Wednesday, November 08, 2006

# 42 Deliverance – James Dickey

On the first day of a college lecture course devoted to Dante’s Inferno, the professor observed that modern classics such as James Dickey’s Deliverance, published in 1970, are unavoidably read with the seminal Italian masterpiece in mind.

Parallels and allusions come to mind readily (SparkNotes offers at least one essay on this subject.) In the novel four “middle-aged, responsible” Atlantans set out for a weekend outdoors in rural Georgia; Dante’s narrator, at age 35, “the
midway of this mortal life,” finds himself in a dark wood. The canoe trip in Deliverance becomes a journey like Dante’s through Hell. The sodomy scene in the backwoods evokes those sinners placed in the Seventh Circle (sodomy was seen as “violence against nature”). The “deliverance” desired is equated early by Dickey’s narrator, Ed Gentry, with “another life,” but the events that follow affirm religious connotations of rescue from evil, and of salvation.

Thanks largely to the 1972
movie written also by Dickey and directed by John Boorman, Deliverance is most remembered for two scenes: the “Dueling Banjos” face-off between the hillbilly boy and Gentry’s fellow city slicker, Drew Ballinger, who actually plays a guitar (Dickey himself was an accomplished guitarist); and the previously mentioned violent act. A certain bit of the victim’s improvised dialogue (it doesn’t appear in the novel) resounds in our culture perversely yet comically, as indicated in a web search. Of course the book offers much more in both plot and technique, as its dramatic tension and lyrical description entwine around the reader, tighten, and then ease.

The primacy of depictions of evil in the public’s consciousness has affected Dante’s work as well as Dickey’s. Inferno has always been the most read and studied canticle of the trifold Commedia; the subsequent Purgatorio and Paradiso have held relatively meager appeal. For a reader, moviegoer or TV watcher, Billy Joel’s lusty
claim, “sinners are much more fun,” is patently confirmed by any villain-stocked soap opera, though there’s little fun on display in Inferno and Deliverance.

The cover of the
Delta edition of Deliverance features a yellow triangle that reinforces the canoers’ profound, allegorical descent into danger and evil, while exploiting ancient geometric symbology: “The downward pointing triangle…is the symbol of water (as it flows downward), the grace of heaven, and the womb.”

The graphic triangle also suggests the arrowhead that Gentry fatefully employs. Early in the narrative Gentry establishes that he is an amateur archer who admires the skill of his friend Lewis Medlock with a
recurve bow.

Medlock initiates and organizes the canoe trip, inspiring, peeving and daunting his three friends with his virility and recklessness. In an
interview with The Paris Review, Dickey noted that Medlock “…is a survival freak who is a nut on special disciplines, such as archery, canoeing, and so on.”

Medlock tells Gentry that on his property he, “…had an air-raid shelter built…with double doors and stocks of bouillon and bully beef for a couple of years.” He adds that he would rather try to cope in the wilderness after society has broken down: “You know I’d go up in those hills, and I believe I’d make out where many another wouldn’t.”

For an elder MTV viewer, an air-raid shelter inevitably cues up the
video for Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier.” A crooner/keyboardist who shaped the music of the 70’s as did Billy Joel, Fagen was riffing on the structure his own father built and he explored while growing up in New Jersey.

The centathlete has never set foot in such a shelter, but he did crouch against the wall with hands behind his head for air-raid drills in elementary school. He recalls
fallout shelter signs and their symbols that were obscure to a youngster: three yellow downward pointing triangles. Today’s students don’t practice those drills, and those signs are now just Cold War kitsch.

Evanescent pop-culture iconography appears in Deliverance. As Gentry drives into the country he sees
Clabber Girl and Black Draught signs. The centathlete was unfamiliar with this baking powder and laxative syrup and their advertisements; he was reminded of several other Southern goods he became aware of only as an adult. In Knoxville, TN, after lunch, an acquaintance announced his craving for a Little Debbie, MoonPie or GooGoo Cluster. The centathlete, no stranger to sweets and snack cakes, expressed his ignorance of all three desserts and was subsequently treated to samples, which he was instructed to wash down with an RC Cola. A shrill sugar high ensued.

Other regions claim their own treats. On Long Island the centathlete would sometimes help a friend with his newspaper route. Afterward, bikes were ridden to the deli for a
Drake’s Coffee Cake (essentially unknown in the South) and a Yoo-hoo. Despite their love for that chocolate-flavored soft drink—according to the manufacturer, Yoo-hoo is “definitely not considered a flavored milk” but “it does contain certain ingredients from milk - specifically, dairy whey and non-fat milk”—certain thirsty youngsters felt cheated by the 11-ounce cans and they suspected corporate stinginess. Sunkist and other sodas deemed nearly as suitable for accompanying a coffee cake all delivered 12 ounces of beverage. (In the late 1950’s James Dickey was an advertising executive whose accounts included Coca-Cola.)

Yoo-hoo was endorsed for years by
Yogi Berra, the New York Yankee who participated in 14 World Series for 10 winners, both Major League Baseball records. The centathlete was far too young to have seen Berra catch a game, but he sensed his own Yankee-hood that day in Knoxville as he ripped open his Little Debbies for the first and only time.

The first and only time the centathlete went whitewater rafting was on a river near Lake Tahoe during a bachelor party weekend. That event, though undeniably enjoyable (and delightfully commemorated by a purchased photo of the grinning and grimacing dudes paddling through the rapids), was far tamer than the canoe trip in Deliverance.

Dickey waxed sympathetic about his weekend warriors, stating, “My men are decent guys… Suburban people, especially these fellows, are supposed to go out there and look at nature a little bit…have fun before it all disappears.”

He expounded on his dramatic treatment of their journey through Hell:
“I’ll tell you what I really tried to do in Deliverance. My story is simple: there are bad people, monsters among us. Deliverance is really a novel about how decent men kill, and the fact that they get away with it raises a lot of questions about staying within the law—whether decent people have the right go outside the law when they’re encountering human monsters. I wrote Deliverance as a story where under the conditions of extreme violence people find out things about themselves that they would have no other means of knowing. The late John Berryman…said that it bothered him more than anything else that a man could live in this culture all his life without knowing whether he’s a coward or not. I think it’s necessary to know.”
Having briefly mined symbols and themes, we now return to that college professor who mentioned Deliverance simply as an aside as he proceeded over the semester to pedagogically reduce and amplify the beauty and meanings of Inferno.

Wallace Fowlie was a remarkable teacher of more than 6,000 students during a career that spanned seven decades. An expert in French and, to a lesser extent, Italian literature, he
published more than 50 books of translations, criticism, memoirs, poetry, and a novel. During his final years he taught a cycle of three courses: Dante’s Inferno, the French symbolist poets, and Proust.

The number three, which the triangle realizes in space, has gleamed with mystical import for many cultures. For Greeks and Romans it
symbolized among other things, “completeness in narrative time (beginning, middle, end).” Deliverance is structured as a Before, During and After, indicative of the archetypal, heroic, transforming voyage.

For Catholics, three represents the Holy Trinity. In the Commedia, Dante practiced “triadomania” (which we might term an artistic fetish for the number three) on several levels, according to Thomas Bergin, as cited by another

The centathlete recalls a typical Wallace Fowlie lesson as divinely threefold. First, the professor read from Inferno in the original Italian, exhibiting the poem’s sonic excellence. Second, he illuminated several motifs and details of the particular canto. Third, he related an anecdote from personal experience in which the masterpiece resonated (ex. He dined with an Italian nobleman who said he was directly descended from a pope damned by Dante). This last stage, the connection between classic literature and everyday life, made Fowlie’s lessons especially engaging and enlightening.

A cohesive, brief biography is not readily available on the Internet, so the centathlete cobbled together the following
curriculum vitae (Latin for “the course of one’s life”) based on Fowlie’s own Journal of Rehearsals, Stephen Martin’s article, “A Catholic Presence: Duke’s Wallace Fowlie,” and other sources. Here then, with apologies for any errors (which will be corrected), is a digested biography of Wallace Fowlie, posted on his birthday:

Born November 8 in Brookline, MA, a suburb of Boston.
In the 7th Grade takes Introductory French, beginning a lifelong love affair and career.
At age 13 attends a lecture in Boston by the French poet,
Paul Claudel, a subject of future literary studies.
Enters Harvard University in the second semester after a long illness.
At age 19, before his junior year, travels to France for the first of at least 20 times throughout his life.
Early 1930’s
Undertakes graduate studies at Harvard. Professors include T.S. Eliot.
In Paris meets with novelist
Andre Gide to discuss Ernest Psichari and other French and American writers.
Begins teaching French at Bennington College in Vermont.
Receives Ph.D. from Harvard.
Late 1930’s
In Iowa meets Robert Penn Warren, American poet and novelist, for the first time, beginning a long friendship. Converts to Catholicism (having been raised Baptist) while teaching at Bennington.
Becomes assistant professor of French at Yale University.
Publishes an article on Narcissus in the
surrealist journal View. Receives complimentary letter from American novelist Henry Miller. Their correspondence lasts until 1972.
Miller visits New Haven and stays with Fowlie.
Returns to Bennington as head of French department and simultaneously begins teaching at The New School in New York where one student, Barney Rosset, had recently purchased
Grove Press.
In Paris sees one of the first productions of En attendant Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett, and urges Rosset to buy its publishing rights (as well those for plays by Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet, though these two were ignored). Rosset’s own
account of this “discovery” of Godot differs somewhat; attesting that he brought the French text to Fowlie, who read it and confirmed its greatness. Rosset acquires the rights for Waiting for Godot and becomes the playwright’s longtime publisher and agent in America.
Becomes professor of French at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Becomes professor of French at Duke University.
Translates and publishes the complete works of French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
Receives a letter from Jim Morrison expressing gratitude for the Rimbaud translation: “I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me.”
Named James B. Duke Professor of French.
Publishes Letters of Henry Miller and Wallace Fowlie: 1943-1972.
Retires from teaching.
At age 85 publishes a critical
comparison of Rimbaud and Morrison.
Dies August 15 in Durham, NC.

Fowlie purposefully exemplified an interdependent devotion to literature and religion in the manner of Dante Alighieri and T.S. Eliot (who according to Roger Kimball
wrote, “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.”). His conversion in adulthood to Catholicism is reminiscent of Eliot’s conversion in his late 30’s to Anglicanism. The centathlete recalls remarks on this latter event at a class conducted by Julian Thompson, an English professor of Literature at Oxford University, who rhetorically posed the question that if Eliot had wanted to authentically commit or re-commit himself to Tradition, should he have converted to Catholicism, the Mother Church, instead?

The centathlete won’t play
Monday morning quarterback regarding another’s Ash Wednesday, nor argue here with notions of Paradise or deliverance. However, to indulge the reader’s enduring preference for evil, crime and torture, he offers his conception of Hell: he is strapped to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange with eyes held open, forced for eternity to watch reruns, co-hosted by Chevy Chase and Donald Trump, of the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, as the infernal hi-fi loops Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love.”

Coming soon…

Howards End
Appointment in Samarra

1 comment:

The Centathlete said...

Julian Thompson via email affirmed his comment about Eliot's conversion to Anglicanism: "The thrust is to suggest there is something provincial about choosing Anglo-Catholicism when universality was on offer."