Delany's Dirt

by Ray Davis

(Published in Ash of Stars, ed. James Sallis, University Press of Mississippi)
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II. Digression: Sex Without Porn

"Oh, I lied and lied in that book!"
-- Equinox, p. 76
... Honesty is the best policy; a policy is, after all, a strategy for living in the polis -- in the city ...
-- The Mad Man, p. 78 [ellipses in original]
Admittedly, there's a difference between treating sex "honestly" as just one (very important) part of life, and treating sex "fantastically" as the only matter worth one's focused attention, as porn does. But there are very few works which do treat sex honestly as a part of life. Delany has supplied a good portion of those few examples, and he supplied them only after beginning to work with pornography.

Despite its energy and charm, Delany's early work was weakened by sentimental clichés which may have been daring within science fiction, but which were pretty familiar outside it. Though sexual experience and desire seem to spur much of the early fiction, the young Delany's active imagination and close observation weren't enough to break the established forms by which art (and, more specifically, the commercially constricted science fiction of the early 1960s) tames the erotic. We find them in the hollow pairings-off of The Fall of the Towers, the wistfully vague romantic memories of Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, the ubiquitous unfathomable bare feet and bitten nails, the soft-focus parade of artist-criminals....

Most often considered "about sex" is Delany's award-winning story, "Aye, and Gomorrah". It remains his most reactionary treatment of the subject, a Gravity-Well of Loneliness whose perverts are miserable by nature. Delany may have meant to satirize the mainstream media's redirection of lust towards untouchable unsexed icons, but instead I'm reminded of the old belief that lesbians, by definition, must be frustrated -- since, after all, they can't do anything. As one of the story's "frelks" laments: "A pervert substitutes something unattainable for 'normal' love: the homosexual, a mirror, the fetishist, a shoe or a watch or a girdle."

Now really, what could be more satisfyingly attainable than a shoe?[3]

A year or so later, "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" takes a conventionally tragic attitude towards its prominently-featured masochist -- "'Boy,' I said, trying to keep despair out of my voice, 'why do you do it?'" -- even though the narrator himself has soundly whipped the boy at least once! If that scar-raising scene had occurred on stage, the sentiment's hypocrisy would've been too obvious to maintain; contrast it with Kid's treatment of Denny in Dhalgren, for example, or with Return to Nevèrÿon's meditations on S&M.

Between the early work and the mature work came two experiments in pornography, a form able to portray desire with all the resources of realistic fiction. I believe that porn showed Delany a way to transform his love of poésie maudit into something more original, more rigorously fictional, than the suffering and insufferable fin-de-siècle artist who's still part of pop culture's stock company.

Beginning with Triton, Delany's novels and autobiographical work, as well as many of his essays, center sexual issues to such an extent that one can easily imagine them, in some alternate universe (or just some different time), being writeable and publishable only as porn. Delany's role in keeping those issues visible, beyond porn's constrictions of form and distribution, is one of the supreme accomplishments of a supremely accomplished career.

But that accomplishment doesn't eliminate the genre's special attractions. The fantasy of porn requires no more (or less) justification than any other form of fantasy, and the rules of porn can be just as enticing as the rules of any other form of writing. There are still things which are most easily shown "in sleazy books or in... what do they call them -- underground comics?" (Equinox, p. 106).


[3]For a contrasting view, I recommend Earl Jackson Jr.'s recent Strategies of Deviance: Studies in Gay Male Representation (Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 108-111), which I first read after finishing a draft of this essay. Independently, Jackson imagines a reading much like my own, only to discard such a reading as "the most impoverished interpretation of the text and the most ungenerous evaluation of Delany's achievement." Rather than taking the frelk's speech as an unmediated message from the author (as I might well be accused of doing), Jackson uses it to explore the Lacanian ramifications of a desire for that which explicitly lacks desire and of an orientation which explicitly lacks sex.
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Copyright 1996 Ray Davis