In Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” the main character William Blake is shot. When he emerges from unconsciousness, it is to find himself in the helping hands of a man clearly coded as an Indian. As the story progresses, viewers learn that the helpful, sarcastic, and intelligent Indian is called “He Who Talks Loud, Say Nothing”, Nobody for short. Nobody’s pseudonym is a reflection of his cultural status. A mixed blood at birth, Nobody comes to William Blake as a man ostracized by his community. In his narrative to Blake, Nobody relays a story of how he was assimilated by white men. It is this very assimilation that has forced him into cultural exile.
Stuart Hall, in his essay “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation,” posits a way to imagine cultural identity. Hall writes, The first position defines ‘cultural identity’ in terms of the idea of one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’, hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’, which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common.
Applying this understanding of cultural identity to “Dead Man” suggests that Nobody has done something to violate this sense of collectivity, if one is to assume that his ostracism is justified. It logically follows that for such a violation to occur, it would necessarily occur beyond the boundaries of the Indian culture; specifically, Nobody’s transgression must have occurred while he was under the influence of the “stupid fucking white man”.
According to Nobody, he was taken by white men and mimicked their ways in order to lessen his appeal as an exotic savage. He figured the more he resembled them, the less interest he would hold. On the contrary, the white men found his adaptability intriguing, and sent him overseas to be schooled. It was during that time that he became familiar with William Blake and his poetry, referring to that poetry as “powerful words” in his description to the non-poet Blake. When he returned to his fellow Indians, it was with this newly acquired knowledge of foreign places, ideas, and language. Rather than accepting his experiences as the tragic kidnapping they were, his peers rejected his story outright, calling him a liar-One Who Talks Loud, Say Nothing.
The failure of Nobody’s assimilation extends past destroying his relationship with his own people. Equipped with the knowledge and language of the white man who created him, Nobody is not accepted into their world either. This is evidenced both by the way he is dressed and by the people with whom he consorts. Wearing the clothing and face painting of the typical Indian sets him apart from the surrounding community of Machine. So too does his association with William Blake, another social misfit who is actually hunted by the people of Machine. Nobody does not fit into his own world or that of the white man. This forced isolation may be what allows him to be so in tune with the spiritual world, to the point that he becomes William Blake’s spiritual guide.
Nobody’s intimate understanding of the spiritual world may be the result of the death of his identity. Having a near-death experience as a child, followed by the death of his cultural identity may have led him to consider more fully than most the spiritual realm. Nobody’s experiences as a result of forced assimilation have put him in a perfect position from which to befriend Blake. Not only is he well-suited to be a spiritual guide, but his knowledge also gives him a way to connect with Blake that he would not have had as a common Indian. It is the language of the white man and the poetry of William Blake that establishes a connection between the two.
As was the case with The Sunchaser, in Dead Man we again see the Indian whose sole purpose is to aid the white man. All of Nobody’s life experiences join together to create in him the perfect helpmate for a lost soul like William Blake. They are joined together by their individual experiences with “endless night”.