STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND: Struggles for Identity


Both William Blake and Nobody share a crisis of identity and self. They can be characterized, as one critic put it, as "Strangers in a Strange Land". As in the traditional Road Movie, the protagonists do not belong anywhere, be it to their native surroundings or to the West, which proves not to be a place of absolute freedom and limitless possibilities in Jarmusch's film. Young William Blake, the inexperienced accountant from Cleveland, initially sets out for the West because he has lost all his ties back in the East: we are informed that both his parents have recently died and the relationship with his fiancÚ has not worked out. Significantly, this loss of family and friends as a catalyst for taking to the road is one of the essential characteristics of road movies and novels such as Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Paul Auster's The Music of Chance. His journey West can thus be taken as an archetypal search for a place where he belongs, where he can start anew and make his fortune.

However, he soon has to realize that the West is not what he - and in fact many young Easterners back in the 1870s - expected it to be: a new Eden that offers every conceivable possibility for any ambitious man seeking his fortune. He is denied any chance to integrate into the society of Machine - instead, he is ridiculed and exploited, and meets nothing but hostility. The only person who is friendly and evokes some kind of positive emotional involvement, Thel, becomes his angel of death, i.e. the reason for his mortal wound (incidentally, it might be interesting to notice that the historical William Blake wrote one Book of Thel, the main figure being a nymph-like girl in a flower garden).

As soon as the town gets to know of young Dickinson's murder, Blake immediately is branded with the role of the outlaw and killer, an image from which he cannot escape. He is condemned a dead man long before his actual death. Again, he has lost the only person he is emotionally drawn to, namely Thel; again, he has not found a place where he feels at home. Blake finds that the West is no place to search and work for an identity of his own. Rather, h e is ascribed a social role by the citizens of Machine which he cannot et rid of and thus, having realized that there is no escape, subversively fulfills, the subversions being the fact that he only kills white men. The role of the outsider in a hostile environment is also represented in his name. William Blake, the English mystic poet, also placed himself outside society when he took a stand against the hypocrisy of established institutions like the Church and spoke of the detrimental effects both of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. Jarmusch said he brought the poet William Blake into the story because his writings reminded him of the poetry of Native Americans in their mystical visions. Thus Jarmusch establishes a strong connection between Nobody - talking indistinguishably either in Blake verses or in Native poetry diction - and William Blake.
Just like William Blake, Nobody stands outside of society and (at least with regard to the outside world) has not had the chance of establishing an identity of his own - he is literally nobody. In the film. He tells Blake the story of his life: born a disrespected half -breed, he was captured as a boy by some Englishmen and brought to Europe as an exotic exhibit. He even received an education, but although he tried hard and voluntarily to assimilate to the English society, he was sent b ack to America when people in England lost their interest in him. Back with his native tribe, Nobody was once again excluded from societal bonds because the members of his tribe did not believe his stories of Europe. They named him Xebeche, "He who talks loud saying nothing" and branded him a liar, i.e. assigned a role to him which did not correspond with his reality.

Considering their struggles for identity, the relationship between Blake and Nobody takes on a crucial role. Their bond is based on their corresponding social positions as outsiders, as two characters who have no-one to identify with but themselves. However, the older Nobody seems to have learned to accept this status in the course of his time on Western roads. He is somehow content with his self-governed identity as nobody, which is the name he has deliberately chosen for himself. An experienced citizen of the road, he voluntarily places himself outside society.

Nevertheless, he takes the appearance of William Blake as heaven-sent, as a living proof of what he has considers the truth of his life's story. Bringing Blake to his village, he eventually succeeds in re-establishing his credibility and in becoming one of his people again. In his belief that Blake is already a dead man and that he is "born to endless night", Nobody becomes his spiritual guide through the West, a kind of mentor figure who shows him how to take his revenge on the white savages who have doomed him. In the spiritual sense, he guides Blake back to his origins and seeks to initiate him into the mysterious world of the metaphysical - the only place where William Blake belongs and where he can come to peace with himself. Home, for Blake, is the spiritual realm. With the help of each other, they both can overcome their feeling of displacement at the end of their journey.