The Dream Archipelago - Week 2: The Negation (conclusion)


The Negation - Conclusion


  • Dik returns to Moylita Kaine, and passes Burgher Tradayn along the way, an unpleasant and authoritative man.
  • Upon arrival, Kaine herself seems to have been upset by the man.
  • Dik gives Kaine a carving of a hand with pen as a gift, and she in turn gifts him a short story that she worked on through the night. However, she asks him not to read it until she has left the island. She says it is written just for him, and suggests it's a story about Dik.
  • Kaine explains that he might get in trouble if he is caught with it. It reveals facts about the war that might be sensitive to those in charge - that the military is using gases, and that the war is being perpetuated for the economic benefit of a few. And that there seems to be underground opposition.
  • The southern continent has not yet been adopted as the theatre of battle, but this is in the works.
  • They are interrupted by the return of Burgher Tradayn, who takes the manuscript and sends Dik back to the barracks. Kaine is escorted to a council chamber for questioning.
  • Dik in unable to remain still, and tries to find Kaine. He ends up spying on her discussion with the burghers for a few minutes, before he's caught by his superiors and beaten. He once again returns to his chamber, and eventually returns to duty with no further word on Kaine or his encounters with her.
  • As Dik patrols the wall, he contemplates the meaning of walls in Kaine's texts. He concludes that in Kaine's novel, The Affirmation, the characters build walls and find themselves trapped by them. The short story she gives him, titled The Negation, must therefor have been about overcoming walls, and particularly about Dik overcoming the walls that hem him in. Dik concludes this is unrealistic - that it's one thing for an author to suggest such a thing can be done, but it's quite another reality for the person who walks the wall.
  • Just then, an enemy combatant appears and surrenders himself to Dik. Dik escorts him to a guard room in admiration and envy.


  • Here we meet an old SF trope in the form of perpetual warfare inflicted on society to the benefit of a few. Is this a convincing explanation for the war? Where else have you read this idea? Do you buy it?
  • Here we have an Author in conflict with a Figure of Authorty. Is there a difference between them in how they treat Dik? Dik seems to choose the latter over the former at the end, but admires his alter-ego from the other side for siding with the other.
  • Do you draw any conclusions about walls and authors from the text?


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    I looked up, and this story was originally published in 1978. That makes sense, as the notion of two large powers glowering at each other over a wall is very reminiscent of the border in East Germany and East Berlin.

    I think we're meant to assume that the story "written for" Dik is a pre-existing piece of propaganda, and is an attempt to get Dik to agitate against the war. It seems it's an approach that fails.

    Regarding walls, Dik is desperate to cross the wall and escape his repressed life, just as was the soldier to crossed at the end of the story. The narration at that point is mirroring the two lost, young men. I think it reinforces the idea that the poor soldiers are the victims, pawns of the various powerful men who regulate their lives for the benefit of the rulers. Both sides of the wall are, fundamentally, the same.

    The hallucinogenic gas may be a call back to Barefoot in the Head the Aldiss novel about a Europe devastated by hallucinogenic gas bombs.

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    Interesting that you read it as "Just then, an enemy combatant appears and surrenders himself to Dik. Dik escorts him to a guard room in admiration and envy". I did something of a double take when I read it because to my eyes, CP is entirely ambiguous as to who surrendered to whom. The two men (or the one man, or the twins) steadily converge - both are patrolling, both rattle the bolts of their rifle, both are cold.

    Dik's first description is that the other man's clothing has been ripped by the wire, but then realises that his own clothing has gashes, and that he himself is bleeding.

    The other man says "I surrender" and has his rifle above his head, but then Dik says "I'm surrendering". They exchange rifles, and it's really not clear to me which guard post they head off towards.

    To emphasise the duality, CP repeats the sentence "they were near one of the cisterns and the hissing of gas was loud above the wind" before and after the paragraph where the identification between the two is most explicit.

    (In passing, the mention of gas here reminds one of the "sense gases" Moylita denounces, which presumably distort or confuse the senses).

    In the end I felt that _The Negation_ was not so much the opposite of _The Affirmation_ - though that opposite is certainly there to a degree. Rather, it's the annihilation of a particle with its own anti-particle, here enacted by Dik and his mirror counterpart.

    So it gave me a lot to think about, though seemingly in a different direction (judging by your summary points) than you went.
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    Priest does like to play with physics, so the idea of two particles colliding rings true. There was definitely a coming together of the characters. I tend to write the summaries hours after I finish the section, so they might sometimes reflect my memory what I read more than the actual text? But that was my distinct impression - that Dik rejected Kaine’s manipulation of him to transcend the wall, but later admired that his opposite (shall we call him Kid?) had done done just that. So somehow Dik didn’t get the end he really wanted, because he objected to the means, and then admired Kid, who said ‘fuck it, I’m going for it anyway.’
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    I do like Kid vs Dik, a very nice touch :)

    I also meant to say that I am enjoying The Dream Archipelago rather more than I did Islanders - I think the more overt fictional presentation helps a lot (yes, I am aware that Islanders was also fiction, but as has been said already, the writing style chosen for that book sometimes got in the way). It feels as though I am getting much more directly in touch with CP's abilities as a writer.

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    I'm struggling to read much more into this story than a Cold War allegory. Two indistinguishable side, separated by a wall, the soldiers young men manipulated by the distant rich. The notion of walls in people's minds as well as the physical aspects. Propaganda from all everyone, distortion of reality, and no idea of the truth.

    I agree with Richard: it's a better read than The Islanders.

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    And it's a literal Cold War...

    And I read it as @RichardAbbott did - that both surrendered to each other, though I am fairly sure the other soldier was an illusion from the gas.

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    Although certainly there is the Cold War analogy — and thanks for the information that the story was written in 1978. But I think there is more here than that.

    As usual I am way behind. I finished the first half of the story last night and had some thoughts about the lit crit elements in the story and our previous such discussions about The Islanders, particularly those about the death of the author and about reader response theory. Then I read the second half of the story today without having written up my thoughts on the lit crit. The second half doesn’t change the general shape of those thoughts but gives them a bit more focus.

    Reader response theory does say that the text (not so much the author) and the reader collaborate in giving a story meaning, but it doesn’t mean that any old reader and any old meaning suffice. The expectation of reader response is of an informed reader. Someone who knows nothing about the symbolism in a great piece of modernist literature like, say, James Joyce’s Dubliners, can’t unearth much meaning in the text. (I picked Dubliners because of the similarity of the title to The Islanders and because it, too, is a collection of seemingly unrelated stories that nevertheless begin to coalesce into a whole if one can see the connections.)

    Dubliners is great modernist literature because it uses the specifics of a particular people in a particular location in a particular time to say something universal about all people in all locations in all times. (This universalized claim of modernism is denied by postmodernism, though, where Priest may better fit.) Modernism is all about symbolism, and so is, apparently, Kaine’s The Affirmation. I agree with Kaine that discovering the meaning of a text involves more than outlining the plot and characterization, but I also agree with Dik that an author does not have a place of privilege in understanding the meaning of the text they wrote. So, combining these partially incompatible views about literary interpretation, here I go.

    In reader response, the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader’s life world overlap to create meaning. Sometimes this overlap reveals meaning hidden in the text by the author (symbolism), but sometimes this overlap produces new meaning that the author could never have imagined and perhaps would disagree with.

    A competent reader expands their own life world in order to become an informed reader and thus to understand a text. If I’m not able to see the symbolism in Dubliners, I can learn. In learning, the horizon of my own life world expands, and I become a more expansive, richer person. Great literature expands us, not just in regard to the content of the text but in discovering new meaning by scratching below its surface and by discovering more depths to ourselves by scratching beneath our own surfaces. I need to be educated (sometimes by the author) in order to understand some texts.

    Yet sometimes the reader’s horizon of their life world creates entirely new meaning. I’m going to leave Dubliners behind because it’s been several years since I’ve read it, and I don’t remember a lot of the symbolism. I’m going to turn toward literature I’m more familiar with, the Hebrew Prophets. I’m going to treat this and the Christian Gospels as literature only, requiring no allegiance to them in any other way.

    Sprinkled throughout the middle section of the book of Isaiah are four poems referring to a suffering servant. If I simply read this text uncritically, I might search the explicit parts of the text for a clue about the identity of this suffering servant. Is it the author himself? A king? As I avail myself of critical scholarship, I learn that the scholarly consensus is that this part of Isaiah was most likely written by disciples of the original prophet Isaiah during the time of Babylonian Captivity. All the new pieces of information help expand my horizon, and I might determine that these poems are referring to the suffering of the Hebrew people (not quite yet having become the Jewish people) and that Judah/Israel itself is the suffering servant. (In fact, that is exactly what I think these poems in and of themselves refer to.)

    However, the early Christians, with new experiences and new life-world horizons, began to see Jesus in those texts. The overlap of the text’s symbolic (though certainly not modernist) horizon and the new life-world horizons of the early Christians gave those texts new meanings, which were not there originally (bracketing the claims of some (many?) Christians who say that the text supernaturally predicted Jesus).

    Returning to our story, in what ways did Kaine’s explanation of some of The Affirmation’s symbolism help grow Dik’s understanding of himself as he began to understand the novel differently? And in what ways did Dik’s context and experiences give the novel new meaning, including the incorporation of what little he knew about “The Negation”?

    Does the ending prove Kaine right or wrong about the text? Is that question even ascertainable, given the uncertainty of what exactly happened?

    I love this story and all the possibilities it hints at.

    (This post is already too long for me to think out loud about postmodernism’s critique of modernism’s symbolic claims to universality, but I’m thinking about it a lot. Maybe it will become relevant in future readings in our Slow Read. And, of course, I’m thinking about deconstructing the binary opposites in the story.)

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    @WildCard thanks for this - I always find your explorations fascinating, partly because my own studies and interests lie in a slightly different area of literary thought, viz an author's use of rhetorical structures (large and small) to shape and enhance the more obvious elements such as plot or setting. So, for example, what does it mean that an author uses forms such as a ring structure or chiasmus to shape the whole work? How does his or her use of metaphor shed light on relationships? Is the writing style more poetic and artificial (in the older sense of being deliberately constructed, not in the modern sense of stilted), or more plain and unadorned?

    And are any of these conscious effects by the author, or simply reflections of their culture and context? Taking your Hebrew Bible example - when a Hebrew writer uses parallel couplets and largely abstains from regular metre or rhyme, it largely reflects cultural norms, whereas if I did so, it would be a conscious imitation of a style which is not contemporary to me.

    (In passing, all this is one reason why I am really really enjoying this month's book choice by @NeilNjae as language and its rhetorical use is totally in the foreground).

    Now, as I understand it, your thoughts are taking a further step back and seeking to establish a context not just for the writing but for the author's and reader's entire approach to recognising meaning. I particularly like your example of how the writing in Isaiah has acquired different significance through history. A friend of mine who is a classics teacher is currently looking into similar shifts over time in interpreting Greek myth, from use in actual classical times, through Christian appropriation to modern day storytelling. So anyway, though I don't have anything like the background in the (for want of a better word) philosophical approach you bring, and so don't wlays make the connections you do, I find these insights and explorations quite fascinating.

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    edited June 2021

    @WildCard said:
    Returning to our story, in what ways did Kaine’s explanation of some of The Affirmation’s symbolism help grow Dik’s understanding of himself as he began to understand the novel differently? And in what ways did Dik’s context and experiences give the novel new meaning, including the incorporation of what little he knew about “The Negation”?

    (This is going to get caught up in too many layers of who means what to mean what...)

    My reading of the story wasn't that it was about people reading a text and making up their own minds about the meaning of texts. Instead, I think Priest was trying to tell us something about propaganda. Dik reads The Negation and finds his own meaning in it. Kaine tells him he's wrong, and tells him what he should have taken from the text. Meanwhile, Kaine is only there to write propaganda about the war. Later in the story, Kaine and the burgher both tell Dik what they want him to believe. Then Dik is exposed to a chemical that scrambles his ability to find meaning in anything.

    I think that Priest wrote a story to tell us that propaganda is bad, and much of what we're told is done so because it's useful for people who have (or want) power.

    So, the question is... how did I come to that conclusion? Is that the meaning (or a meaning) that Priest intended? How much should we respect the authors intended meaning? What if the author didn't intend a particular meaning?

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    @NeilNjae said:
    So, the question is... how did I come to that conclusion? Is that the meaning (or a meaning) that Priest intended? How much should we respect the authors intended meaning? What if the author didn't intend a particular meaning?

    My view (and I suspect yours) would be that an author always intends at least one and probably multiple levels of meaning in the text. The unconscious world of the author necessarily permeates her or his work and adds qualities that on a conscious level were not deliberately created. It seems to me pretty certain that some meanings will be set there unconsciously rather than as an act of writing craft - for example unexamined personal and cultural prejudices or stereotypes. Or, for that matter, editorial and publishers' requirements, such as Andre Norton routinely using male protagonists despite being a woman (because to get published she had to accept imposed norms of story-telling). Or Asimov almost never including non-human aliens (for much the same reason).

    Now, when we get to readers' perceptions of a story, we enter the fringes of the world @WildCard talks about. A reader in a different generation, or different culture, or from a different social background, may detect or infer meanings that the author did not consciously intend. This might enrich the book, or make it seem prophetic, or render it absurd, inaccessible or offensive. There is, of course, a whole debate about whether books written about certain topics with certain assumptions, or using certain racial or cultural descriptions ought to be censored, or at least issued with prominent warnings - do we want to enter the original world of the author, which might be deeply uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, or else smooth it over to become acceptable to us?

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