Today marks something a bit different than normal here on the blog. The piece below from Barry is literary analysis and not a review. Therefore, there are spoilers present in the material below…..
PORTRAIT IN PLASMA: MOTIFS IN THE DARK LADY
by Barry Ergang
Originally published in the fanzine Resnick at Zineth, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 1991
The densest, most complex book he has written since the superb Walpurgis III, containing elements of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, The Dark Lady is perhaps Mike Resnick’s most ambitious achievement so far. Like a good poem, it often suggests more than it actually says, thus offering the reader multiple possible interpretations. Two dominant motifs, acquisitiveness and contradiction, and a lesser but no less important one, artistic creation, thread their ways through the story. An examination of them may serve to illuminate it--and raise additional questions for the reader to contemplate.
In The Dark Lady, Resnick has created as acquisitive a cast of characters as any this side of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, some of them as ruthless as Fred C. Dobbs when it comes to gaining their objectives. Tai Chong, the head of the Far London branch of Claiborne Galleries, seeks to acquire artwork that she can sell to collectors. She is not above receiving goods stolen by Valentine Heath, if the transaction will assure a healthy profit. We are also given the impression that her activism on behalf of alien rights is more for self-aggrandizement than from any sincere desire to accomplish anything for aliens, as suggested by her conceited eagerness to know whether her name was mentioned and her picture shown on news broadcasts (p. 207). Living an almost reclusive life, having severed ties with what few family members he still has, the wealthy misanthrope Malcolm Abercrombie is fiercely determined to purchase every existing portrait of the Dark Lady for his collection, regardless of the aesthetic value of the painting or the cost. Valentine Heath describes himself as an opportunist, then admits to being a thief who specializes in art, jewelry, “and a number of other beautiful things” (p. 106). He is perhaps the most honest human in the book, despite his profession, because he is the least hypocritical. He steals to acquire the means to maintain his opulent lifestyle, and has no illusions about the mass of men.
Reuben Venzia’s desire is abstract by comparison, but no less eagerly sought for all that. Venzia wants nothing less than the secret of life and death, the truth about the afterlife--what Heath calls “a heavenly insurance policy” (p. 190)--and demonstrates an almost Faustian willingness to do anything to learn it.
In the beginning, Leonardo has no desire for personal wealth or glory. He wants only to further his education and to bring honor to the House of Crsthionn. Among his race, the Bjornn, the desires of the individual are subordinate to those of the community, one’s House in particular. Viewed from the human perspective Leonardo’s eventual acquisitiveness--his quest for the Dark Lady to determine if she is the Mother of All Things--is innocent in that it is spiritual in nature. But from the Bjornn perspective he has become corrupted by humans. As Kobrynski’s shack is irreversibly contaminated when Venzia briefly opens the door during the plasma painting episode, so Leonardo is subtly contaminated by his association with men. He admits that his exposure to humans has opened him, however inadvertently, to a consideration of his private wants. In the end he is forced to become a thief--the pinnacle of acquisitiveness--to survive in a culture not his own and that he would repudiate if he had a choice. His need to talk to the Dark Lady to learn who and what she is and what she might want of him is a quest to satisfy personal desires. He has learned too much of human worlds and ways, has been an unwitting participant in acts contrary to his House’s teachings, and thus for all his morality is impure by Bjornn standards.
What is it the Dark Lady herself wants? We can only speculate. Perhaps she seeks rest, peace, transcendence of a sort unknown to mortals, relief from her immortality in painting and sculpture, and finds it only when Kobrynski recreates her image. His method, unlike the methods of other artists, is finite and fleeting. He does not capture her for all time, with her expression of profound sadness. His medium creates for a flicker, then the image is gone forever. He has just enough time to give her a smile before the portrait in plasma dissipates and vanishes. Perhaps the gesture signifies a kind of iconoclasm, Kobrynski imbuing the Dark Lady with the quality of human transience rather than according her the status of goddess or myth-figure or possession. Like Leonardo, she has always been an outsider, remote from men even as she walked among them and took some of them as lovers. It is reasonable, therefore, to consider that she seeks Leonardo as a fellow outsider who can understand her in ways that men cannot, who has both the objectivity and empathy that humans are incapable of.
“We’re all thieves,” Valentine Heath tells Leonardo (p. 117). “I just happen to be an honest one.”
When Leonardo asks if the remark is not a contradiction in terms, Heath tells him, “Of course. Whoever said that a man can’t be contradictory?”
And indeed, contradiction is another dominant motif in The Dark Lady. Although engaged in dishonest activities, Heath is remarkably open and straightforward about what he is, what he does, and why he does it. He also knows that many men who think of themselves as honest are not. Tai Chong campaigns vigorously for alien rights but does little more than pay lip-service to the concept unless there is something to be gained from it--i.e., personal publicity or money from clients like Abercrombie who can use Leonardo’s services--and who knowingly receives stolen merchandise from Heath despite the self-righteous veneer she maintains. Abercrombie is a mass of contradictions, as Leonardo explains in the letter to his Pattern Mother (pp. 47 and 48). When Leonardo’s own behavior becomes contradictory--not because he wants it to but because circumstances compel it--he cannot make the kinds of rationalizations at which humans are so adept.
The Dark Lady herself contradicts time, space and logic. What does she represent? Perhaps a Circe who lures men to their deaths. Perhaps a human need to find meaning where none exists, when we cannot accept a thing in itself. Is she the Mother of All Things--creative energy? Or is she Death incarnate--destructive energy? Resnick does not tell us precisely which, but the fluidity of meaning makes her as tantalizing to the reader as she is to the characters in the novel.
The climactic sequence reinforces the motif: Kobrynski’s paradoxical activity, creating art with the destructive radioactive processes involved in plasma painting. The deadly evanescent portrait in the skies above Solitaire is an image of birth, brief life, and death: creation in destruction, destruction in creation. Is Kobrynski’s final painting, the portrait of the Dark Lady, what she has been searching for, the reason she will not be seen again? Her plasma image lingers longer than Kobrynski expects it to, enabling him to make it smile, remove her sad, seeking expression. He is the first of her replicators to accomplish that. Submitting to her call, he walks out of his shack into the radiation and disappears. A short while later, just before Venzia dies, he has a vision in which he sees Kobrynski with the Dark Lady. She is smiling. It is as if Kobrynski has irradiated her existence with something other than sorrow, thus giving her peace, satiating her need to seek out those who “court death.” Leonardo announces that she will never again appear.
The Dark Lady deals, among other things, with the nature of art and the aim of the artist, who tries to attain perfection through art. And perhaps this is yet another meaning we can ascribe to the Dark Lady herself: that she is the embodiment of artistic perfection that men--and sentient beings throughout the universe--strive to achieve, and that some non-artists will do anything to possess.
Leonardo, in the epilogue, says that he has finally come to understand why the Dark Lady appeared to him in a vision, and what it is he must do. Now he is the one trying to capture he likeness as she last looked, so that both of their odysseys will reach their ends. Does this contradict what was said above about her never appearing again because Kobrynski finally succeeded in erasing her sad, haunted expression and replacing it with a smile? Yes and no. Kobrynski was human, Leonardo is an alien. Kobrynski’s portrait was transient; Leonardo’s, we assume, will be permanent. But Leonardo’s portrait will take a long time to complete, not merely because he is clumsy and unskilled as an artist, but because all art takes time, patience, and unflagging dedication.
Mike Resnick understands this as well as anyone; he has spent more than twenty years honing his skills as a writer. The Resnick who wrote the early potboilers could not have written The Dark Lady. It is equally conceivable that the Resnick of The Soul Eater could not have written it. It is a story that had to be arrived at via maturation, the gradual accretion of technique, and control over one’s material. The result was worth the wait, a powerful book that is not easily forgotten. The reader is irradiated by Leonardo’s story as the plasma painting irradiates Solitaire and, like Leonardo, he is not the same as he was when it began.
Archibald MacLeish wrote what proves a fitting epilogue:
Beauty is that Medusa’s head
Which men go armed to seek and sever;
It is most deadly when most dead,
And dead will stare and sting forever--
Beauty is that Medusa’s head.
Barry Ergang ©1991, 2013
Indeed, as I make no claims either for definitiveness or exhaustiveness, the ideal is for readers to use this article as the takeoff point for their own ideas, expanding on mine or, if disagreeing with them, going in different directions.
All page citations are from the Tor Books edition published in November 1987.