Dammed Dreams: Dams in a Cross-Section of Literary Perspectives

Article excerpt


Flood is one of the most archetypal images in literature, symbolizing god's wrath, punishment for sin and a cleansing transformation. But what of flood induced by man? What sort of symbolism does it generate? A cross-cultural sample of literary works on dams reveals that symbolism there is no less profound. It taps into the nature and extent of human power and creativity and the relationship people have with the past, which is irrevocably washed away by the dam. Three texts from three different cultures--Chinese, Russian, and American--take us to the heart of the following questions: "What do dams stand for in the national and individual psyche? What do we lose when we gain control over the rivers?"

The texts considered here are not the first ones to raise these questions. Contemporary literature has a rich tradition of depicting dam projects and exploring their human impacts. (1) Some writers such as Wilson, Warren and Richter, for example, see in dams the entombment of one's past. Others, describe dam projects as tests of power--power of the central government over local population, the colonial power of one nation to dispossess and displace people of the other, or even the power of a man with a machine to dominate a woman at home (Markandaya; Wolcott). For the Native American writers dams represent human interference with the ways of nature. (2) Since water in the Native American tradition is viewed as "sustainer of life, cleansing agent; unfathomable deep" (Donaldson 73), dams are depicted as desecration of native landscape and an embodiment of "violence, repression, and frustration" (Donaldson 93). (3)

The Russian, Chinese and American texts analyzed here pick up many of these themes but avoid a clear-cut ideological agenda. They present, in a nuanced and complex way, both the fascination with and fear of the dams and make us realize that dams have an uncertain future in the 21st century. Two distinct symbols emerge from their portrayals of dams. On the one hand, dams appear as formidable symbols of power--they stand for light, electricity and might of nations as well as of its people. They banish darkness and poverty and serve as nations' flagships of progress, technological advance and modernity. Dams represent the power of homo sapiens over nature and the genius of the individual people--engineers, builders, craftsmen--to invent and to imagine, to dream and to dare. On the other hand, dams as symbols of the future mean the radical and often total erasure of the past. The transformative nature of dam projects--similar to floods sent by god--poses most sharply the question of the significance of that past in the construction of the future.

Both symbols--dams as embodiments of power and of the future--come across in the three texts discussed here as complex and controversial. (4) Power, associated with dams, could be fallible and unstable. Human creativity at nature's expense is both a form of enlightenment and of blindness. (5) The tug of the past seems for many characters almost as strong as the call of the future, and the cost of its loss to families, to national and to personal identity may be higher than the benefit in watts and wallets. All three texts put the complexity of rising waters' symbolism into high relief.

Russian Context--Valentin Rasputin's Farewell to Matyora

A Russian novel Farewell to Matyora ("Proshchanie s Matyoroy") by Valentin Rasputin describes the fate of a Siberian village about to be obliterated from the map by dam construction. Written in 1976, it belongs to the tradition of the Russian "derevenshchiki" ("village writers") that emerged in post-Stalinist Russia to remind the public that its communal culture and unpolluted nature of Siberia is all but gone. Critics see in Farewell to Matyora "the highest point in the development of village prose" (Brown 85), praising Rasputin's nationalism and environmentalism in recording the sharp contrasts between official Soviet and peasant Russian values, and between the "natural and man-made worlds" (84). …