Contemporary Literary Criticism



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Title: The Savage Mind: James Dickey's Deliverance

Author(s): Keen Butterworth

Publication Details: The Southern Literary Journal 28.2 (Spring 1996): p69-78.

Source: Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter and Deborah A. Schmitt. Vol. 109. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type: Critical essay

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Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Research, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning

[(essay date Spring 1996) In the following essay, Butterworth discusses the savage side of man portrayed in Dickey's Deliverance and analyzes how characterization structures the novel.]

On the dust jacket of the first edition of James Dickey's Deliverance an eye peers out through a surrounding cluster of hemlock fronds. It is not the poison hemlock shrub of Socrates, but the benign water-loving hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) of our Appalachian forests. It would grow in abundance, probably in virgin stands, along the Cahulawassee, the fictional river on which most of the story of Deliverance takes place. The fronds provide the screen of Nature from which the eye looks out. The eye's blue iris is the color of the sky--or of clear deep pools of water. The white ball is the color of clouds--or of turbid falling waters. The skin around the eye has the green cast of deep forests. Is it the eye of the murderous mountaineer? The eye of the narrator Ed Gentry? Of some Nature spirit or pantheistic god? Is it the eye of the author? Probably it is all of these, for it is the eye of the book itself.

In lectures and readings Dickey often quotes the final statement of [Rainer Maria] Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo": "You must change your life." (Du muss dela leben andern.) This, says Dickey, is what all important art demands, and certainly this is the effect that Dickey wants his work--poems and novels--to have on his readers. I am reminded of the warning Boehme gives at the outset of one of his books: he asks his readers to go no further unless they are willing to make changes in their lives that the book will call for; if they are not, then reading the book might be bad for them, even dangerous. Readers of Deliverance might heed a similar warning, for the novel records a harrowing descent into the abyss, the dark chasm of our own psyches; and the change Dickey calls for is in our understanding of ourselves as human animals whose genetic origins lie in a dark but certain past. Unless the reader understands the violence of the story as it relates to his own psyche, then the effect of the novel might indeed be dangerous.

"Denn da ist keine Stelle, die dich nicht sieht." This assertion which precedes the final statement of Rilke's poem seems even more to the point: "There is no part that does not see you." We stand naked before the naked work of art. It sees us--and if we have the stomach for it, we see ourselves, through reflection and contrast--for what we are: flawed, incomplete creatures; and we must change, or, at least, accept the imperative to change.

Flawed certainly, but to say we are incomplete may be misleading: our incompleteness often results from our refusal to accept a part of ourselves, an innate part of our psyches, which we are afraid to claim. Under the intimidating light of modern civilization, we hide our shadow, our instinctual selves, not only because we distrust it, but also because John Locke and the Enlightenment have convinced us that it does not exist. The Puritan Manichean ethos has taught us to project it conveniently elsewhere--as the devil, or on some darker complexioned race. Yet from time to time we feel the Aurignacian Man lurking just beneath our skins, and that scares the devil out of us; so we turn him out, or push him back deep into the recesses of our psyches, where we will not have to face his reality at close hand. To that subterfuge of modern man Dickey says his No--not in Thunder, but to the roar of mountain water. In the poem "Falling" the protagonist strips away her clothes, the integuments of civilization, to the roar of wind, as she falls from womb to grave, discovering--or inventing--in the process who she is. In Deliverance Dickey strips himself bare by breaking the psyche down into its component parts and testing them in a baptism, a trial by water, original water, near the source, not yet damped by the controls of civilization: the uterine font, launching the quarter of characters forth into a new life where only the fittest will prevail.

And so the eye of Dickey's book sees us: subdued creatures of an urban-industrial civilization, separated from Nature--save our own; and that nature-in-ourselves we cannot understand because of our isolation from the natural world which could furnish the analogies necessary for understanding. The rise of civilization, Carl Jung tells us, has been the history of the rational mind's successive gains against the instinctual, until we scarcely recognize ourselves as part of the natural world at all, but rather, in the Christian redaction, as separate creations altogether. The problems caused by this sublimation have been enumerated and analyzed by modern psychology. In Deliverance those problems, and perhaps a solution, have been dramatized.



Deliverance. From what? From the murderous mountain men? From the primordial dangers of the river? Certainly these are the most obvious referents of the title. But there is also the implication of a deliverance from the enslaving monotony of modern urban life. And, beyond that, to a deliverance from the parts of ourselves which also hold us in a kind of bondage, which thwart self-knowledge and consequently hinder our pursuit of vitality itself.

Dickey has discouraged symbolic readings of his novels and poems because he wants to emphasize the importance of story and storytelling, which he feels are too often devalued by modern theory and practice. Whatever meaning, in the abstract sense, his work might suggest has grown out of narrative action. This is certainly a healthy corrective to synthetic theories deriving from Poe and tracing their development through the symbolists, T. S. Eliot 's objective correlative, to the postmodern practices of the anti-novel, where effect (or idea) is the first consideration and the synthesis of materials to produce that effect second: narrative thus becomes tertiary--a means of effecting the synthesis, often by inventive but unnatural means. Dickey opts for Nature. He would agree, I think, with [Walter Savage] Landor's old philosopher: "Nature I loved, and next to Nature Art." For Dickey empirical experience is authentic, salutary. His mode is thus mimetic, but informed by the esemplastic imagination.

Form and metaphor, Dickey says, must grow out of the material. But then, too, we know that the imagination of the artist is attracted to those materials in which form and metaphor inhere. First, the basic structure of Deliverance is archetypal: Descent and Return--as old at least as The Gilgamesh, and tracing its lineage upward through The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, King Lear, Faust, Moby-Dick. There are some who hold that it is the basic structure of all great narrative. It is certainly the emphasized structure of Deliverance. Then, there is the river--the great mystery and power of water: life-giving but dangerous, vitalizing, primarily feminine in its associations. American literature is obsessed with water, whether it be [James Fenimore] Cooper's and Poe's and Melville's oceanic expanses, or Twain's and Faulkner 's rivers. Water is life--vast and deep in the collective oceans, flowing and inexorable in its journey from highlands to estuary. But Dickey's Cahulawassee differs significantly from Twain's and Faulkner's Mississippi. It is the river of origins, chaotic and primitive. The Mississippi has tremendous power, but it is a gathered power, belied by its placid surface. The Cahulawassee is anything but placid; it is too original and unsophisticated to disguise its energy as it plunges through the rapids and gorges of North Georgia. It represents life untouched by the civilizing hand of man, or even by the tempering forces of Nature itself. The river is raw and wild.

On the other hand, there is the opposing metaphor of the dam being built at Aintry, which will cause the submersion of the river as it floods the valleys and gorges through which the characters of the novel travel. The dam is a symbol of man's abstractions, of Bergson's geometric order. As an architectural structure, it is like man's laws, his mores, his religions, his arts, which he uses to subdue and control the wild and primitive vitality in himself. As the waters rise behind the dam, they will subdue the wild river, diffuse its power, and cover over the rugged landscape it has wrought. Finally, it will create a placid, monotonous surface, and the wild river will be only a personal memory of those who have experienced it, or a cultural memory of those who have heard or read the stories told by their forebears. Like the dam, the shaping forms of civilization do not so much create order as they effect a monotonous peace which allows man to go about his daily business without threat of disruption. Instinct and passion are sublimated for the sake of society and progress.

Dickey illustrates this monotonous peace in the first section of the novel. In this prologue entitled "Before," Ed Gentry, the narrator, goes through his daily routines as an advertising executive and suburban family man in Atlanta. By the standards of modern society, it is a good life, but dull and feminized: when Ed returns to his office from lunch, he realizes there is not a man, save himself, on the street, only a bevy of women. His business, though prosperous, is mediocre: it cannot even strive for excellence, lest it out-class the market and thus lose accounts. His wife Martha is a generous, sympathetic woman, but their sexual coupling indicates that romance and adventure have long since departed their marriage. The only excitement Ed experiences is caused by the gold fleck in the eye of a nearly nude model his agency has employed. The eye is different, mysterious--it seems to represent the flaw in humanity, in the human condition, which can be beautiful and fascinating, particularly when found in an object or person approximating perfection. It is a symbol of mystery and exotic possibility. Her eye seizes Ed's imagination, and its image comes back to him several times during the course of the novel; but it offers only a temporary relief from the general boredom of his life.

At an unconscious level, Ed seeks deliverance from the monotony and tedium of this urban-suburban life. Yet he hesitates to go on the trip his friend Lewis Medlock has planned down the Cahulawassee. Adventure seems hardly worth the trouble of disrupting the comfortable apathy of his life, just as a passionate pursuit of the girl with the golden eye would disrupt his impersonal business relations. But he goes nevertheless because of the contagious enthusiasm of Lewis: psychologically, it would be more difficult for Ed to refuse Lewis than to go along with him. Thus, in a way, even here, Ed is choosing a path of least resistance. He is seduced by Lewis's enthusiasm: when Lewis rolls the topographical map out on the table for Drew, Bobby, and Ed to see, he makes the trip sound like pure romance. The map, however, gives no more idea of what the actual terrain is like than a textbook in anthropology allows us to understand the life of an ice-age hunter. It is an abstraction, another of the reductions by which we separate ourselves from the concrete reality of things and events. There are only two ways of confronting and understanding that reality. Direct experience: the way of Ed Gentry. Or by an act of the imagination: the way of Dickey, the poet-novelist.

What happens to the characters during their ordeal on the Cahulawassee, and what they learn from that experience, is directly related to the personalities they reveal during the course of the narrative. Drew is a corporate executive with a highly developed sense of social and moral order. He is an organization man, but in the best, not the pejorative, sense of the term. He is also a family man with a strong sense of duty. His love of music, which has a mathematical order and logic, but also an emotional warmth, reflects these qualities in him. Even his last name, Ballenger, might suggest balance. Because of this highly developed sense of order and social morality, Drew is not able to cope with the chaos of the primitive drama in which he is forced to participate. Consequently, he is destroyed.

Bobby, on the other hand, is violated, but not destroyed. He is a social being also, but without the ideals of Drew. Whereas Drew is an executive with responsibility and position, Bobby is the salesman who has to sell himself, to please and win others, at whatever cost to his own integrity and pride. He also lacks discipline, as revealed by Ed's memory of his blowing up at a party. He is the softest, effeminate and porcine, and the quickest to complain. Thus, Bobby cannot protect himself from the violation of his being by gratuitous evil, represented by the two mountaineers, Stovall and Benson. But he does survive that violation, because his moral lassitude (some might call it flexibility) allows him to.

Lewis Medlock, the enthusiast and instigator of the trip, is quite different from either Drew or Bobby. He is a man of independent means, directly indebted to no one. He can develop his individuality at will--which he does, and thus comes to believe in his own invincibility. He has become expert at every athletic activity he pursues--archery, fly-casting, weight-lifting--and insists on doing everything his own way. He even believes that he can survive a nuclear holocaust, if it comes. As Ed says, Lewis thinks he is immortal. Perhaps Lewis is weakened by his overspecialization and hubris. In the course of the ordeal he is humbled by his experience and forced to realize his vulnerability and mortality. He is a changed and wiser man when he returns to Atlanta.

Ed is the most successful of the four men in coping with his experience, probably because he is the best all around, and the least specialized. He also has more imagination, more of a power of empathy or negative capability, than the other three. He is able to understand moral relativity and adapt to the unexpected very quickly. He also establishes a rapport with nature in a short time, even though almost totally ignorant of her ways before this adventure. His flexibility allows him to enter into the drama of survival of the fittest and call on reserves deep inside himself to predict and destroy his enemy. As a result of his experience he realizes the violence that man, himself included, is capable of committing, but he can also take pride in his ability to enter the primitive world on its own terms and survive if not triumph over it. "Deliverance" at this level takes on a new meaning: it suggests that Ed has been delivered from the terror of his primitive ordeal and the realized savage in himself. When he returns to Atlanta, he has a new understanding of himself and an appreciation of the values and amenities of civilized life. His experience has indeed been a "recreation," in a way he could not have suspected when he drove north out of Atlanta with Lewis: it has been a "re-creation" of the life of his distant ancestry--tribal, or even pretribal, man. The routines, the manners, the trivialized human encounters of modern life--these are the price we pay for our deliverance from the terrors of primal chaos. But our realization and memory of that terror can give meaning, and poignancy, to the tedium of our daily lives. This is the lesson Ed Gentry has learned, and his memory will keep that lesson alive. Ed has, indeed, "changed his life."

Dickey's use of characterization to structure and inform Deliverance suggests other possibilities of interpretation as well. From a certain angle of vision, the four main characters appear to be four aspects of the author's own personality. In fact, they might be classified in psychoanalytic terms. Bobby has certain characteristics of the id: he is concerned with his own immediate comfort and gratification; he is impulsive, almost totally lacking in self-control: he is androgynous, undifferentiated, social without a social conscience. Because he lacks anything like a "higher" consciousness, we might say that he lives on an animal level, the level of instinct, much as the id operates within the psychic totality. (In this regard, the mountaineers, Benson and Stovall, who rape Bobby, probably murder Drew, and threaten to kill Lewis and Ed, might be seen as elements of the libido, an unchecked and undifferentiated sexual energy which is frightening and destructive until brought under control by the psyche.)

Lewis, on the other hand, can be seen as the ego: he is concerned with his own survival as an individual, not with the survival of society; he values his relative independence from the economic institutions of society; of all the characters he is the most in touch with external (physical) reality; he is disciplined, but only in activities related to his personal fitness for survival. Before the ordeal on the Cahulawassee he believes, as [Sigmund] Freud said of the ego, that he is "immortal."

Drew is like the superego: he is social-institutional man; his values are the internalized codes of his civilization; his reactions are not instinctive, but they are reflexive, because in him the internalization of values is so complete that they operate on an unconscious level. (I am avoiding here the question of how much of social consciousness is innate and how much learned. The modern science of ethology has indeed shown that a large part of what we might call "superego" is instinctual and present in many of the mammalian species. But for the purposes of the analysis here I am assuming that consideration irrelevant.) Drew places more value on corporate and social well-being than on his own. His highest allegiance is to the articulated principles, such as law, that make civilization possible. His love of music might seem an anomaly, but it is not. Music mediates and formalizes the instincts and passions through the orderly arrangement of tone and rhythm, and thus allows "civil" communication. It expresses our human interrelatedness: like the other arts it is one of the highest expressions of our sense of community.

Ed Gentry is the psyche: he takes charge over the other components of the personality, because none of them, by themselves, is adequate to meet the demands of the ordeal, which require the totality of self for survival. As narrator, Ed is the mediator between the other characters and the external world (represented by the reading public), just as the psyche must be the mediator between the various components of the personality and its environment. Ed is adequate to the task; thus, the self, though much battered and altered, prevails. An interesting development, however, is that Bobby (the id) disappears: although the id survives, the ordeal has dispatched it so that the psyche no longer has to deal with it directly. The id has been chastened and brought under control; it is sufficient only that the psyche remember that the id still exists.

On the other hand, Drew, the superego, does not survive. The implication here is that an automatic, reflexive code based on societal values cannot survive when it ventures beyond the protective boundaries of the civilization that evolved those values for its own preservation. In the primal chaos outside those boundaries, the superego is not only irrelevant; it is also a hindrance to survival. Thus it is destroyed. This does not mean that the superego is without value. As Ed says at the end of the novel, Drew was the "best" of the bunch of them. Because of the psychic violence of the ordeal, the superego cannot survive as an autonomous component of the self, but it can be valued in memory as a valuable principle.

Although this Freudian structure may not be immediately obvious, once discovered it seems too precise not to have been a consideration during composition. In my own conversations with Dickey, however, he has denied that he was conscious of this division of the Freudian paradigm among the four characters of the novel. If this is so, an interesting possibility is raised: Freudian metaphor has become so imbedded in modern thought that it often functions today at a subliminal level.

An indication that Dickey consciously intended the four major characters to represent aspects of himself is the distribution of his vocations and hobbies among them. The narrator Ed Gentry is an advertising executive in Atlanta: Dickey had been a highly successful advertising executive in Atlanta and New York during the late 1950s. Lewis Medlock lifts weights and is an expert archer: Dickey was an athlete who took his weightlifting seriously, and during the 1950s and 60s he became an expert field archer--an accomplishment he has been quite proud of. Drew Ballenger is a guitarist: Dickey's house is filled with guitars, both 6- and 12-stringed varieties; during the 1960s he practiced on the instrument religiously and became a technically proficient musician, and he still plays with much enjoyment today.

That leaves only Bobby Trippe to account for: he has no talents except his sociability; his name suggests the porcine and unsavory; his behavior is childish, cowardly, and embarrassing. It seems that Bobby represents that undisciplined and sometimes ludicrous part of the self that we all wish to be rid of. And that is just what Dickey does in the course of the novel: dispatch Bobby to regions where he will not be an embarrassment to Ed and Lewis.



If the four characters represent aspects of the author, the novel can then be seen as metaphor for Dickey's own life. He leaves the security of a good position in advertising and a comfortable middle-class family existence to enter the imaginative life of the poet. That life requires a descent into the abyss of being to find the sources of imaginative energy. Horrors lurk there, but discovery of the hidden self can be exhilarating. The poet finds in the depths and recesses of the conscious and unconscious mind the primitive well-springs of the poetic imagination. Support for this interpretation can be found in the sleep-dream motif of the novel. Before the adventure, Ed plunged deeply into sleep each night, probably to renew contact with the unconscious sources of vitality. But something has always kept him from remembering what he dreamed; his internal censor will not allow the dreams' contents to rise to consciousness. On the trip with Lewis to the Cahulawassee, Ed moves in and out of sleep, as though he is about to enter a dream. And indeed he does--a nightmare out of man's primitive past, violent and lawless. And this time he brings the dream back into the light of consciousness by telling us about it, just as the poet Dickey is objectifying and dramatizing, through metaphor, his descent into his own elemental self.

Deliverance is not an American Heart of Darkness. Unlike Marlow, the American hero does not beat a paranoiac retreat when he encounters the primitive aspects of his own psyche; rather he approaches those manifestations, with trepidation perhaps, but also with fascination and a desire to understand their meaning and value. Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Huck Finn, Isaac McCaslin, R. P. McMurphy, all embrace their shadows. (Both [Nathaniel] Hawthorne and Henry James are primarily European in their attitudes toward the shadow, and are thus exceptions to the generalizations I am making here.) The instinctual self turns out to be a source not only of vitality but also of some of man's most admirable traits. In Deliverance, however, there is no Chingachgook, Queequeg, Jim, Sam Fathers, or Bromden, because Dickey's vision has passed beyond the Puritan Manichean psychology that begot the shadow. Dickey's psychology is more modern, more complex, for the instinctual self rises from within when called upon to meet the challenge of survival. Projection is evident only in Ed's mildly paranoiac attitude toward mountain people in general, and in the symbolic projection of evil onto Benson and Stovall, in particular. Nonetheless, Deliverance stands in the tradition of Cooper, Melville, Twain, Hemingway , and Faulkner . It is also indebted to the primitivism of Jack London, particularly to The Call of the Wild, for which Dickey wrote the screenplay of a 1975 television production. The American work that Deliverance stands closest to, however, is Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Both are explorations of the modern psyche in similar motival and symbolic terms. The major difference between the two works lies in the authors' attitudes toward knowledge. Poe's residual transcendentalism takes for granted that ultimate knowledge lies outside the self, in a realm whose shadowy existence can be sensed only through the intuition. If for Dickey transcendental knowledge exists, it is not a concern of either his poetry or fiction. Knowledge in Deliverance comes from within, from the shadowy regions deep in the individual psyche. For Dickey, it would seem, the only access to that knowledge is through action, the recreation of archetypal experience, the realization of dream. The act may entail actual participation--or it may be realized in the creation of art. In both, the archetypal is externalized and made concrete.

For many of us, an opportunity to participate in archetypal experience like that described in Deliverance is unavailable or improbable. And if it were available, most of us would be unequal to the ordeal of confronting and absorbing its terror. Furthermore, unless we are writers of the order of Melville or Faulkner or Dickey, we shall never realize such experience effectively through imagination. That is why the artist is of extraordinary value to our modern culture: he has the imaginative power and will to break through the conventions that blind us to the nature of reality outside those conventions--and to the darker regions of our own psyche, which, again, convention urges us to suppress or ignore. The great writer is our Perseus who confronts and overcomes the bright Medusa of existence, the Gorgon which we all contain within ourselves--for the Medusa is the consummate Anima figure, in all her beauty and hideousness. The writer's mirror-shield is his art. In it he sees Life, he sees Us--thus inviting us to see ourselves. He also invites us to grasp, with him, the Sickle of Knowledge and slay the Gorgon. If we have the courage to accept that invitation and sever the petrifying head, then Pegasus flies free and our lives are changed. That is the only kind of knowledge that gives meaning to the tedium of our daily existence, and allows us to rise occasionally above it to perform a heroic action--or at least to understand the nature of heroism.



Source Citation

Butterworth, Keen. "The Savage Mind: James Dickey's Deliverance." The Southern Literary Journal 28.2 (Spring 1996): 69-78. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter and Deborah A. Schmitt. Vol. 109. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 May. 2011.



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