Dhalgren Review


Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that is both influential and rarely read. It is a long book, full of fascinating characters and interesting events. The people are complicated, as is the plot. The book is set in the fictional midwestern town of Bellona, a place where the laws of nature and the norms of behavior are both broken on a regular basis. The rest of the world seems to know Bellona exists, and the strangeness of the place, but seem to do nothing about it. There is a central mystery to the place that drives the plot forward, yet this MacGuffin is never explained. This mystery is mirrored by the central character, a man who has forgotten his name, and so is called the Kid. The closest to an explanation we ever get is near the end, when the Kid remembers part of his name, but not his family name. Likewise, at the end of the book, it appears that the outside world is bombing Bellona, and a number of the characters escape the same way they came in. As the Kid is leaving, he meets a couple of characters heading into Bellona, an event which is similar to the opening events of the book. This sense of the book circling in on itself is seen in the way the opening line of the book (to wound the autumnal city) is a continuation of the closing line of the book (Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come to). The book is like a Mobius strip, a mathematical concept called a torus, or like the image of a snake swallowing itself. It hints at the story being endlessly repeated, only with different characters each time, each taking the same journey. Kind of like life.

Dhalgren bears a family resemblance to Jewish Second Temple apocalyptic literature, in which a person takes a journey through another, higher reality, one where judgment and reward are tied to the end of days. The New Testament book of Revelation is similar to Dhalgren in that time is not linear, but elliptical. The same events happen over and over but are described in different ways. The kid’s journey through the town of Bellona is likewise filled with apocalyptic portents. The kid escapes destruction, just as a new set of travelers arrive to begin their own personal journey through Bellona. There is a sense that destruction is always imminent, one the kid barely escapes. And yet there is also the sense that each traveler’s journey is unique, and that as long as there is one more new traveler, Bellona will not reach its teleological end.

Having said all that, the book is full of violence and sex of the type that would have gotten the book banned in an earlier era.

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Memory Eternal

The beginning to the life of Blessed Andrei of Simbursk contains these words: “Time does not spare human remembrance.”[1] For most of us, few will remark our passing. After those who love us die, no one will remember who we were, how we lived our lives, or even our names. Human remembrance is fleeting.

The psalmist writes: “For I have heard the slander of many: fear was on every side: while they took counsel together against me, they devised to take away my life. But I trusted in thee, O LORD: I said, Thou art my God. My times are in thy hand.” (Ps 31:13-15a) The knowledge that our times are in the hand of God informs our understanding of life after death. The psalmist did not say time, as in a unit of time that comes to an end; he said times, which has an eschatological dimension.

Near the end of the funeral liturgy, the priest prays:

“May Christ our true God, Who rose from the dead, through the intercessions of His most pure Mother, of our holy and God-bearing fathers, and of all the saints, commit the soul of His servant [name], that hath departed from us, to the tabernacles of the righteous, give him (her) rest in the bosom of Abraham, and number him (her) with the righteous, and have mercy on us and save us, for He is good and the Lover of mankind.”

The deacon then prays:

“In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto Thy departed servant [name], and make his (her) memory to be eternal.”

The response of the Church is to sing three times: “Memory Eternal.” This is the blessed hope of every believer, to be remembered by God and to live with Him and the saints in His kingdom, which had no end. This is why we Orthodox exclaim “Memory Eternal” when informed of someone’s death. We know this life is fleeting, and human remembrance is fleeting, but that our times are in His hands.

We should note that while our lives are hid with Christ our God, we acknowledge the horror that is death. Humans were not made for a disincarnate existence. Therefore we mourn their death and our loss, even as we await the glorious resurrection of the body. This is why we Orthodox honor our dead, going so far as to give them a last kiss, for we know that their mortal bodies will be resurrected, they will put on incorruption, and that in their flesh they will see God.


Archpriest Elexei Skala. (2018). Blessed Andrei of Simbirsk, Fool-for-Christ and Wonderworker. The Orthodox Word, 54(4), 157-185.

[1] (Archpriest Elexei Skala, 2018, p. 158)

Let them have Dominion

Norm Carlson fly fishing
Norman Carlson fly fishing

My father was a trout fisherman. An avid fly fisherman. A great fly fisherman. He fished with the same two flies every time: a Royal Coachman Bucktail as the leader fly, and a Gray Hackle as a dropper.  

He caught fish everywhere. We would be up in the mountains and we would come across someone who would have abandoned a fishing hole, stating: “There are no fish in there.” My dad would promptly catch several fish there, causing consternation when the fisherman walked back through the area. I once asked him how he caught so many fish. He told me that it was because we (humans) were given dominion over the earth. I didn’t understand. I still don’t.

On the other hand, I recently noticed that when I go sit on my patio, I don’t always hear a lot of birds. But after I begin listening for them, the birds start chirping. Loudly. So loudly they drowned out the city noise. Which is odd, because this happens both during the day and during the dusk. Even as the night descends, as long as I am focusing on the birds, they sing.

To be honest, I don’t know what this means. This didn’t happen for me before I became Orthodox. On the other hand, my father was a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist, yet he seemed to be able to affect the natural order in a way I could not.

Movies and Scriptural Interpretation

In fiction, a monster is never just a monster, and an alien is never just an alien. The monster or the alien exist on the literal level, of course. But the monster or the alien exist as a metaphor for something else. Take the movie District 9 which took place in South Africa. The movie typologically represents apartheid South Africa, with the aliens known to the humans as ‘prawns’ restricted to concentration camps known as ‘districts.’

Scripture is a lot like that. It exists at many levels. The literal level is the lowest level. This happened, then that happened, then another thing happened. But some of the things that happen are metaphors for something else. Many of the miracles ascribed to Moses are metaphors. Joshua leading the people of Israel into the promised land is both a literal event and a metaphor.

Some of the stories in the Old Testament make no sense on the literal level. For example, Joshua’s capture of Jericho. It makes no sense that the Israelites would parade around Jericho for six days, then on the seventh day parade around, blow their horns, and the walls fall down. It literally makes no sense; it has to be a metaphor.

Biblical literalists try to get around this by claiming the literal meaning is the only meaning, and then manufacturing something called the ‘figurative literal.’ This means that when the literal meaning makes no sense, the literal meaning is the figurative sense. Biblical literalists will often discuss how an OT event is an analogy or type of its NT counterpart. Biblical literalists will often describe the literal meaning of the text, and then describe its ‘application,’ by which is meant the moral of the story. This is literally nonsense.

You cannot say meaning exists on only the literal level and then conflate the figurative and moral levels of meaning into the literal. By doing so you alter the definition of literal to include the multiple levels of meaning.