…”
In his introduction, Gibson calls Dhalgren a “literary singularity” (xi), and he contextualizes this singularity within an abstract scope of American history: “No one under thirty-five today [the introduction is dated: August 23, 1995] can remember the singularity that overtook America in the nineteen-sixties, and the generation that experienced it most directly seems largely to have opted for amnesia and denial” (xii). The singularity that Gibson speaks of is the emergence of a city in America, but not a city that could be spatially or geographically located (although temporally/historically, somehow…). Gibson’s comment is worth quoting in full because of its suggestive and obscure qualities:
But something did happen: a city came to be, in America. (And I imagine I use America here as shorthand for something else; perhaps for the industrialized nations of the American Century.) This city had no specific locale, and its internal geography was mainly fluid. Its inhabitants nonetheless knew, at any given instant, whether they were in the city or in America. The city was largely invisible to America. If America was about “home” and “work,” the city was about neither, and that made the city very difficult for American to see. There may have been those who wished to enter that city, having glimpsed it in the distance, but who found themselves baffled, and turned back. Many others, myself included, rounded a corner one day and found it spread before them, a territory of inexpressible possibilities, a place remembered from no dream at all. (xii)
The city that Gibson describes is not real in a geographic sense, but rather symbolic of a larger cultural phenomenon. This phenomenon is not readily accessible to representation, and remains semi-impervious even to the perception of typical America, or Americans. In my reading, it is something countercultural, but even this may be too structural. It is an elusive flow of energy, a release of pressure that escapes measure.
The historical moment of the 1960s will most immediately be recognized through appeals to Vietnam, the Cold War, the hippie movement, free love, Woodstock, LSD, and other various ‘60s tropes. However, Fredric Jameson identifies another important development, along with the poststructuralist movement in French theory: the “emergence, in the [artistic] work’s temporality, of an aesthetic of textuality or what is often described as schizophrenic time; the eclipse, finally, of all depth, especially historicity itself” (Jameson 500). Jameson acknowledges here the theoretical emphasis on surface, and its subsequent erasure of any previously considered substantial content. That is, he claims that the 1960s inaugurates the full-fledged theoretical moment in which culture comes to be composed of simulacra masquerading as signs for something beyond them; but here, even the term “masquerade” is problematic since it suggests something behind the mask. In contrast, Jameson declares, the 1960s revealed that the surface had subsumed its purported content. Furthermore, history, as a (traditionally) teleological study of progress and development, and as a declaration of origins and purposes, is exposed as a narrative laid over an impossibly intricate network of cultural interaction and upheaval. The narrative no longer explains history in some scientific or objective sense; it betrays itself as artificial. This is the textual trick that Dhalgren plays on its audience. It invites speculation as to the true nature of its contents, the secret it conceals; but it conceals nothing. Everything we need to know is on the surface, presented in the infinite circulation of the narrative.
The city that comes to be – the city that Gibson claims emerges in the 1960s, and that Delany will represent in his 1974 novel – is a city so complex that it appears it must house some secret, some core that readers yearn to find. The joke is on us, as far as Delany is concerned, and this is what remains “invisible to America”: that the textual knot is insoluble because it is not a knot. Delany’s city is a burst of unharnessed Deleuzian energy that evades the territorializing of Western culture, a radical representation of what lurks beyond the limits of Western democratic capitalism (Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus was published only three years or so before Delany’s novel):
Capitalism therefore liberates the flows of desire, but under the social conditions that define its limit and the possibility of its own dissolution, so that it is constantly opposing with all its strength the movement that drives it toward its limit. At capitalism’s limit the deterritorialized socius gives way to the body without organs, and the decoded flows throw themselves into desiring-production. (Deleuze and Guattari 139-140)
Despite D & G’s difficult terminology, the basic import of their argument can be deduced: beyond the limits of institutional capitalism, the flows of productive energy are no longer coded and begin to feed into desire itself. We find something similar in Dhalgren. In Delany’s Bellona – a place where the police are absent, and the closest thing to any semblance of Law are roaming bands of thieves and thugs known as Scorpions – and beyond the structures and strictures of America, capitalist labor is almost entirely absent. The only instance of it appears when the unnamed protagonist gets a temporary job moving furniture for the Richards, a typical middle-class family desperately clinging to the remnants of the American dream. In one scene, Mrs. Richards describes the difficulty of creating a traditional American home:
“That’s something that a woman does from inside herself. You do it in the face of all sorts of opposition […] You must make it your own world. And everyone must be able to feel it. I want a home, here, that looks like my home, feels like my home, is a place where my family can be safe, where my friends – psychologists, engineers, ordinary people… poets – can feel comfortable.” (Delany 226)
The most tragic characters of the novel, the Richards embody the pressures of the American lifestyle in a place that, while in the country of America, is not American. Bellona is a fictional city, and its relationship to the remainder of the country is ambiguous. It stands for something that America cannot internalize or categorize, and those who survive in it practice behavior at odds with the traditional patriarchal, heterosexual, hegemonic structure.
In Bellona, sexual restraint is virtually nonexistent, a space where characters can not only engage in homoerotic behavior, but can openly discuss it. Many of the characters sleep with multiple partners, and Kid even participates in ménage à trois on several occasions. In Bellona, the “tenebrous city, city without time, the generous, saprophytic city,” that which America codes as unnatural, or abnormal, can be practiced without reservation or fear (382). Rather, it is the traditional that becomes fragile, as Mrs. Richards demonstrates through her admission of fear: “‘Why do you think we moved into the Labry [apartments]? Do you know how I thought of this moving? As a space, a gap, a crack in which some terrible thing might get in and destroy it, us, my home. You have to take it apart, then put it back together. I really felt as if some dirt, or filth, or horrible rot might get in while it was being reassembled and start a terrible decay’” (227). Despite Mrs. Richards’s acceptance of Kid, she fears much of what he stands for. Her hesitance to allow poets under her rubric of “ordinary people” testifies to this. Ultimately, the Richards appear as an anomaly in Bellona, and tragedy befalls appropriately; not because the Richards are morally deserving of punishment, but because Delany presents their fragile values as inviting tragedy. In this obscure place beyond traditional societal borders, only tradition can be tragic.
Bellona – the city that came to be, the autumnal city – is a city of exiles. This basic paradox informs the contradictory pressures that occupy the novel’s majestic prose. A place of urban desolation, it allows for unrestrained sexuality and violence; but Delany saturates everything in an unnerving surrealism that suggests some underlying anticipation or tension. Bellona, the city of exiles and free love, is also the city of madmen and brutality. Delany does not pretend that his fictional city is a utopian paradise of a libertarian variety. Rather, it is a difficult anarchism, an anarchism still coated in the residue of Western values, and it is only through the presence of these lingering values that discussions on race and sexuality are able to take place. George Harrison, accused of rape and blessed (or cursed) with the namesake of a second moon that mysteriously appears in the sky, explains his controversial view of the “interesting kind of rape,” in which, he insists, the women enjoy it: “‘It’s the kind they always have in the movies. It’s the kind your lawyer friend was trying to make this other thing into. And when it gets to the law courts, it’s a pretty rare kind. But it’s the one they all afraid of – especially between little-bitty white girls and big, black niggers’” (210). This description sounds only too familiar and revolting to readers today, but in Dhalgren it dissipates with little objection, even from Lanya, the novel’s most energetic female character and Kid’s occasional lover.
Similar discussions occur regarding race and homosexuality, such as the conversation between Tak and Fenster. When Tak claims to have a “black soul,” Fenster objects: “‘You can’t have one,’ Fenster said. ‘I’m black. You’re white. You can’t have a black soul. I say so’” (294). When Tak says that Fenster “‘[comes] on pretty white,’” Fenster retaliates: “‘Scares you I can imitate you that well’” (294). Recalling Homi Bhabha’s notion of colonial mimicry, Fenster calls the essences of black and white into question. The two characters then proceed to argue over who holds a greater claim to alienation: Fenster because he is black, or Tak because he is gay. An exercise in futility, the entire argument concludes with Tak admitting that in his “relentless battle for white supremacy,” he has again been bested (294-295). Again, the presence of American values – lingering though they are like cobwebs in an abandoned cellar – affords the possibility of political debate; but conclusions are uncertain, and they are often dismissed with relative apathy among the characters.
Dhalgren translates a historical moment into a topographic abstraction; an interrelation of city and cosmos that is separated from the real America by a kind of prism, or lens (perhaps a further clue to the title of Dhalgren’s first section, ‘Prism, Mirror, Lens’), refracting sunlight into apocalyptic swaths of nuclear explosions and multiplying the number of moons in the sky. Yet all its invocations of typical Science fiction tropes are not what make Dhalgren a work of Science fiction. Its science-fictionality, rather, is achieved by what Gibson calls its “territory of inexpressible possibilities,” which I liken to the world of “infinite possibilities” described by the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s American classic, Invisible Man. In many ways, Dhalgren is a successor to Ellison’s canonic text, conceptually and thematically (both novels explore issues of race and American culture, and both authors conceive of their narratives as somewhat circular). The utopianism of Dhalgren, like the utopianism of Invisible Man, does not manifest as the representation of an ideal society. Bellona cannot be described as an ideal state, a place where human beings might willingly go. It is, as I have already said, a city of exiles; it is a place where people are forced to go. Although this might contradict the rather dismissive attitude with which some characters decide to visit the city, I claim that Bellona functions as a structural necessity. It is the invisible city described by Gibson, the topographic symbol of a historical mentality – the revolutionary capacity produced by the political unconscious.
II. “Science fiction. Only real…”
In a scene from the section titled ‘In Time of Plague,’ Kid and Tak discuss possible explanations for why Bellona has come to be as it is. Why the desolation, the abandonment, the isolation? After suggestion that it might be some kind of government experiment or ecological catastrophe, Tak offers a fresh take: “‘Actually […] I suspect the whole thing is science fiction’” (372). Kid immediately jumps to the conclusion that Tak means it has something to do with time travel and alternate realities, but Tak denies this: “‘No, just… well, science fiction. Only real. It follows all the conventions’” (372). In the dialogue that follows, Tak distinguishes Kid’s notion of Science fiction from “‘the new, good stuff’”; new Science fiction (good Science fiction) follows three specific conventions that do not necessitate laser guns and spaceships:
“First: A single man can change the course of a whole world: Look at Calkins, look at George – look at you! Second: The only measure of intelligence or genius is its linear and practical application: In a landscape like this, what other kind do we even allow to visit? Three: The Universe is an essentially hospitable place, full of earth-type planets where you can crash-land your spaceship and survive long enough to have an adventure. Here in Bellona […] you can have anything you want, as long as you can carry it by yourself, or get your friends to.” (372)
Even in this relatively simple language, the meaning of each of these conventions proves elusive; but Tak outlines something important for understanding Dhalgren’s relationship to Science fiction literature. The novel follows only one character – Kid – who has a profound impact on Bellona after his arrival. Although the novel is certainly non-linear, the reader can only approach its subject matter in a linear fashion. The application of knowledge proceeds in a linear manner in an attempt to make sense of the shifting realities and topographies of the city. Finally, when all is said and done, Bellona appears to be a very hospitable place. Most of the characters welcome Kid, some even accepting him as their leader. All these conventions present themselves in Dhalgren, but Delany transplants them into a scenario that exposes the critical core of good Science fiction: an abstraction that communicates something very real, a blight in the mind of middle America, an apocalyptic wasteland that reveals the underbelly of cultural repression. Bellona is not real in any topographical sense, but it is real in a historical sense, and this is the revolutionary power of the novel that Gibson identifies in his introduction.
Bellona, the unreal city, possesses the utopian potential that Fredric Jameson theorizes in Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. In this monumental text, Jameson deploys the notion of utopia not as a material unit of societal production, but as an exception to the rule: “The ‘moment of truth’ is thus not a substantive one, not some conceptual nugget we can extract and store away, with a view towards using it as a building block of some future system. Rather its function lies not in itself, but in its capability radically to negate its alternative” (Jameson 175). Bellona cannot function as a contender for a possible utopia. It presents itself as a space where utopian attitudes and practices can take place without punishment or condemnation. Its continually shifting topography reflects its ability to relentlessly negate any and every alternative that presents itself. Race, gender, sex… these things all still exist; but their discussion and exploration is abstracted from the cultural fear that surrounds them and drowns them in real America. Bellona is not only a hospitable place for adventure, but also for political discussion.
If Bellona is not a physically attractive place, even to the most liberal-minded reader, that is because it does not attempt to realize a utopian society. It is purely and completely an abstract rendering of the utopian attitude, for those willing to indulge it (the Richards, especially Mr. and Mrs. Richards, are most clearly the characters who refuse to indulge it). The prospect of actually living in Bellona would no doubt frighten most readers, but this is Delany’s challenge. If we wish to truly pursue utopian ideals, then we must brave the consistently changing landscape of the utopian attitude, which is always making room for new perspectives and alternatives.
No law sanctions the violence that ensues from the vicissitudes of utopianism, but this does not mean that Bellona has no rules. Kid learns this early in the novel, after attempting to scale the wall of the estate wherein lives the mysterious Roger Calkins. After being beaten up by Scorpions for no apparent reason, Kid admits to his friends that he was trying to look over the wall of Calkins’s place. This evokes an explanation from Tak: “‘It’s a strange place, maybe stranger than any you’ve ever been. But it still has its rules. You just have to find them out’” (87). Tak’s statement suggests that the rules to Bellonian society cannot be explained or codified; they must be discovered on a case-by-case basis. Occasionally, certain unspoken rules must be reinforced through violence. This kind of post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque scenario appears unnerving and unattractive at first, but an appealing innocence underlies the novel’s violence, even in its most tragic instances. Following Tak’s third convention, even Bellona’s most violent moments are succeeded by a sense of hospitality.
Reverend Amy Taylor, a minor character, gives voice to Bellona’s further hospitality, proclaiming in her sermon, delivered in the section titled ‘Creatures of Light and Darkness,’ that logicians love Bellona (472). Reverend Amy’s sermon occurs intermittently over a space of about ten pages, but her subject matter continually returns to a kind of metaphysics of Bellona, recalling Tak’s second convention about linear reason and logic. In the same section as cited above, Reverend Amy explains: “‘Here you can cleave space with a distinction, mark, or token, and not have it bleed all over you. What we need is not a calculus of form but an analytics of attention, which renders form on the indifferent and undifferentiated pleroma’” (472). Reverend Amy’s speech is largely indecipherable, being composed of an odd but poetic mixture of theological mysticism, philosophy, and physics:
“Is God a sow who devours Her young and gets heartburn? Is God the garter-snake Ouroborus, gagging on the tip of His own tail? Or is God just a category-concept mistake, like Ryle’s mind, a process the materia of the universe performs, indulges, or inflicts on itself, through necessity of chance, for arcane reasons you and I will never discover? Being is a function of time, ‘ey Martin? Well, now, where does that get us? Now seems pretty specious to me… for it’s just a hole, a little hole on whose rim we’ve been allowed, for an eye’s blink, to perch, watching that flow, terrible for all of us, tragic for some of us, in which the future hisses through to heap the potter’s field of the past.” (470)
Reverend Amy prostrates herself before the yawning chasm of Bellona, similar to those readers who balk before the monstrosity of the novel itself. Instead, she turns her listeners’ attention toward their impending doom: “‘How long did the light last? Oh, my poor, sick, doomed, and soon to be obliterated children, ask instead how long is the darkness that follows it’” (470). Her sermon exhibits a certain hopelessness in applying logic to the phenomenology of Bellona, but she finally persists in what might be a certain faith in logic: “‘Pray that this city is the one, pure, logical space from which, without being a poet or a god, we can all actually leave if –’” (481). The line ends abruptly, but the impact remains. All one can do, Reverend Amy suggests, is pursue existence in Bellona and pray that logic somehow conforms to reality, just as the narrator (see citation from p. 583 above) claims that his only prayer is to go on “doing and doubting what the mind demands.”
Reverend Amy’s sermon, however, plays out largely in the background, and assumes no identifiably influential role in the action of the narrative. Kid continues on his obscure mission, oblivious to the impending doom that the Reverend warns about. Upon finishing the novel, one might conclude that the Reverend’s fears were in vain; but this only holds if one ignores the possibility that Kid is the impending doom, the apocalypse, the revelation. And he is only ever impending because he never truly begins or ends, if one buys the novel’s circularity; he has “come to to wound the autumnal city” (801-1). But his coming is never complete; it is always becoming. Kid may change the course of an entire world, but he can only do so by becoming caught in a process where he is eternally evanescing. The repetition of “to” between the novel’s first and last pages is worthy of consideration. At first it seems to be nothing more than a repetition whose intended meaning is simply: “I have come to wound the autumnal city.” But this ignores the possible alternative meaning if each “to” is given its own syntactical weight: “I have come to to wound the autumnal city.” That is, he has come into being, into creation, in order to wound the autumnal city. His becoming is one of eternal trauma, eternal return, forever circling the center that would perhaps grant him identity and meaning. The Science fiction hero, the man who changes the world, thus emerges in Dhalgren as a vacant subject, a subject whose most important feature – the identity, the I, the name – is subtracted from him. His name is never hinted at, but I would venture one definitive claim: his name is not Dhalgren.
So who the hell is William Dhalgren? The name occasionally appears on a list of names in the notebook that Kid acquires. We first see this list when Lanya asks if any of the names belong to Kid; in the right column, four names from the bottom, appears “William Dhalgren” (63). The name never sticks with Kid. The name might belong to the interviewer who appears in the novel’s sixth section, titled ‘Palimpsest’; but readers are only told his first name, which is William. His last is never verified. Dhalgren’s most important appearance certainly comes in the novel’s final section, when Kid hears a monotonous sound while he participates in a sexual encounter with several other characters: “‘Grendal, Grendal, Grendal…’” (678). Kid later realizes he was attributing inception to the wrong syllable, and that the speaker was actually saying, “Dhalgren” (679). The misinterpretation also calls to mind the name of the monster from the Old English epic, Beowulf; but application of the mythic cycle to Delany’s novel seems fruitless. Dhalgren is assigned to no one, a floating signifier without any content or actor. What function does the name play? Is it a name at all?
Following the concept of Dhalgren itself, we must end where we began. “Dhalgren” means nothing. Even if the text contains a code that unlocks the secret of Dhalgren and the unnamed protagonist, this is secondary. The narrator’s realization that he misheard Dhalgren as Grendal reveals no hidden essence; all it reveals is that misinterpretation is the only certainty. Grendal, Dhalgren, Kid, Kidd, William… begin where you choose. Dhalgren does not mind, because it does not contain the key to the code. This is its true literary and revolutionary potential. It invites its readers to experience the sheer Science fiction of chaos, and to encounter there limitless utopian possibilities. Dhalgren cannot give any answers because answers would only obscure the radical nature of the “ganglial city” (219). Bellona is not for 20th-century scholars of American history, or the politicians of liberal democracy, or the economists of global capitalism. Bellona is the shadowy space that these institutions create. It is the dark aperture that even the most radical of us have difficulty perceiving. It is that which cannot be coded into the structures of society, yet which makes those structures possible, and appears among them as an absence, an omission – something exiled. In the nation of television and Hollywood, Bellona – the powerless city – appears only as a blank space: “Neither television cameras nor on-the-spot broadcasts function: that such a catastrophe as this should be opaque, and therefore dull, to the electric nation” (14). It is the unconscious city, the “vague, vague city,” the city “‘struck out of time,’” that accompanies the cultural consciousness (382, 469). The repressed and invisible city. The city that America does not want to see.
Delany, Samuel. Dhalgren. New York: Vintage, 2001. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.
Gibson, William. “The Recombinant City: a Foreword.” Dhalgren. New York: Vintage, 2001. xi-xiii. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2007. Print.
–. “Periodizing the 60s.” The Ideologies of Theory. London: Verso, 2008. 483-515. Print.