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Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2



Daniel R. Schwarz

Reconfiguring Deliverance: James Dickey, the Modern Tradition and the Resistant Reader

Daniel R. Schwarz is professor of English at Cornell University. He is the author of
Narrative and Representation in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (1993), The Case for a Humanistic Poetics (1991), The Transformation of the English Novel, 1890-1930 (1989; rev. ed. 1995), and many others. He is also editor of James Joyce's "The Dead" (1996) and the forthcoming Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" in Bedford's Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism.


James Dickey's Deliverance (1970) belongs not only to the American genre of wilderness novel, but to the high modernist tradition which holds that one individual can discover a value system in the face of industrialism, materialism, loss of religious faith, and political confusion and failure. Borrowing strands from the romantic tradition and Emerson, Dickey stresses that modern civilization is marked by moral decadence, ill health, antagonism, and isolation, and that the purity of anger, passion, and rage has been corrupted or lost. Deliverance is in the modernist tradition of transvaluation of values; one discovers one's true self as a result of a crystallizing and often traumatic experience. Deliverance is a reworking of Heart of Darkness, with the speaker, Ed Gentry, beginning as if he were playing the role of Marlow, the generally perspicacious narrator who has some myopia about prior events, turning into Kurtz, the civilized man who reverts to savagery when he comes in touch with the wilderness; and then, Dickey would have us believe, returning to a Marlovian role in which he integrates the lessons of his experience into the telling. Yet, unlike Marlow, Gentry goes ashore for a prolonged "howl and a dance"; when Lewis Medlock breaks his leg and becomes not only inoperative but virtually comatose, Gentry replaces him as the avatar of primitivism.

I want to frame James Dickey's Deliverance with Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Gauguin's Noa, Noa, for each is about what happens when one is transported from the trappings of civilization to a savage world, a world that has escaped the mapping and damming of contemporary industrialism.1 But, I shall argue, Gauguin and especially Conrad understood the complexity of this mythopoeic perspective; it is their more complex views of native life that gives both Noa, Noa and the far richer narrative of Conrad their power. Gauguin's Noa, Noa and his Tahitian paintings resist the imperialistic discourse that stresses the superiority of the white man, but they do not propose its reductive opposite—the idea of a native paradise—as simply as had once been thought. Heart of Darkness speaks ironically—and even polemically—to the issues of colonialism and empire. As Edward Said has noted in Culture and Imperialism: "Never the wholly incorporated and fully acculturated Englishman, Conrad therefore preserved an ironic distance in each of his works" (Said 25). But where is Dickey's ironic distance? Does he sufficiently separate himself from Gentry? Is there an unintentional breakdown in distance?

Conrad and Gauguin—as well as Picasso, Lawrence, and other modernists—believed that primitive life contained the potential for rejuvenation of the modern wasteland and for rediscovering the mystic innocence of Eden. Deliverance is a version of Tarzan, the dream that we can wish ourselves out of urban industrial life and out of paralytic self-consciousness. After they emerge from the river on which they have travelled, Gentry calls Lewis "Tarzan" and becomes a primitive other in an innocent, spontaneous world. By recognizing an alternative to materialism and acquisitiveness and by responding to passion, romance, intuition, and imagination, and, yes, the fragrance of experience (the Tahitian meaning of Noa, Noa), Gauguin implied ways of resisting the present and finding interior and external space for native culture.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad responds to Gauguin's complex message in Noa, Noa, 1) Tahiti is paradise—or rather it was before Western corruption; 2) Gauguin's speaker has discovered the fragrance of experience within himself; 3) but he also has discovered a savage and atavistic potential when stripped of civilization. In fact, Kurtz is an ironic version of the idea that reversion to primitive life can bring about rejuvenation; when he reverts to savage life, he becomes a demonic figure. And Dickey takes that idea to its reductive conclusion.

Gentry is gentrified; he has a wife, child, and material success, but he is unhappy because he feels marginalized and insignificant, because he is not part of nature or an organic community.

The feeling of the inconsequence of whatever I would do, of anything I would pick up or think about or turn to see was at that moment being set in the very bone marrow. How does one get through this? I asked myself. By doing something that is at hand to be done was the best answer I could give; that and not saying anything about the feeling to anyone. It was the old mortal, helpless, time-terrified human feeling, just the same. I had had a touch or two before, though it was more likely to come with my family, for I could find ways to keep busy at the studio, or at least to seem busy, which was harder, in some cases, than doing real work. But I was really frightened, this time. It had me for sure, and I knew that if I managed to get up, through the enormous weight of lassitude, I would still move to the water cooler, or speak to Jack Waskow or Thad, with a sense of being someone else, some poor fool who lives as unobserved and impotent as a ghost, going through the only motions it has. (Deliverance 19)

As something of an artist—he is a graphic artist—who responds to the design of Lewis's map, he is a double for Dickey. As Gentry asserts power and control through his physical prowess, and later when he returns to his studio, so Dickey does through his art. Dickey wrote in an interview that the poet in America "can be like Ed Gentry in Deliverance—resourceful. He can live by his trade" (Playboy 20 Nov. 1973: 212). Dickey believed that he could create the figure of a resourceful artist, living like Ed Gentry after his return by the knowledge of his own experience; for Dickey, the artistry of Gentry, his surrogate narrator, is his telling. That Gentry rehires George Holley, the Braque enthusiast, implies his commitment to artistic harmony, including the collage technique of the telling. One issue that concerns me is whether Dickey is sufficiently critical of his narrator or whether he has written, as Frederic Jameson argues, a book in which "The strategy of the adventure tale allows you to reconcile the apparently contradictory demands of your own individual license and your authoritarian political leanings simultaneously through the same series of events" (Jameson 182).

Lewis Medlock is a total egoist locked into the vertical pronoun "I", a Kurtz figure and Nietzschean Ubermensch to whom Ed Gentry is drawn:

Lewis was the only man I knew who could do with his life exactly what he wanted to…. He was the only man I knew determined to get something out of life who had both the means and the will to do it, and it interested me to see how, as an experiment, this turned out…. Lewis wanted to be immortal. He had everything that life could give, and he couldn't make it work. (Deliverance 9, 10, 12)

As Medlock explains, he is a survivalist:

The human race thing. I think the machines are going to fail, the political systems are going to fail, and a few men are going to take to the hills and start over…. Survival depends—well, it depends on having to survive. The kind of life I'm talking about depends on its being the last chance. The very last of all. (Deliverance 40, 42)

Like Kubla Khan, Medlock creates reality out of whole cloth—mythicizes the elements—and invites Ed to join him in that magic circle of his own imagination. To paraphrase what Marlow says about Kurtz, Lewis Medlock is the nightmare of Gentry's choice, and he turns to him as if he were a mysterious figure revealing talismanic truth:

I watched the hand [on the map] rather than the location, for it seemed to have power over the terrain, and when it stopped for Lewis' voice to explain something, it was as though all streams everywhere quit running, hanging silently where they were to let the point be made. (Deliverance 7)

We might recall the hand that appears while Belshazzar is feasting and drinking from the sacred vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar plundered from the holy Jewish temple in Jerusalem…the hand whose writing Daniel interprets. Gentry becomes, for Dickey, a Daniel, a prophet who aspires to read the text of utopian escape, of modern crusoeism, and later to find the epistemology and semiotics to interpret his experience.

Once outside society's sanctions, Gentry becomes lethal; he tracks down the man whom Lewis said shot Drew and who may be the man who assaulted Bobby as if that man were an animal. The scene recalls the one in which Marlow follows Kurtz into the jungle: Marlow recalls how he, too, was tempted by savage impulses and confused his heartbeat with the beat of the natives' drums. Uncharacteristically, he thought of giving Kurtz a "drubbing." He was "strangely cocksure of himself" and enjoyed stalking his prey. His assertion that "he left the track" indicates that he, too, is in danger now that he is alone in the jungle; he thinks that he might never get back. But when Marlow confronts Kurtz, he recalls, "I seemed to come to my senses, I saw the danger in its right proportion" (Conrad, Heart of Darkness 584). To him, the confrontation represents coming to terms with the dark potential within himself against the background of primitive and unspeakable rites. But he does not surrender to the appeal of the wilderness precisely because he has internalized the restraints imposed by civilization.

Gentry becomes Kurtz, and like Kurtz he is torn between the woman society adores—Kurtz's intended—and the half-clothed model who has become his fantasy alternative and who parallels Kurtz's mysterious other—the savage mistress. The idea, articulated by Lewis that they are playing a "game" diminishes human feelings to a trivial level; Marlow had thought of tracking Kurtz, after he escaped, as a "boyish game." Games not only reenact the tribal history of the race, but as games like King of the Hill illustrate, they contain repressed and displaced atavistic behavior.

Gentry explores himself as he explores a primitive river and discovers the heart of darkness within himself. Dickey's authorial intent is to show how Gentry is becoming whole and transfigured by his experience on the river. According to Dickey, "Deliverance is really a novel about how decent men kill…. I wrote Deliverance as a story where under the conditions of extreme violence people find things out about themselves that they would have no other means of knowing" (Ashley 79). According to Dickey's ideology, Deliverance is about descending into self, into the dark night of the soul from which truth and reality emerge. In Dickey's reworking of the modernist theme of casting off material baggage to find one's spiritual wholeness, Gentry is delivered from his false self and becomes whole; he is no longer a mechanical man and becomes more of an artist.

Dickey also comes out of a Southern agrarian tradition—the tradition of I'll Take My Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930) which idealized and eulogized the rural South. However, whatever contexts and explanations we provide, Deliverance is a disturbing novel and deserves a resistant reading that takes into account its political implications. To use terms I have used elsewhere, the ethics of reading requires us to respond to the authorial text and the voice's values, and as we move from immersion in the text to reflection, to comment on their implications for us. In this case, Dickey's voice reveals a moral deafness to the resistant reader, a deafness which the author does not fully recognize. But the ethics of reading also involves our understanding of what is it like to occupy various positions in Gentry's narrative trajectory: escape from the city, fellowship, response to the river, rape, murder, abandoning the body, and retrospective perspective. For at times, not only to a 1995 reader but to earlier audiences, this simplified story with its neglect of blacks, its union phobia, and myth of an organic community in the agrarian South becomes not mythopoeic but reductive and silly. Yet, it is a curiosity how few of the novel's critics—perhaps out of tolerance for the American tradition of regeneration through violence (which we see in such varied texts as Hemingway and American Westerns)—have said so.

To put it baldly, our political allegory is not necessarily Dickey's, and, for many of us, male wilderness tales may not work in our complex contemporary world. A 1995 reader who has been exposed to anti-government paranoia in the face of the Oklahoma City bombing and citizen militias responds rather skeptically to Dickey's survivalist fantasy. In the name of self preservation, Dickey implies, all things become allowable, including a will to power which enables us to kill the other, in this case mountain men—but could it not be blacks, Jews, or those we imagine threaten our "way of life"? Gentry is not sure whether he has killed the man who raped Bobby or whether Drew has been shot. His is the hysteria of those in the South who have traditionally victimized blacks who were other. He has reverted to savagery via hysteria under the guise of finding himself. In Dickey's ideology uncertainty may be part of a post-Christian modern world, but do we need to accept this? Simply put, Gentry turns his back on the legal checks and balances we know as civilization. His fear of authority propels him to create laws of his own: "I have always been scared to death of anything to do with the police; the sight of a police uniform turns my saliva cold" (Deliverance 107). Gentry's distinction between self and other threatens to collapse. Like Eliot J. Alfred's Prufrock, Joyce's Gabriel Conroy, and Conrad's captain- narrator in "The Secret Sharer," the integrity of Gentry is threatened by a disbelief in the authenticity of self. If R.D. Laing's The Divided Self aptly describes a phenomenon of modern literature, it is because the terms in which existential psychology describes schizoid conditions are directly related to the crisis of identity which Eliot, Joyce and Conrad analyze:

If one experiences the other as a free agent, one is open to the possibility of experiencing oneself as an object of his experiencing and thereby of feeling one's own subjectivity drained away. One is threatened with the possibility of becoming no more than a thing in the world of the other, without any life for oneself, without any being for oneself…. One may find oneself enlivened and the sense of one's own being enhanced by the other, or one may experience the other as deadening and impoverishing. (Laing 47)

Retrospectively it is clear that Gentry has been "enlivened" by his experience of Lewis, just as Conrad's captain in "The Secret Sharer" has been "enlivened" by Leggatt.

For Lewis takes his Conradian identity, not only from Kurtz but from Leggatt, Conrad's murderous first mate in "The Secret Sharer," whereas Gentry recalls the captain-narrator of that story. Leggatt becomes a surrogate for the captain, a legate, in whose name violence is permissible and who wills himself outside the legal code and disdains judges and juries. In a moment of crisis and confusion, Leggatt killed a man whom he believed was inferior and whom he compares, when justifying the murder, to a "rat" and "ox." From Leggatt's example, we recall, the captain learns atavistic and instinctive behavior; finally, by taking command of his ship and by asserting himself within the confines of the maritime code, the captain redefines himself. Gentry is both Leggatt and the retrospective captain. In a way that anticipates the way Gentry confers value on Lewis, the captain's creation of Leggatt to fulfill the captain's psychic and moral needs is a major part of the original experience. By creation, I mean the captain's constructing of Leggatt for psychological purposes which is at odds with the real Leggatt. In "The Secret Sharer" the retrospective speaker has a burden of guilt to address because, by harboring Leggatt, he has broken the seaman's code.

Gentry looks like an anti-hero; he is fat and bald, while Lewis Medlock is a serious body builder. But once Lewis breaks his leg this putative Hemingway character is replaced as the proactive atavastic figure by a gradually transformed Gentry, a kind of Captain Ahab, and a man later wounded in body by his own arrow. Gentry in the wilder ness is not Sam Feather hunting "The Bear." He is a man bereft of his wits and values, a man getting off on his own physicality; a day after he misses a deer, he kills a human being. But he changes roles and becomes the dominant powerful figure. Using the same justification as Conrad's Leggatt, who believes the crew member he killed threatened the ship's safety, he thinks of killing Bobby because Bobby has jeopardized his and Lewis's safety :

You didn't start on time; you did everything wrong. I ought to take this rifle and shoot the hell out of you, Bobby, you incompetent asshole, you soft city country-club man. You'd have been dead, you should've been dead, right about exactly now. You're right in line, you're going slow, you're just sitting there. (Deliverance 171)

Later he threatens Bobby: "You help me with this or I'll kill you, just as you sit there on your useless ass…" (Deliverance 183). Doesn't his stabbing himself with his own arrow constitute both a purgative ritual and a revealing of submissive, masochistic sexual fantasies? And he congratulates himself for singing a folk song over the corpse rather than sexually mutilating him! If he is in harmony with nature it is not the Wordsworthian nature of God's Holy plan, but one that, like Hardy's, is an amoral, indifferent cosmos; Dickey's nature includes predatory beasts—including humans.

Gentry is the unreliable narrator of modernist fiction; yet it is difficult to find the locus of values by which to judge him. Dickey has it both ways. He is of the devil's party, and he knows it. Does not the novel's ideology suggest that rafting a river and killing a man make Gentry (or his creator or us) a better man and artist? After Lewis breaks his leg, so depersonalized is Gentry by Lewis's presence that he becomes Lewis manqué after Lewis's injury: he uses Lewis's word "figuring", and begins to assume his dominant role: "[S]hut up and let me think some more" (Deliverance 132-3). As Gentry begins to track the presumed rapist, and to follow Lewis's rubric "kill him," Gentry begins to believe that he is in such harmony with nature that it sends him signs; Gentry tells us that

My heart expanded with joy at the thought of where I was and what I was doing. There was a new light on the water; the moon was going up and up, and I stood watching the stream with my back to the rock for a few minutes, not thinking of anything, with a deep feeling of nakedness and helplessness and intimacy. (Deliverance 137)

Within the novel's ideology, he is transported to a magic world where optative becomes indicative.

Let us develop our Gauguin parallel. Noa, Noa is far from a panegyric of Tahitian life and Gauguin's paintings present a more complicated vision of Tahitian life than has often been supposed. In Noa, Noa, Gauguin writes:

Every day gets better for me…my neighbors…regard me almost as one of themselves… civilization leaves me bit by bit, and I begin to think simply…and I function in an animal way freely.…Every morning the sun rises serene for me as for everyone, I become carefree and calm and loving. (Gauguin, 24-5)

Within Gauguin's written and visual paradisical lyric of Tahiti, too, is a strong overtone of discovering the forbidden, the atavistic, and the dimly acknowledged darker self. Readers of Noa, Noa will recall that Gauguin's speaker's main pleasures seem to be sexual freedom and sexual variety, even with adolescents as young as thirteen, the age of his child bride; at times it seems like appeal to his hormonal appetites is central to his embrace of Tahiti. In the original draft, before it was expanded by Charles Morice, note how little he says about Tahitian life, culture, setting, and values. Noa, Noa is in the genre of a journal in which the author discovers sexual freedom.

Like Kurtz, Gauguin left a European woman—his wife, Kurtz an intended—behind and took a savage mistress; indeed Gauguin took several. Might not Gentry's half-clothed model or Kurtz's savage mistress have been a figure in a Gauguin painting?

And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.…Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky, and at the same time the swift shadows darted out on the earth, swept around on the river, gathering the steamer in a shadowy embrace. A formidable silence hung over the scene. (Conrad, Heart of Darkness 577-78)

Often Gauguin's words in Noa, Noa reveal an overaggressive edge as when he speaks in violent terms of how he wields an ax to chop down trees: "Savages, both of us, we attacked.…I struck furiously and, my hands covered with blood, hacked away with the pleasure of sating one's brutality and of destroying something" (Noa ,Noa 28). Conrad may have read Noa, Noa or perhaps heard about Gauguin's oral rendition in Paris salons. Would he not have asked himself—thinking of his own Congo and Malay experience—what happens when the European man in an outpost of civilization becomes so disgusted with his fellow Europeans that he begins, like Gauguin, to empathize with the primitive culture? What if subsequently, like Gauguin at times, the civilized European lacked the moral and emotional tools to cope and became not only a sensualist, but a misanthrope and a cynic, and later a megalomaniac and a solipsist? Most unpleasantly, Gauguin's concept of freedom from civilization's constraints included violent fantasies. Indeed, he speaks of the desire to rape women: "I saw plenty of calm-eyed women, I wanted them to be willing to be taken without a word; taken brutally. In a way a longing to rape" (Noa, Noa 23). Just as the river in Deliverance does for Ed Gentry and Lewis Medlock, Tahiti awakens atavistic and forbidden impulses in Gauguin; he speaks not only of the desire to take woman by force, but he acknowledges homoerotic impulses.

Recently there has been a recognition of the importance of male bonding in Conrad and the realization that we need to examine what is going on between males. For example, the homoeroticism of the warrior cults among the Bugi in the Malays helps us understand the commitment between Jim and Dain Waris in Lord Jim. Marlow's attraction to Kurtz is not homosexual but does it not have an aspect of homoerotic fantasy in a time of great stress? As Conrad hints on occasion, when on ships long absent from port or in remote outposts without woman, heterosexually oriented males may engage in homosexual acts and have homoerotic feelings. Is it possible that Kurtz's lack of restraint in "the gratification of his various lusts" includes homosexuality? Do the "abominable" practices of which Marlow speaks include that kind of male bonding? Does it explain in part the Russian harlequin's odd behavior? Marlow's temptation to go ashore for a howl and a dance? Recall that at the turn of the century harlequins are, as Picasso and others show us, often depicted as androgynous figures.

Gentry recalls the diarist of Noa, Noa who has homoerotic impulses when he goes inland from Papeete. Gauguin writes of his powerful attraction to a young male who was "faultlessly handsome" and "who wants to know a lot of things about love in Europe, questions which often embarrassed me" (Noa, Noa 25). One day Gauguin and the young male go up a mountain to get some rosewood for Gauguin's sculptures: "From all this youth, from the perfect harmony with the nature which surrounded us, there emanated a beauty, a fragrance Noa, Noa that enchanted my artist soul. From this friendship so well cemented by the mutual attraction between simple and composite, love took power to blossom in me" (Noa, Noa 25). And Gauguin's next words are revealing: "And we were only…the two of us—I had a sort of presentiment of crime, the desire for the unknown, the awakening of evil—the weariness of the male role, having always to be strong, protective; shoulders that are a heavy load. To be for a minute the weak being who loves and obeys" (Noa, Noa 25). Isn't this how Gentry responds to Lewis? We don't know what occurs, but it is characteristic of Gauguin to break off when he approaches the moment of sexual union. It seems as if he were the passive figure in sexual intercourse between males. But it is probably, but not certainly, only a fantasy experience, for Gauguin continues: "He had not understood. I alone carried the burden of an evil thought, a whole civilization had been before me in evil and educated me" (Noa, Noa 28).

Gentry's attraction to Lewis is another instance of how male bonding without cultural sanctions—like Marlow and Kurtz, like the captain and Leggatt—takes on homoerotic overtures. Listening to Lewis, Gentry originally responds bodily to Lewis's hand on the map: "My body, particularly the back and arms, felt ready for something like this" (Deliverance 8). He is sexually magnetized by Lewis:

The assurance with which he had killed a man was desperately frightening to me, but the same quality was also calming, and I moved, without being completely aware of movement, nearer to him. I would have liked nothing better than to touch that big relaxed forearm as he stood there, one hip raised until the leg made longer by the position bent gracefully at the knee. I would have followed him anywhere, and I realized that I was going to have to do just that. (Deliverance 111)

He is touched by Lewis's penis:

I could tell by its outline that his thigh was broken; I reached down and felt of it very softly. Against the back of my hand his penis stirred with pain. His hair gritted in sand, turning from one side to the other. (Deliverance 128)

He enters into a dominant-submissive psychological relationship from which he is freed by Lewis's incapacitating injury.

Gentry is fascinated by the possibility that he would have been raped had Lewis not shot the man who raped Bobby:

I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me: an indifference not only to the other man's body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it. Who was he? An escaped convict? Just a dirt farmer out hunting? A bootlegger? (Deliverance 154)

In an odd way, the man he shoots replaces Lewis as his secret sharer or other. That he wounds himself in the process ties him to the man he has shot. 

It had been so many years since I had been really hurt that the feeling was almost luxurious, though I knew when I tried to climb the water to the surface that I had weakened more than I had thought… I wanted to sleep, to sink, not have to breathe. I lay and moved with the river, with all nightmares and night sweats to come, but not here, not on me yet. (Deliverance 177, 187)

Note how he submits now not to another human but to a submissive relationship to his wound and to the river. Indeed in the above quote, is he not, in his fantasy, sexually dominated by the river?

In Noa, Noa, Gauguin believed that he had left what was artificial and conventional to commune with nature and to discover his true self. He believed, like Dickey, that civilization was an illness that could be cured by the return to the primitive. But in Gauguin's "Two Nudes on a Tahitian Beach" (1891/1894) the women eye each other warily and with tension, as if bound by some hidden emotion of anger or jealousy or a secret they share. They stare hostilely at each other. Is the woman on the left covering her breast out of sexual embarrassment as if she were defending herself against a sexual accusation—whether it be spoken or unspoken—or is she provocatively answering the accusation by fondling herself? Is the painting unfinished to heighten the mysterious chasm between the two women and to leave the text indeterminate or did Gauguin simply fail to complete his painting? It is as if the savage mistress and a native companion were standing on the shore of the Congo after Kurtz has departed with Marlow. Gaugin's two women could even be passionately attracted to one another; perhaps the complexity of feeling hints at the effects of the colonial presence, most of which is ostentatiously absent from the first Tahitian phase. Gauguin takes the expected symbolism of the dog representing obedience and implies that human life need obey the laws and rhythms of nature, but in the mysterious attraction and passion and repulsion, he also suggests that we cannot control our emotional life or give it the direction we wish. It is the shared knowing between the two women that is both attractive and frightening, a shared knowing that informs Gentry's retrospective view of his relationship to Lewis, for Lewis survives as a somewhat diminished figure.

Gauguin, like Dickey and Conrad, was fascinated by nightmares, dreamscapes, and the unconscious. Marlow speaks of Kurtz as the nightmare of his choice. In Noa, Noa, Gauguin wrote: "[T]he night is loud with demons, evil spirits, and the spirit of the dead. Also there are tupapaus, with pale lips and phosphorescent eyes who loom in nightmares over the beds of young girls" (quoted in The Art of Paul Gauguin 281). Gauguin frequently included the tupapaus in paintings. A paint ing like "Manoa Tupapau" ("The Spectre Watches Over Her" 1892)—the tupapau is the spirit of the dead—speaks to the Tahitian belief in the life beyond the natural world. Gauguin was fascinated by pagan forms of devotion. Dickey's Gentry learns about intuition, instinct, and spectral forms of knowledge.

For Gauguin, Tahiti represented difference—difference from the so-called civilized world he had known—and other. He loved the spontaneous sexuality and unselfconscious nudity of the Tahitians. Like Conrad's Marlow and Dickey's Gentry, Gauguin's narrative voice is in the position of trying to convey a mysterious dream, an experience beyond his comprehension. For Conrad, Gauguin, and Dickey, there is a world beyond rationalism, utilitarianism, materialism, and empiricism.

Yet Dickey skirts this issue of retrospective trauma, except for having Gentry acknowledge that "There is still a special small fear in any strange automobile headlights near the house, or any phone call with an unfamiliar voice in it, either at the office or at home, or when Martha calls me at the office" (Deliverance 233). We need to understand the retrospective telling as a exculpation of his guilt, but also a way of dealing with a painful act of memory that is potentially disruptive to Gentry's current sense of himself. Dickey implies that we all create our own ontology by acts of imagination, and that our memories recreate that ontology. Narrative includes the shadow of trauma in its iterative act; even while recapitulating and resituating an event temporally and spatially, telling domesticates Gentry's experience into the world into which he returns and now inhabits. Just as Marlow's narrative reverts to Brussels, so Gentry's is superimposed surrealistically with images of the city—his wife, his child, the half-dressed model who was photographed as part of an advertisement he created. Gentry finds himself as a primitive man among the elements, but what does it mean to find oneself as an outlaw in an act of savage murder?

Deliverance is also about fictionality; for Gentry recreates reality according to the mind's needs:

The version was strong; I had made it and tried it out against the world, and it had held. It had become so strong in my mind that I had trouble getting back through it to the truth. (Deliverance 227-8)

Do we have faith in his three day reminiscence framed by sections entitled "Before" and "After"? Is the telling an act of memory, shaped by his psyche and needs? We might think of Stevens' line from "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" "I was the world in which I walked and what I saw/Or heard or felt came not but from myself;/ And there I found myself more truly and more strange." Or as Ed puts it: 

And so it ended, except in my mind, which changed the events more deeply into what they were, into what they meant to me alone. It pleases me in some curious way that the river does not exist, and that I have it. In me it still is, and will be until I die, green, rocky, deep, fast, slow, and beautiful beyond reality. I had a friend there who in a way had died for me, and my enemy was there. Because of the associations she had for me, I looked up the girl in the Kitt'n Britches ad and took her out to dinner a couple of times. I still loved the way she looked, but her gold-halved eye had lost its fascination. Its place was in the night river, in the land of impossibility. That's where its magic was for me. I left it there, though I would have liked to see her hold her breast once more, in a small space full of men. I see her every now and then, and the studio uses her. She is a pleasant part of the world, but minor. She is imaginary. (Deliverance 233-5)

In the above passage, "pleases" is a word that domesticates the experience, and displaces the repressed pangs of conscience that we feel percolating beneath the surface Dickey wants to create. While the speaker believes he is communicating with his reader about "friends" and "enemies," we are resistant to his narrative formation, more resistant than the anonymous voice who responds to Marlow's voice and iterates his story for us. We might recall Marlow's words—words somewhat invalidated by the anonymous listener's retelling in Heart of Darkness—"We live—as we dream, alone."

In a sense we are in the position of an analyst hearing the analysand and sorting through an incomprehensible, even traumatic experience that needs to be domesticated and naturalized. Indeed, we might recall Freud's discussion of the "repetition-compulsion"; telling is a version of the repetition compulsion described in his 1920 essay "Beyond the Pleasure Principle":

It must be explained that we are able to postulate the principle of a repetition-compulsion in the unconscious mind, based upon instinctual activity and inherent in the very nature of the instincts—a principle powerful enough to overrule the pleasure-principle, lending a certain aspect of the mind their daemonic character, and still very clearly expressed in the tendencies of small children; a principle, too, which is responsible for a part of the course taken by the analysis of neurotic patients. Taken in all, the foregoing prepares us for the discovery that whatever reminds us of this inner repetition-compulsion is perceived as uncanny. (Hertz 300. Cited from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953-73)

As we shall see, Gentry's telling is a doubling of the original experience of his creating a double from a man to whom in terms of values he had only passing resemblance—but who magnetized him the way fascist leaders electrify their followers. Freud is thinking of a patient's need to repeat partly forgotten, partly displaced, and partly repressed material. Even while expressing a human need to understand himself and be understood by others Gentry's telling iterates for us that he is still something of a stranger to himself. As Neil Hertz has observed in his discussion of "Freud and the Sandman":

Repetition becomes "visible" when it is colored or tinged by something being repeated, which itself functions like vivid or heightened language, lending a kind of rhetorical consistency to what is otherwise quite literally unspeakable. Whatever it is that is repeated—an obsessive ritual, perhaps, or a bit of acting-out in relation to one's analyst—will, then, feel most compellingly uncanny when it is seen as merely coloring, that is, when it comes to seem most gratuitously rhetorical. (Hertz 301)

Deliverance is about various kinds of transport systems: the physical journey down the river is a journey into man's atavistic, darker self and also Gentry's psychic journey from the constraints of civilization to primitivism. Freed of the constraints of civilization, all things are possible. Thus, Deliverance is deliverance from one's everyday self:

I was full of the transfiguring power of full draw, the draw-hysteria that is the ruination of some archers and the making of others, who can conquer it and make it work for them. (Deliverance 163)

The studio model with whom Gentry is obsessed suggests the possibility of transformation:

The girl from the studio threw back her hair and clasped her breast, and in the center of Martha's heaving and expertly working back, the gold eye shone, not with practicality of sex, so necessary to its survival, but the promise of it that promised other things, another life, deliverance . (Deliverance 29-30)

But it is also deliverance from the checks and balances of civilization. When Gentry hunts for the mountain man, he begins to think and act like a prehensile creature and, notwithstanding his aesthetic perceptions, thinks of himself as a hunter seeking his prey. Indeed, Gentry becomes the mirror image of the figure whom he thinks is hunting him.

Deliverance has been seen as a version of Joseph Campbell's myth of separation, initiation and return. Whatever Dickey's intent, the novel's implications demand a resistant reading to the one that sees Gentry's "quest as a heroic journey toward maturation and enlightenment" (Kuehl 167). No, Gentry is a man who has broken free of the sanctions and balances on which community life depends. Nor is it surprising that D.H. Lawrence, another solipsistic romantic, imagined such predecessors to Gentry as Birkin and Mellors. For Deliverance is also a version of the will to power allowing the end to justify the means.

Dickey patronizes the very people whom one would expect him to eulogize. Unlike Gauguin's Tahitians or Conrad's Africans, the mountain people are depicted not merely as ignorant boors, but as moral troglodytes. Dickey has no respect for a culture of difference in which diverse cultural enclaves are respected. Rather, Dickey has a kinship with the ideology that sets individual against community, that longs for a frontier spirit when men were men; he belongs to a tradition that includes Forrest Gump, Rush Limbaugh, and Ayn Rand. God helps those who help themselves, and we need to be on the ready for those misguided utilitarians who think in terms of community spirit. Industrialism is represented by the dam at Aintry which will change the map and destroy the flow of the Cahulawassee River. For Dickey, the dam is a version of colonialism and imperialism within our very midst, the kind of government as enemy paranoia upon which the citizen militias of our day fixate. TVA is the bogeyman of government control. Dickey is finally a survivalist who makes cartoons out of the mountain people and who is oblivious to the complexity of modern life. Way before Newt Gingrich emerged from Georgia with his Contract on America, Dickey took out his contract. Dickey's gender attitudes vary from an indifference to the place of women in the alternative wilderness ontology he creates to a surpressed awareness of the dependence of weak males on their women in an eviscerated material culture. While the role of Martha, Gentry's wife, might be described by the sexist shibboleth, "buns in the oven, buns in the bed," she is also the figure on whom he desperately depends for definition. Although she has a career as a nurse, her role is to nurture and enable him even if he has a yen for the model or some other woman. He is a man beset by life's turmoil and it is her role to help solve his dilemma. In Dickey's Deliverance, the rednecks, like Conrad's natives, have been as corrupted as city folk—and perhaps in part by them as if the city folk were versions of Conrad's amoral, cynical European pilgrims. To be sure, the kind of diachronic historical sense—did the rednecks take the land from the Indians?—that informs Faulkner's works, and a synchronic sense of the place of blacks in the rural south would give Dickey's novel a richer texture. Like survivalist cultists, Lewis and Gentry justify their inner search for what Wallace Stevens calls "imperishable bliss" in terms of a response to corruption and devolution in the external world. Yet they act on solipsistic impulses that set them at odds with res publica and, as I have argued, enact the purgative value of violence as a necessary step to individual and social maturation.2



1 Elsewhere I have shown how Conrad was influenced by Noa, Noa when he wrote Heart of Darkness.

2 I am indebted in this essay to the suggestions of Marcia Jacobson and Jussica Knoble.


Works Cited

Ashley, Franklin. "James Dickey: The Art of Poetry XX." Paris Review 17:65 (Spring 1976): 52-88.

Dickey, James. Deliverance. New York: Dell, 1970.

Hertz, Neil. "Freud and the Sandman." In Textual Strategies. Ed. Josue Harari. New York: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Jameson, Frederic. "The Great American Hunter, or Ideological Contents in the Novel." College English 34 (Nov. 1972): 180-97.

Kuehl, John R. and Linda K., "The Principle of Uncertainty in Deliverance." The South Carolina Review 26:2 (Spring 1994): 162-172.

Laing, R.D., The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Baltimore: Penguin Books. 1965.

Norman, Geoffrey. "Playboy Interview." Playboy Magazine November 1972: 81-82, 89, 92, 94, 212-16.

Noa, Noa: Gauguin's Tahiti. Ed. and introduction by Nicholas Wadley. Trans. Jonathan Griffin. Oxford: Phaidon, 1985

The Art of Paul Gauguin, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1988-281.

Van Ness, Gordon. Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of Jams Dickey. Columbia, SC: Cambden House, 1992. 75-100.

Zabel, Morton Dauwen. The Portable Conrad. rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1975.


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