Thursday, July 25, 2013

Deliverance and My Conscience

I think it's possible that I'm a bad person.  When our protagonists are assaulted in the deep backwoods and kill one of their attackers in self-defense--well, I don't think anyone specifically disagrees with that choice.  But then, standing around the body in various states of trauma, horror, sociopathy, and denial, they debate whether to go to the authorities or bury the body and pretend it never happened.

I posted earlier when I'd just started reading Deliverance by James Dickey, and I stand behind the things I said there--weird, possibly dated things about masculine identity, beautifully written in many respects.  Right after I wrote that post, it went all Big Tuna.  Not like in The Office; like in Wild at Heart.

So there's a lot of weird ugliness here, and there's an odd sense that this is not a story of man vs. nature, but man vs. man.  The whole thing is paced out and the narrator's presentation is like that of someone who is battling the elements, the river, and his own body.  But there is never as much tension around those encounters--they are almost always about the sense of joy that comes with the mastery of nature.  The real fear is associated with people--the mountain men, the hill folks, the poor, ignorant, violent back country hillbillies who are the real threat here. (Book and movie are about 40 years old, but to be fair: spoilers.)

Okay, that's actually creepy; I'm on firm moral footing so far here.  But let's go back to that dead guy who just abused one of our party.  He's got an arrow through him, his friend just ran off into the woods.  You were just supposed to be on an innocent camping trip.  One of your friends has just been through what is, at the place and time you inhabit, a literally unspeakable trauma.  You are so far from civilization that you don't even know what contact with the outside world looks like around here.  Let's be honest--doesn't hiding the body and pretending it never happened seem pretty darned tempting?

I feel like there's something morally bankrupt about me that I'd even contemplate this.  And you know, in the end, I think my doing the right thing would really depend on my belief that I couldn't get away with it.  That's horrible too, right?  I mean, I don't know about 1970, but nowadays there's no backwoods in this wide world where you could be sure of not getting caught, never mind in the USofA.  So I know I'd do the right thing, because I'd get caught.

I don't know, maybe it's just that I've been thinking lately about the difference between law and justice.  And I can't say that, by the end of this book, I had a lot of respect for the protagonist, or at least not as much as I started with.  I mean, I understand the ambivalent and even positive feelings that come with dealing with something hard and awful and doing it well.  But there isn't a lot of ambivalence here, not even around the parts that are pretty undeniably horrible.  Even given that, though, I don't know that I wouldn't make that same decision they made on the riverbank.

Of course...I know how the story ends.  And lesson learned--no camping, pretty much ever.

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