Samuel R. Delany

Delany

I’ve spent the last two days in Buffalo, N.Y., attending a conference honoring, and discussing, the works of Samuel R. Delany. It was exhilarating and intense (as well as a big exhausting) to spend so much time concertedly thinking and talking about the writing of one of our greatest living novelists and essayists. Delany’s work in what he has called the “paraliterary” genres of science fiction and pornography, together with his essays and interviews, constitute a body of work that has reflected on the deepest aspects of personal and social life, on the singularity and discomfort of desire, on the importance of pleasure and civility, on the codes and constraints of race, gender, and sexual orientation, not to mention class and Capital; and that has (seemingly) effortlessly covered an entire span between the most intimate autobiographical revelations and the most far-reaching and abstract theoretical speculations on subjectivization and identity and the forms of social and political (dis)order.

I fear my own attempts to describe the importance and impact of Delany’s writings have descended into vague and pompous generalities. In Western culture we have tended for centuries to put our writers and artists on Great Man (usually man rather than woman) pedestals, at the price of obscuring the minute particulars of their work. But I don’t know how to “mediate” between the particulars of Delany’s sinuous prose and the dazzling breadth of his vision. One minute he is writing in exquisite detail about the erotic appeal of a hand with dirty, bitten-down-to-the-nub fingernails; the next he is powerfully speculating on the way that relationships of power and subordination both incite and regulate desire, and how sexuality both permeates and fuels, and yet steps away from, or subtracts itself from, the predominant economy of exchange in capitalist (and, contrastingly, in pre- and post-capitalist) societies. The thing about Delany is that he doesn’t, himself, mediate between the singular and the universal, or (not quite the same dichotomy) the concretely, immediately personal and the wide-ranging abstraction; rather, his fictions draw us into a world (which is our own, only seen now from a different, and shockingly acute, angle of observation) in which making such broad and clumsy distinctions, let alone trying thereby to mediate between them and re-connect them, seems hopelessly naive.

(I suppose I should mention that I wrote, with more particularity than I am capable of here, about Delany’s recent novel Phallos in an earlier blog entry.)

Anyway, in the last two days I heard smart and passionate talks on subjects ranging from Delany’s writerliness and self-referentiality, to the proclivity many of his characters share for consuming and wasting bodily products (sperm, shit, snot, piss), to the way that visual artists have appropriated and been inspired by his words, and to the ways that his novels invent, imagine, and explore a queer space and a queer time, distinct from those of the dominant heteronormativity.

There’s no way to incorporate all the things that everyone said into some single, central thesis. But thinking about Delany’s work through the various angles the various speakers presented to us, I was able more clearly to see how Delany is a writer with a vision of excess, abjection, and waste that puts Bataille to shame (or reveals Bataille, by contrast, as the timid Catholic schoolboy he in some sense was) while at the same time — and this is perhaps the most radical thing about Delany’s fiction — this “vision of excess” has little or nothing to do with the thematization of capital-D Desire and/as transgression that was not only Bataille’s major concern, but that of so much 20th century modernism. For Delany, even excess to the point of exhaustion, and the most outrageous and “transgressive” (in the commonplace sense of this word) sexual acts (from eating shit to incest) have little to do with any dialectic of law and its transgression, but are rather articulated in terms of range or series of bodily pleasures and potentials that both connect people to one another and to the world, and help define the nature of a “self” that doesn’t pre-exist them. Delany, like Bataille, is concerned with expressing, articulating, and enacting a range of desires and deeds that escape the “economy” of capitalist exchange; but Delany’s vision of expenditure beyond exchange-value does not have any of the Bataillean connotations of sin, unnaturalness, “perversion,” and guilt. Bataille was both the most lucid, and yet the most helplessly ensnared, witness to and visionary of the hopes and horrors of the twentieth century. Delany, for the last thirty-five years or more, has already been looking forward to a possible new articulation of desire — and civility and compassion, and excess and extremity — for the twenty-first (though we are unlikely to realize anything close to the hopes and cravings he gives voice to, without a radical change for the better in our social, political, economic, and environmental conditions).

I am still defining the position of Delany’s fiction more in terms of what it is not, than of what it is. There are no utopian blueprints in Delany’s fiction or essays, and his vision always has a sense of limits and boundaries somewhere: we don’t ever abolish dissatisfaction, we don’t ever have everything; we always still face the unexpected, inevitable surprise and contingency and change. (Indeed, his novel Trouble on Triton is subtitled “an ambiguous heterotopia”; it depicts a world in many respects far better and more open to diversity and desire and mutability than our own, but still one in which there is war and resentment and class friction and willful stupidity — this last embodied in the rather obnoxious protagonist). But in the loops and digressions of Delany’s fiction, in its dazzling intellectual range, in its startling concreteness at so many points, and in its seemingly inexhaustible fecundity (even when it is thematizing, as several speakers at the conference pointed out) exhaustion and waste), there is something of a sense of what SF critics like Jameson and Freedman have called the utopian. It’s a call to think otherwise, more richly and broadly, but also a demonstration of how this richness and breadth is potentially graspable in the here and now, in the body, in human and social relationships.

Delany himself was present for the conference. This was a bit intimidating, as we were all talking about his work; but his comments and interventions, and his generous responses to all our presentations, played no small part in making the conference so satisfying an experience. The final evening, Delany gave a reading from some of his new work: he read the Coda to his current novel-in-progress, called Shoat Rumblin, His Sensations and Ideas. These pages just blew me away: they were luminous and deeply moving, a sort-of meditation (by one of the characters in the novel, the father of the eponymous character) on sexuality (of course) and compassion and fatherhood (this last, which I cannot help being concerned with as the father of two young girls, was approached with beauty and entirely without the sappiness that so often vitiates discussions and evocations of the subject for me).

12 Responses to “Samuel R. Delany”

  1. Jodi says:

    Thanks for this, Steve. A month or so ago I read Time Square Red, Time Square Blue, the only thing I’ve read by Delaney. I was struck by the way spaces that faciliated rather anonymous sexual contact were spaces for men to meet across class and race as well as spaces for imparting information and providing a sociality. I found his writing immensely caring, as in attuned to people for who they are, attuned to the presence of norms in spaces typically seen as abnormal, and as respectful and concerned in a way that redirected judgments typically loosed upon those at the margins back upon the mainstream.

  2. Ted says:

    I wanted to say something about Time Square Red, Time Square Blue, and I see that Jodi has, in a sense, preempted me. So I’ll just chime in and say that this book is one of the most interesting and provocative that I’ve read about urban space, and that it made me completely rethink the way I understand porn movie theaters and other such institutions. I know think the demise of the ‘seedy’ 42nd street and its reconstitution as a yuppy paradise is another case of ‘urban renewal’ that is in fact a crime against the poor and marginal. For a great ethnography of ‘queer,’ as opposed to ‘gay,’ practices, read Time Square Red, Time Square Blue. Also on the subject of Delaney’s non-fiction, the sexual relations he describes in his auto-biography, The Motion of Light in Water, just blew my head off. It’s one of the most transgressive (in the good sense) texts I’ve ever read.

  3. Camille! says:

    Thanks so much for this Steve! I am so jealous. Not only is Delany one of my favorite writers and thinkers, but Chip is a joy to be around!

    For some reason, I was absolutely in a bubble for the last two years and have not yet read Phallos. Will do so ASAP in anticipation of Shoat Rumbling.

    I really like this quote. Especially when thinking about The Mad Man.
    For Delany, even excess to the point of exhaustion, and the most outrageous and “transgressive” (in the commonplace sense of this word) sexual acts (from eating shit to incest) have little to do with any dialectic of law and its transgression, but are rather articulated in terms of range or series of bodily pleasures and potentials that both connect people to one another and to the world, and help define the nature of a “self” that doesn’t pre-exist them.

    Thanks so much for this, I think I’ll come back and re-read this entry a few more times. It gave me a lot to chew on!

  4. I read Dhalgren on your recommendation, Steve, about five years ago, shortly after arriving in Manila, where seedy urban landscapes are an inexhaustible resource. Your link to the conference got me looking at a bibliography of Delany’s work and a short autobiography that he wrote. I wasn’t aware of his connection to the Harlem Renaissance, but I had heard of him prior to reading about him on your website. I read quite a bit of science fiction in my teens and I’m sure I must have read several of Delany’s stories in some of the Sci Fi anthologies of that era. I took a course in Science Fiction as Literature in 1973, the first time I went to college, and I don’t think any of Delany’s work was included in that course. The aim then was to lay a groundwork for taking cognizance of a genre that the study of literature had always dismissed as juvenile and disreputable. After that I really didn’t follow science fiction much, although I did take several fiction writing courses, one of which included Joanna Russ as a guest lecturer. The thesis I wrote nearly fifteen years later on Emerson was dismissed as perhaps too abstract and potentially elitist because I employed some modestly deconstructive methods that must certainly have been better suited to postmodern subjects like Dagwood Bumstead or Gilligan’s Island. Dhalgren is, at least in one sense, an extended metaphor for the role of academic, post-modern philosophical fiction in the late modern world. It helped to essentially bankrupt my efforts to connect authentically with what I conceived to be the American literary tradition. Reading Dhalgren for me might be likened to finally getting a glimpse of the license plate on the semi that demolished any prospects I might have had for a career in academia. I made no other plans, so I’ve managed to content myself with a career as a spouse. It’s not very challenging, but my wife thinks it pays well and the fringe benefits are more than adequate. While it is nice being solvent, it does wear on one’s sense of self worth. Drone was never on my short list of career aspirations. Fifteen years of paying tuition and racking up debt would seem to me to have indicated a willingness on my part to earn my keep. And the rhetoric I developed in that thesis seemed to me quite compatible with some Continental theorists, particularly Jurgen Habermas. I spent fifteen years germinating a seed that was deliberately denied a chance to take root. Had I been allowed to proceed to doctoral study, you would no doubt have had an opportunity to assess the possibilities contained in my thesis. Your discussions of Derrida’s ‘hauntology’ and your interest in a Kantian context for notions of use and exchange value in Marx suggest to me that my reading of Emerson’s ‘doctrine of use’ might have been somewhat less extravagant than it was then made out to be. Perhaps use and exchange value in the social economy of Delany’s Dhalgren could be a fruitful concept for postmodern analysis.

  5. Lecto says:

    I’ve read quite a bit of Delany’s work (most recently the first two books of Neveryon) and find it pretty exciting. I also took a weeklong workshop with him at Naropa University and found him to be an engaging, approachable teacher. One thing I don’t get about him though concerns his interviews and a certain literary conservativism that doesn’t jibe with the paraliterary thing. One quote:

    “The hardest thing is imparting a sense of how difficult it is to be a writer–only partially because of the real hurdles within the profession per se, but even more so because most people who want to write–and often who want to write desperately–simply have no talent. Stupid people can never become writers.” (http://www.randomhouse.com/vintage/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375706684&view=qa)

    I can’t really sympathize with this sort of pre-punk, authoritarian / elitist stance, speaking about writing in terms of a mysterious innate talent and ‘becoming a writer’ as some kind of all-or-nothing status.

    But I do love a lot of Delany’s books, especially the less theoretical, more visceral ones–Dhalgren, Hogg and a lot of the short stories being my favorites.

  6. I should just add that L. Timmel Duchamp has an excellent account of the conference here.

  7. Ron Drummond says:

    Steve,

    This is an extraordinarily thoughtful essay taking the Delany Symposium as point of departure. (The second paragraph in particular just bowled me over.) Thank you!

    It was a pleasure seeing you again at the Delany Symposium. What an amazing experience!

    On the long train ride back from Buffalo, at one point Delany raved about your book The Cinematic Body. Listening to him talk about it then, and reading your essay now, only adds to my growing sense that I have some serious catching up to do.

  8. Ron Drummond says:

    One correction: the main title of the novel Delany read from is Shoat Rumblin, without the concluding letter “g” or any sign of elision. I had the honor of doing an in-depth editorial critique of an early draft of the novel three years ago (a 750-page manuscript!) and it was indeed a knock-out. Since then, Delany has completely rewritten the novel. It will be wonderful to read it again when it’s finally published in a year or so.

  9. Ron,

    thanks for your comments; and also for the correction: I have now changed Shoat Rumbling to Shoat Rumblin in the original posting.

  10. […] The Pinocchio Theory » Blog Archive » Samuel R. Delany Interesting biopic of Samuel R. Delany. (tags: samuel_delany writer biopic acheivements) […]

  11. Matt Bird says:

    Wow — this is fantastic. Reading this post — actually, just one or two lines from it — has, I believe, significantly deepened my understanding of Return to Neveryon (please excuse the absence of diacritics).

    In response to Lecto: I don’t think it’s particularly conservative or elitist to claim that talent is required to write. It’s just accurate, isn’t it? Not everyone can rap, not everyone can sell vacuum cleaners, not everyone can teach (this last a painful discovery for me that at least partially explains why I am currently awake at around three in the morning “doing nothing”), and not everyone can write. Or: Not everyone is capable of doing everything (but thankfully, with the exception of the severely disabled, everyone is capable of doing something, or even several things).

  12. Gerard says:

    I’m happy to say the reading group I run, The Science Fiction Bookclub, will be discussing Babel-17/Star Empire in our August 2011 meeting.

    Any and all are welcome.

    http://www.sciencefictionbookclub.org/events/17523798/

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