the disinherited

“ ‘We are the disinherited of Art!’ he cried. ‘We are condemned to be superficial! We are excluded from the magic circle. The soil of American perception is a poor little barren artificial deposit. Yes! we are wedded to imperfection. An American, to excel, has just ten times as much to learn as a European. We lack the deeper sense. We have neither taste, nor tact, nor power. How should we have them? Our crude and garish climate, our silent past, our deafening present, the constant pressure about us of unlovely circumstance, are as void of all that nourishes and prompts and inspires the artist, as my sad heart is void of bitterness in saying so! We poor aspirants must live in perpetual exile.’ ”

(Henry James, “The Madonna of the Future”)

samuel r. delany, “through the valley of the nest of spiders”

through-the-valleySamuel R. Delany
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders
(Magnus Books, 2012)

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is Delany’s biggest book (bigger than Dhalgren), and seems to have attracted relatively little attention, as might be the case with most of Delany’s late fiction. The barriers to critical attention are clear: much as in The Mad Man, there’s a lot of gay sex in this book described in minute detail which many reviewers seem to have found offensive. There’s more science fiction here than in The Mad Man or Dark Reflections, probably not enough to keep a sci-fi audience happy, but enough to leave a “literary fiction” audience, should such a thing exist, unsettled. And it’s a big book, at 800 pages.

Towards the end of The Mad Man, the protagonist’s lover describes his rural upbringing in some detail; that vignette, a hypersexual male society outside of the realm of conventional morality might form the basis for this book. Incest and pedophilia, both presented as consensual, figure strongly, as do lovingly applied racial epithets. But again, Delany’s attempt is not to shock; rather, it’s to present a modern version of the pastoral. (Guy Davenport’s stories of young Danish philosophers living according to Fourier are the clear antecedent.) Instead of shepherds, Delany’s protagonists are garbage men, and their Arcadia is a place on the coast of Georgia called Diamond Harbor; the novel starts in 2007 and goes forward seventy years.

The title refers to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: early, a minor character advises the protagonist that

“To be sure, the Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom, even when it takes you through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. . . .” (p. 20)

There’s no Valley of the Nest of Spiders in the “Proverbs of Hell,” of course. Delany’s referring more directly to another section of Blake’s book, “A Memorable Fancy”:

An Angel came to me and said: ‘O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such career.’

I said: ‘perhaps you will be willing to shew me my eternal lot & we will contemplate together upon it and see whether your lot or mine is most desirable.’ . . . .

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us at an immense distance was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey; which flew or rather swum in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption, & the air was full of them, & seem’d composed of them; these are Devils, and are called Powers of the air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? he said, between the black & white spiders.

But now, from between the black & white spiders, a cloud and fire burst and rolled thro’ the deep, blackning all beneath, so that the nether deep grew black as a sea & rolled with a terrible noise . . . (p. 18)

Blake’s protagonist justifying his way of life to the Angel is mirrored in Eric’s explanation to his Shit, his faun-like partner, of what he wants to do with himself now that he has left conventional society and suddenly found himself living in a place where all his desires have been satisfied:

“You know what I’d like to do?”

“What?”

“I wanna try bein’ a really good person – ’cause I’m so happy and get to fuck and suck so much.” He glanced over. “I didn’t tell her about the sex part and what that had to do with it. But that seems like a good reason.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. So that’s what I’m gonna start doin’.”

“I think you’re a pretty good fella already. You make our fuckin food damn near every night. Howw much better you got to be?”

“As good as I can. I mean, I’m gonna have to put a little thought into it. But I’ll think of somethin’. You be as satisfied as I am, and it’s just a shame to waste it all on yourself and get too lazy . . .”

“Well, that’s gonna be interestin’. A really good person, huh? Am I supposed to give you a hand?”

“I’m serious, Shit.” (pp. 253–4)

What’s left is to concentrate on living ethically. Note the order: personal improvement only becomes possible after a better society is achieved. Diamond Harbor, it is worth noting, is meant to exist in the present: the largess of the Kyle Foundation, a millionaire’s project to better the lives of the gay black men he loves, has shaped the area into a paradise; the area is rural enough that it attracts little attention from the outside world. (Eric and his friends find out about Obama’s election the next day in a call from his mother; porn theaters still operate and find a clientele as described in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.) New technology appears, but its intrusions and effects are minimal.

Near the end of his life, Eric thinks to himself:

With the Kyle Foundation to fight for us, we never had to fight for anything, really. Everything was arranged, from salary to security. It did a good job of taking care of us – and we all thought that was good. Did that allow us to be good or just .nbsp;.nbsp;. superfluous? (p. 749)

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is almost entirely free of conflict. Eric spends much of the second half of the book re-reading Spinoza’s Ethica, almost the only book mentioned here; Shit is pointedly illiterate. Time speeds up as the book progresses; a love story between two boys becomes a love story between two old men. Society as a whole isn’t utopian: near the end of the book, a few scenes make it clear that while society is more progressive than it was, it’s still imperfect. The reader’s left thinking of the end of Candide.

may 1–15, 2013

Books

  • Charles Portis, Masters of Atlantis
  • Jean Cocteau, Thomas the Impostor, trans. Lewis Galentiere
  • Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners
  • Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen
  • Samuel R. Delany, The Mad Man
  • Samuel R. Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

Exhibits

  • “Xul Solar and Jorge Luis Borges: The Art of Friendship,” Americas Society
  • “Maya Lin: Here and There,” Pace Gallery
  • “Open Work in Latin America, New York & Beyond: Conceptualism Reconsidered, 1967–1978,” Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College
  • “Body Double: Jasper Johns / Bruce Nauman,” Craig F. Starr Gallery

Films

  • Captain Blood, directed by Michael Curtiz

progress, 1896

“They think that civilization will grow so speedily and triumphantly, and production will become so easy and cheap, that the possessing classes will be able to spare more and more from the great heap of wealth to the producing classes, so that at least these latter will have nothing left to wish for, and all will be peace and prosperity. A futile hope indeed! and one which a mere glance at past history will dispel. For we find as a matter of fact that when we were scarcely emerging from semi-barbarism, when open violence was common, and privilege need put on no mask before the governed classes, the workers were not worse off than now, but better. In short, not all the discoveries of science, not all the tremendous organization of the factory and the market will produce true wealth, so long as the end and aim of it all is the production of profit for the privileged classes.”

(William Morris, from “The Last May Day,” originally published in Justice, 1 May 1896; p. 305 in News from Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs.)

samuel r. delany, “the mad man”

The_Mad_Man_(Samuel_R._Delaney_novel_-_cover_art)Samuel R. Delany
The Mad Man
(Richard Kasak Books, 1994)


The Mad Man seems to be more neglected than most of Delany’s books, perhaps because, like his more recent Dark Reflections and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, it’s fiction but with the science fiction kept to a minimum. The Mad Man‘s protagonist, John Marr (named, presumably, after a sailor remembered by Melville in one of his poems) is a grad student living in New York from the late 1970s to the early 1990s; he’s attempting to write a biography of a brilliant (and imaginary) Korean-American philosopher somewhat reminiscent of Wittgenstein whose work came to a premature end when he was stabbed to death in a bar frequented by hustlers. John Marr’s life inevitably comes to resemble that of Timothy Hasler; his biography never really happens, though he does solve the mystery of what happened to Hasler. In its broad outlines, the literary detective story seems overly familiar, though perhaps this wasn’t quite the case in 1994.

While the plot does provide a comfortable framework for The Mad Man, there isn’t quite enough of it to hoist the novel’s 500 pages; for most of that, it seems incidental to what’s actually going on in the book. Though it’s written well enough, this book isn’t easy to read because of just how graphic it is. Marr has a taste for extreme behavior, particularly with homeless men; there are extended descriptions of urolagnia and coprophilia. While the book is certainly prurient, its pornographic aspects would appeal to a presumably small audience, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s written primarily to titillate. Nor does Delany’s aim seem to be to shock: the situations described might arouse repulsion or disgust in many readers, but that isn’t really a reaction that can be extended for twenty pages at a time, as frequently happens here.

What Delany seems to be doing, rather, is to use fiction as a method of presenting ways of living and behaviors that are unfamiliar to many in his audience. This didactic aim is shown early: Marr writes a long letter to Sam, a sheltered ex-girlfriend married to a professor who gives up his work on Hasler out of disgust. Sam has written Marr a letter of concern about AIDS (the year is 1984); Marr finds her response tokenizing, but rather than angrily calling her out, he writes her a letter of 72 pages narrating his sexual life as he lives it. Sam tokenizes because she doesn’t actually understand anything about how John Marr lives his life; if she is to change, she needs to know what he’s going through rather than sensationalized accounts in the news and inadequate depictions of gay life in the media that she’s seeing even in an educated context. As a method of attaining realism, the epistolary strategy quickly strains credibility (as it has in fiction since Richardson); but Sam is a cartoon of a character. She serves more as an idealized stand-in for the reader: against all odds, Marr’s stratagem works, and five years later she replies noting that she’s ditched her creepy husband for a female lover and apologizing for her heteronormative views.

What comes through to the reader is Delany’s capacity for empathy. Marr’s desires seem extreme: the men that he is sexually interested in tend to be homeless and in rough shape, drunk priapistic exhibitionists coated in a staggering variety of bodily fluids. To someone who doesn’t share Marr’s desires, this seems almost ludicrous: there are the sort of people everyone moves away from on the subway because of their smell. Marr gives away little of his back story; we can’t psychologize a motivation for his desires. (At one point, indeed, he resists this: a bartender at a gay bar claims that he, like many of his patrons, is gay because he was molested as a child; Marr says that nothing like that happened to him.) What’s left to the reader is to judge Marr and his companions based on their acts: and while these are presented in a way that suggests degradation, Marr’s narration makes it clear that he feels a great deal of affection for his partners; his urine-soaked relations with one man even blossom into domestic contentment at the end of the book.

While this is a gritty book in many aspects, presenting a street view of the ravages of AIDS in New York in the 1980s, there’s also a strongly utopian aspect to it. Marr and his lovers genuinely care about each other; the sexual adventures almost uniformly end happily. Almost everyone Marr runs into turns out to share his predilections, which almost certainly also defies the laws of probability. (One notes, of course, that Marr’s letter to Sam points out that he withholds a great deal whenever he presents himself to others, even in the explicit letter that he’s writing; this theme is echoed across the book.) But one of the things that comes across most strongly in the book is the sense of community that sexual contact brings about: Marr’s encounters with strangers cut entirely across the lines of class, society, and race. In a way, they’re ideal citizens, even if they inhabit a less than perfect society.

Aspects of this book might seem overly familiar to those who have read Delany’s non-fiction: John Marr’s reaction to the AIDS crisis seems similar to Delany’s as presented in 1984: Selected Letters, and the descriptions of porn theaters is much the same as in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, including the rhetorical device where Delany patiently explains what goes on in the porn theaters to a straight woman. Delany insists here and elsewhere that oral sex doesn’t transmit AIDS, and complains that serious studies haven’t been done on the sexual practices responsible for spreading the virus. For what it’s worth, I read the first edition of this book; a revised edition came out in 2002, though I’m not sure what the changes were, and I’d be curious on what Delany thinks of this book now. (The particular copy I read came from the library of the Center for Fiction; if the library card’s accurate, it’s never been checked out, though Delany signed the copy in a shaky hand in 2011.)

the knowledge of how things are piloted in their courses

“. . . Wisdom is whole; the knowledge of how things are piloted in their courses by all other things, is that wonderful Kentucky classics professor’s translation of ‘εν τὸ σοφόν·’επίστασθαι γνωμην ‘οτεη κυβερνησαι ραντα δια παντων. (Of course nobody knows what that ‘οτεη means; we read it as though it were an archaic form of, or even a misprint for, ‘όκη.) Siebert’s translation of Diels, however, gives the fragment as The wise is one thing only, to understand the thoughts that steer everything through everything. Epigraph for “The Mad Man”: παντα δια παντων . . .”

(Samuel R. Delany, The Mad Man, p. 67.)

april 16–30, 2013

Books

  • Aldous Huxley, Island
  • Nanni Ballestrini, The Unseen, trans. Liz Heron
  • Edward Lucie-Smith, ed., Holding Your Eight Hands: An Anthology of Science Fiction Verse
  • Rachel Kushner, Telex from Cuba
  • Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English
  • Florent Ruppert & Jérôme Mulot, Barrel of Monkeys, trans. Peter Birkemoe
  • Cyrus Highsmith, Inside Paragraphs: Typographic Fundamentals

Films

  • Убийцы (The Killers), directed by Andrey Tarkovsky

Exhibits

  • “The Brother In Elysium: Artwork and Publications by Jon Beacham, 2008–2013,” Boo-Hooray
  • “B. Wurtz and Triple Canopy: History Works,” Bureau