The Future of Sex. Samuel R. Delany on Working All That Stuff Out For Yourself
Lovers, Egon Schiele, 1914
by James Warner
Heavenly Breakfast (1979) is a confessedly idealized account of a Lower East Side Manhattan commune that lasted through the winter of 1967-1968 — Delany writes, “At the Breakfast I learned to move within the circle of other people’s desire, and be at ease as I generated my own. And I would strike one of my senses before I would part with that knowledge.” Here’s Heavenly Breakfast on how communes work – “Since there was no permanent, externally agreed-on social organizational structure, it’s accurate to say that everything that happens in the commune was because of ‘your’ or ‘my’ whim. But ‘you’ and ‘I’ lived so close that the effect of ‘your’ whim on ‘me’ or ‘my’ whim on ‘you’ was immediately apparent.” Delany clarifies, “I do not believe in telepathy. I know your feelings through my eyes, through my ears. The information comes via light and sound: the square of the distance intervening between us must be a diminishing factor in how much information and energy crosses from me to you and back. But when you and I live so closely that touch and smell are suddenly half of what we communicate, new laws govern the interchanges as different as strong and weak particle interactions…”
Delany’s commitment as a novelist to a storyline that develops organically — through interrogating and focusing on one moment at a time, a process he describes in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1978) as a “continuous, developing interchange between imagination and notation,” is paralleled by his ideal of a social space whose rules arise from the continuous close interchange of information between its occupants. The way story develops in a Delany book mirrors the way an alternative social space emerges. The only acceptable rules, for the denizens of Heavenly Breakfast, arise from spur-of-the-moment agreements between people seeking self-fulfillment in close proximity. At the Breakfast, the openness of communal living makes it possible to deal with medical problems that would otherwise go untreated due to embarrassment, and a teenage addict girl gets better advice and support from the commune than from others in her life because “people there took as much care of her as she would accept.” Delany holds the Breakfast is even a better environment for children than a nuclear family, because there is always an adult to give attention to a child, educate them, and watch out for their security.
When Delany says of the Heavenly Breakfast, “Without any of their disadvantages, it combines the best points of a jail, a mental hospital, a brothel –” he is using three of Michel Foucault’s examples of a heterotopia, a space of otherness that functions under non-hegemonic conditions. In Heavenly Breakfast we see the genesis of the alternative living arrangements portrayed in Delany’s novel Dhalgren (1974) and this ideal of a heterotopia runs through that work, the Nevèrÿon series of novels, and The Mad Man (1994, definitive edition 2002). Delany prefers to trust sensory evidence while distrusting all commonly accepted social habits – this could be seen as one ideal of what a novelist should be, if an ideal that few have articulated and practiced as consistently as Delany. As his character Timothy Hasker in The Mad Man writes, “Only close, energetic, analytical reading (of a text, of social life…) can revise an already-extant and sedimented discourse…” This impulse is the force behind Delany’s long pornographic descriptions, with close observation intended to free the reader from all preconceptions. Intolerance is the only human flaw a Delany protagonist ever gets angry over.
In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), a chronicle of homosexual activity in the porn cinemas of 42nd Street before Giuliani, Delany argues we should “promote the planning and construction of civic spaces designed to encourage contact rather than discourage it” and advocates for promiscuity – “We do a little better when we sexualize our own manner of having sex – learn to find our own way of having sex sexy. Call it a healthy narcissism, if you will. This alone allows us to relax with our own sexuality. Paradoxically, this also allows us to vary it and accommodate it, as far as we wish, to other people. I don’t see how this can be accomplished without a statistically significant variety of partners and a fair amount of communication with them, at that, about what their sexual reactions to us are.” Delany gives examples of constructive social encounters occurring in porn cinemas — telling of a man he met in this environment who helped him take care of his sick mother, and another he gave useful advice about how to get into college – and argues in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue that pornography itself is socially beneficial – “Generally, I suspect, pornography improved our vision of sex all over the country, making it friendlier, more relaxed, and more playful – qualities of sex that, till then, had been often reserved to a distressingly limited section of the better-read and more imaginative members of the mercantile middle classes.” In Shorter Views (2000) Delany argues that commercial pornographic films are less sexist than commercial non-pornographic films because “they have a higher proportion of female to male characters; they show more women holding more jobs and a wider variety of jobs; they show more women instigating sex; they show a higher proportion of friendships between women; and they show far less physical violence against women than do the commercial films made for the same sociological audience.” This shares with many of Delany’s arguments a quality of being counter-intuitive on first encounter, yet strangely hard to refute on its own terms.
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012) focuses on some men who live together in a commune and later take over the running of a porn cinema – both commune and porn cinema having been set up by a gay philanthropist who is only rarely sighted in the story — in a long-term open relationship somewhat reminiscent of the one Delany describes with his own long-term partner, among other places, in the comic book Bread and Wine (1999). Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders has little of the power exchange/ bondage sexuality we find in the Nevèrÿon novels or in The Mad Man, but contains as much coprophilia and mucophagy as The Mad Man, and far more bestiality, paedophilia, and incest. About the only women who appear are lesbians in supporting roles.
In a late Delany text, one notices what is absent – the hero of Dark Reflections (2007), Arnold Hawley, has Delany’s insatiable appetite for books but is a virgin, a gay man who through fear misconstrues the one invitation he receives to enter a pornotopia, and hence never learns “to move within the circle of other people’s desire.” Eric in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is the reverse of Arnold, in that he inhabits a gay pornotopia but we essentially only ever see him attempt to read one book, Spinoza’s Ethics. Perhaps it is because Eric reads deeply rather than widely that he does not come up with multiple interpretations of his every experience, as do the characters in the Nevèrÿon books and Phallos (2004)? Eric seems never to need to reinvent himself – his mores, from adolescence through to senescence, remain essentially those of the mature Delany, although the book’s structure does emphasize the way the aging process distorts memory and time. The Nevèrÿon books give us a myth organized out of conflicting fragments, informed by a fascination with the way power warps meaning, to quote Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985) the “pressure toward misunderstanding that haunts all social communication.” They dramatize how, starting from raw experience, one can construct a bewildering montage of contradictory of interpretations of what happened – it’s stressed that all readings are questionable. The meaning of nothing in these books is allowed to become fixed. Hasker in The Mad Man is as elusive a character as Gorgik in the Nevèrÿon books. In these books sex refracts history, but Eric’s sexuality feels like an ahistorical force, and liberation seems uncomplicated for him. While Delany heroes tend to be more academically interested in power structures than they are actually socially ambitious, Eric seems particularly undriven – although a hard worker with no inhibitions or resentments, he is content to perform low-status jobs, and to be a force for good in his community in a rather low-key way.
Rural sexuality, the subject of only a brief detour in The Mad Man, here takes the foreground, and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders has almost a bucolic or pastoral quality. Eric lives well into the middle of the twenty-first century, but there is something 1950s about the future Delany presents — the faith in hard work, neighborliness, the ability of groups of people to work to solve problems together in a community where most everyone is on the same page. Here Delany captures something of the feel of Theodore Sturgeon and Alfred Bester – Golden Age science fiction writers he revered in his youth – along with their appreciation of technology and yearning to be free of repression, an old-fashioned earnestness about the future, and even something of those authors’ melancholy. Delany follows Sturgeon in believing a group can transcend individual limitations and one should challenge all normative assumptions – one could say the characters in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders “blesh” in Sturgeon’s terms (a portmanteau of “blend” and “mesh,” from Sturgeon’s novel More Than Human.)
In The Motion of Light in Water (1988), Delany writes, “Permanency does not seem to be, as yet, an aspect of the relations we explore from our dissatisfaction with the options codified social levels make available.” Now in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders he imagines an exploratory gay permanent relationship in no way constrained by any heterosexual ideas about what permanent relationships should look like. Delany distrusts marriage because of the preconceptions it comes with – Eric explains, “For us, decidin’ to be with someone else wasn’t a matter of acceptin’ a ready-made set of assumptions. You had to work ‘em all out from the bottom up, every time – whether you was gonna be monogamous or open; and if you was gonna be open, how was you gonna do it so that it didn’t bother the other person and even helped the relationship along. Workin’ all that stuff out for yourselves was half the reason you went into a relationship with somebody else.”
While it could be argued that James Baldwin, say, wrote more radically about blackness than about homosexuality, Delany is a radical black gay author of whom the reverse feels true. The men in Eric’s community are of all races, and one might take away from the book the impression that homosexual promiscuity inevitably cures racism. Delany has written novels with heroes from many different ethnic groups, but has not devised a straight protagonist since Trouble on Triton (1976), who moreover is one of the few Delany protagonists one suspects is not intended to be likeable.
In Flight from Nevèrÿon Delany writes, “Narrative fiction can “break up, analyze, and dialogize the conservative, the historically sedimented, letting the fragments argue with one another, letting each display its own obsolescence, suggesting (not stating) where still another retains the possibility of vivid, radical development. But responding to these suggestions is, of course, the job of the radical reader.” In context this passage is almost redundant, since the very structure of Flight from Nevèrÿon pushes the reader to this conclusion. By contrast we’re given the ostensible moral of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders early on – “the Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom, even when it takes you through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.” This might be read as a restatement of the Kid’s claim in Dhalgren that “balling a couple of dozen people in one night is merely a prerequisite for understanding anything worth knowing.” Communicate precisely enough what your kinks are, and the mechanics of which sexual acts you like to perform, and community-building follows – an approach that may work out better for gay men than for some other groups.
The Mad Man struck me, on first reading, as the most important novel to come out of the U.S. in the 1990s — Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is something more ambitious and harder to classify. When Delany was growing up, the prevailing notion was that all homosexual men were doomed to lives of despair, alcoholism, and suicide, and remembering this helps give one a sense of the scale of Delany’s project. There’s at least one alternate future where Delany becomes a canonical author, for his role in dismantling oppressive discursive structures, and we can hope this is the future we’re headed for.
Piece originally published at Open Democracy |
About the Author:
James Warner is the author of All Her Father’s Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications.