By Ava Kofman
November 20, 2012
To say “Last month Samuel R. Delany came to campus to deliver the Brudner Lecture” is to feel satisfied upon finding only a naked shoulder in a bunched up quilt. You do not ask, Where is the body?
To say “lecture” is to collapse his caress of sound into instruction and to limit his folded field of sense to a reductive pedagogical format. Delany came to Yale’s campus and delivered everything but a lecture. You might say, rather, that he gave everything the lecture gives, and more. He gave a shoulder that is both shoulder and body.
I cast my vote for the “everything-but” interpretation. I say, fuck the lecture. But either way, both can serve to explain how his talk, “The View From the Valley’s Edge, Part 1: Letter at 70,” was an invitation, extended to a reader, to a close confidant, to an intellectually titanic equal, to a lover, to you—an invitation, extended graciously, to reflect on sex, the form of the novel, and sex as the novel.
His letter began with “something from the observed world.” With long winding sentences, which surprisingly took in little wind, Delany described the street scene unfolding “under the string of unfrosted bulbs” below his apartment window. It was not long, however, before he meditated on sex, “the most important and powerful human drive we have,” which he thinks, “despite Freud,” is the least well understood.
He continued this discursive meditation with another candid, well-phrased observation: “My novels contain a lot of sex,” he told us, adding that sex was not typically written about in literature. To write about sex, Delany said, is to transgress, and yet, “we live in a society that doesn’t acknowledge the joy that can come from transgression.” That joy, however, is not the same as pure sexual pleasure.
For Delany, the “most interesting thing about sex” is not the part where the reader/character is “turned on” or “turned off.” Rather, to write about sex is to imagine literature as a space for new possibilities. As evidence, he artfully recounted the history of sex—and sex on trial—in literature. (And how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list! Joyce, Lawrence, de Sade, Gide, Nabokov, Ginsberg—and so on…)
As literature, especially the extrapolations afforded by science fiction, provides a place for new communities, Delany’s latest associative, accretive novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders imagines a world with an active, rather than reactive, method of contraceptive control. In the book, male and female normally act with “all systems off,” and so to “turn all systems on” for reproduction, they both must simultaneously take a pill. This is not fantasy, Delany noted, but rather a pragmatic solution for what now appears to be an untenable reality. As evidence, Delany asked us to consider the state of our puritanical nation, where casual sex is still taboo but adulthood has been linked to childbearing and the biblical imperative to “go forth and multiply.” The irony, he said, is that the nation most capable of dissociating sex from procreation will be the nation best equipped to handle the global overpopulation crisis.
Delany’s life contains more sex than his books. A typical day in the life of the twenty-something Delany consisted of an eight- to ten-hour day of work, punctuated by sexual encounters with thirteen or fourteen different contacts. In the documentary The Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman, screened at Yale during the week of his visit, his days seem to achieve a sort of rhythmic perfection: writing, having sex at the 2nd Avenue station, writing, maybe lunch, having sex with half a dozen people in Tomkins Square, again writing, making dinner for his wife, rounded out, at last, by an “evening constitutional” along the Williamsburg Bridge—which, of course, was a euphemism for having sex with another four to five people. Of the sex, he said, “It made the work bearable. You felt like you were having a fairly interesting life.” Which he certainly does. (It might be worth noting here that Delany estimates he’s had over 50,000 sexual contacts in his lifetime.)
His work has been informed and shaped by his own unceasing embrace of the voracious pleasures of virility. As such, his sexual experiences are deeply connected to his conception of the novel as a “great aesthetic form.” The index of greatness for the novel, he says, lies in the richness of its social experience and its “range of social representations.” In Delany’s vision of the Great Novel, the cornerstones of human experience––labor, recreation, life, death–––unfold. And it is these social relations, which he defines in negative relation to “poetic material,” that fundamentally constitute the novel’s structural material. Characters’ desires and wants emerge from money, and from the links and problems it establishes with their need for goods and for pleasure.
Delany refuses to believe that his students’ belief in the “deep mysterious thing called psychology” holds the novel together. His materialist view trumps any rickety Freudian topologies. The world of the novel, like our world, is made of the Haves and the Have-Nots, whose relationships and communities are constituted by the spectrum of exchange, negotiation, and desire that lies in between.
Much like his lecture, his oeuvre switches style and purpose often, but it’s unified by the larger thematic thrust “to make you comfortable living in the real world.” Delany has published twenty-five books of fiction and has worked, also to much acclaim, in the genres of graphic novel (scripting a Wonder Woman comic for Marvel where she’s a feminist secret agent), essay, memoir, and theory—sometimes all at once. When introducing Delany’s “lecture,” Professor of English and African American Studies GerShun Avilez said, “His fiction reads like theoretical text and [his] critical prose reads like poetry.”
Delany writes as he lives, and so he lives as he writes. He constantly crosses genres of consciousness and sexuality and through this crossing helps us to rewrite and reconsider the way these arbitrary boundaries function in the first place. In Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Delany refuses to identify the genders of his characters, and by the end of the novel readers stop caring at all. This novel imagines, successfully, a space where gender is a secondary and non-essential consideration.
Can’t you see? Sex and sexuality are more than just vivifying activities for Delany. “Our humanity,” it seems, is defined by its very investment in keeping the activity by which it is constituted—sexual reproduction—“outside the world of public language.”
It is fitting that Delany thinks the “only thing that can be taught” about writing is to teach others to be more observant of “what went on in the world.” Fitting because Delany himself infuses the store of public language with glittering meanings and observations. Because of this, it is also fitting that Delany sees the novelist as a “polyphonic ventriloquist”—one who can tap into any appropriate mode, style, or situation, and who can access an ego larger than any single voice. To spend an hour listening to Delany is to be wrapped in a maw of ideas, insights, accomplishment, and uncertainty that sublates the scope of any single appetitive, spirited, and rational soul.
At this point, it should be no surprise that Delany crossed the boundary of the letter in a literal sense that evening. In a particularly trippy turn of perspective, he spoke as the recipient of his letter to describe his own book; in another collision of worlds, he addressed us directly as his esteemed critics: “I’ve always been a novelist fueled by criticism. Not to mention, yours.” Recipients and addressees all, we were to follow him to strange places as he quilted the street below his window, his own libidinous excess, the historical rise of the novel into a fractal of interactions.
“The View From the Valley’s Edge” must also be that spectacular view from the top of the mountain: at once deeply empathetic and omnisciently critical. Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.