Mirror and maze
Editing the journals of Samuel R. Delany
In his fiction, memoir, and criticism, Samuel R. Delany has shown a persistent concern with the pleasures and dangers of textual interpretation, the possibilities and pitfalls entailed in the act of reading. Recently I have had the privilege of experiencing the hermeneutic drama of Delany’s work in an unusual and intensified form: for the past several years I have been editing the first of a projected series of volumes collecting Delany’s personal journals, to be published by Wesleyan University Press. Delany first began keeping a journal in 1957 when he was in his mid-teens, using spiral-bound notebooks for the purpose; the first volume, which covers the period from 1957 to 1969, encompasses sixty notebooks’ worth of material. These notebooks, however, additionally serve as working notebooks, and thus also contain story outlines, drafts, essays, and essay fragments, pornographic fantasies, song lyrics, and more. When I first confronted the notebooks in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Resource Center at Boston University, where Delany’s papers are stored, I knew that culling and ordering this material would involve a monumental task of interpretation.
I also knew that over the span of his career Delany had constructed numerous fictional reflections of the project I was about to undertake. The narrative action of his very first published novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962), centers on the reconstruction of an archaic poem. His first science-fiction novel to garner major acclaim, the Nebula-winning Babel-17 (1965), tells the tale of the cracking of a mysterious code. The frame-narrative of his tetralogy of fantasy, or meta-fantasy, novels collectively titled Return to Nevèrÿon (1979–87), focuses on an effort to translate a set of ancient textual fragments. The protagonist of The Mad Man (1994/2002) struggles to reconstruct and interpret the fragmentary texts left behind by a philosopher in the aftermath of his murder. And the protagonist of Delany’s most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012), reads and rereads Spinoza’s Ethics over a span of decades; his slow, careful perusal of the text doubles our own reading of the very long novel he inhabits. Contemplating the task of reading that lay ahead, I had an acute sense that I was about to become a character in a Delany novel.
But I’m telling this tale of textual encounter in the context of a celebration of Delany’s work at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. So while I intend to present here a brief and, I hope, tantalizing passage from Delany’s journals, it’s in the service of a larger intention to acknowledge a personal and professional friendship that has lasted nearly three decades. In that time I have learned, as have others lucky enough to know him personally, that the generosity and richness of Delany fiction and criticism are reflected in the graciousness and warmth of the man himself. So I’ll pause at the threshold of this hermeneutic hall of mirrors and give a brief account of the beginning of that friendship.
By the time I was a senior in high school, Delany was already my favorite writer. His science-fiction novel Nova (1968), which I’d read when I was very young, had conveyed a specifically American experience of class difference that resonated strongly for me — though I doubt I could have articulated this at the time. That novel led to others, and eventually to the gigantic Dhalgren (1975), which gave me the same lesson in reading that Neil Gaiman describes having received from his own youthful encounter with Delany’s earlier novel, The Einstein Intersection (1967): that “sometimes what you do not understand, what remains beyond your grasp in a book, is as magical as what you can take from it.” Dhalgren’s refusal to make any of the narrative moves I expected of it, its combination of extreme precision of observation with elusiveness, its sustained mood of Gothic terror in a specifically science-fictional mode and, especially, the sense of total authorial control over the sentence-by-sentence unspooling of its narrative, made the novel come to stand for me as an exemplar of all adult knowledge and capacity. What would I have to learn, who would I have to become, to grasp the thought propelling these sentences forward?
By a lucky chance, Delany was a visiting artist at my college during my freshman year. Shortly after learning of his presence I mustered the courage to introduce myself to the man. As I crossed the quad to visit Delany’s campus residence, I thought about Dhalgren and wondered what on earth the creature who wrote it would be like. Imagine my disorientation when he turned out to be the most affable and charming of men; he was certainly gracious toward tongue-tied me, and shortly after the year’s end I conducted an interview with him that was eventually published in his collection for Wesleyan, Silent Interviews (1994).
A few years later, when I was in film school in Philadelphia, upon rereading Dhalgren I recognized references to G. Spencer Brown’s treatise on the philosophy of logic, Laws of Form, and wrote Delany to ask about them. He wrote back and described his first encounter with Spencer Brown’s work in San Francisco while writing Dhalgren — though he kept silent on his own sense of the relation of Laws of Form to his novel. Then, with characteristic generosity, he mentioned that the novelist and critic James Sallis was currently editing an anthology of essays on his writing. Why don’t you try your hand at an article on this topic, he wrote; if it turns out well, Jim might find a place for it.
Of course I chose to take on the challenge. Over the next several weeks, during sessions between film shoots, I headed downtown to the bustling Reading Terminal Market, found a table, and, surrounded by the sounds, smells, and crowds of the market, scribbled an essay on mathematical logic in the work of Samuel R. Delany.
From that first essay, more publications followed, as well as a personal and professional friendship. My feelings about that friendship, and about the connection between the generosity of the work and that of the man, are nicely captured by a brief exchange that occurred between Robert Creeley, whose professional path had crossed with Delany’s when both taught at SUNY Buffalo, and my own mother, who had arranged a public reading by Creeley in Maine. After the reading, she mentioned to Creeley that I was friends with Delany, that I worked with him.
Creeley smiled. “Your son,” he said, “is very fortunate.”
The string of projects that followed that first essay has led to the current one of editing Delany’s journals — which are every bit as rich and diverse as one would expect. The first half of the volume covers the period Delany examines in his memoir, The Motion of Light in Water (1988/2004). Numerous passages treat Delany’s experiences at the Bronx High School of Science, as well as the early years of his marriage to the poet Marilyn Hacker, who had also been a student at Science. Many of these passages convey the lively interplay between Delany and Hacker as they write their way toward their respective careers over the course of the ’60s. (For instance, even as they read and criticize one another’s work, they also take on mythical personas that enable that work to move forward: Hacker chooses for herself the moniker “Edna Silem,” an inversion of “Mélisande” from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, while Delany sometimes attributes his own work to fictional characters from his other works, and frequently refers to Hacker as “Eurydice.”) The second half of the volume covers Delany’s travels in Europe (scenes from which find their way into The Einstein Intersection as well as several of Delany’s essays and memoirs) and the events following his return to New York City. As Delany begins winning accolades for his science fiction, important figures from the science-fiction communities of the US and UK in the ’60s, such as Joanna Russ, Roger Zelazny, Thomas M. Disch, and Michael Moorcock, become increasingly prominent in the later pages of the volume. At the same time, figures associated with the West Coast poetry scene — including Helen Adam, Bill Brodecky, Link Martin, and others who had, at the time, recently emigrated to New York City — also begin to rove through its pages. The volume ends with Delany, having himself recently moved to the West Coast and living on Natoma Street in San Francisco with Hacker, hard at work on the novel which, after considerable metamorphosis, will become Dhalgren.
For me, one of the most remarkable experiences of the process of editing this volume has been the repeated encounter with Delany’s precociousness. Vividly I remember opening one of the spiral-bound notebooks and first coming across the following passage, which Delany wrote when he was just seventeen and still in high school:
It was hot with people, and in the bus you have to strain to reach over [the] old lady’s shoulders so that you can grab the strap, and when you finally get back where there are not enough people to be uncomfortably crowded and too many to feel free (and my coat was for the brittle winter air outside, not the effluvia of body heat that bloats up a crowded bus) you can reach a fair sort of balance between agony and simple displeasure. The back seat of the bus runs from one side to the other. The rest are placed either in rows along the side or (in those places just over the wheels) with the seat backs to the wall so that the people in them must stare straight across the aisle into the dull faces of those people perched above the other wheel who are staring back.
There was a boy in the back seat, with a blue zipper jacket on — he was near fourteen. He had good hands; I remember that’s what first made me look at him. Then suddenly he turned away behind the shoulder of a bigger boy who was sitting next to him and spit up a handful of brownish fluid into his palm. He must have been trying to hold it in, but he couldn’t, and he vomited again, this time all over the shoulder of the boy next to him. He got out his handkerchief and tried to wipe his hand, and wipe off the boy’s shoulder. The boy turned around and saw what was happening, and gave the kid another handkerchief. Then he tapped the knee of a young guy who was sitting on the other side of the kid. The guy was probably asleep, and the boy had to hit him hard, but when he woke up, he looked and then moved to a seat in front of the back seat, and he tried to tell the poor kid to relax. The kid sat there with his hands filthy and all wrapped up in the dirty handkerchiefs. He was embarrassed as hell, and when he had to spit up again, he looked around and tried to do it in the seat behind the first boy, only it ran all down his blue zippered jacket. The first boy had moved forward in his seat and now he rested his arms on the back of the chair [before] him and put his head down on his arms. The guy who had moved was now patting the kid on the knee and telling him to relax and there were tears streaked across the kid’s face, not from crying but from the effort of trying to keep it back. The kid just sat there with his jacket streaked and his hands and pants messy. I could smell it now.
One middle-aged man in a brown coat, clutching a New York Times to his breast, got up and changed seats so he wouldn’t have to look at it.
I wanted to say to him, “You stupid ass, why don’t you give the kid your paper and let him clean himself off instead of running away from it.” There were at least two other people with newspapers who just looked in the other direction. I would have even given the man the nickel for the paper if he had given it to the kid. There was a young woman in a black coat who was sitting next to where I was standing and she had on a black knitted hood. I could tell that she wanted to help as much as I did; because it wasn’t disgusting; it just made you feel bad that nobody would help, or that the kid was too embarrassed just to spread his legs, lean forward and puke on the floor. I would have said something to that guy who changed his seat if I had stayed on the bus another thirty seconds. But it was my stop.
I felt so much for the kid because once, when I was a lot younger, I had been going to school on the bus in the rush hour, standing up, and all of a sudden I got a bloody nose. It was a bad one and it didn’t stop and I didn’t even have a handkerchief and I had to hold my coat sleeve against my nose, but it kept leaking. All the people did was move away from me. Not one tissue was forth coming, not one handkerchief, not even a newspaper. I remember when I finally got off the bus, a huge clot of red mucus exploded from my nostril and the blood stopped, but my face was a mess.
Again: seventeen years old. Readers familiar with Delany’s work will immediately be struck by its resonances with what was to come later — sometimes much later. The exceptional precision of descriptive detail, as well as the focus on abjection and the divergent social responses to it, would not be out of place in The Mad Man. There are many, many such harbingers in the early entries.
In a further precocious turn, these early entries also repeatedly anticipate Delany’s later explorations of the act of interpretation itself. From Dhalgren onward, Delany’s dramas of reading increasingly turn on the notion of discourse, those Foucauldian structures of knowledge that produce the very conditions of readability. In a complementary development, the fragmented, garbled, encrypted, or otherwise displaced or remote texts around which those later narratives turn have stood with increasing directness as histories of the social margins, as accounts of lives and communities that have been marked as taboo, excess, waste. In my introduction to the volume, I note that the machinations of discourse are frequently personified in that later work by unreliable editors, such as the offstage compilers of the “Anathemata” sequence that closes off Dhalgren, the unnamed “Master” of the Nevèrÿon books, or the scholar Irving Mossman in The Mad Man. These editors, whose social privilege it is to separate the historical wheat from the chaff, frequently stand as sinister figures in relation to marginal or alternative accounts. But antecedents for these characters can also be found in the early journal entries, in outlines and drafts for work that never saw publication. Imagine, then, my own unease, my own sense of bedevilment, as I found myself, however temporarily, in the position of the Master, selecting material to be included in and excluded from the volume.
But perhaps this feeing of burden is an image, or reflection, of the responsibility entailed in the freedom to choose offered by art — in the “openness” of art, as Delany calls it in the extended essay “Atlantis Rose …: Some Notes on Hart Crane,” one of his own virtuoso interpretive performances. Certainly his direct invitation to me, so many years ago, to work, to respond, to construct an interpretation, had been an image, or reflection, of the generous invitation held out by all his writing.
In an early passage in the journals, Delany — precociously — anticipates the burdens of representational inclusion and exclusion. I’ll conclude my remarks with that passage, the same one I close with in my introduction to the first volume of the journal collection. In the passage, eighteen-year-old Delany — having just returned from a hootenanny at the Second Annual Newport Folk Festival, which he is attending with his friend Peter Horn — considers, with the depth of feeling so characteristic and so dearly loved of his published work (which his private journals now join), all the untold stories standing in the shadow of those that have been told:
Something I remember brings me to the point of all this. While I was walking to the hoot, I reached back to adjust the capo on the guitar. I pricked my thumb on a loose string, and sucking it, a drop of blood, when I looked, glazed thin through saliva over the whorls of my thumb print. I sucked it, and then it stopped. For a moment then, I wondered [if] I would be able to play if I was called. But I didn’t hurt, so I forgot about it, until just a few moments ago. I didn’t record it — almost. But these journals are not to remember the things I record, but for all the things that pass un-written, and forgotten. That is [by] far the majority of the trip. For all the single drops of blood at Newport, or anyplace. For shadow configurations on the sand, to Pete’s wet hair, dark and filamental, to all the things — the million un-recorded thoughts I have over Eurydice. That’s what these journals are for.