Bellona Times
. . . Topics . . .   . . . Annals/Logs . . .
Search for word or phrase:
Responses welcomed
. . . 2002-04-01


Today Samuel R. Delany is 60 years old.

Delany more than any other writer of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is truly dedicated to and efficacious in building better American citizens, and so this should really be a national holiday and Delany himself subsidized as a national treasure -- with a PBS documentary series, and statues in every city, and appropriate selections publicly taught at each grade level -- it's not like he would stop writing; on the contrary, he would be able to write much more -- but the USA doesn't tend to do such things, so I recommend in default that everyone who reads this go to their nearest bookstore and buy as many Samuel R. Delany books as they can afford and, should they be a Hollywood producer, also buy a good many Samuel R. Delany film rights, and that way maybe he would still be able to write much more. (ATTN Will Smith's agent: The Motion of Light in Water is the EPIC SAGA of a GENERATION shown via the TRUE STORY of a GENIUS who TRIUMPHANTLY OVERCOMES a NERVOUS BREAKDOWN! OSCAR OSCAR OSCAR)

I wanted to find a good summation statement from Delany's out-of-print work to stick here, but even when pressed he tends not to waste time summing up his own work, so here's what I wrote for The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors, although editorial requirements forced me to sorely constrict myself on the nonfiction and the mainstream fiction and actually pretty much on everything:

An ambitious autodidact in the grand tradition, Samuel R. Delany has been called the "most individual of America's individualist writers." For four decades and in a half-dozen genres, Delany has outraged and comforted readers with formally innovative, determinedly eclectic, and uniquely heartfelt work.

Kathy Acker described his fiction as "a conversation between you and Samuel Delany about the possibilities of being human." Unlike many exploiters of "transgression," Delany seems driven by the desire to honestly communicate previously unspoken human experience; even his grungiest material is surprisingly warm in tone. As William Gibson wrote, "I remember being simply and frequently grateful to Delany for so powerfully confirming that certain states had ever been experienced at all, by anyone."

Delany's early work exuberantly cross-bred space opera conventions with linguistic theory, female starship commanders, sexual triads, sword-wielding Orphic avatars, artist-criminals, pop culture, and the emotional complexities of sadomasochism. This phase ended in 1968 with the publication of his super-science swashbuckler Nova and the writing of his first pornographic novel, the Grand Guignol fantasy Equinox.

After a long silence, Delany re-emerged in the mid-1970s with three startling novels: Hogg (unpublished until 1995), a clear-eyed depiction of professional rapists and sexual exploitation of children, and perhaps the most effectively offensive work in American literature; Dhalgren, the portrait of a bisexual drifter in a late 1960s city, and a massive hybrid of era-summarizing ambition, hyper-naturalist technique, science fictional motifs, poetics, urban gangs, and structuralist theory; and Trouble on Triton, an "ambiguous heterotopia" which seamlessly blends interplanetary warfare, Jamesian character-determined prose, and feminist satire while describing a blond hetero hero's imagined victories and true defeats.

An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany published in 1979 the first volume of his archeological fantasy series Return to Nevèrÿon, a "Child's Garden of Semiotics" (complete with slave revolts,women warriors, dragons, bondage, an alternative Genesis, and the invention of writing) that was to occupy him on and off through the next ten years. The disarmingly straightforward approach of the series contrasted with 1984's rococo Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a tragedy of intercultural-interspecies communication and sexuality which remains to date Delany's last science fiction novel.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Delany devoted himself to criticism, autobiography, and studies of interracial and interclass urban relations. Often the strains are intertwined, as in The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction in the East Village, a beautiful and moving account of the early 1960s. The effect of AIDS on the sexual cultures and industries of Manhattan became a focal point in Delany's writing with the fantasy-journalism layering of "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," and continuing in his pornographic mystery The Mad Man (in which a young African-American scholar finds true love with a homeless redneck and true satisfaction with a considerably wider range of partners), and in a forthcoming book on Times Square.

+ + +

This is also the 355th birthday of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and what better way to remember the not-quite-national-over-there-either holiday than by pressing on to remember his most celebrated hoax?

In 1675 or 1676, possibly due to the discovery of "In th' isle of Britain" (a favorite of mine if not of Charles II), Rochester was banished from Court longer than usual, long enough to become bored enough to get into more elaborate trouble than usual. Thus he moved into the suburbs of London, disguised himself, and set up very successful shop as the noted quack doctor Alexander Bendo.

The Count de Grammont assures us:

Among all the compositions of a ludicrous and satirical kind, there never existed any that could be compared to those of Lord Rochester, either for humour, fire, or wit; but, of all his works, the most ingenious and entertaining is that which contains a detail of the intrigues and adventures in which he was engaged, while he professed medicine and astrology in the suburbs of London.
Sadly, that composition, having circulated only in manuscript, has been lost, unless it's in some bishop's safe-deposit box somewhere.

Happily, "Doctor Bendo"'s advertising spiel, having been issued as an infomercial pamphlet, has survived. (In fact, it's probably the only genuine Rochester work to be printed by Rochester himself.) In honor of the occasion, I skip ahead in the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont to share it with you:

I'll only say something to the honour of the Mountebank, in case you discover me to be one. Reflect a little what kind of creature 'tis, he is one then who is fain to supply some higher ability he pretends to, with Craft, he draws great companies to him by undertaking strange things which can never be effected. The Politician (by his example no doubt) finding how the people are taken with specious, miraculous, impossibilities, plays the same game; protests, declares, promises I know not what things, which he's sure can ne'er be brought about; the people believe, are deluded and pleased; the expectation of a future good which shall never befall them draws their eyes off a present evil: Thus are they kept and establish'd in subjection, peace, and obedience; he in greatness, wealth, and power....

. . . 2002-04-07

Aline's People "I think it’s guaranteed that for the rest of my life that she’ll never ask me about myself or my work."
An Experiment in Error

When prying at the purported origins of art in neurosis, it's good to remember that we've implicitly defined this here "art" of ours more by its publication than by its mere production. Setting dynastic brats aside (hopefully to be crushed by speeding trucks or eaten by bears), perhaps one reason so many twentieth century artists come from unsupportive families is that they're less worried about familial reactions to their art, either because their family is uninterested in anything they do or because their family is unlikely to venture near its published context or because who cares what those losers think? (And similar for low-to-no-status day jobs with uninterested employers.)

We can easily test this hypothesis. A pink portrait of bestiality is safe from Ma & Pa Philistine on the local café's walls; a "My Sister Was Raped & All I Got Was This Crummy Poem" can be comfortably tucked into a little-teensy magazine, or a hilariously flip sexual boast into a fanzine interview -- but as soon as your boss or cousin grows unaccountably tired of watching the Game Show Channel and decides to try your name in a search engine, the jig is jug-jugged tereu.

Thus, assuming that the web stays the course, we might predict:

  1. Even more extreme levels of dysfunctionality among those who dare to publish under their own names, unless those names are index-swampers like "Jack Smith"
  2. Much second-thought yanking of web-relocated material (I myself have been asked to remove a hiliariously flip sexual boast or two)
  3. As in past centuries of self-publishing, greater reliance on anonymity or pseudonymity
All of which is fine. I just hope to Jesus H. Fish on a Bicycle that our world-wide wash won't continue to be polluted by identity thieves like "Charles Dodgson" (proprieter of the unfortunately worthwhile Through the Looking Glass) or, more unforgivable because harder to disenGoogle, "Robert Musil" (of another weblog). Didn't their mamas teach those boys that it's polite to append a ", Jr." to such tributes?

Obviously not, so jot a winner beside predicted result no. 1!

. . . 2002-04-08

Goodbye, Judy Tuesday

Best-tailored eBay auction ever?

"Thanks for looking."

+ + +

Cri de cur

All I ever wanted out of life were a couple of pathetic delusions.

Was that really too much to ask?

. . . 2002-04-09


Eclogues spends a lot of time being right. As for example the April 9th, 2002, entry which firmly and properly positions anti-Oprah-Book-Club tightlipped sniffery into a long tradition of attacks on "women's books," to which I can only add a) in English, the tradition actually extends at least to the late 1600s, when women first became professional writers, and b) well, I actually don't have anything else to add, 'cause when I tried I realized that Eclogues had already said it.

Being at present irritably unemployed with an Internet connection, I also followed Eclogues' rustyc pypes [February 22nd, 2002 entry] to an irritating Internet time-waster that purports to disclose conflicts in one's philosophical assumptions, and which, true to my smug preconception, made a fool of itself by telling me that there was a conflict between my passing of moral judgment and my admission that morality is culturally (as well as, to a lesser extent and although they didn't mention it, individually) relative. They might as well find a contradiction between "All men are mortal" and "Some guy will outlive me." Of course I pass moral judgments; I, as an individual, am part of a culture (or two or three), and that's one of the things that us individuals in cultures do to pass our irritable time. That doesn't mean I'm blind to the existence of differing views. It just means I want mine to win.

Even more irritating, given the popup ads on every page, was the Ethical Philosophy Selector which after a tedious questionnaire selected "Sartre" as my ideal thinker. Which is merely to say that the questionnaire showed me to be no philosopher. It's like testing my singing voice and then telling me that my favorite musician must be Mark E. Smith. Philosophy isn't a genre of belief, but of discussion.

That's what's always been wrong with all this automated matching crap, and why search engines, library browsing, and meeting folks at parties still rule supreme:

What's required in a friend isn't resemblance but recognition.

What's desired isn't identity and simultaneity but knowledge and occasional amazement and dependable support.

And as Blake and Newton agreed (hands across the damnation!), there's no support without resistance.

. . . 2002-04-11

Failing towards Freedom : Henry Adams, 1

That the effort to make History a Science may fail, is possible, and perhaps probable; but that it should cease, unless for reasons that would cause all science to cease, is not within the range of experience. Historians will not, and even if they would they cannot, abandon the attempt. Science itself would admit its own failure, if it admitted that man, the most important of all its subjects, could not be brought within its range.
- Henry Adams to the American Historical Association, 12 December 1894

History saw few lessons in the past that would be useful in the future; but one, at least, it did see. The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000, must be even blinder than that of the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance. During a million or two of years, every generation in turn had toiled with endless agony to attain and apply power, all the while betraying the deepest alarm and horror at the power they created.... the mind would continue to react. All the teacher could hope was to teach it reaction.

... Evidently the new American would need to think in contradictions, and instead of Kant's famous four antinomies, the new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law.

- The Education of Henry Adams, 1905

Social studies are an excellent idea; social sciences less so.

The problem springs (and I mean springs) from the confusion of description and prescription, the impulse to apply "knowledge" lickety-split to "practice," a confusion and impulse so built into human nature that only us kinda screwed-up people even perceive it, much less perceive it as a problem. If we try to study "how unhappiness develops," financial pressure will quickly switch us to the more profitable question of "how to prevent unhappiness": psychology turns into therapy, philosophy turns into self-help, sociology turns into genocide, and economics into utter insanity; pro-republic Machiavelli barely advanced into a science of politics before his research became funded and repurposed by Medici Technologies. Sure, everyone wants to be an authority, and that's harmless enough; the trouble is that people expect authorities to give orders.

Luckily if unprofitably, virtually all attempts at formalizing a "humanity" into a "scientific discipline" crumble -- such a relief after straining to hold it together! -- unless one assumes a static monoculture. Historical narratives demonstrably overlap without strictly determining each other, and therefore what's defined as history depends on the observer's chosen focus. Predictive history is impossible because both the facts and their interpretive framework are in the future. Even within a monoculture, even for a single interpeter and for a safely past-and-gone event, newly discovered facts (as Adams often mentions) can completely overturn an interpretation. As a result, the new and glorious science can only be defended by outrageously know-nothing rhetoric -- which hardly makes it a safer foundation for action.

History can only react. It doesn't tell us what to do; it only tells us "I told you so," and that's precisely its value. We need it not because we need prescience but because we need narratives. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fewer and dumber ways of interpreting the present.

+ + +


With horror and dismay I read admiring reviews of John Ashcroft's standup on Letterman, the elite handlers having convinced him to swap his Montgomery Burns for a Ned Flanders.

Not with surprise, though. "How low can they go?" stopped thrilling back in November 2000 when but-daddy-I-want-it-now! editorialists declared our national wound-binder on the basis of "niceness." Reagan demonstrated how aristocrats could turn jes'-folks-shtick directly to their political advantage -- all the CEOs I've met have been good-old-boy as hell anyway (and why shouldn't they seem at ease?) -- and that's been the chastened Bushes' sole study since.

Contrary to his wartime cartoon reputation, Hitler was fully able to shine one on. "He dressed better than Churchill, he was a better dancer than Churchill" -- all true. A politician sells policies, a campaign manager sells politicians, and the wise consumer inspects the fruit, not the professionalism of the pitch. Oh, for the day when the warm sincerity of a hypocrite demogogue meets its proper response!

. . . 2002-04-12

"I determined to think no more of America; but to set off the ensuing morning for the village of Oakland, in quest of my dear Sophia."
- John Thelwall, The Peripatetic, 1793

Economic Wisdom
Photo by Juliet Clark

. . . 2002-04-13

My domain hosts (aka recently celebrated a massive server crash festooned with disk damage and unusable backups. If you sent me email on Thursday or Friday, it might have been lost. Try again?

. . . 2002-04-14

An Orator John Thelwall addressing the crowd in Copenhagen Fields, 1795 - from Caricature History of the Georges
It's all very well to compare a weblogger to Samuel Beckett or Emily Dickinson or William Blake, if by "well" we mean "ridiculous."

Closer analogies exist, however. I recommend John Thelwall to the attention of future analogy-drawers, and if the name of John Thelwall is unfamiliar, well, that's one of the reasons I think it's closer.

Thelwall was a self-educated Londoner who spent most of the 1790s working for free speech and universal suffrage (and therefore most of 1794 in prison). His unlucrative career of debating, lecturing, and publishing was launched by three volumes titled The Peripatetic; or, Sketches of the Heart, of Nature and Society; in a series of Politico-Sentimental Journals, in Verse and Prose, of the Eccentric Excursions of Sylvanus Theophrastus, Supposed to be Written by Himself, well described by the Analytical Review of May 1795:

"The author feels strongly on subjects of political oppression; and writes like an honest friend to his species... The author's design appears to have been to unite the different advantages of the novel, the sentimental journal, and the miscellaneous collection of essays and poetical effusions. The character of the language is rather of ease, than elegance.... We cannot however flatter Mr. T. so far, as to pronounce his style so peculiarly his own as to bear the distinguishing marks of original genius. It is too negligent, and, if we may conjecture, was too hastily written, to receive any characteristic impressions. It is, however, on the whole pleasing, and very naturally and forcibly expresses the writer's ideas and sentiments."
The book includes the thin and scattered pretense of a sentimental novel, but it's clear (and Thelwall freely admits in his Preface) that this "was not originally intended to form any part of the design, till it was suggested... that it might afford a prospect of more extensive circulation." (St. Martin's Press, please note that I could easily throw a couple of good incest-and-murder plots into any proposed reprint of the Hotsy Totsy Club archives.)

What the book more whole-heartedly provides is a meandering sequence of gassy mini-essays and dreadful poetry (which, according to this edition's editor, Judith Thompson, exerted great influence on Thelwall's magpie friend Wordsworth) encompassing speculative medicine, detailed sight-seeing reports, soul-searching over the extent to which a beggar deserves spare change, the causes of war and unemployment, the defects of an English education, historical anecdotes, who's better: Pope or Dryden?, the class hypocrisy of drug wars (the drug du jour being gin), self-congratulations on having gotten down from a scary high cliff, and so on, all fired up by truly blog-worthy righteousness.

A Minister in High Glee Prime Minister Pitt, who, during 1795's grain shortage, suggested that laborers who couldn't afford bread buy meat instead.
Here, for example, is how Thelwall sums up the Wat Tyler story, occasioned by a trip to Dartford, told through quotes from David Hume's "obsequious" history and interrupted by heatedly sarcastic asides:

I, for my part, am no friend to insurrections, to unrelenting vengeance, or even to sanguinary justice; but I appeal to the knowledge and common sense of mankind, whether the uniform conduct of all tyrants has not conspired to teach the world this lesson -- that when once you have got them in your power, you either must lop them off, or they will lop off you?

(And I, for my part, enjoy seeing George III called "a phlegmatic hog.") He closes with nine exclamation marks.

Always pompous, always well-meaning, occasionally insightful, and usually right -- yes, Thelwall seems a fine role model: followable, forgettable, forgivable.

     "... So, sullen fiend! to this dark cavern flies
   The man of crimes -- by hopeless pangs opprest.--
Fiend! thou art here.-- How ghastly glare thy eyes!
   While thy chill touch congeals my shuddering breast.
Come, endless Night! thy thickest mantle spread!
Ye kindred horrors! shriek around my head!"
The vehemence with which this was delivered in some degree alarmed my fellow traveller; but, for my own part, having fallen several times in conversation with persons occasionally visited by temporary fits of extravagance, I have learned to consider them as perfectly innocent, and to leave them to their own correction.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2002 Ray Davis.