Â Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man is a stupendous text, a pornographic fantasy and a philosophical meditation at once. I reread it because I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what I had said about it in my previous post on porn.
Delany calls the book (in his opening “Disclaimer”) a “pornutopic fantasy: a set of people, incidents, places, and relations among them that never happened and could not happen for any number of surely self-evident reasons”; he adds that the book is “specifically… about various sexual acts whose status as vectors of HIV contagion we have no hard-edged knowledge of…” Anid indeed, there is no anal sex in the course of this narrative of sexual relations between men; but the book contains copious, epic descriptions of cocksucking, piss-drinking (and occasional shit-eating) together with oceanic spurts of semen (as well as piss)erupting from truly gigantic cocks. Various sorts of fetishism are also on display, especially involving racial stereotyping, and the narrator’s idealization of homeless men. (Delany also remarks in his “Disclaimer” that a novel that truly focused on the homeless “would have to be substantially darker than this one”).
But I also said that The Mad Man is a philosophical meditation. Quite literally: the narrator, John Marr, a gay black man in his 20s, coping with the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s, is a graduate student in philosophy, investigating the life and works of a (fictional) great philosopher, Timothy Hasler, a Korean-American thinker who was murdered, at age 29, in a gay hustler’s bar, almost a generation before (in 1973, post-Stonewall, but pre-AIDS).
Marr reconstructs Hasler’s life even as he comes to terms with his work, which involves the relation between “formal” and “informal” systems: the way that the logic of description abstracts from, and thereby simplifies, an initially chaotic and complex intermingling of multiple particulars. Hasler reverses the traditional assumptions of classical empiricism and 20th-century positivist and analytic thought. For those traditions, i.e. for thinkers from Locke to the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, the world is analyzable into a set of discrete, atomic, entities (“ideas” or “facts”), and complexity results from the ways that, on a higher level, these entities interact, interfere with one another, form into intertwined combinations: “the first three quarters of our [20th] century has been dominated by the unquestioned conviction… that reality was built up of atomic perceptions, that language was built up from the meanings and grammatical potentials associated with individual words. Only when things got too complicated — in the interaction of system on top of system, system against system — did the appearance of systematicity break down.”
But Hasler argues pretty much the opposite: he argues that “large-scale, messy, informal systems are necessary in order to develop, on top of them, precise, hard-edged, tractable systems… the human mind, and possibly nature herself, master generalized, messy pointing, inexact indication, and flailing well before they learn to individuate and count.” And more, “the messy is what provides the energy which holds any system within it coherent and stable.” In this way, Hasler is closer to the later Wittgenstein, and to Whitehead, than he is to the mainstream of Anglo-American logical and linguistic analysis. (I mention these thinkers, rather than Derrida and Deleuze, because it’s important that Delany represents Hasler as coming out of — and deviating from, or radicalizing — the analytic tradition, rather than participating in “continental” thought).
The question, of course, is what to make of a book in which passages like the one I have just quoted alternate with lengthy descriptions of golden showers night at the Mineshaft, or orgies in the narrator’s apartment that end with cum, piss, and shit smeared over everything, and suffusing the space with their pungent odor. Is the book based upon the notorious Cartesian split between mind and body, as between philosophical asceticism and the corporeal pursuit of pleasure? To the contrary, it is evident that the “informal system” of sexual energy that the book depicts is necessary to the emergence of any “formal system,” any logic and order, of the sort that the novel’s philosophical passages explore. Delany has long written about the ways that “paraliterary” genres can accommodate possibilities foreclosed in more mainstream and “proper” forms of literature. Delany accomplishes this with pornography in The Mad Man, just as he did with science fiction and fantasy in many of his earlier writings. (Hasler himself alternated his philosophical publications with a series of science fiction stories, which are described as pulpy space operas — pre-1960s SF New Wave in content — that nonetheless embody his philosophical themes).
In the course of the novel, as Marr traces Hasler’s life, he also finds himself in effect replicating or repeating it — despite the vast difference between Hasler’s experience as a gay man in the post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS era, and the more circumscribed conditions that Marr faces living in the midst of the epidemic. Hasler and Marr share, among other things, an attraction to homeless men; they each fall in love with one such man; and Marr finally finds himself unwittingly recreating the situation that led to Hasler’s murder; only this time, a homeless man is killed, as Marr fails to substitute himself (as Hasler, it turns out, did, in a true act of love) for the intended victim. Marr’s growing identification with Hasler makes possible the traditional pornographic pattern of a series of sexual scenes or episodes, almost detachable from the surrounding narrative, and yet increasing in intensity as one moves through that narrative, with a culminating orgy thatÂ provides a sort of emotional climax to the narrative as a whole. I don’t know how many readers will really get off on the pornographic scenarios that make so large a part of the novel (I have to admit that it didn’t do much for me in that regard); but it’s crucial to note that Delany does not endeavor to “redeem” or “transcend” pornography, to turn it into something “higher.” He insists on the aim of physically arousing the reader: which of course is what makes pornography a “low” and scandalous genre; in polite society, rhetorical effects are supposed to work only on the mind, not on the body. Thus again, the philosophical themes of the novel are energized and given form by the pornographic depictions, rather than standing in opposition to them.
What’s truly radical about Delany’s pornography — as I have noted several times before (e.g. here, here, here, and here) — is that its intensities are never presented as transgressive; the entire tradition of pornographic transgression, which stretches from Sade to Bataille and beyond, and which is often echoed in the naively liberationist rhetoric of much commercial porn — holds no interest for Delany, and in fact is something that his books explicitly critique. Even the great piss- and shit-stained orgy that is the culminating sexual scene of the book (that is followed by the murder that Marr unwittingly sets the stage for, and that replicates an orgy in Hasler’s apartment, 18 years earlier, that had taken place just before Hasler’s own murder) is depicted (I’m not sure that I can say this the right way) in naturalistic terms rather than lurid ones. By which I do not mean that its intent is not to arouse — since clearly it is — but that it presents such arousal in a continuum with all the other aspects of life (the narrator’s, the writer’s, and the reader’s) rather than as some sort of rupture with them. There’s a bit of comedy, even, as Marr has to explain away the remnants of the scene to his straight-laced, hetero academic advisor (who unexpectedly pops by for a visit the next day); but the whole point is that this embarrassment is a function of the advisor’s narrowminded-bigotry-clothed-in-liberal-goodwill, rather than any intrinsic aspect of the scene itself.
To say that Delany’s view and account of sex, and his “pornutopic fantasy,” have nothing to do with transgression is to say that they cannot be comprehended in the terms of any dialectic of contradiction, or even of any post-Kantian questioning of limits. Sexual exchanges — and there is a lot here, which I lack the space and energy to get into, about the logic of sexual exchange, and how it relates to, and potentially differs from, the ubiquity of market exchange — in fact this difference is the key to Hasler’s murder, and to that of Marr’s homeless friend — are for Delany a form of civility and collectivity, as well as a series of pleasures, or improvements of sensual enjoyment. This doesn’t mean that such sexual exchanges are tame or limited. The point is, rather, that there is no limit — no boundary to be transgressed, or that would mark a zero point, a void or lack, an encounter with death. The Mad Man is a novel quite cognizant of, and continually haunted by, death: in the form of Hasler’s death which is the starting-point of the narrative, and the homeless man’s death which is its conclusion, and more generally in the ever-present reality of AIDS in the world of its narrator. But this death is in no way intrinsic to or carried by the sexual acts that the narrative describes; rather, death always comes from outside (to use or abuse a phrase from Deleuze). Death arrives in The Mad Man, and the book thereby takes on a fully tragic dimension. But although death is inevitable, for we are all mortal, and it is more of a danger for gay man than for many other groups of people (because of the sort of society we live in), nonetheless death is also inessential. It is not a constituent and motor of sexual desire. One cannot imagine a greater contrast to the transgressive — Kantian or Hegelian — logics of Sade, Bataille, and so many others.
In this way, Delany’s pornography leads us to think — forces us to think — in ways that are so far from our cultural norms as to be virtually unimaginable. We don’t have the language — outside of the language provided in Delany’s own writing — to conceptualize what he is proposing to us. (It is something that the late-period Foucault pointed towards, with his ideas about “bodies and pleasures” replacing the transgressive logic of sexuality;Â but I think Delany points us much further in this direction than Foucault did). Delany breaks with the utopian, 60s idea of sex as redemptive; but he also breaks, I think, even with the anti-redemptive arguments offered by such queer theorists as Leo Bersani and (more recently) Lee Edelman. Another way to put this is to say that Delany’s pornographic vision — the way bodies and pleasures are intensified to a point of impersonality and anonymity — cannot be described in terms of the Freudian/Lacanian “death drive.” It’s hard for me to express this as clearly or theoretically as I would like; but it has something to do with the way in which “extreme” sexual acts are described both — and simultaneously — as attaining a point where the ego, or the limits between one self and another, are dissolved, so that the experience of sheer intensity is all that remains, and as being experiences of intimacy, ease, togetherness, and (dare I say it?) even a certain homely coziness. This sense suffuses even, and especially, the one passage in the novel where the narrator cites both Sade and Marx (!) in order to explain “all the combinations and permutations of everyone hooking up with everyone else” in the culminating orgy scene. In the logistics of the orgy, we get the intertwining of Hasler’s informal and formal systems, as we get both a push to the point of physical exhaustion, and a sense of free and easy comraderie, one in which the odors of sweat, piss, and cum feel “familiar and comfortable,” and the exchange of bodily fluids are the nicest and sweetest thing one human being can do with another. Sexuality for Delany is a kind of communism, where anonymous relations with multiple others coexist with the exclusivity and special passion of (romantic?) love for one particular other person. As the narrator himself announces quite explicitly, The Mad Man is finally a love story. The pornutopian dimension of the novel has to do with the fact that it is, in the special sense I have been describing, a “communist” love story.
That The Mad Man is inadmissible in just about any discursive or social context one could imagine today is not a fact about the book, but a fact about the our society and its grim deficiencies.