You came to see human bodies tonight, but she said this is “holy work and it’s dangerous not to know that ’cause you could die like an animal down here.” She was talking about making dances — pacing back and forth across bridges, riding up and down the block, selling loosies on the corner, walking in the middle of the street. The hazard of movement, of moving and being moved, of knowing that we are affected, that we are affective. There’s danger, too, in the very fact of this reminder, even if it’s just a taste, of what you haven’t seen. The maternal is a radical exteriority the eucharistic consumes. Time and again and out of time we’re lost in the rematerialization of this loss, another invaluable impersonation done gone, sometimes of natural causes, sometimes in refusal of naturalization. That’s when he (I mean that man, you know, the man, the one, the one who looks like everyone and no one, as you know) tries to control the more than human by calling it less than human. The quasi-autobiographical modalities of our story, of however many years a slave, which try to render thingliness relatable, model this regulation precisely in seeking after it. Relatability, which is subjection’s scene, the romantic subject’s haunt, is the naturalization of what can’t help but be a docile body. It comes to light as the production of corpses on or underneath the thoroughfare. The only way to come through this bildung in the service of destruction and rebuilding, that contract, that contact, that refusal of surrender, is to extend the ante-autobiographical modalities of our story. Our consent to be inseparable, our constant escape from what our constant escape induces, even from time, even when we’re on it, require us to live in danger.
So may I offer you something? Something rich and strange, an abundance, but on a plate so small it’s not even a plate; a spoonful, really; just a mouthful, just enough to taste, just for a moment, the alchemical magic, the terrible and beautiful and immeasurable richness and impurity of a train or a streetcar or a sidewalk held in the flavor of solfège, in simultaneously encrypted and decrypted composition, sung until it can be tasted, that taste made music from embouchure to batterie, hand to mouth, in ongoing haptic incident and percussive hors d’oeuvre. If you’ve never been offered something like this before, I can only imagine your frustration at being enjoined to imagine dance before you can attend to it; and by way of this intangible offering from so far away; and by way of something which is, if not quite nonsensical, moving by way of the wrong sense. The synesthetic reach is probably too little and too much: a proprioceptive failure — a sharp disorientation — appears to be immanent as well as imminent. Nevertheless, beyond the bonds of taste, feel how much of dance — of the chorographic, choreographic life you’ve been living and are living and are about to live right here, right now, in this bearing that we can’t quite get — there is to be tasted in and by way of Samuel R. Delany and Cecil Taylor.
She opened her mouth, feeling her tongue’s weight on the floor of her mouth, the spots of dryness spreading it, and tasting the air’s differences, which marked not the air’s but the tongue’s itself.
When I was in the Conservatory, there was a Southern woman who taught English the first year that I was there. … She was talking about Tennessee Williams, and she was talking about Streetcar, and she said, “The language in that play, there are sections of that play that are so good,” she said, “that I could actually taste it.” … Mother always had me reading. Mother spoke French and German and brought Schopenhauer to me when I was eleven years old, but that was something else — that was — you didn’t have a choice there with Mother. Boom! That’s the way that went. But here was this woman who just said this, and I heard it. And her emotional dedication to a word — I said, “Wow, that’s my dedication to music. You mean it’s possible to have that kind of dedication to another art?” So, that.
Moved movers amid the intensity of the pas de deux my offering asks you to imagine, Delany and Taylor are bound in what Denise Ferreira da Silva would call the affectability of no-bodies. Bound for that embrace, they hold, in their openness, to its general, generative pattern. Openness to the embrace moves against the backdrop of exclusion and the history of exclusion, which is a series of incorporative operations. This is how openness to being affected is inseparable from the resistance to being affected. Dance writes this push and pull into the air and onto the ground and all over the skin of the earth and flesh that form the city. The words of these moved movers have something specific to do with dance and I want to talk about that specificity as an interplay between walking and talking, between crossing and tasting, between quickness and flavor. Their words and work form part of the aesthetic and philosophical atmosphere that attends the various flows and steps that have taken place in and as New York City over the last fifty years, especially downtown in the serially and simultaneously emergent and submergent dance space between two churches, Judson and St. Mark’s. I want to call upon this history of devoted heresy, of transgressive congregation, because, as with most of what we know of atmospheres and their conditions, the astral air and gritty fluid Delany and Taylor have long been circulating, rich with the mineral, venereal, funereal character of New York’s paved soil, it’s palpable, haptic aroma, the way it gets rubbed into and out of yourself and others in the jam and crush that tends to mess and mix up selves and others in the grand, eccentric compound improvisation of the city — because that kind of knowledge, our knowledge of all that, our capacity to think in and with our inhabitation of all that, is too often suppressed in crowded, solitary busyness. It takes a lot to feel yourself walking around, mouth open in wonder and/or desire, as eager to taste as an Arkansan, or an Oankali, out looking for where the dragons might be.
Genitals, buttocks, nipples, tongue all seemed so insistently present inside Sam’s mouth and twenty-four-hour-worn suit. Once, well back before dawn, when the train windows were still black and the other passengers slept, he had stared at one white round glass, thinking of the moon, when, at once, he’d stood, to bring his mouth closer and closer, as if to kiss this night light at the aisle’s end, pulling back only when the heat about burned his lips.
Yoruba memoir other mesh in voices mother tongue at bridge scattering Black.
We shared an apartment for a while, and I had the opportunity to watch him practice, and his practicing revolves around solfège singing. He’ll sing a phrase and then he’ll harmonize it at the piano and then he’ll sing it again, always striving to get the piano to sing, to try and match this feeling of the human production, the voice, in terms of pianistic production so that it gets the same effect. Cecil’s trying to get the vocal sound out of the piano, and I think he’s achieved it on many occasions. You can almost hear the piano scream or cry. It’s worked for him.
In their shared preoccupation with bridges and their variously creative use of cantilevering; in their questions concerning the architectonics of the graph, and of the graft, and even of the grift; in their investigation of the trick’s subsocial emergency, the aesthetic and sexual imagination’s passage between lawmaking and lawbreaking, the centrifugal range of holistic difficulties that mark the relationship between the bridge and a kind of engineered, sculptural, and machinic thingliness that fleshes forth history, that juts or walks or gets walked out into history as a kind of manufactured outcropping or as out speech, that speaking out into history that animates queer performance, black performance, and their convergence, Delany and Taylor reveal that dance is the city’s mother tongue. The bridge marks, because it also is, where crossing over crosses over into smuggling, a transportation of lost and found desire, lost and found matter, both of which move in constant escape. The bridge’s errant merger of rant and merge is given in the audiovisual logisticality of the cry from Edvard Munch to James Brown; but concern for it must be registered in close attention to the mouth — to the feelings of words and sounds on the tongue, the taste of herbs and roots and cream and flesh and glass, the bridge where the tongue rests — and to the fingers, too (another transfer within song towards tactile, percussive lyricism) and to the variously good and bad feet that carry them. The passages above allow for that further investigation as does the use of solfège as a pedagogical tool by Taylor’s teachers and, then, as a pedagogical-compositional tool by Taylor himself. Consider dance as a matter of mouthfeel as well as footstep (of a song, or story, the physical-chemical reaction that occurs when the idea is sounded, a birth effect given in combinations of soufleé, saveur, and savoir-faire). The essay I’ll never write would have been an ode to la and mmm.
That’s the soundtouch of an aberrant cruise inside the straight line, which uninstalls directness in interior paramouric curve or cave or cant, sticking out from itself but slant as a kind of gesture, in a kind of dedication, where the senses have become theoreticians, where aesthetic experience is a literal and literate transfer of substance. Between the oral and the aural there’s some commerce at the level of taste: material tactility, material event, material inscription. In Just Above My Head, this is what James Baldwin is after between Arthur and Crunch: circuits of lyrical emulsion and theoretical image. Knowledge of this dedication is given by way of parental — but please, in the interest of another movement, of mmm and all it stands for, of the general and pansexual maternity that animates materiality, indulge me if I say marental — lesson and lesion and loss. There’s a kind of violence to black/queer maternity that deals in the liberatory force of endangerment. Toni Morrison speaks of a certain extremity of this force, but its mundanities — not necessarily any less spectacular — animate the tradition she extends. The hazard is abandonment, which is inseparable from the grace of abandon. Delany and Taylor speak (of and in) this movement.
My mother died when I was, like, thirteen or fourteen.
After my father died, I went into analysis. It was Sullivan analysis, a kind of analysis that built on the theory of interpersonal relationships. The analyst would help steer your course. There is a relationship between the analysis and my music, even though it’s hard to define. The fact is that, being a musician, I had put a lot of things into music that music itself was not able to resolve. That is, music is the creation of a language out of symbols, of sounds, sounds that cannot be spoken and therefore create a kind of personal isolation. If there are problems that music cannot answer wholly, you either have to have friends whom you can trust not to destroy you with whatever you give them of yourself, or you have to go to a neutral source, and that is what analysis was for me.
“When I came out of school, the first thing that I did was to walk down 125th Street and listen to what was happening. And it took me maybe a month before I started digging. That was the beginning of, like, the other education. I mean the participation in, and the doing of, the thing.”
… (“I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes”) …
“The dance, I think, had its results on his playing because a lot of his playing depends on body motion, especially the fast playing. He does things with a speed that most pianists, if they heard it on a record, would say, ‘How does he do that?’ It has a lot to do with the rhythmic flailing of his arms or his ability to move his body back and forth like a pendulum from one end of the piano to the other so that he can put his hands in the proper position, and I think his interest in the dance has a lot to do with that.”
“My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen.” This is just not a sentence that, when an adult says it in a conversation seven or a dozen or twenty years after the fact, people are likely to challenge.
And when, to facilitate my Pennsylvania scholars, I put together a chronology of my life, starting with my birth (April Fools’ Day, 1942), that sentence, among many, is what I wrote.
I don’t remember the specific letter in which one of them pointed out gently that, if I was born in 1942, I could not possibly have been seventeen. In 1958 I was fifteen up until April 1 and sixteen for the year’s remaining nine months. Various researches followed. … Finally, in an old Harlem Newspaper, a small article was unearthed that confirmed it; my father died in the early days of October 1960.
I was eighteen.
In October, almost exactly a year after my father’s death, Marilyn miscarried. She recuperated in my sister’s old room at my mother’s apartment. Two or three weeks later, she got a job as a salesgirl at B. Altman’s department store. Let go even before New Year’s almost immediately she got a job as an editorial assistant at Ace Books.
Probably within a week (certainly no more than ten days), after a set of obsessively vivid dreams, I began what, not quite a year later, would be my first published novel, The Jewels of Aptor.
On a chill, immobile evening, during a midnight November walk, through a window in an alley adjacent to the Village View construction Marilyn glimpsed two or four or six naked people — multiplied or confused, in a moment of astonished attention, by some mirror on the back wall, as the window itself added a prismatic effect to the bodies inside, gilded by candlelight or some mustard bulb — before they moved behind a jamb, or she walked beyond the line of sight, the image suggested proliferations of possibilities, of tales about those possibilities, of images in harmony, antiphon, or wondrous complementarity. Once, when I was gone for the night, she went walking — and was stopped by two cops in a patrol car, curious what a woman would be doing out in that largely homosexual haunt — on the Williamsburg Bridge. It was a time of strained discussions in our tenement living room, in the midst of which a bit of plaster from the newly painted ceiling would fall to shatter over the mahogany arm of the red chair.
My father died when I was sixteen, when I was eighteen; my mother died when I was, like, thirteen or fourteen; when I was thirty-seven, but I was thirty-eight, my mother and father died. Note the temporal confusion of a loss that makes you move, that puts you in motion, bearing you out onto the city streets. Delany writes of an abyss between columns waiting to be bridged, itinerant flight through soffit and cistern, where one enters into another scene, into contact, in which one becomes more and less than that. Taylor’s autobiographical narrative pylons, the burred, felt precision of the recollection of marental loss, move in their relation to Delany’s. Then the music becomes self-analysis, improvisation taking over the function of a certain distance, where private language and personal gesture move from solipsism to the social. There’s a thinking of the kinetic thing that Taylor engages — the participation in, the doing of, it. There’s a theory of illicit exhaustion and insistence that he gives, coming out of an experience of the ordinary in and as movement like a feel Trio A or some undercommon Caminhando, Yvonne Rainer and Lygia Clark channeled in asymmetrical, off-stride walking and cutting, hip flaneuses returned to get deep in the tradition of the everyday thing, a thin-curved slice of life, a fugitive trench, an almost interminable tranche. This is the general dance project we share tonight, supernaturally; this is solfège by Ellington, his suite for Ailey, a bridge over The River’s repercussive cascade, the music of things worn, strummed but also beaten, to airy thinness, in nothingness, as indiscretion.
Yet Cecil Taylor has no compunction about transferring to jazz any innovations that might be useful. He opened his section of a December, 1963 Jazz Composers’ Guild Concert at New York’s Judson Hall with an improvisation for tuned piano. Strumming tuned piano strings is a device rarely used in jazz, and it is obvious that all those blues chords and chord changes, rhythms and melodies that have been the definitive substance of jazz could not be played in any recognizable way on the inside of a tuned piano. But the piece was well received by the jazz-oriented audience, and Cecil, who feels that he has only one music, whether it is played inside or outside the piano, and who regards himself as nothing but a jazz musician, did not feel that he had compromised himself in the least. Buell Neidlinger described the performance: “I don’t find any of the sounds Cecil makes on the inside of the piano at all similar to John Cage or Christian Wolff or Stockhausen or Kagel. I know he’s heard all that music, but the implements that he uses to play the inside of the piano are nothing like the ones that they use. For instance, he uses bed springs, steel mesh cloth, things that he lives around. And like those cats are using rubber erasers, corks, felt mallets. Cecil’s is a much more metallic sound, very brilliant, but the Western cats soften the piano down.
“In the Judson performance I played the sustaining pedal and the keyboard and Cecil played the inside of the piano. It was fabulously successful, but it was entirely improvised on the spur of the moment — there was absolutely no rehearsal of that at all. On that tune there was just the drums and myself, and I was able to reach under the piano with my left foot and play the base at the same time.”
In that other essay I would have been more delicately emphatic in approaching this exhaustive collection of approaches. When Taylor says you can’t just walk up to the piano any kind of way, when Delany details a history of the broken world in calculated, but nevertheless incalculable, drifting, a dance is being danced from which a range of composition is improvised. Opening the piano recalibrates swing; it’s another way, in and in extension of the tradition, of organizing sonic energy. Something is given in this penetration of the instrument that is allied to orchestral song and dance. A ritual of approach is already given here that culminates in performance with Min Tanaka on the street that time, in refusal of the tonic, outside of Tonic, in what they used to call Loisaida, and then this last time in Kyoto, that long, slow, felt, sensed, anarepetitive inhabitation of our fallenness and our flight. What’s the difference that Neidlinger hears and senses in these encounters of penetrative, penetrated objects? Taylor’s implements are every day objects, “Things that he lives around.” Canted, this is the bridge Delany lives around, where matter and desire are lost and found in mist and mystery.
Usually when the moon lingered toward the day torches were not set out, and he’d be able to see all the way across the bridge, into the market square, to the glimmer on the water that plashed in the fountain at the square’s center — as long as the stalls and vending stands were not yet up.
But tonight, to fight the fog that now and again closed out the moon completely, the torches had, indeed, been lit. As the cart rolled onto the bridge, waist-high walls at either side and clotted shallows beneath, the weak fire showed the crockery shapes under the lashed canvas; then firelight slid away, leaving them black. And the bridge thrust three meters into dim pearl — and vanished.
He cuffed the ox’s shoulder to hurry her, confident that the old structure was the same stone, bank to bank, as it had been by day or by other nights. Still, images of breaks and unexplained fallings drifted about him.
1. On –th Street, just beyond Ninth Avenue, the bridge runs across sunken tracks. Really, it’s just an extension of the street. (In a car, you might not notice you’d crossed an overpass.) The stone walls are a little higher than my waist. Slouching comfortably, you can lean back against them, an elbow either side, or you can hoist yourself up to sit.
There’s no real walkways.
The paving is potholed.
The walls are cracked here, broken there. At least three places the concrete has crumbled from iron supports: rust has washed down over the pebbled exterior. Except for this twentieth-century detail, it has the air of a prehistoric structure.
At various times over the last half-dozen years, I’ve walked across it, now in the day, now at night. Somehow I never remember passing another person on it.
It’s the proper width.
You’d have to double its length, though.
Give it the pedestrians you get a few blocks over on Eighth Avenue, just above what a musician friend of mine used to call ‘Forty-Douche’ Street: kids selling their black beauties, their Valiums, their loose joints, the prostitutes and hustlers, the working men and women. Then put the market I saw on the Italian trip Ted and I took to L’Aquila at one end, and any East Side business district on the other, and you have a contemporary Bridge of Lost Desire.
It’s the bridge Joey told me he was under that sweltering night in July when, beside the towering garbage pile beneath it, he smelled the first of the corpses.
Transfer is hard life. The history of approach is terrible in its ongoing removals and violent translations. Unnatural causes burden every step you take. In the city, under the bridge, tonight, murder animates the history of dance, so you have to turn enjoyment to refusal and be open to the things you live around. How are you getting home tonight? Pretty soon it’ll be time to go out into the pearl.
She said, if you’re ready to be less and more than human, to be nobody, to have no body, to claim the nothingness that surpasses understanding, then recognize and move against the killing even if you think it’s not you that’s killing or being killed. We study non-compliance with civil butchery. X and ’nem were walking in the middle of the street. What can we do to match that danger? Abandon flown in and out of abandonment, dance is the risk of movement. Dance is movement at risk. Noncompliance is contact improvisation. He’s trying to kill this ongoing walking down the street together. He’s gone, unburied angel, and we are anti-gone, against the times. We study the sacrament of self-defense, which is fulfilled in the persistent practice of what we defend. Always already less than human, we’re more than human in public. Evidently, there can only be one human at a time. Humanity is antisocial, evidently. Calm the tumultuous derangement and mow your lawn, he said. You can be human by yourself but black don’t go it alone. It’s a social dance, unruliness counterpoised between riot and choir, and our melismatic looting is with child, sold all the time, but never bought. Our numbers are queer, they won’t come out right, ’cause we keep moving like simple giving in the remainder. The human is never more or less than one. More and less than one, we’re walking down the middle of the street. We study staying unburied in the common underground. Don’t let him humanize us. Don’t forget about X and ’nem. We an’ dem are more and less than that. We an’ dem and X and ’nem a-go work this out. We’ve made some other plans. Your mama’s baby’s flesh will raze the city. In that crossing, in the rub it bears, we’ll raise the city. We are the engine that will raze this city. What neither begins nor ends is that we are the engine that will raise this city. On earth, where we read the worlds he makes in force against song and dance, we are instruments at work and play, in touch and taste, of tongue and roof, for mouth and bridge. Just a taste, and our amusement, and it’s gone. This is our invitation to dance — out of nothing, till there’s nothing at all.
This essay was commissioned by Danspace Project for the catalogue accompanying PLATFORM 2015: Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets, organized by guest curator Claudia La Rocco and Danspace director Judy Hussie-Taylor. For more information about that book, and the various readings, discussions, and performances during the Platform, please go to danspaceproject.org.
Of Samuel Delany
Trigger warning: this essay includes snippets of cultural theory, so if you’ve had traumatic experiences with it, please be careful.
When I began thinking about how best to honor Samuel Delany today, I felt some sense of obligation to explain what for me has been the transformative effect of reading Delany’s work, especially from the standpoint of queer studies.
No doubt this “Mandate To Explain” was installed in my brain during my training as a literary critic. This time, it made me think of Freud’s famous essay “The Moses of Michaelangelo.” Freud acknowledges upfront that “works of art exercise a powerful effect on me” and that
this has occasioned me, when I have been contemplating such things, to spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to. Whenever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.
On the one hand, this statement might make you feel sorry for Freud: was he really such a control freak that he could get no inexplicable pleasures? On the other hand, you might feel inclined to disbelieve him: if he is first moved by something and proceeds to get pleasure only if he can figure out why, are we supposed to believe that being moved by it was not pleasurable in the first place? Here we come up against the reductiveness of the Freudian arc of arousal and release, which tends to disavow all the pleasure except what’s found at the very end.
But finally — and this is what brings us to Delany — we can at least affirm with Freud that the pleasure of what moves us specifically — of what I think must be called erotic particularity — can be resonantly linked with the pleasure of metacognition.
As even Freud may not have disavowed, some kernel of the erotic particularities that drive us must remain opaque, and this opacity might on the one hand be characterized as the grain of sand around which the pearls of our selves and lives and metacognitions are secreted, or on the other as that which in practice we do well to treat simply as fact. As some of us are also driven to know — and as poets know and those versed in dynamical theory know: constitutive constraints are pure positivities for the systems driven by them. Here we find a way of articulating constraint as a core principle of evolution and of the even more general emergence of complex order, or as one of Delany’s characters puts it: “there are some directions in which you cannot go. Choose one in which you can move as far as you want.” This intimate relationship between constraint and freedom — more intimate and more convulsive than dialectics can account for — is part of the architecture of the world Delany theorizes and builds in his work. Philosophically, you might say, it is related to what Alfred North Whitehead called the propositional nature of reality.
It is also true that, early on, Delany was writing with surprising openness and even matter-of-factness about minority sexualities and practices when repression and supression of such discourse were even more the order of the day. But as we know from Michel Foucault, the account of sexuality being repressed tends to be invoked for what he calls “the speaker’s benefit” — to make the speaker seem transgressive and even heroic, while unwittingly serving the larger mandate to bolster a regulating discourse of sexuality tied to recognition and identity. Delany’s great achievement is precisely to have refused this gambit. To put it in extreme shorthand, between the erotic particularities and the metacognition in Delany’s writings, there is little interest in the way of an oedipal self to straighten and deparadoxify. We are creatures of our erotic particularities, of the systems of power and discourse we negotiate, and of their intricacies and interweavings. That is what Gorgik knew.
I do not think of Delany’s writing in this way as in any sense heroic. It goes much deeper than that. It’s about survival. As Gorgik also knew. Especially for those of us without proper oedipal selves, finding Delany’s writings is more about survival and less about finding recognition or intelligibility, especially when the writer is himself, as Delany put it, “that most ambiguous of citizens.”
Eve Sedgwick wrote of this unintelligibility as “leaving, in the stigma-impregnated space of refused recognition, sometimes also a stimulating aether of the unnamed, the lived experiment.” Or as Eve’s student José Muñoz put it,
Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present. Queerness is the thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing. Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic. The aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic, frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity.
By the way, I don’t mean to imply that Eve was the one who taught this to Jose: they found each other. What I am talking about is finding and inventing ways of being in the world and ways of writing and thinking through which it is possible to find and to invent and reinvent each other. As I said before, this is what brings us to Delany. This finding and invention and reinvention of each other is exactly what I am calling survival. Did I say survival? I could have called it pleasure. Survival. Pleasure. Survival. Pleasure.
In 2006, I wrote about Delany’s 1967 story “Star Pit”: partly about its relationship to his memoir, but mainly as a prescient enaction of complex systems theory and as a corrective to a kind of liberal ecologism: it’s hard to believe that story was written almost fifty years ago. I also came to believe that, in the story, Delany had invented what came to be called the EcoSphere, a completely sealed-off and self-sustaining aquarium or terrarium. In any case, I took my role as critic as extending what I understood to be the work of the writer — adding another layer or two of metacognition to what was already an intricately layered discursive entity — and I announced upfront my quixotic desire to install Delany’s story “at the intersection of cultural studies and theoretical biology” so that “future generations of biologists and cultural theorists will — together — read Delany and me in their autopoeisis classes.”
As you may know, I have so far failed so thoroughly in this mission that most people don’t even believe that there is an intersection between cultural studies and theoretical biology. Here’s where I go into my Mad Scientist persona:
Fools! Someday they’ll understand!
And although EcoSpheres continue to be sold on the Internet, my claim that Delany invented them has still not led to any royalties for him. Sorry, Chip.
To put it another way, this is an instance of what Judith Halberstam would come to call the queer art of failure. I want to end with the final two paragraphs of my essay on Delany’s story, which develop a version of what this ongoing failure means.
To honor in practice the recognition that powers and knowledges come with more or less radical limitations, and vice versa, would yield revolutionary consequences. The ongoing work of queer writing is to make the varieties of “ambiguous citizenship” into gifts as well as burdens to those who bear them and to enact the desire for a world in which this might be the case.
Like the mini-ecosystems that model it, Delany’s story is a device that manufactures intuition about self-organizing systems: it posits a sequence of models (a set that includes itself), each of which fail in the direction of the next. In so doing it enacts and transmits, nurtures, and directs a desire. What does it want? Like all models, it wants to be real, to become alive, or to the extent that it is alive already, to go on living. The text wants to stay alive, wants its adopted children to stay alive, but because they cannot stay alive in any world, it wants a world in which they could stay alive, a world that could stay alive, a queer world, whose ecology is not blithe wholism or eternal warfare but sustainable contradictions, whose intelligence and perseverance and perversity are what sustain us.
2. See Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: Norton, 2012), especially 182–205, and also see Ira Livingston, Poetics as a Theory of Everything, especially chapter 2, “What Are Poetics?” (forthcoming).
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.
When Tracie Morris asked me to say a few words at this celebration, I was reluctant. I had never met Mr. Delany and I wasn’t an expert on his work. And I don’t speak critical theory. But I believe that when you have a chance to thank someone whose work is foundational — who opens a way for others — you have to say thank you.
So I’m here to talk about what Samuel Delany means to me as a reader and writer of speculative fiction. I encountered his work years and years ago and over the years since. It has staying power.
For a long time science fiction and fantasy had a fairly well-deserved reputation for telling a certain kind of story about certain kinds of people. So, for instance, you could have books about people on spaceships, and no female characters. At all. As a young reader, I didn’t think about this. What’s assumed isn’t noticed.
Besides females, other people left out: anyone who wasn’t white (unless they were green or blue), anyone who wasn’t straight (those men on the spaceship weren’t having sex with each other — sex was left out too), children, artists, poets …
But here’s Delany’s Babel-17, published in 1966, with spaceship Captain Rydra Wong, our hero — a poet — the only one who can decipher a strange alien language. A language so lucid, so concise, so precise that it seduces her, gives her a powerful new way to think, and hides part of her from herself. A created language designed to hijack the human brain. (Like a computer virus, before computer viruses existed.) In her crew are all kinds of people, living and dead — including one trio, two men and a woman, whose sexual compatibility is crucial to running the ship. I don’t know how Delany feels about this early work, but I can say that, having just reread it for probably the fourth time in forty years, I still love it.
What I didn’t realize when I first read his books (being oblivious to authors’ biographies) was that much of what seemed strange and marvelous to me was probably his own life, transposed. That he was making room for himself and his experiences in his stories, which made it possible for some readers to see themselves, and others to encounter something new. And maybe he wrote science fiction then because that was the only genre where his stories could find a place.
Even as I was first encountering science fiction, it was blowing wide open. Delany was an important part of that. He was saying, hey, you there inside the little room you imagine is the whole universe — there’s more out here. Come take a look.
I found Delany’s work at a time when it seemed everything could be questioned, and anything might be reinvented. We thought we would get rid of marriage, schools, jobs, governments, all the mundane institutions. Hadn’t any clear ideas about what might come next.
It seems like speculative fiction would be perfect for times like those — or for times like these. And at its best, it is. I’m not talking about fiction that offers prescriptions or predictions. I’m talking about sustained thought experiments with protagonists. Thinking, feeling protagonists to help us think and feel our way into the unknown.
Delany’s novels have carried us very far indeed, far ahead, far and wide. Which is why books he wrote fifty, forty, thirty years ago are still read and still talked about and still treasured by readers such as myself.
Last fall in New Orleans, I was browsing for Halloween costumes at the home of designer Cree McCree. My foxy companion tried on an outfit that had a vague resemblance to Wonder Woman. Cree’s partner (noise/jazz/avant-everything musician) Donald Miller remarked that he couldn’t think of me without thinking of Philadelphia. He also couldn’t think of everyone’s favorite female superhero without thinking of Samuel “Chip” Delany. I tried to flowchart this in my mind for a moment, but sometimes you just need to let great thinkers to do their thing.
With some light prompting, Donald schooled me on the Wonder Woman scripts that Delany wrote during the DC Comics “Women’s Lib” series (nos. 202 and 203) in the early ’70s. In these issues our hero loses her superpowers and takes up the real struggles of everyday women. The Delany story arc has Diana Prince fighting for equal pay for female workers at a department store and campaigning against sweatshop labor. The narrative culminates in an epic battle led by women to keep an abortion clinic open.
Delany and his Wonder Woman make sense, since he’s said many times that women’s oppression is the blueprint for oppression of all peoples around the world. Without addressing this injustice, no other liberations can be realized. Sadly, Chip’s Wonder Woman story remains unrealized as well. The series was cut short by a new DC exec that was not too Women’s Lib-y at all. He used an offhand comment from Gloria Steinem who was irritated by Wonder Woman’s costume change to justify cutting the feature short. Wonder Woman went back to fighting martians or something, while protecting the survival of business-as-usual Earth. Chip could not abide, since the words “status quo” and “Samuel Delany” do not belong in the same sentence.
Donald Miller never ceases to give me wisdom to go home with, so I wanted to give him something back. I told him that I gave a toast to Chip on Samuel Delany Day at the Kelly Writers House in the spring of ’14. He wanted to hear it. It went something like this:
Chip has been a significant part of Philadelphia’s literary community since he began teaching at Temple University in 2001. But far from being secluded behind university walls, he has been a dynamic force in the lives of Philadelphians. We all know of his polymathic magick, and it extends into the workings of his daily life. He spent the past decade-plus reaching out to younger writers like myself, offering support and encouragement. He could be seen walking the Gayborhood, supporting independent businesses like Giovanni’s Room, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ bookstore. He attended many events, and graciously agreed to read in my poetry series once upon a time at La Tazza in 2002, before we had even met.
After the reading, I asked him to sign a book for me that was given to me the year before. I received it from poet friends who just couldn’t get through it, due to it’s um, “graphic content.” The book was Hogg. When I asked Samuel Delany to sign my copy, he gave me a long look up and down and asked, “Did you read this entire book?” I answered enthusiastically (and maybe a little defensively), “Yes. Of course.” He wrote in the book and handed it back to me. He simply smiled and said, “You’re very brave.”
Chip’s presence in our lives has also been extra-literary. Years ago, Bill E. was my truck-driving roommate. He came home from work one day and told me that he’d been getting cruised in the mornings while he waited for the bus. His description of the amorous pedestrian was “a Black Santa that walks by with a cane.” I excitedly told him that he was being checked out by legendary writer Samuel Delany. Bill was curious. “Oh yeah? What does he write like?” I pulled Hogg off my bookshelf and said, “Here. Read this.” Bill was not much of a reader, but he finished the novel in a weekend. When I asked him what he thought of it, he replied, “I think I really want to fuck this guy!”
Sadly, their paths never crossed again. When I told Chip about this on Samuel Delany Day, he asked if “my truck-driving friend” might be making the event. That was heart-warming. After I finished telling Donald about the toast, he reached to his shelves to retrieve the first edition of The Motion of Light in Water. The cover features a photo of Delany from the ’80s. We were all irritated with Bill for not following through, chiding him from a thousand miles away and a decade later for not getting it on with a sexy brilliant mind, this fuckable genius. Once we got that out of our systems, we all expressed our gratitude for having this special gift to American literature very much alive here, in and around our bodies and our minds.