Style and Technique

Elliott’s style, which promotes irony, satire, and other deflators of pretentiousness, thus functioning as a pathway to moral judgment, has been called “cool.” Elliott himself has described his medium as “formal seeming, of a certain polish,” and has explained that his didacticism depends on “the complex relationships among storyteller, characters, and readers” and an “aesthetic distance,” without which “there is not likely to be much moral clarity.” In “Among the Dangs,” the narrator’s discoveries act as adjustments of the moral focus until aesthetic distance is achieved.

The comedy of the narrator’s encountering primitive humanity employs sharp contrasts between frightening expectation and actuality. Equally important for aesthetic distance are muted contrasts introduced at varying removes: Consider, for example, that a life of floating corpses and the possibility of mutilation and even sacrificial death brings the narrator only to the scratch-wounds of sexual ecstasy and a stubborn rash, whereas a return to civilization involves him in World War II, in which his right hand is “severed above the wrist,” a fact he relates almost incidentally among a list of supposed accomplishments.

Moral clarity increases when, through the narrator, truth momentarily shines forth from beneath the mix of styles. Modern man in need bares his motives: “After I’d got them to throw in a fellowship of some sort for the following year I agreed. It would pay for filling the forty cavities in my brothers’ and sisters’ teeth.” The budding anthropologist describes a primitive event: “They could not possibly just assimilate me without marking the event with an act (that is, a ceremony) signifying my entrance.” Then the growing prophet discovers real values: “If the conditions of my being elevated, I said to myself, are the sufferings of the people, Redadu’s death, and the sacrifice of an old man, then I must make myself worthy of the great price.”

Then the moral instrument achieves its full aesthetic distance by the deflating rhythm of the ending: “if I had stayed there among the Dangs much longer I would have reverted until I had become one of them, might not have minded when the time came to die under the sacrificial knife, would have taken in all ways the risk of prophecy—as my Dang son intends to do—until I had lost myself utterly.”