Delany's Dirt

by Ray Davis

(Published in Ash of Stars, ed. James Sallis, University Press of Mississippi)
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III. Equinox

It is a magic book. Words mean things. When you put them together they speak. Yes, sometimes they flatten out and nothing they say is real, and that is one kind of magic. But sometimes a vision will rip up from them and shriek and clank wings clear as the sweat smudge on the paper under your thumb. And that is another kind.
-- Equinox, p. 163
"Underground comics" are an appropriate association. Equinox's characters are cartoons, and explicitly described as such. It's the only time Delany approached the flat affect of pop-culture experiments like Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness. There's a narrative of sorts, but the book seems at first, like early issues of Zap, a sequence of fascinating panels which form no greater pattern.

In Equinox I'm bothered by faults typical of Delany's '60s novels: the book's "absent presence," wicked Duchessa Catherine, is not built up enough to have the resonance required -- I picture her callowly played by the young Jane Fonda in leather pants, which certainly is not the idea; chief orgy-instigator Jonathan Proctor is too pompous to gain any reader's trust; in the last chapter, our supposed protagonist, the Captain, writes that "there can't be any more magicians because I have learned how that works," but the pivotal lesson must've occurred off-stage, where he's spent most of the previous eighty pages....

In my first readings fifteen years ago, the old-fashioned decadent atmosphere of the novel seemed meant to bear more weight than it could possibly handle. Equinox, like its immediate predecessor Nova, is self-conciously decadent to an outlandish extent -- one chapter is rather cruelly titled after John Ruskin,[4] with an epigraph by Valéry! Decadence is a protective pose for both its actor and its audience; self-aware, self-dismissive, and certainly not passionate, its admission into society is an admission of failure. Thus it was possible for Robert Elliot Fox, in an otherwise insightful essay on Triton and Equinox,[5] to keep the latter at arm's length with gloves on.

Yet I kept returning to Equinox over the years, particularly to those protagonistless eighty pages which provide half the novel's bulk. Though nothing else might be clear about the book, its hold was clearly tenacious.

If Equinox is finally more interesting to me than Nova, it's because its decadence -- in all its desperate confusion -- finds fuller, more accurate expression. Even more than in The Einstein Intersection, in Equinox, confusion is both a narrative theme and the most insistent stylistic effect: confusion of voice, of sexuality, of narrative form, of audience, and even of reading protocol, as the Captain broaches in his log, remembering his encounter with Joanna Russ's brilliant short story, "The View From This Window"[6]:

The first paragraph had all sorts of words and colors like science fiction, so I got my mind all ready with this attention.
The story didn't mean anything to me!
I didn't know what it was about. But everything was clear and mysterious, bright and mixed up. Three pages to the end, I realized it was a story about a woman teaching school who gets one of her students to bed with her. I read it again. The story was clear. Only the first paragraph was like science fiction, and it was for the feeling, I think. My attention, you see, turned everything different.
I want to write about me so that it happens when you read it like the first way I read that story.
-- Equinox, p. 27
And the first way you read this story?

Well, the book's "plot" is pure contrivance of a sort often found in commercial porn: Will the "healthy buck" who captains the good ship Scorpion achieve a seventh orgasm in the twelve-hour period which commences in the first chapter? That goal, arbitrarily decided on by the Captain, is later arbitrarily declared the trigger for a new "age of moral chaos" by magician-artist-debauchee, Jonathan Proctor.

To this quest for the seventh coming, Proctor conjoins the offputtingly vague goal of teaching his long-time associate, Catherine, a sharp lesson by making her the centerpiece of a massive orgy -- which, on the face of it, is unlikely to "destroy" her, since she's said to be even more steeped in debauchery than he is.

And indeed, once stated, this second ambition is returned to only to point out its absurdity, much as the first ambition is returned to only to point out its triviality. Instead of focusing on those stated goals, the book wanders from character to character, episode to episode, style to style, like a roué casting about idly for some fresh stimulation.

Desiring some more secure structural hold, the reader is likely to seize upon Faust, since each chapter is headed by a quote from a different recounting of the story, and two of the novel's characters (Proctor and the Captain's first mentor, Herr Bildungs) explicitly compare themselves to the earlier magician.

But on a closer look, Faust appears to supply rhymes rather than theme. The book's impact is not that of the legend; rather, details from previous versions of the legend reflect on details of the book which quotes them. Camp Concentration's delivery of "irrevocable damnation and despair" as "nothing more than an epigram," for example, is one of the effects Delany's often stilted prose aims for, although there is no obvious dialogue between Equinox as a whole and Camp Concentration as a whole. The Icarus-variation of a 1565 Faust tale heads the chapter which describes a horrendous hallucinogenic trip -- but that trip is not taken by a magician. And so forth.

Proctor insists on casting the Captain as the "black devil" to his own Faustus, but the essentially passive Captain is no more Mephistopheles than his dog (also called "black devil") is. The Captain has little interest in changing the course of Proctor's life, much less the course of the world; he merely plays a part in Proctor's absurd plan to build a hell of pleasure in heaven's despite. In this version, Mephistopheles is only in Hell when Faustus brings him there:

"We have done a tiny bit to free the darkies in this country. But the devil is still very much our slave."
-- Equinox, p. 60

And, as in Blake, the sufferings of Hell are actively created by the perceivers:

"It's their law, not ours."
-- Equinox, p. 170
Given the book's wavering point-of-view and point-of-control, where can we find a central perceiver, a central magician? For me, the keys are Herr Bildungs's guiding principle --
"Always remember the objects you are working with. When you make a bridge, remember you are putting steel on stone and dirt. [...] Some day you will write poems to a little girl: marks with ink on paper. [...] When you are making love, you are moving flesh against flesh. That is the basis of all magic."
-- Equinox, p. 30
-- and the following quote from Doctor Faustus:
Now will I make all the maidens in our parish dance at my pleasure, stark naked before me; and so by that means I shall see more than e'er I felt or saw before.
-- Equinox, p. 79
This quote heads "Homunculi," first in a sequence of three chapters which cover an orgy, an enthusiastically willing turn-out in an alleyway, several grossly comic and erotic tales of bisexual incest, a discourse on the limits of fantasy, a murder-by-rape, a discourse on the purposes of the book and of the characters within it, an assault, the most effective depiction of a hallucinogenic trip I've ever read, a discourse on the failures of the book and of the characters within it, an amusing joke about painters, and a murder-by-decree. (Yes, these are the "protagonistless eighty pages" I earlier referred to.) The shift in this sequence is well illustrated by the contrast between the pseudo-sadistic genre conventions of the first chapters -- merely boorishly brusque transitions to The Good Parts ("Turn over!") -- and the horrifically anti-erotic rape of the innocent in "The Stones of St. Mark" chapter, the most realistic treatment I've seen in pre-1970s fiction.

I'm tempted to say that Delany is showing the power of the "real" over the "imaginary," but that would be foolish sentimentality. Delany has power over his characters' fates, and makes clear his complicity: "(She cannot fight. Watch her beautiful fear. I will not let her fight.)" (Equinox, p. 135). What is being shown is a shifting of imaginative focus: an attempt to speak truthfully in a genre marked as both offputtingly honest and offputtingly artificial. In wet dreams begin responsibilities as well as responses.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is a tragedy of imagination's limits; at extremes of high and low comedy, the limits are those of lust. Porn, being the expression of desire, is always an early product of creative omnipotence. ("What would you do with unlimited power?" movie ads ask, answering with a photograph of a supermodel.) The central magician of Equinox is thus the pornographic writer, taking the devil's dare to write fantasies into material form. And, finished in the autumn of 1968, the book's "equinox" is its own unstable age, bound to topple into one chaos or another; authoring such a book is, willy-nilly, a nudge to that instability. The book's difficulties with publication demonstrate well enough just which flavor of chaos won out.

Jonathan Proctor, overseer and casting director, unconvincing though he might be as a stand-in for Faust, makes sense as a stand-in for the author -- but only if he is one stand-in among many. Porn lusts to know, or to invent, the lust of others. Proctor alone, with his baroque disengagement, can no more fulfill that lust than the disarmingly straightforward Captain, alone, can. Lacking a fully satisfying point-of-view, the author is forced to address the reader directly: through the Captain's log, in narrative asides, and, most outrageously, within dialogue issuing from a variety of characters:

"Yeah, nigger, you better grin. Niggers can't smile in this book."
-- Equinox, p. 87
"There are more of us than most of you think. Correction: there are more of us than most people who will read this will think. That is a truth: and that this book contains one is what makes it dangerous."
-- Equinox, p. 120
"And perhaps they, in whose honor we perform, will (inspired by us, shadows though we are) move a step nearer the entrance of the labyrinth -- which is so cunningly reduplicated about itself that, even with feet on both sides of the final doorsill, it is still impossible to be sure whether movement in either direction will take one out or in."
-- Equinox, p. 148
This contested narrative, with its crossweave of authorial puppets, conveys its own odd poignance. When the Captain writes that his may be "a bad book," but "it would be too much trouble to have write this down then to tear it up," one senses the conflicting emotions involved in creating any art that "contains a truth." Proctor's disdain for narrative and for subjective identification gives him power but also blinds him; or at least the novel with which his paintings are sometimes conflated contains important information which he lacks. In the most disturbing display of his lack of omniscience, Proctor imparts mellow wisdom and sympathy to both the novel's non-initiates before expelling them from his haven -- to their deaths, which follow almost immediately after.

Artistically ambitious porn -- the sort of thing which is sold to the mainstream with blurbs like "Erotic!" and "Sizzling!" -- suffers from a compulsion to turn any story of obsessive sensuality into a story of degradation and death. By punishing the two most innocent characters of the novel and leaving the novel's monsters of vice happily free, Delany obtains the formal satisfaction of this default storyline without its hypocrisy. Instead, in Equinox, as in many other works by Delany, the leading cause of death is social ignorance. Form and symmetry are "icily instructive" (as Delany writes in his dedication) because they distance the worker from the object; much is sacrificed in objectification, true, but objective mastery of material determines one's own survival when the "material" is human. Such analysis comes naturally to porn as the genre which most obviously objectifies while most obviously addressing the human need for contact.

Equinox is porn written by a sharp-eyed tourist; it is about porn, much more than it is about sex or such ephemera as character, story, and setting. The Captain and Catherine both mistakenly identify each other as paragons of "complete, unbridled lust" in their first encounter: pornographic desire idealizes the viewed, but on close inspection finds only a mirror, only a choice between figuratively-fatal self-consciousness and literally-fatal lack of awareness. As the artist looks into the givens of the genre, skeptically testing the limits of pornotopia (the imagined world in which sex is all), the characters arise from --

"So Faust seeks to gather to him a greater public; one who, by definition, will participate. You have been consorting with them these past hours. They generate in the tensions of the diction that describes them."
-- Equinox, p. 120
-- and fall prey to the insupportable symmetry -- fantasizing writer, fantasizing reader -- which splits porn's core dream of all-devouring passion.

Having so acidly explored the limits of porn in his first attempt, why would Delany return to the form? There is a type of artist who masters a new tool or technique by composing an analytical virtuoso piece, and who, having taken that tool thoroughly apart, then feels free to use it as simply another tool. (Compare Antonioni's use of color in Red Desert with his use of color in The Passenger.) In fact, Equinox ends with nervous jokes about the "new age" it's initiated, a retreat back to the sea, and a preview of Delany's next porn novel:

"Where are we going now?" Gunner asked. "I liked the big one, with the gun."
The captain laughed. [...] "The big one with the gun, hey? Stay around one like that for a week and you'll scare yourself to death."
-- Equinox, p. 169

[4]The chapter is "The Stones of St. Mark," probably referring to the low-lives swarming below St. Mark's church as described in The Stones of Venice. It's safe to say that Ruskin's aesthetic is not Delany's; witness his reaction to a painting by Murillo: "Do not call this the painting of nature: it is mere delight in foulness. [...] We all know that a beggar's bare foot cannot be clean; there is no need to thrust its degradation into the light, as if no human imagination were vigorous enough for its conception." (The Stones of Venice, v. II, p. 194)

[5]"The Politics of Desire in Delany's Triton and The Tides of Lust", Black American Literature Forum, Summer 1984, pp. 49-56.

[6]Published in Quark/1, ed. Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker, 1970.


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Copyright 1996 Ray Davis