Monday, March 19, 2012

The Dark Knight

I left off my previous post by asking the origins and significance of the Man With No Name. Well, to me it seems clear that he's the modern version of the quest-knight, but with an ironic twist.
The subtext of Chandler's The Big Sleep is heralded by its opening description:
Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.
This anticipates the moment when Marlowe comes home to his apartment to find the vicious, lascivious Carmen Sternwood, his damsel in distress, naked in his bed:
I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights.
The quest-knight of the twentieth century is no knight in shining armor, but a dark knight, an anti-knight. He is conscious of no code of honor but his detachment and self-consistency. His quest is a hopeless one, its object meaningless like the Maltese Falcon or destructive like the Great Whatsit of Alderich's Kiss Me Deadly. And yet he pursues his path to the bitter end. His literary ancestor is the hero of Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," who struggles alone across a tortured landscape to an end without hope, yet rings out his challenge defiantly in the face of certain doom. That Stephen King professes his Gunslinger to have been inspired by both Browning's poem and the protagonist of the "Dollars Trilogy" underscores this connection.
And what of the significance of the Man With No Name? Why are we so obsessed with him? Does it really need to be explicated? The answer is all too clear. The wasteland of the modern quest is our civilization.
     The river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Malory's blighted land fell into ruin through its king receiving the Dolorous Stroke, an echo of the Eden myth. But in our time man in his perversity has engineered his own dolorous stroke, has sown the sere fields with the seeds of his own destruction.
And more than that—a furlong on—why, there!
     What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
     Or brake, not wheel—that harrow fit to reel
Men's bodies out like silk? with all the air
Of Tophet's tool, on earth left unaware,
     Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.
Atom bombs and napalm; strip mines, pollution, and mass extinction; abortion and genocide and voluntary sterility; mind-shattering drugs; the fragmentation of culture, the confusion of tongues, the dissolution of the family, the ebbing of faith. Man's imprisoned demons have burst free and now stride across the landscape like giants.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Across this dark landscape the Man With No Name advances. Like Galahad, he is an outsider, his identity an enigma. Like Galahad, he has a magic touch when it comes to getting things done. He cuts through the red tape of institutions grown impotent or corrupt, throws down the tyrant, and sets the captives free. His activity is a kind of harrowing of hell. Lily-white he's not, but there is an integrity to his blackness. He is self-transfixed like Percival, sullied like Bors, excluded like Lancelot at the waste chapel. There is no Grail at the end of his quest, and yet he still goes on and on. His cynical idealism is a substitute for faith, his detached persistence a substitute for hope, his vigorous action a substitute for love. He's not the knight the world needs, but the knight it deserves.
People are too apt to view the quest for the Holy Grail as a relic from an age of chivalric idealism. The earthy fabric of which Malory's Arthurian tapestry is woven gives the lie to this, but modern readers still tend to forget that the context of Le Mort d'Arthur is not the fifth century, but the fifteenth. It was an era of impending dissolution. The medieval social order was crumbling. There were signs and portents, wars and rumors of wars. Corruption was rife. Princes pursued their ambitions apart from any moral code. Malory himself was something of a social outcast, a man of violence who ravished women, abused clergymen, and single-handedly fought his way out of prison, the living archetype of the Man With No Name.
Predictions of an immanent apocalypse are pretty common these days. They come from all quarters, from religious fundamentalists and climate scientists, from New Agers and politicians, from tabloid journalists and mainstream filmmakers. But ours isn't the first era of such social anxiety. The end was looked for in pre-Reformation Europe, and also during the Danish invasions. They say too that the reign of Justinian was troubled by bearded stars, earthquakes, and pestilences. It was a time of disorientation and transformation. Europe was entering the Dark Ages. What if anything do our own anxieties presage?
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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