Samuel Delany’s beautiful new book, Dark Reflections, is something like the inverse of a “pornotopic” book like The Mad Man (see also here), or a metapornographic one like Phallos. For Dark Reflections tells the story of a black gay poet, Arnold Hawley, who cannot come to terms (until far too late) with his sexuality, and whose sexual life is therefore largely unconsummated. It’s about a lot of other things as well: the ironies and disappointments of the literary life, the dubious nature of the publishing industry, the extremely marginal status of poets (and of poetry) in American society today, and the way that race intersects with gender and sexuality. And it is also about loneliness, and madness, and having to come to terms with one’s own mortality. But the book’s sharpest focus is on sexual desire, and on being afraid.
I suppose the lament for a life half lived is itself some sort of literary genre. But Delany, as always, has a unique take on what might seem a common theme. For Arnold is not “repressed,” in any psychoanalytic sense of this term. He is fully aware, throughout, of his desires; and he doesn’t disavow them, so much as he is first afraid of them, and later wearied by the prospect of trying to act on them. “Internalized homophobia” is also not quite the right term for Arnold’s condition. He doesn’t hate himself, or hate what he is, or feel himself driven by impulses that he dares not avow, or that he thinks will damn him. It is just that he feels, well, uncomfortable: uncomfortable in coming out of the closet at a time when there are real dangers in doing so; and later, when the existence of an active (and sometimes activist) public gay culture offers some defense against those dangers, uncomfortable with living his life in public, as a kind of spectacle.
Arnold also cannot be diagnosed as lacking the courage to live fully — in the manner of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, “do I dare to eat a peach?” (and remember that Eliot himself was something of a closet case). Rather, at times Arnold is (if anything) too generous and impulsive, as is dramatized in the middle section of this three-part novel (it moves backward in time, from an opening account of Arnold’s middle and old age, to a final section which goes back to his youth, his formative experiences, his sexual awakening). The middle section contains some of the most harrowing writing of Delany’s entire career: it narrates how Arnold agrees to marry a young homeless white woman whom he hardly knows, and who (as it turns out) really is crazy — or has been driven crazy, as “the pure products of America” always are (to quote another great American poet). The consequences of this impulsive, and non-sexual, marriage are calamitous — though they also provide the material for much of Arnold’s best poetry. Art is often nourished by horror and tragedy, though it certainly does not “redeem” or “ennoble” or “compensate for” such tragedy.
If anything, Dark Reflections is about the sad consequences of an exacerbated self-consciousness — although, in contrast to traditional (19th century) treatments of this theme, the problem is not intrinsic to self-consciousness itself, but determined by its social, cultural, and political surroundings. Arnold is hyper-aware both of being gay, and of being black, in America, and of the discrimination that has customarily attached to both. This is only heightened by the fact that he is as cultivated and sensitive as he is — which is a stereotype often applied to gay men, and the exact opposite of a stereotype often applied to black men and women. The book is haunted by a vile racist remark that Wallace Stevens made at the Pulitzer Prize banquet in 1950, responding to Gwendolyn Brooks’ winning of the poetry prize; Delany writes in a concluding “Historical Note” that this remark is “a refrain not only throughout this tale but in the mind of any black writer contemplating his or her possibility for reward or recognition in America.”
Indeed, Arnold is preoccupied with the question of recognition; he somewhat vainly and pompously tends to imagine himself as the object of a future biographer’s scrutiny, the result and reward of his becoming famous as a poet. But of course poets in America today do not become famous — and Arnold has to face the fact that his works have only been published in small editions, mostly by small presses, and that they are generally not to be found in any library. In his old age — described in the first section of the book — Arnold is poor and largely companionless. He is so alone that he even misses out on Nine Eleven entirely (despite living in lower Manhattan; but he has neither friends nor a television, so he doesn’t even find out about the attacks until the following day). Years earlier, as recounted in the final section of the novel, Arnold also misses out on the Stonewall “riots” or protests of 1969 — he had been a habitue of that bar the previous year, but he entirely misses the events that give Stonewall its historical significance. (Delany does remind us, however, that the Stonewall was largely a “black and Hispanic gay bar” — a fact that is often omitted from the official gay histories).
The sense of a “missed encounter” is crucial to Arnold’s history, and is the best key to his failure to live the life he might have lived. In the book’s last third, we do see Arnold in the Stonewall, with black, gay male friends and at least a nascent sense of community; but one that seems to slip away as Arnold grows older, and more private an circumspect. And the book ends with an epiphany, which is both aesthetic and erotic in import: it brings Arnold back to a crucial turning point, from early adulthood, when (an understandable) fear and an aggravated sense of isolation proved more powerful than desire, setting him on the path to his later loneliness and frustration. It’s almost a Sartrean moment of existential choice: and Arnold makes the “wrong” choice, condemning himself to subsequent ill-at-ease-ness and unfreedom. It’s as if Arnold had been offered a glimpse of a Delanyesque “pornotopia” — but was too freaked out by it, in a late-1950s social climate far different from the bohemian one that Delany himself (as recounted in his memoir The Motion of Light in Water) found just several years later in the East Village. In any case, Arnold’s aesthetico-erotic epiphany, with which the book ends, recovers the past in an almost Proustian sense — but (unlike Proust) without thereby redeeming it. It’s the missed encounter itself that returns, with its real sense of potentiality and hope, but also with the mortal awareness that such potentiality and hope have themselves been squandered.
I’ve written before about how Delany, almost uniquely among writers of the last half-century (or more), presents a vision of sexuality, and sexual “excess,” involving both real bodily expenditures and the projection, beyond possibility, of extravagant sexual fantasies, that is nonetheless not organized around the tiresome themes of “transgression” and “impossibility.” In Dark Reflections, Delany in effect writes correlatively about the denial of such a vision, or the failure to attain it, which nonetheless is not organized around the usual themes of hysterical repression and a puritanical thirst for denial (or “obscene superego jouissance”) with which libertines have baited their opponents for the last two centuries. This is not only to say (rather obviously) that Arnold is no T. S. Eliot, but also to register how deeply the personal is implicated in the transpersonal, or the social. It is not that selfhood is generic, or stereotypical, or a mere byproduct or epiphenomenon or structural effect of some sort of social “conditioning” or (more sophisticatedly) “coding”; but rather that the most deeply singular, private, and unsharable depth of ones own being is the place where one is most profoundly marked by one’s past encounters with others (both contingent, personal encounters, and more generally social ones that have to do with the priority of parents, of language, of mores and prejudices, etc.). This sort of precedence cannot really be described either in Sartrean terms of being condemned to freedom, or in Lacanian terms of the big Other — though both of these theories refer to aspects of it. Dark Reflections does indeed offer us a sophisticated account of the genesis and the maintenance of subjectivity, and of how things like gender, sexuality, race, and class impact upon it at the deepest level (without thereby “determining” it) — except that this “theory” cannot be abstracted away from the contingencies and particularities of Arnold Hawley himself, the fictive protagonist who, in Delany’s narrative construction, inhabits and projects it. Which is, of course, what makes the book a work of fiction rather than of theory, something that is larger than, and irreducible to, what it exemplifies — which is, I think, what we really look for in great works of fiction.