Nonfiction: The Promise of Another Life by Jenny LeRoy

Jenny LeRoy is a doctoral student of English and American Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and received her B.A. from Barnard College in 2010. Her interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in twentieth-century American literature and culture. She is an international research assistant for the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre in Toronto and an English instructor at Queens College, CUNY. Her piece is from Anamesa Spring 2012:

THE PROMISE OF ANOTHER LIFE:
NARRATIVE AND VIOLENCE IN JAMES DICKEY’S DELIVERANCE

By Jenny LeRoy

Abstract: This paper examines the narratological means by which the violence of industrialization is recast as necessary and benign, as articulated by James Dickey’s novel Deliverance. Employing Michel de Certeau’s notion of a re-infiltrating “residue” to trace the consequences of an urban society built on the elimination of alternative narratives and – as the novel casts so grimly – bodies, I demonstrate how the men’s nightmarish canoe trip serves as a working-through of the disturbances wrought by large-scale development. Their violent encounters with locals and their staging of further, self-initiated violence suggest that a ritualized project of mourning is underway. Attempting to secure the ‘residual’ bodies of their victims six feet under and simultaneously stamp out in themselves any vestigial desire for “other things, another life, deliverance,”[1] the men express a longing to make tenable a life in the modern industrial complex or to escape it altogether. But their successful erasure of the residual “other” hinges on a repressive re-telling of the trip’s narrative to authorities, thus mirroring the very process by which the violence of industrialization operates. The novel finally asserts that we will continue to repeat the cyclical trauma of social, psychic, and ecological disturbances so long as there are dominant narratives to tell otherwise.

 “Myths reach out of the past to cripple,
incapacitate, or stroke down the living.”

–Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence[2]  

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a major initiative of the New Deal and today the nation’s largest public power provider, began construction on the Norris Dam in 1933.[3] Before its completion three years later, the dam had displaced 3,000 families and 5,000 gravesites, the latter notably having served as “evidence of the continuity of [residents’] own existence, proof of the permanency of the past, and an irrefrangible link to their collectively shared communal and familial memories.”[4] The spatial and temporal rupturing caused by the dam provides a historical point of entry into James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance, the plot of which hinges on anticipation of similar ruptures to come. Dickey’s novel, and the 1972 film by the same name, relates the story of four Atlanta businessmen – Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew – who embark on a canoe trip in the North Georgia wild in order to behold the fictional Cahulawassee River before it is flooded and dammed “like in the old TVA days.”[5] Similarly, the novel is brought to a close under the specter of the TVA, when the men spy a stack of disinterred coffins in a rural cemetery and still more being heaved from the ground in preparation for the flooding. With reminiscences of the TVA bookending the novel, Deliverance stands to query the dictum that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, for it is precisely in recalling the past that the men reproduce it.[6]

Michel de Certeau writes that “any autonomous order is founded upon what it eliminates,” giving rise to a “‘residue’ condemned to be forgotten at the moment of its own production.”[7] As the haunted folklore of the southern hill counties attests,[8] this residue always resurfaces, re-infiltrating the clean and modern present with its “wild,” its “obscene,” its “filth,” inscribing the “law of the other” from “within the walls of the residence.”[9] In Deliverance, the law of the other is loosed across the remote Georgia landscape when Bobby is sodomized at gunpoint and his assailant is in turn shot and killed by Lewis. Presciently connecting the brutality of this encounter with that of industrialization, Lewis states in the film’s opening, “They’re gonna rape this whole landscape. They’re gonna rape it,”[10] an apt metaphor not only for the Cahulawassee’s imminent damming but also for its historical precedent in the TVA. Threading together past, present, and future ruptures, Bobby’s rape thus signals a resurfacing of the wild and obscene unknowability of certain corporeal and geographic spaces, the evidently porous boundaries between self and other, body and world. Indeed, the cataclysmic intrusion of Bobby’s rape wrenches open a host of ontological and narratological ambiguities with which the men and the reader/viewer must grapple.

The novel suggests that it is the obscenity of the unknown – the slippage between self and other – that must be eliminated in order for the apparatus of the state to ensue (at present in the form of “real estate people…mak[ing the Cahulawassee] over into one of their heavens”).[11] It also challenges the possibility for such eliminations to be lasting, as their necessary recurrence reveals the tenacity of Certeau’s “law of the other.” The men’s canoe trip stages a double elimination, in general as a harrowing event to be erased and denied, and specifically as a number of discrete actions that expunge the lives of two locals. As though rehearsing industrialization’s pendingelimination of the natural landscape and the communities therein, the city men’s triumph over the wild and their evasion of authorities suggest a necessary and prerequisite elimination of the ambiguity between self and other, civilized and wild. This eradication, aided by the construction of a lake that piles “fathoms and hundreds of pressure and darkness”[12] onto the scene of the crime, nonetheless rests uneasily, threatening its own discovery and revealing the ongoing nature of forgetting and disavowal that modern subjects must undertake in order to contend with the loss of the Real.

Deliverance carefully attends to the ways in which identification between self and other operates in both the highly mediated space of the city and in the inscrutable realm of the wild.[13] Ed’s sense of the meaning of deliverance, after all, is unimpeded access to the other in a transcendence of the self. A world-weary Ed seeks the “promise…that promised other things, another life, deliverance,” suggesting that it is vis-à-vis another’s existence that one is freed of the “inexorable web” of modern society.[14] Significantly, he first recognizes the opportunity for this liberation in the captivating “gold eye”[15] of a studio model, i.e. in the body part revealing the most intimate window into the essence of an other. Deliverance itself, then, entails an utter knowingness of an external body – be it a partner, an opponent, or the majestic night river – not in the way that Certeau’s autonomous order demands to know and demarcate what it is and is not, but in such a way that bestows an individual with an equal knowingness of itself. The novel posits that such knowledge is unavailable in the modern city, where inhuman, “thing-cold” surroundings present a world sealed off as though “on the other side of a current of cellophane.”[16]

A quest for deliverance that enlists cross-bodily identification, the men’s canoe trip bears witness not only to an array of intimate and bloody encounters but also to an abundance of self-initiated violence, including a possible suicide, a self-impalement, and a manhunt conjured into being by the imagination. Through this recurrence of violence, staged as though driving outwards toward an externalized opponent but actually striking inward in what Pamela Barnett has called the men’s “reflexive masochism,”[17] the journey presents a working-through of the trauma that originates with the destruction of nature, that first of cataclysmic intrusions. The return of the repressed memory of the TVA has threatened the men with a renewed Lacanian triangulation between the self and its origins, literally the space of a “Mother” Nature.[18] The pending rupture is a break not only with the primordial space of a life-giving wilderness but also with the familial and social continuity represented by, for instance, the region’s long-established cemeteries. Or as Lewis describes the stakes of the imminent damming, “the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unfucked-up river in the South”[19] is about to be destroyed.

The novel’s opening details Ed’s lack of personal agency and his sense of being “impotent as a ghost”[20] in the workplace and the city at large. He recognizes that as the director of his own ad agency, his employees are “in some way [his] captives,” but confesses, “I was not really thinking about their being my prisoners, but of being my own.”[21] He is indeed trapped within himself, unable to commune with any other person or place. He loves his wife, having married her for no other reason than an “absolutely personal connection,”[22] but intercourse with her has grown passionless and rote. As she goes about performing the “deliberate and frank actions that give pleasure to people,”[23] he remains passive and inert. He harbors no ambition that his company should achieve anything but mid-level success, and the most creativity he can muster within his own artwork is to make collages, thus relying on pre-fabricated images.

Unsurprisingly, Ed is crushed by the pervasive artifice of suburban strip malls, incandescent lighting, and the “shellacked” hairstyles of “barren”-looking women who inundate his office district. “I was one of them,”[24] he concedes of the female lunch crowd, revealing the extent to which his masculinity is under siege. The prospect of the canoe trip, however, offers Ed the chance to reclaim his sense of masculinity as an active huntsman rather than a passive implement. Similarly, there rests a certain allure in catching the last nostalgic glimpse of a wilderness on the verge of obliteration. Whether consciously or not, Ed desires to behold the river’s magnitude and power with the foreknowledge of its subjugation, an analog to his own. His tacit identification with the wilderness betrays the first hint of the novel’s reflexive masochism; Ed imagines the industrial stamping-out of the Cahulawassee’s wild and obscene as an echo of that which has already been stamped out in him.

There are signs that the city has already begun to encroach on the unspoiled beauty of the wilderness when the men reach the river. Ed is unnerved to spy plastic garbage among some washed-up debris, as it “doesn’t decompose.” “Does that mean you can’t get rid of it…at all?” he asks, disturbed by the prospect of irreparable intrusion. “‘Doesn’t go back to its elements,’” Drew replies, “as though that were all right.”[25] The immutability of the plastic starkly contrasts the ambiguity that erupts when Ed and Bobby meet two locals plainly marked as Certeau’s eliminated residue – they are decrepit and anachronistic, peering “as though out of a cave” with their “yellow-tinged eyeballs.”[26] Their actions and motives are figured as preceding the imposed transparency and rationality of the modern industrial complex; “There was no need to justify or rationalize anything, they were going to do what they wanted to,” Ed thinks as he “cling[s] to the city.”[27] With an uncaring indifference that deeply troubles Ed as it admits no identification across selves, the mountain men bind him to a tree and force Bobby over a log “into an obscene posture that no one could help.”[28] The “bright, unchangeable” plastic having heralded the infiltration of a perverse unnaturalness, everything about this hostile encounter is markedly inhuman, from the “white-haired man work[ing] steadily on Bobby” as though a decrepit machine, to the rapist’s command in the film that Bobby animalistically “squeal like a pig.”[29]

Like his prolonged glance at the plastic debris, Ed is compelled to watch the rape, a strange union resulting in a blurred sub-humanism simultaneously mechanical and animalistic. Ed’s compulsion to observe recalls Dickey’s remark that Stephen Crane’s writing (and especially, it can be noted, Crane’s short story “The Upturned Face”) possessed a “glancing or peeking viewpoint” evocative

of a person forced to look at an event or person, all the time wishing to avoid it, to turn his head, close his eyes, escape, go to sleep or die. The witnessed or imagined event is of such fascination, though, that the beholder cannot turn away, and endures as though in the worst possible of nightmares.[30]

Dickey’s configuration of the “worst possible of nightmares” as the supreme object of fascination and desire complicates Ed’s experience of the assault, suggesting the assailants’ brutal indifference offers him something of critical necessity, something unavailable in the carefully plotted exchange nodes of the city. With Ed’s quest for deliverance requiring a transcendence of his own bodily demarcations – an emancipation from within – it becomes unclear what this hostage situation – an imprisonment from without – actually achieves. Is the resurgence of obscenity Ed’s worst nightmare if it effectively unmoors him from himself and his ties to the city, or, as Barnett explicitly asks in the title of her article “James Dickey’s Deliverance: Southern, White, Suburban Male Nightmare or Dream Come True?,” is this in fact an opening for Ed’s dream scenario?

Unmooring indeed, the obscenity of Bobby’s rape renders time and space unstable. For a moment Ed is uncertain of who is experiencing the pain of penetration: “A scream hit me,” he says, “and I would have thought it was mine except for the lack of breath.”[31] Seconds before Ed is forced to perform oral sex on the second man, Lewis returns one disorienting rupture with another by shooting Bobby’s rapist through the chest so suddenly the arrow “seemed to have come from within.”[32] The explosive resurfacing of violence has confused identifications of self and other and ruptured boundaries of the body in space, rendering the encounter literally unbelievable and leaving it open to multiple interpretations. The rapist’s accomplice immediately disappears into the woods, creating yet another surface of ambiguity as to his whereabouts and motives. Attempting to assert a strain of authority over the disarranged scene, Lewis insists that killing the rapist was the only thing to do; Ed agrees but “wasn’t all that sure.”[33] Drew begs them to abide by the law and transport the corpse to the nearest town, but Lewis understands the law to be a variable construct, one that will be used against them in these “clannish” parts where there is resentment over the dam. “You see any law around here? We’re the law. What we decide is going to be the way things are,”[34] he declares.

The men have indeed stumbled into the law of the other, its unknowability exemplified by Ed’s difficulty in grasping the finality of death. He cannot help but conceive of the slumped corpse as a “caricature of the small-town bum” about to jump out of its “phony trance,”[35] even as the four men drag it through the woods to be buried. As their conflicting accounts of the precise nature of the event indicate, a new narrative must be forged out of the surreal chaos of the encounter’s upturned logic, one that sets identifications of self and other aright according to the autonomous order of the state. Literally and symbolically, it is this differentiation of selves – however fictional – that will enable the men’s return to the city.

The possibility of multiple narrative renderings intensifies when Drew falls from the canoe, drowning in the rapids. Lewis insists that the second rural antagonist has returned to shoot them from above, but Ed suspects Drew simply collapsed, and, lacking a body for evidence, it is impossible to tell. But Lewis pursues his theory, as it underscores the necessity of having killed the rapist. It also underwrites his dialectical conception of the wilderness as the inevitable post-apocalyptic site where the fittest will gather in a fight for survival. Drawing this agonistic fantasy to the fore, Lewis’s rhetoric works to produce a specified enemy, a fixed “other” that the men must overcome.

Despite his doubts, Ed submits to Lewis’s interpretation. Ed’s nighttime ascent of the gorge, atop which he hopes to square off with the nebulous enemy, is hardly feasible for an unfit and injured man, but he describes being lifted by “fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality.”[36] The climb is indeed transformative: overturning his sense of impotency within the city, Ed ceases acting out a prescribed role and begins to author his own reality, conjuring it into being with an agency coincident with his reinstated virility. Far from being a prisoner solipsistically trapped within himself, Ed now envisages himself imbued across the entire landscape, one with all that he touches. He describes the precarious climb as a fornication with the rock face, more intimate than he had shared with any other woman, and perceives the wilderness to be pulsing through him: “the rock quivered like a coal, because I wanted it to quiver, held in its pulsing border, and what it was pulsing with was me.”[37] His boundaries are so unmoored that the very wilderness pulses with the stuff of his own being; through the obscenity of death and violence, he has made his way back to his origins.

When a man appears at dawn in the crosshairs of his bow, Ed is transfixed by the intimate relation of hunter to target, author to subject. He derives pleasure in the aesthetic qualities of the scene of which he is composer and executer. “I had never seen a more beautiful or convincing element of design,” he says of the man’s posture; “I wanted to kill him just like that.”[38] A stark shift from Ed’s perception of the mountain men as worn-out, anachronistic machines, this man’s body is a site of artistic inspiration, desire, and potential connectivity. Ed imagines himself to be its maker (having practically called it into being with his elaborate visions), thus reconfiguring the relation of self and origin one step further. In the same way that Ed is drawn to the prospect of paddling the river because its power is soon to be subjugated and circumscribed, he is drawn to the aesthetically compelling body of the mountain man as he possesses the mastery to destroy it and all its generative energies.

After killing his unsuspecting opponent, Ed realizes the man has teeth while his riverside assailant did not. The film depicts the intense physicality of this revelation, with Ed leaning closely into the corpse and intimately fondling its mouth. Discovering that the teeth are fake, Ed asks despairingly, “Did that make the difference? Did that make enough difference?”[39] The ambiguity inscribed in the man’s body makes Ed’s brutality all the more questionable, contingent not on fact but on a particular telling of events. Yet for Ed to acknowledge that his long-inured conditioning as an upright, domesticated citizen has failed to differentiate him from the wild, obscene, and filthy mountain man would be to undermine the very eliminative act that took place. So instead Ed considers the reciprocal perversity to which he could submit his enemy, one option being to cut off the genitals that “he was going to use on me.”[40] But this possibility forges yet another identification with the corpse, since it is precisely from castration that Ed perceives himself to suffer back home. If the killing was meant to eliminate slippage between self and other, fastening each as discrete entities in order to clear the way for the hyperrational arms of industrialization, it proves exceedingly difficult to do just this.

Moreover, Ed’s desire to desecrate the corpse reveals the primacy of imposed narratives over the inscrutability of the obscene, for he is confident that whatever perverse action he takes is “not going to be seen. It is not ever going to be known.”[41] Because the city men will determine how the story of the expedition is told, any transgressions Ed makes against the corpse will simply cease to exist in their retelling, smoothed over as was the traumatic disruptiveness of the TVA in a narrative of utility and progress. Paradoxically, the unbridled agency, virility, and obscenity afforded to Ed by the absence of state surveillance render him most akin to its autonomous order, for he replicates its repressive mechanisms in his elimination of the other. In a literalized erasure of his victim’s life, Ed rips up the dead man’s identification card and imagines that “He would probably not be missed by more than a few people, and probably not much by them, either,”[42] assuming the prejudicial position of developers and city-planners when privileging certain populations over others. In other words, while the city men ostensibly take to the river to experience some spontaneity and wild before it, too, is eaten up by the city, the process by which the men disavow their identification with rural, untamed otherness lends itself to the same rhetorical and tactical mechanisms by which the state apparatus expands and consolidates.

While it appears that Ed has become the paradoxical agent of the city at the moment he acts most obscene – reproducing, as I argue, the repressive history of the TVA – the potential to imagine cross-boundary connections still remains. In a breathtaking image best articulated in the film, Ed begins to descend the gorge with the corpse rigged to a tree as an anchor. When the rope snaps and the two of them start to free-fall, the image of their intertwined bodies underscores once again their intimate identification, suggesting that they are, at their core, one in the same, the latter perhaps even the willed projection of the former. As they plunge into the water, Ed describes feeling a “current thread through me…up my rectum and out my mouth.”[43] The description calls to mind Bobby’s rape and Ed’s near performance of fellatio, the “terrifying”[44] union finally enacted in proxy.

Edproduces for local authorities a refigured account of his brutality, concealing it in a façade of mere ignorance, a little “illegal bowhunting.”[45] Crucially, his fabricated narrative becomes “part of a world, the believed world, the world of recorded events, of history,”[46] thus eliminating the deceased other and facilitating Ed’s return to and continued prosperity within the city. The erasure of his potentially innocent victim, especially in light of reports that a local woman is desperately seeking her missing husband, makes evident that the violence of elimination does not simply pertain to physical intrusions. It also operates via the reworked rhetoric and narratives – the men’s insistent alibi – that smooth over and occlude what came before. The tourism website for the lake built on top of the Norris Dam is a prime example of such rhetorical occlusions. It contends in the passive voice that, “Norris Lake has a long history beginning as early as 1911 [when] the location for a future dam development in the upper Tennessee Valley was discovered.”[47] Of course, the history of Norris Lake, named so for the senator who championed the TVA’s cause, began long before 1911, when it was known as Clinch River.[48]

Back in Atlanta, Ed surrenders his fascination with the model whose “gold-halved eye”[49] offered him the promise of deliverance, and contentedly accepts that there is no place within the city’s inexorable web to harbor such desire. Deliverance, Ed comes to realize, rests in “the night river, in the land of impossibility,”[50] a world of cross-bodily convergence and interpenetration now destroyed, as it poses anathema to the neat and orderly systems of modernity. He would appear to be at peace with this reality if not for the disturbance subtly signaled by the novel’s final sentence, which positions violence and trauma to repeat through the cyclical return of latent rupture. Speaking of Lake Cahula, the leisure community built atop the Cahulawassee, Ed reports, “One big marina is already built on the south end of the lake, and my wife’s younger brother says that the area is beginning to catch on, especially with the new generation, the one just getting out of high school.”[51] We are left to consider why Dickey ends the novel on such a rhetorically unfinished note, a textual counterpart to the film’s final image of a hand rising from beneath the still surface of a lake. With this concluding sentence, landing so inexplicably on the image of reckless abandon gestured by “just getting out of high school,” Ed’s sense of closure and finality is evacuated. It is no coincidence that this information reaches him via an indirect and oral source, a reminder of the potency of circulated stories and reverberating echoes. Thus can be derived the lingering implication of the novel: we will continue to inherit and traumatically repeat social, psychic, and ecological disturbances so long as there are narratives to tell otherwise.


[1] James Dickey, Deliverance (New York: Dell, 1994), 28.

[2]1. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 5.

[3]. Michael J. McDonald and John Muldowny, TVA and the Dispossessed (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981), 3, 24.

[4]. Ibid., 195.

[5]. James Dickey, Deliverance (New York: Dell, 1994), 123.

[6]. George Santayana. The Life of Reason, Volume 1 (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1920), 284.

[7]. Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 4.

[8]. For more on the hauntology of communities excluded by the American narrative of capitalism, modernization, and materialism, see Kathleen Stewart, A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[9]. Certeau, Heterologies, 4.

[10]. Deliverance, DVD, directed by John Boorman (1972; Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004).

[11]. Dickey, Deliverance, 4.

[12]. Ibid., 275.

[13]. For more on ontological differences between city and nature, see Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing, 1991).

[14]. Ibid., 28, 255.

[15]. Ibid., 28.

[16]. Ibid., 37.

[17]. Pamela E. Barnett, “James Dickey’s Deliverance: Southern, White, Suburban Male Nightmare or Dream Come True?” Forum for Modern Language Studies 40 (2004): 145.

[18]. The notion of triangulation between self and mother is derived from Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Écrits: a Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1977), 1-7.

[19]. Deliverance, DVD.

[20]. Dickey, Deliverance, 18.

[21]. Ibid., 17.

[22]. Ibid., 26.

[23]. Ibid., 28.

[24]. Ibid., 15.

[25]. Ibid., 76.

[26]. Ibid., 108.

[27]. Ibid., 114, 112.

[28]. Ibid., 114.

[29]. Dickey, Deliverance, 76, 114; Deliverance, DVD.

[30]. James Dickey, introduction to The Red Badge of Courage And Four Stories, by Stephen Crane (New York: Signet Classics, 2004), ix.

[31]. Dickey, Deliverance, 114.

[32]. Ibid., 116.

[33]. Ibid., 120.

[34]. Ibid., 45, 130.

[35]. Ibid., 133, 131.

[36]. Ibid., 176.

[37]. Ibid., 171.

[38]. Ibid., 189.

[39]. Ibid., 200.

[40]. Ibid., 200.

[41]. Ibid., 200 (emphasis added).

[42]. Ibid., 204.

[43]. Ibid., 208.

[44]. Ibid., 180.

[45]. Ibid., 237.

[46]. Ibid., 237.

[47]. “About Norris Lake,” last modified 2012, http://www.norrislake.com/about-norris-lake.

[48]. McDonald and Muldowny, TVA and the Dispossessed, 4.

[49]. Dickey, Deliverance, 277.

[50]. Ibid., 255.

[51]. Ibid., 278.

Bibliography 

Barnett, Pamela E. “James Dickey’s Deliverance: Southern, White, Suburban Male Nightmare or Dream Come True?” Forum for Modern Language Studies 40 (2004): 145-159.

Certeau, Michel de. Heterologies: Discourse on the Other. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Deliverance. DVD. Directed by John Boorman. 1972; Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004.

Dickey, James. Deliverance. New York: Dell, 1994.

—. Introduction to The Red Badge of Courage And Four Stories, by Stephen

Crane, vii-xii. New York: Signet Classics, 2004.

McDonald, Michael J., and John Muldowny. TVA and the Dispossessed: The

Resettlement of Population in the Norris Dam Area. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

Santayana, George. The Life of Reason, Volume 1. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1920.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American

Frontier, 1600-1860. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

*****

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