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.
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).