DHALGREN AND LYOTARD: Oedipus Rex, Moebius Strips

I have been live-blogging my reading of Samuel Delany’s SF novel DHALGREN, which some regard as obscure and “impenetrable”, although I am not finding it so. DHALGREN is a meta-fictional SF text, that, following Laruelle, one could call a “philo-fiction”. Perhaps the best philosophical comparison would be with Jean-François Lyotard’s LIBIDINAL ECONOMY. Both books were published in 1974.

In his book, Lyotard begins by treating the body (any body, including the text as body) as a Moebius strip of singularities and of intensive passages. LIBIDINAL ECONOMY is in many ways a response to Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS (1972),  both its prolongation (repetition) and re-vision (difference). ANTI-OEDIPUS is not against Oedipus but against the structuralist interpretation of the Oedipus story as repressing desire’s multiplicities. DHALGREN, like LIBIDINAL ECONOMY and ANTI-OEDIPUS, is a poststructuralist pluralist summum of 60s experimentation, and it was conceived by Delany as having the form of a Moebius strip.

I spoke to Lyotard in 1980 about a problem with the pluralism of intensities expressed in LIBIDINAL ECONOMY. I argued that it seemed to lead either to a relativism and eclecticism where everything is equal and so anything is possible, or to a nihilistic paralysis where everything is equal so nothing is possible, and that a third way was needed.

Lyotard acknowledged the problem, and said that the third possibility would be to limp along (boiter). I think this was an allusion to a re-imagined Oedipus the name means “swollen foot”) as a way out of the ideology of the Oedipus complex. The insistence in DHALGREN on the protagonist’s having one shod and one unshod foot is an allusion to Oedipus. Limping between summa and amnesia, between structure and formlessness, between repetition and difference, between circle and rhizome.

VISIONS OF DHALGREN (2): incipit – circle or rhizome?

DHALGREN begins with a cryptic three lines that seem to announce an incomprehensible post-modern prose experiment. But the first chapter (54 pages) is of fairly classical facture except for the first section (10 pages).

In the first section an unnamed amnesiac protagonist who has himself forgotten his name meets a woman, who seems to be expecting him, just outside the city. They make love, and she guides him to a cave where he finds a chain made of prisms, mirrors, and lenses, that he wraps around his torso and waist (the whole chapter is titled “Prism, Mirror, Lens”). He comes out of the cave, and chases after the woman, only to find her turning into a tree. The rest of the chapter is more straightforward, and I will talk about it in the next post.

This may seem a daunting beginning, but it is so only because it groups together in a small space some familiar SF tropes. In the last few months I have read a science-fiction fantasy novel where the protagonist does not remember who he is or his name (Roger Zelazny, NINE PRINCES IN AMBER), a young woman transforms into a tree (Terry Brooks, THE ELFSTONES OF SHANNARA), a mysterious zone exists after some unnamed event where strange things can happen (Jeff VanderMeer, THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY). So I see no reason to stop reading and to throw the book aside in panic.

The style is dense and poetic, but this is an aid to comprehension. Even if the woman’s transformation into a tree comes in the narrative as a surprise, with no proposed causal mechanism or other justification, it is prepared and foreshadowed in the language used to describe her and the encounter:

The leaves winked. What had been wind was a motion in brush below. His hand went to the rock behind. She stood up, two dozen feet down and away, wearing only shadows the moon dropped from the viney maple (page 1).

The woman emerges, naked, out of wind-moved leaves and maple-shadows and motion in the brush.

The most enigmatic part is the first three lines:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

This is rather enigmatic. Much has been made of the conjectured circular form of the novel, where the first line supposedly completes the unfinished last sentence. I do not see that this can be proven, nor does it add anything much to the meaning. Yes, we need to re-read the book to get more out of it, as the example of the woman’s tree-becoming suggests. Delany has revealed that in early drafts for the book he envisioned a moebius strip or a klein bottle structure, but these mathematical figures should not overly impress an SF reader. The message would be: read this several times and your understanding of it will be transformed at each reading.

I see syntactic fragmentation and semantic indeterminacy. There is a theme of damage and decline. The circle-hypothesis makes ” to wound” an infinitive. But one can just as easily imagine a sentence where “wound” is the past of “wind”, e.g.

Around the place he came to wound the autumnal city

This hypothesis is just as plausible if we consider that twisting is as prevalent as circularity in the book. I feel that the notions of ambguity, uncertainty and indeterminacy, and of the necessity for interpretation are being foregrounded here. The “circle” is too reassuring, an empty assumption. Difference, as in the rhizome, undoes circles, as anyone knows. Delany is a novelist of difference since his encounter with Saussure, structuralism, Derrida, etc.

In the next sentence, there is no subject named, which makes its grammatical form reflect its content: So howled out for the world to give him a name”. This continues the theme of indeterminacy into that of non-identity. Having no name is a potentially psychotic or mystical experience, or merely the post-modern experience of a world where things are less fixed, and have the names they need to have in the situation. Names are “wind”, in both the sense of flatus voci, empty signifiers, or in a more Heraclitean sense of flux:

The in-dark answered with wind“.

This could be no answer at all, or else a perfectly good answer.

VISIONS OF DHALGREN (1): the city of pure difference

Liveblogging reading DHALGREN by Samuel Delany.

DHALGREN has the reputation of being a difficult read, being experimental in style and structure, and also in genre – as people disagree over whether it is “really” science fiction.

I have recently become interested in the idea of philo-fiction, an expression proposed by François Laruelle to designate a sort of writing intermediate between philosophy and science-fiction. After discussing ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson and AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson  as cases of philo-fiction, I wish to consider Samuel Delany’s SF novel DHALGREN, published in 1974, as exemplifying this genre.

First, as mode of entry I will discuss the postface “The Recombinant City” by William Gibson. It emerges from Gibson’s (non-)interpretation that he regards the book itself DHALGREN as metaphorically a “prose-city”, the city as rhizome. The “rhizome” is a philosophical concept proposed by Deleuze and Guattari as an image of pluralism in thought and action, containing multiple points of entry and of exit.

Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren is a prose-city a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any one of a multiplicity of doors.

The book may well be a rhizomic “prose-city”, but the city that is described in DHALGREN is called “Bellona”, and seems to have only one entrance. However, directions are unstable and misleading in Bellona, and the sunrise seems to change location in a way that is not linked with the seasons. Tak, the guide to the city for the protagonist, remarks:

“I’ve thought, maybe: It’s not the season that changes. It’s us. The whole city shifts, turns, rearranges itself. All the time. And rearranges us …”

Gibson is very elogious of DHALGREN:

It is a work of sustained conceptual daring, executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.

Indeed, one is entitled to affirm that “conceptual daring” is the book-city. Given the traditional definition of science-fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement ranging from the most scrupulous scientific accuracy to the most speculative flights of noetic experimentation, conceptual daring is a good synonym for cognitive estrangement in its more speculative aspect.

DHALGREN is a post-modern novel, and so attempts to push back the frontiers of writing to the point that some readers complain that they do not “understand” it. However, “understanding” is not the only mode of appreciating a novel. Understanding is the mode suited to the academic contract between writer and reader, assuring the latter that well-codified significations lie behind even the most difficult text. Gibson, however, is in search of something else.

I have never understood it. I have sometimes felt that I partially understood it, or that I was nearing the verge of understanding it. This has never caused me the least discomfort, or interfered in any way with my pleasure in the text. If anything, the opposite has been true.

Something else is happening in a post-modern text, something other than understanding of pre-given significations. We are no longer in the domain of familiar ideas, but of the attempt to bring our stereotypes into question, to transform our ideas and expectations. This is the domain of meaning. The cultural contract of communicating more or less familiar forms of signification is abrogated in philo-fiction.

To enter Dhalgren is to be progressively stripped of various certainties, many of these having to do with unspoken, often unrecognized, aspects of the reader’s cultural contract with the author.

Gibson assigns this feeling of unfamiliarity or even of uncanniness to an ethics of experimentation, and to a “singularity” that he associates with a particular place, America, and a particular historical period, the sixties:

No one under thirty-five today 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.

In his lectures on WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (page 44), Alain Badiou talks about this same period too, as exemplary for the experience of difference, of rupture, and of change. This experience is not limited to America. So somewhere, somewhen, a rhizomatic city came to be.

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.)

In 1980 I was living in Sydney, and I had a dream in which I was wandering parched for thirst in the desert. I heard a group of Althusserians talking arrogantly and I could not bear them. Then I saw a vision of a city on the horizon. In the dream it was called “Paris, the city of pure difference”. I ended up going there to live the next year and to attend lectures by Serres, Deleuze, Lyotard, and Foucault . Paris was my Dhalgren.

This city had no specific locale, and its internal geography was mainly fluid…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.

This was my case in the dream, and in my life then: I caught a glimpse of that city. But I was not turned back.Let us enter Dhalgren together.

ZELAZNY’S AMBER AS PLATONIC FANTASY: compassion for the shadows

Review of “Nine Princes in Amber” by Roger Zelazny
This is an engrossing story, and I read it very quckly, despite having read it three times before (over a 40 year period). The book is only 175 pages long, so quite short by more modern standards. To be fair, it is only the first instalment in a five volume tale. The hero, Corwin, is a quasi-immortal prince of Amber, the one real world, exiled in one of the infinite Shadow worlds, our Earth, with no memory of his past. The action begins straight away, and he must learn his powers, his identity, and his world as he goes. The language is masterful, as Zelazny moves from factual to poetic, from archaism to slang, as if it were second nature.

All possibilities exist in Shadow, so a prince of Amber can “walk” through shadow worlds till he arrives in one with any property he can envisage. For example, a world where he is worshipped as a god, and so can raise a faithful army. No attempt is given to explain this premise in the first series of 5 volumes (the Corwin cycle). In the later pentalogy (the Merlin cycle) it is suggested that the shadows correspond to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but in the first pentalogy no such science-based explanation is given. Amber is the Platonic model, and all other worlds are mere shadows, as are the people who populate them. We could call this an “ontological fantasy”. Hut the metaphysical premise is not treated speculatively, but merely as an effective plot device for maximising the possibilities of adventure, just as Corwin’s immortality functions to give him more-than-human experience, training, and first-hand knowledge. But not wisdom.

Corwin is likeable, but not wise. He is spontaneous and cagey, cynical and poetic, adventurous and contemplative. He has the typical arrogance and self-absorption of his brothers, their indifference to the lives of the people of the shadows. However, he has learned some compassion in his exile in our world. He occasionally spares an individual life when one of his brothers would have killed without a second thought. Strangely, his compassion manifests when he is willing to lead an entire army of his faithful to their doom, but feels “sorry” for them.

One dated feaure of this first volume is the very subordinate role of women in the story. The women are all weak, both in power and in personality. This impression can be attenuated, but not justified or eradicated, by the fact that the narrator is Corwin, a pathological mythomaniac. He is reciting, or dictating, this account as he waits before the “Courts of Chaos”, so the seemingly simple cosmology is perhaps more complicated than we were initially led to believe, and his motivations in telling the story may be complex.


Review of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North
This is an enjoyable story based on an interesting premise. The premise is the existence of “kalachakra”, people who when they die are reborn to the same life, at the same point in time, in the same body, but with their memories intact. The novel explores several surprising logical consequences of this premise, but the phenomenon is never explained, so it remains basically a fantasy premise. The bad guy, Victor, is trying to modify the timeline at each rebirth so as to eliminate opposition and to accelerate scientific and technological progress so as to construct a “quantum mirror”. This would give him absolute knowledge of, and presumably absolute power over, the universe. So the novel itself incorporates a struggle between the genres of fantasy and of science fiction.

The narrative is in the first person, as Harry August recounts his first fifteen lives. Harry is one of the few kalachakra endowed with perfect memory of their past lives, so his account can be detailed. However, a kalachakra must be careful not to be specific about their origins, as this information can be used to make sure they were never born, thus deleting them permanently from the timeline. So Harry has every reason to be an unreliable narrator. The story is told in nonlinear fashion at the beginning, as Harry slides from one life to another to fill in context and motivation, and then straightens out as the battle between him and Victor gains momentum.

The story seems a little difficult to follow at first, due to the complexity of the image of time underlying the initial premise. However, the time-image is not really very complicated, as it is basically linear time with re-sets when a kalachakra dies, allowing for passage of information from the future to the past, and progressive modification of the time-line. This is something that an association of kalachakras, the Cronus Club, tries to keep to a minimum.

Victor’s accelerationism is bringing him ever closer to the Quantum Mirror, but it is also ruining the planet at an ever faster rate. Harry shares sum of Victor’s curiosity, but cannot accept the means to the end, the ecological degradation, the overweening narcissism. In a way, both are demi-gods, but Harry opposes Victor’s hubris, based on physics, with the more humble science of accounting. Both are masters of cunning and of simulation, so the end is predictably ambiguous.