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    Samuel R. Delany on Subtext, Interpretation, and Sex on the Page

    Discussion in 'Articles' started by Wreybies, Apr 25, 2015.

    The Paris Review
    Summer 2011
    Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction No. 210



    You—and, indeed, several other SF writers—have called Bester’s 1956 novel, Tiger! Tiger!, the greatest science-fiction novel from that period. What so excites you about Bester?


    I picked up Tiger! first when I was fourteen or fifteen, in its Galaxy serial publication, and thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever read. Tiger! Tiger! is an extraordinarily colorful and inventive novel. One whole chapter utilizes bizarre typography that sprawls all over the pages. In the climactic chapter, the hero is in the basement of a burning cathedral—St. Patrick’s, in New York—that’s collapsing all around him, and the man experiences this through synesthesia, where he hears smells and sees sounds and tastes what things feel like. It’s Bester’s version of the end of Gaddis’s Recognitions. Besides the nods to Gaddis—he was Bester’s Greenwich Village neighbor and published The Recognitions the year before Tiger!—and Joyce, it’s also very much an homage to Rimbaud’s “dérèglement de tous les sens.”

    Later on, when I was about twenty-four, I read Bester’s book again and realized, while it was very good, it wasn’t the greatest thing I’d ever read. But because of its overall color and energy, Tiger! Tiger! projects a sense that, just over the novel’s horizon, someone is thinking seriously about important modernist questions. What is the relation of the ordinary working man to the privileged man at the pinnacle of culture? What causes modern warfare today? What is the relationship between economics and war? Bester was very definitely a leftist writer, with a sense that economics was behind all wars. For him, wars were the playing out of economic-cum-industrial conflicts.

    Still later I found out that Bester himself had been reading and rereading Ulysses for a year and discussing it weekly with two close friends. You could easily say that Tiger! Tiger! was his attempt at a book for bright fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds, with some of Ulysses’s textual playfulness. I wanted to see whether I could write something that would be as interesting for a twenty-five-year-old as this had been for me at fifteen. I’ll never know whether I succeeded.


    In Nova, your reimagining of Tiger! Tiger!, Prince Red and Ruby Red have an almost incestuous relationship.


    Yes, they do. You have to remember the book was written before ’68, the moment when innuendo ceased to be a legally necessary literary technique.


    Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?


    Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, aids rendered them permanently obsolete.

    Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both Bester and Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing both sex and violence. In Tiger! Tiger! the demonic antihero, Gully Foyle, invades Robin’s exploded apartment and stalks across her living room to where she cowers away from him on the couch. There is a line of white space ...

    At fifteen I knew perfectly well Gully went on to rape her. Many of my students, however, miss it. As readers who’ve learned to read with texts written largely after 1968, they’re unfamiliar with that order of narrative suggestion. Writers aren’t constrained by law to use it today and many young readers, under thirty-five, have forgotten how to read it.

    My students reach the climax of Heart of Darkness, when the pilgrims stand at the steamer’s rail, firing their rifles at the natives on the shore, fifteen or twenty feet away, “for some sport,” while an appalled Marlow blows the boat’s horn to frighten the Africans off. Some of the natives throw themselves on the ground, but among them stands Kurtz’s black mistress, her arms raised toward the boat that carries Kurtz away. From his bed in the wheelhouse, sickly Kurtz watches through the window—which Conrad has made clear has been left open. At the boat rail, the white men go on firing, and with a line of white space, the scene ends ...

    Year after year, more than half my students fail to realize that the white men have just killed the black woman Kurtz has been sleeping with for several years. Or that Kurtz, too weak to intervene, has had to lie there and watch them do it.

    When you ask, later, the significance of Kurtz’s final words, as he looks out through this same window, “The horror! The horror!,” it never occurs to them that it might refer to the fact that he has watched his fellow Europeans murder in cold blood the woman he has lived with. Suggestion for them is not an option. Earlier generations of readers, however, did not have these interpretive problems.

    “If he raped her, why didn’t the writer say so?” “If they shot her, why didn’t Conrad show her fall dead?” my graduate students ask. It makes me wonder what other techniques for conveying the unspoken and the unspeakable we have forgotten how to read over four or five thousand years of “literacy.”

    Another canonical work that lists toward the incomprehensible for the modern reader under the weight of modernist criticism is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.


    How do you mean?


    I’ve read interpretations that see the tale as Kafka’s prediction of World War I or II, and it has to stand up beneath interpretative phrases like “that great portrait of the sickness that was Europe.” I’ve even heard one academic give a rather involuted explanation about how the story depicts the encounter of a family with the inexplicable. Well, that’s true, in the sense that a heart attack, a stroke, a crippling accident is, itself, inexplicable. But that sort of occurrence—schizophrenia or some mentally or physically crippling disease—is still the tenor of Kafka’s metaphor.

    Whatever you say about the story’s all but infinite higher meanings, just at the level of plot, The Metamorphosis is an allegorical tale about a family, one of whose members, presumably the one who’s responsible for bringing in most of the money, is suddenly stricken by a catastrophe, a debilitating disease that—overnight—renders him homebound and largely unrecognizable as the person he once was and tells what the experience might be from the point of view of the person to whom it happens.
    This was a fairly common experience for families before World War II, and it still is. Kafka himself was such a person. His tuberculosis rendered him such a person in his own family, and it struck me as a chillingly accurate picture of the whole process of the transformation that occurred when my own mother was felled with a major stroke that, in an instant, rendered her wheelchair-bound, paralyzed on one side, and without language for the last eight years of her life.

    The way the remaining family both recognizes and does not recognize the new and wholly dependent creature as the person he or she once was, and the way the invalid has to be treated—physically and emotionally—as a kind of insect . . . well, it’s a hugely cruel story, even as it details how love for the person metamorphoses, under pressure of the transformative situation, into annoyance and a feeling of entrapment. The title refers to the family’s transformation as much as it does to Gregor’s. When the invalid finally dies—as my mother did, almost a decade on—Kafka explains how at last there is a feeling of freedom and even rebirth.

    When we were coming back from the cemetery after my mother’s funeral, my sister, who truly loved my mother—as, indeed, did I—said to me, “Chip, that is the end of eight awful, awful years,” and a breeze blew momentarily through the trees. I had to answer, “Yes, it is.” And I remembered Gregor’s sister, in the last sentences of Kafka’s tale. It’s a portrait of the human processes which constitute that awfulness.

    I’d never argue that the historical resonances that so many analysts see in the tale are not there, but I point out that what I have described as the events of the story and their general significance is how those historical suggestions manifest themselves. How we treat our invalids—our mad, our physically or mentally compromised family members—does tell you something about who we are politically, historically, culturally. But until we can respond to the story as an allegory on that level, those historical suggestions are just not anchored. The commonplace reading, under the supernatural event Kafka has given us, is what keeps the meaning-generating mechanism of the tale functioning.



    When did you decide that sex was important to your work?


    For my work? Hell, for my life! Although I didn’t start taking advantage of the public sex available to gay men till I was eighteen, with a moderately successful trip to the New Amsterdam movie palace on Forty-second Street. No lightning flashed. No bells clanged. But it was useful to learn that it was available and could make me feel better about small stretches of my life.

    Not a full decade on, when I was twenty-seven, Stonewall happened. Many of the political conclusions that became generalized with Stonewall—such as coming out of the closet to end the nightmare of gay blackmail—I’d arrived at in theory at eighteen or nineteen. But I didn’t start acting on them until I moved to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1968.


    You describe learning, as a young teenager, that a sexual fantasy you hadn’t yet written down could be eked out for a number of days or even weeks, whereas putting it on the page—using what you call “the whole narrative excess we think of as realism”—would make it briefly far more exciting, but then leach it of all subsequent erotic charge. Do you still feel that tug between the urge to put something into language and the urge to fend off writing?


    I still feel that style is important for reading pleasure, and sex is important for pleasure in life. Each appeases a different type of desire. And while I find nothing shameful in taking direct erotic pleasure from reading or writing, I don’t think they entail a necessary relation. The processes you have me describing are contingent psychological processes. Neither marks one end nor the other of any necessary or even philosophical relationship. Do I still feel the tug between the urge to put something into writing and the urge to fend it off? Less so as I get older. I shall always be able to come up with new fantasies. As long as there are people walking around in the street, as long as I have books to read and windows to look out of, I’m not going to use them up. I assume the universe will go on providing me with many more. The man I’ve lived quite happily with for twenty-two years provides me with much of my sexual satisfaction, physical and psychological. But, no, not all—thank Deus sive Natura, to borrow a phrase from Spinoza. Nor do I provide all his. What an unachievable responsibility!
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2015
    Steerpike and Lemex like this.


Discussion in 'Articles' started by Wreybies, Apr 25, 2015.

    1. Lemex
      I've not read any of his books. I now feel like I should. This is a very good interview! Very interesting.
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    2. Steerpike
      @Lemex - an important figure in SF/F. May as well start with Dhalgren, if you want to read him.
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    3. Wreybies
      Gird thy loins, @Lemex. Though @Steerpike directs you to a life-alteringly masterful piece of work, Dhalgren is a beast of a book. It's not easy fair. But if anyone is up to it, you are, Lem. ;)

      The first few paragraphs of the book follow:

      to wound the autumnal city.

      So howled out for the world to give him a name.

      The in-dark answered with wind.

      All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you've held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

      A whole minute he squatted, pebbles clutched with his left foot (the bare one), listening to his breath sound tumble down the ledges.

      Beyond a leafy arras, reflected moonlight flittered.

      He rubbed his palms against denim. Where he was, was still. Somewhere else, wind whined.

      The leaves winked.

      What had been wind was a motion in brush below. His hand went to the rock behind.

      She stood up, two dozen feet down and away, wearing only shadows the moon dropped from the viney maple; moved, and the shadows moved on her.

      ~ Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (1975)

      Though I had read metafictional works before, I had never read one at this level of complexity. Pedestrian metafiction about a writer writing a book, yes, but this story that loops back in on itself, where you lose grip on which book you are reading or if the book is in fact reading you, never. Delany is at his stylistic peak in this book. No apologies for the unprepared, the uninitiated, or the just plain thick. If you're any of those three, tough shit. You must read him slowly to get your sea legs. Don't, and you'll trip. Maybe fall. Maybe vomit over the side. Again, he gives no fucks that his phrasing is unusual, his syntax sometimes not idiolectic, his delivery not straight forward. It's not a book for the masses.

      I have loved many writers of Science Fiction across the decades, but I know that nearly none of them will stand the test of time. Precious few will be studied in classrooms in 200 or 300 years' time. Delany will. We look at the works that have filtered up to us through the membrane of time and we are given the impression that writers were better in the past. I think that's a lie, an artifact of sampling error. We study very few of the undoubtedly uncountable numbers of writers that were feverishly scribbling away at the page since the invention of writing. We have only those whose work was worthy of preserving for the future and the odd one or two whose work was fossilized by chance and circumstance and survived into the now. When I think about the writers who will pass the many layers of filtration into the future, I think of Delany. When I think of bright young people reading antique tomes in their Dyson Sphere habitats, I think of Delany. When I think of students slogging through the incomprehensible mess that was English before the spelling reforms of 2789, translating the passages into modern, sensible, three-dimensional hologlyphs, I think of Delany as the work being slaved over.
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    4. Lemex
      That's really good actually. I like it. Rather poetic.
      Wreybies likes this.
    5. Wreybies
      The lower case letter in the first line is no mistake, btw. The text loops back into itself and that first line is the end portion of a last line elsewhere in the text. ;)
    6. Lemex
      Inventive! :) Sounds rather House of Leaves-y.
    7. Wreybies
      Dhalgren wasn't the first of his books that I read though, and I'm thankful for it. I might not have read any of his other works had it been. At the time, I would have fallen into the unprepared or uninitiated piles that I mentioned earlier. :ohno: Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand was on an LGBT speculative fiction reading list that I found, and that was his first work that I read. Then The Jewels of Aptor and then Nova. Only after Nova did I read Dhalgren.
    8. Steerpike
    9. Wreybies
      I have it, and also have The Fall of the Towers, but I have yet to read them. Two of the very few novels I still own in physical form, not collected for their artwork. :)
    10. Steerpike

      I didn't know the novel had anything to do with The Dispossessed until I was about halfway through and someone pointed it out. I find Jo Walton's following comments interesting:

      "In The Dispossessed, Delany found a heteronormative utopia with a token unhappy gay minor character. He also found a loveable genius protagonist who moves through the worlds with his hands open, an ascetic anarchist-collectivist society, and opposed to it a sexist capitalist greed-based society. In his essay, Delany questions the gender-neutrality of Anarres as well as its heteronormativity. It seems to me that in Triton he opposed all of this in the best possible way, not by argument but by demonstration. He held up the genuinely urban to the pastoral, the unpleasant to the pleasant, the closed to the open, and showed a very different kind of anarchism. He also showed a world where people in all positions really could be any gender at random, and he did show it as well as tell us about it. It’s all very well to say “men and women are equal” but when everyone in a position of power in the story is a man, and the female examples look like tokens, the text is contradicting itself."
    11. Steerpike
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    12. Wreybies
      Wow. He did something very similar with Stars in my Pocket. On the planet where we find the MC, Rat Korga, she is the default gender neutral pronoun and bitch is a superlative applied to anyone - regardless of reproductive equipment - that's deserving. Tallness in the universe of this books is also seen as common and undesirable and shortness as desirable and attractive.
    13. KaTrian
      I haven't read any of this books, although Stars in My Pocket has been on my TBR list. It actually caught my eye because of the name, that's all I knew about it :bigoops:.

      Thanks, Wrey, for sharing the interview. :)

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