Plexus Nexus: Samuel R. Delany’s Pataphysics
by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky
"Lift up your hearts, you good dancers, high! higher! And do not forget the good laughter!" - Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra
This exhibition isn’t about Afrofuturism. If it was, my artwork would be in it. Instead, what it presents is an essay on objects that dip in and out of the conceptual realm that the obliquely referential term “future” is all about - with an askance towards the perpetual possibility of what Afrofuturism could be. So it’s a bit of a contradiction, but that’s kind of the point. When the curators asked me to interview Samuel R. Delany aka Chip, I said “sure!” and called him up. He was in. No problem. And that’s where this dialog and the exhibition overlap. In our era of 140 character tweets and infinite updates on Facebook, Youtube, Vine, Instagram, and Google+, getting a chance to catch up with Chip is to be treasured and absorbed slowly.
Chip Delany represents so many of the themes of what could be “Afrofuturist” - but it’s his beard that really embodies what he is up to! His beard is his most distinctive feature: it evokes his deep attention to letting things flow. In Fred Barney Taylor’s 2007 documentary, Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman it’s the most prominent character. He, like his beard, has lived a life that flouts whatever could be called conventional these days. He was married to a woman for twelve years and has a child, but is a gay man; he is an African American who, because of his “light” complexion, is in an ambiguous relationship with the markers that define identity in our proscribed and paradoxical United States - he’s always asked to identify his ethnicity. Whenever this happens, and, yes, it happens alot, he is always hardly bothered by these attempts to figure out who he is. Instead, he laughs with his eyes and thoughtfully strokes his beard. In the course of our dialog for this interview, when we were discussing his take on ethnicity, he wrote this after reading the material above:
Really like the introduction. The only point I'd take exception to is
when you talk about people asking me my ethnicity, which, yes, as
you say, they do a lot. But I never laugh and let it hang. I say straight up,
front and center: "I'm black--African American." And if they press it,
which they often do, I say, "Both my parents were African-American
and so am I."
Really, I have no patience with "bi-racialism" or any bullshit
of that sort. At the very least, that should be limited to people who
come from interacial parents--and even then. My daughter, whose
mother is white, self-identifies as black and was the treasurer of the
Black Students' Union at Kenyon. And I won't revise that, not until
both the laws and the history of this country are majorly different
from what they are and have been for three hundred years. That's what
both her parents taught her to do, and she's now a 39 year old doctor,
and still does it.
* * *
I can’t think of someone whose laughter is more life affirming and genuine. It is something to be treasured when heard. In fact, the whole Afrofuturist exhibit could be an exploration of the sound forms of Delany. That would be pretty cool.
I like to think that Samuel R. Delany is a proto-myth of some of the more dynamic archetypes of the American unconscious but first and foremost you have to listen to his writing to really understand where he is coming from. He’s written somewhere in the number of over 40 books, and has been one of the most influential writers of the late 20th and early 21st century. An example: In 1974 his book Dhalgren left the keys of his typewriter and went on to become a distillation of a draft of a book he had been reworking for years. He published it with Frederik Pohl at Bantam Books, and went on to change the literary world forever. Dhalgren is the story of “the Kid,” an amnesiac who wanders through Bellona, a riot wracked shell of a city in the American Midwest that’s isolated from the world after some kind of rift in the fabric of space and time, like the United States after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bellona is a city like New York in Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel Warriors (you know the film...) populated by a menagerie of drifters old and young, male and female, black and white, a famous poet, a
slumming astronaut, warring gangs, and holographic phantasmal creatures. In Dhalgren the reader is almost certain that the novel takes place in a world where, much like JG Ballard’s ouevre, characters are confronted with an apocalyptic reality that instead of disturbing the uniquely coherent quality of how “everyday” life needs to be preserved, instead, are enraptured by the apocalyptic phenomena at hand. An example: There’s a famous (perhaps apocryphal?) story of when moving through Kennedy Airport, Delany and his family flew back to the States just before Christmas Eve in 1974, and saw copies of Dhalgren filling book racks at Kennedy Airport before they reached customs. That’s Bellona. Despite it’s epic length and arcane references, over the next decade, Dhalgren sold more than a million copies and is now called a masterpiece by many critics. One of my other favorite writers, William Gibson, infamously described it as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.”
If there’s one strength his style of writing has, it’s that he is an expert on world-building, and his books like Tales of Nevèrÿon, Nova, Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Empire, and others all reflect this. For these novels and others he has won one of science fictions most prestigious literary honors - The Nebula Award - 4 times.
The techniques Delany uses often evoke a “droste” effect format (some call it “mise en abime” or “to put in an abyss” in French literary form) allowing him to introduce lots of information through recursion, or what you would call “polyptch” in painting - think of his works as paintings whose canvasses are not only a kind of art, but an altar display. He blends current news seamlessly with history and projects that with panache into the near and sometimes distant future. That’s what makes his work so resonant with our modern hyper saturated world. Octavia Butler once wrote in her essay Positive Obsession that when she began writing science fiction, one of the only black authors she knew of was Samuel Delany (the writings of George Schuyler’s Black No More and Black Empire were out of the pantheon because of his right wing political leanings).
“What good is science fiction to black people?” Butler asked in her essay. “What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing?” One can only say, like the poet Saul Williams once wrote (yes, that’s spoken word, written) - “another world is possible, how do we make it real?” The rest, is the remix.
DJ SPOOKY (PAUL MILLER) INTERVIEWS SAMUEL R. DELANY
: You have had such a robust career, that if I look at some of the core issues from what many consider your magnum opus, Dhalgren (1975), I’m left with a sense that there are several phases about what you thought of identity in the 1960’s and 1970’s and what is going on now with your more recent work, exploring identity where sexual orientation is the basis for most of your novels. What triggered this? Do you consider it a change at all?
Samuel R. Delany: Let me start by saying that my own work is not the topic I’m most comfortable discussing. All the writer can really do is tell you the effects that, here or there, he or she was hoping to achieve. All the reader can do—at least the reader who has read the work in question—is sit back and say, “Well, he certainly missed that one pretty widely.” Or, “Well, she came close to that. But it’s not the main thing I got . . .” and, for a host of analytical reasons, nobody comes off at his or her best.
Having said that, however, I’ll do what I can.
When I’m writing fiction, I rarely think about “identity”—nor have I ever really thought about it when writing, except when considering a few specifically philosophical ways of talking about experience, and certainly not the identity of the character I’m writing about; or of the abstract topic. That’s because I—and most people, I’m sure—don’t, in actual life, walk around thinking about their identity.
Identities—all of them—are boxes other people put you in for many reasons—to recognize you, to warn you, to help you, and, yes, to ignore you and justify getting over on you, categories you have to internalize so that you know how to deal with those people in the various situations in which you meet them. Some of us are proud of ours. Some of us are uncomfortable with them. Some of us work hard on our minds or our bodies to make them fit into one that’s more like what we want. But when all is said and done, all are part of the Grand Illusion and have no ontological reality. They are only tools of provisional or instrumental use, sometimes useful, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes confusing—and sometimes hurtful, even lethal.
What I think about as I walk around in the world are things like, “Oh, hey—there’s a whole sink full of dirty dishes, some of which are two days old, now—that I should wash,” or, “The table here is a mess—there’s so much clutter, if I don’t clear off at least a third of it, I won’t have any space in which to fix tonight’s dinner,” or perhaps, “My arthritis doesn’t seem to be bothering me too much this morning. Maybe I’ll take a walk over to Riverside Park and look at the boats that have come into the Marina, now that the weather’s gotten better.” Any one of these could represent a moment from life—or a moment from fiction. The way fiction differs from life, however, is that the fiction writer has to intersperse that account of the character’s thoughts with an account as well of what things look like, sound like, and smell like . . .
“The table was a mess—the on-off button on the coffee-maker’s base was still burning bright green, its black plastic and the glass container dotted with bits of pressed garlic that had leaped from the hand presser last night, not yet wiped away and now dry; the last inch of coffee had thickened in the carafe and was putting its bitter odor into the sunny room; over the few clear inches of yellowed wood, toward the front, garlic skins rocked like injured moths, from the preparation of last night’s spaghetti sauce, in the breeze from the open window (outside, five stories down on Amsterdam Avenue, traffic started up loudly); left and right, below the three-tier wooden spice shelf, books, mail, and manuscripts—and a box of brown coffee filters, a white plastic jar of Metamucil whose orange plastic label had been perforated by the heat from having been left standing on the stove when it was on, and a box from which draped a single zip-lock bag—had covered everything to a height of eighteen inches: so much clutter that if he didn’t clear away at least a third, he would have no place to fix tonight’s dinner.”
Now, one thing the account of the specific clutter starts to do is tell you some about the person whose kitchen it is—about his identity, if you will. There are a number of facts I think it’s always good for a writer to keep in mind about a character: How does his (or her) rent get paid? What work does the character do? What social class does he or she come from, and with which class is she or he most comfortable interacting? With which is he or she uncomfortable? I try to put incidents into my stories that indirectly suggest or directly dramatize answers to these questions. Since Balzac, such narrative material has generated the most interesting, the most satisfactory fiction. (That just means fiction that satisfies me.) “Story” takes place on top of this, as it were. It works through it and with it. This is what Gertrude Stein meant when she said “a third of English literature is description of the daily island life.” For all of Arthur Symons’ rebellion against “exteriority” that he saw as the hallmark of the most interesting writing in France at the end of the 19th century, the accurate description of landscapes and objects—with the feelings they evoke—is still the gateway to the heart. This interbraiding of exterior and interior is the fundamental structure of fiction that the writer must internalize before writing anything of fictive interest. Fortunately, I figured this out by the time I’d finished my twentieth year—and started what would be my second published novel. What lead me to it was the conviction I had to write satisfactory fiction: that was how I was making my living. (Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel  had already been a great help. So was Erich Auerbach’s Memesis , as was Arthur Symons’ The Symbolist Movement in Literature .) But that’s all I knew about the fictive side of identity—and basically it’s most of what I still know. Now, you asked how that’s changed since Dhalgren (1975)—my tenth novel.
To me, I don’t think it has. Perhaps—and I hope, though I have no way to be sure—I’ve gotten a little better at picking things from the armamentarium of material that the senses provide, in order to suggest or dramatize things about the characters perceiving those things. But the fact is, I can’t be sure. Possibly I’ve gotten worse—or careless; or lazy. The elderly often do. I can only go a little slower, look a little harder.
DJS:Well, what about this question, then? Your novels Dark Reflections (2007) and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012)—some people say these are not quite fiction, not quite science fiction, and, then again, they're not quite nonfiction, either. Do you agree? And if you do, what do you mean by it? Some of your work like Dark Reflections centers on fear of the unknown, themes of loneliness, sexual repression, the lives artists choose to follow, and above all the overwhelming sense that sexual orientation shapes all aspects of modern life; Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, in sharp contrast, celebrates companionship, love, sexual openness, and freedom. Where do you draw a previous work like Phallos (2004) from, which is set during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the Mediterranean? It’s an online essay where there’s a novel within the novella, and a frame within a frame—these are things you explore quite a bit in your work. Please elaborate!
SRD: My first response is to say, well, people say a lot of things. And some of them are . . . I don’t know: silly. Phallos, Dark Reflections, and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders are all novels. And they are—in all senses of “all”—all fiction.
Possibly because the first and the last of the three are about having as much sex as you could conceive of wanting, in different locations and at different historical periods, while the middle one is about the way society and your own fear can deprive you of almost all sexual fulfillment—both of which are uncomfortable topics today—people are not sure how they should talk about them, which is not helped by the fact that, before 1984, I wrote mostly science fiction—though only with Spiders have I come back to it after a handful of other novels.
When Dark Reflections came out in 2007, in the first review from Publisher’s Weekly, along with much praise, the reviewer suggested that the book was some sort of autobiography, which conclusion he based on totally erroneous—not to mention preposterous—misinformation: That I had started as a poet (not true) and further had given up a profitable career as a poet (which is insane) to write science fiction instead (which is deranged). In the manner of mainstream reviewers, the next half dozen reviews repeated this idiocy, and now, since the book won the Stonewall Prize for 2008, an award I’m very proud of, by the bye, almost everyone who comes up and mentions the book to me, whether they’ve read it or not, usually follows that with: “I gather there’s some sort of autobiographical element to it . . .”
The only response I can make, which is both rational and true, is to smile and say, “No. There isn’t.”
For some people that’s enough. But because the misinformation has been written down and published so often by now, some people want to argue with me. “Does that mean you’re just not comfortable talking about the autobiographical side of it . . .?”
“No. The fact is, I’m full of anecdotes about my childhood and my young manhood. (My friends are tired of hearing how I got the nickname Chip . . .) I’ve even written a full-out autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water (1988), that also won an award, by the way—back in 1989. And, both before and since, I’ve written shorter works that chronicle briefer sections of my life, Heavenly Breakfast (1978), and more recently the graphic novella, Bread & Wine (1999), that Mia Wolff drew, which was just reprinted by Fantagraphics, and that tells how I met and began living with my current partner of twenty-four years, Dennis.”
You’d think that would satisfy them. But often they go on: “But you and the hero of your novel are both black writers.”
“Yes . . .?”
“You’re both gay . . .”
“That’s right . . .?”
“And you both teach.”
“Yes. That’s true . . .?”
“So doesn’t that mean . . . ?”
When they can’t supply what it’s supposed to mean, all I can think to say is, “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of black gay men who write and teach—on the university level, too; not to mention black gay women. At least one such man, Don Belton, taught with me in the last half dozen years in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Temple. He was a good friend of mine, though he was no more the model for Arnold Hawley in Dark Reflections than I was—and he had written a novel, had edited a fine book of essays on black masculinity Speak my Name (1983), and was in the middle of another book Norton had contracted for. Eventually he transferred to Bloomington, Indiana, were, in 2010, he was murdered—stabbed to death 22 times—over the Christmas holidays by a twenty-five year old white ex-Marine. And, yes, Don’s identity as a black gay man came very much into that Marine’s homicidal fit—as did the self-confessed murderer’s identity as a heterosexual male Marine. He was Don’s friend, and, with his girlfriend, had had Don over for dinner two nights before . . . Does that mean all black gay male writers are one person and anything I say about one of us applies to us all—whether he’s fat or thin, born in a tiny town or a big city, whatever his fields of interest, whether he’s partnered or single, has sex like a rabbit, or is largely celibate?”
“Well, no . . . That sounds almost like a novel!”
“It wasn’t. The ex-Marine was sentenced to fifty years for murder.”
“But aren’t all novels really autobiographical on some level?”
“Possibly they are. But if that’s the level of generality you’re talking about, then by calling a given novel autobiographical, you’re not really saying anything about it, other than that it’s like every other. You’re not making a meaningful distinction—in which case ‘autobiographical’ is meaningless. Wouldn’t it be easier to accept a ‘No’ as the answer to your initial question?”
“But then how is your book science fiction? You’re a science fiction writer . . .”
“It isn’t. Really, it’s just a novel.”
“Oh. But I don’t understand . . .”
“Perhaps you might read it . . .”
“I did. Like I said, I didn’t understand it. There wasn’t any science fiction in it . . .”
Now it’s my turn to say, “Oh . . .” and sigh.
But probably you can predict the blog entry that will come out of this, days or weeks later: “Samuel Delany has written an interesting speculative autobiography that he calls a novel, interesting enough to win this year’s Stonewall Book Award. It’s about an aging black poet, such as he once was, who lives in the East Village and teaches at a city university. (Delany has taught at NYU . . .)” I’ve never taught a NYU. Nor did the person ask me whether or not I had. “Clearly Delany dislikes discussing these elements, and grows somewhat hostile when you press him, which is understandable, I suppose, since in the book they are fairly painful. The science fiction elements in the book are subtly hidden, and his disingenuously simple answers to any questions about them lead us quickly away from such topics to tell, instead, a tragically sad story about a friend of his . . .” But that’s how the Grand Illusion—the Big Lie—propagates in these days of the Internet.
Most people’s nightly terror is that they will say something to make themselves look like fools; and the people they’re most afraid of looking like fools to are not the folks they write about but the people who have already written lots of foolish things before them about those folks and their work. That usually has much to do with their own identity as critical voices in the blogosphere. Some internet reviewers—Lavelle Porter, James Warner, Jo Walton, among others—all do an astute and careful report on the books they read, but even among those who suspect or have actually figured out what’s going on, the regularly repeated prayer is: “Dear God, do not let me be the one who says that the Emperor has no clothes, that this or that piece of social wisdom is a lie, or that You Yourself as Diety are a psychic structure of fear, desire, and an imperfect memory of superstitions and ancient sky gods.” I know, because I have felt this way myself—and given into it at times. I’m human like the rest of us. The best such realizations produce is the involuted styles of philosophers from Spinoza to Heidegger, who realized they must enshroud their truths in an all but impenetrable rhetoric (whether in Latin or German) so that most will turn away, if they are to write those truths at all and live safely while they do.
Gide wrote, “Do not understand me too quickly . . .” which is the motto of all who think long and hard in order to come to conclusions other than those put forward as congruent with the general Wisdom of the World.
But perhaps now you can see some of the problems with identity, especially when it’s perceived as something other than an intermittently useful tool for negotiating basically language-structured situations. When people try to use it as a weapon or a tool for social exclusion, for other situations than to morn or to praise, almost always it involves abuse—which is a sad, even angering euphemism when “abuse” means the murder of a friend; a black gay man who shared an identity with me. Both Don and I were black gay novelists.
Phallos is an historical pastiche.
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is an attempt to write a science fiction novel that, among other things, is notably more realistic than most. It also tries to present some of the actual ironies of real technological change.
We’ve all been to places, now in New England, now in the American South, in the Midwest, or in the outlying suburbs of big cities, from which we’ve come away, feeling, “That place hasn’t really changed since 1953!” And there are places today about which, sixty-five years or seventy-five years from now, people will say, “That place hasn’t really changed since 2013.” The overwhelming majority of the action in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders occurs in such a place. But I wanted as well to show the way such places do change—change in such a way that a visitor might find himself or herself thinking that they haven’t, really. Such places change in very different ways from the ways a big city changes or even a medium sized town with a university in it and social traffic that regularly flows in and out.
Also I wanted the book to be something of an encyclopedia of marginal gay sex practices in a rural setting, where things are not so strictly guided as they are in cities by urban sexual fads. Much of this—the bestiality, scat, and urolanglia—I’ve found chronicaled on the internet. It’s right there on Google. Even so, a number of my urban readers have found it quite astonishing.
But let me turn now to your question about what impelled my swerve into an interest in sex. The answer to that is fairly simple. Sex has been a large part of my own life. Rarely have I seen it discussed with real honesty and openness. Especially with the advent of AIDS, official jargon was used as often to promote misinformation as it was to promote facts. Well into the ’nineties, many folks seemed to feel that because so little was really known (about transmission routes, say), they were justified in saying anything about the disease. Now, with the advent of real old age (I’m seventy one)—the way sex is integrated into my life has been changing in significant ways, and so, to me, it’s again become interesting.
DJS: What do you think of when you hear the words “Afro-Futurism”?
SRD: The older I get, the less sympathy I have with neologisms in general. A bit too nakedly, they declare the desire to be one of the really cool people. Such desire should always be looked at with a narrowed eye. Believe me, it’s much more fun doing stuff where the really cool people are interested in you.
But, as I am always telling my writing students, to accomplish that, you have to do the work. And the work involves, in reality and/or in imagination, putting together a careful, detailed, even exhaustive picture of the clutter on the table, the smell coming from the burned coffee in the coffee maker or from the sink, and the traffic sounds outside, and the radiator pipes inside; and if you happen to be black, and the kitchen happens to be yours, whether you are making half a mill a year in a twenty-two room house with a swimming pool in Irvington, New York, or are on SSI and food stamps in an upstate trailer park outside of Brewster, and you are writing stories that deal somehow with some aspect of the future of culture or of technology or of anything else, well, you’re writing Afro-Furturism. And I’m very glad to see more of us doing it.
That’s another way identities work in this country.
Wanting to be with the cool guys isn’t so bad if the cool guys are doing something interesting. And the two anthologies of Afro-Futurism edited by Sheree Thomas I’ve looked at (and had the privilege of being included in the first), are interesting indeed, not considering my own contribution.
DJS: Your most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, follows your characters from the near past (the summer of 2007) to decades into the future. Though it does go into future narratives and mentions fictional future events and technologies, the novel does not exactly fit within the realm of science fiction. What’s up?
SRD: Well, there’s another irony that the book tries to dramatize—just how little some of the biggest technological changes do effect ordinary men or woman in rural America: such as the guy who’s a garbage collector in a small coastal town because that’s what his father did, and he was his father’s assistant for a dozen or so years before he took over the job himself.
Most American science fiction spends a lot of its plot energy maneuvering the main character into a position from which he or she can see the big technological shifts first hand, or even be able to intervene in the way they work out—the protagonist is a member of the first exploratory team to another planet, or becomes a research scientist working with a radio telescope when the asteroid that will pass dangerously close to the Earth is first sighted. But this only makes someone like me more aware of how so many ordinary men and women are given little or no information about such technological changes—or only get them when they filter down into a new power tool or a new cleaning product, or a new way to get your TV image; in short, things that don’t look much different from a new kind of epoxy or laundry method. In that sense, lots in my book I think is grimly comedic. A lot of people, however, are made slightly uncomfortable by having to laugh at that sort of thing—as they should be!
Because my own relation with Dennis has exceeded two-dozen years, I wanted to write about a relationship that endures over more time than ones I wrote about earlier. What does it mean, as one Facebook commentator put it recently, when people inhabit the same “zone of play,” which she felt—and I agree—was necessary for a relationship to endure for decades and still be positive; a description that certainly fits Dennis’s and mine.
A few reviewers have noted that the book’s insistent focus on two very ordinary working-class gay men—one black, one white (though the white fellow here is the adopted son of a black father)—is fairly radical for the genre.
Now since Dennis is white and I’m black, this eight hundred page tome about Eric and Morgan, also white and black, two gay garbage men who work on the coast of Georgia, and stay together as life-partners their whole lives, from adolescence on, must also be autobiographical, right . . .? But I think we’ve been through this one before.
I’m of an age when I want all my new works to carry with them at least some critique of whatever genre or genres support them. If I manage to finish another book, I hope it will be equally true of that one.
—May 15, 2013