Longer Views: Extended Essays.
Robert Elliot Fox Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
Samuel R. Delany is not only a celebrated and prolific author (more than thirty bks to date), but he is also a very gifted thinker - a characteristic which (as we know) is not always associated with either success or productivity. It is very easy to imagine that in a parallel universe nearly contiguous with our own, Delany could have been a renowned mathematician or philosopher. As it is, math and philosophy are two of Delany's interests, two aspects of his wide-ranging erudition. His first claim to fame, of course, is being one of the most exciting and original science fiction writers of the second half of the twentieth century (and the first African American to explore this literary space), to which he has added deserved reputations as one of the most astute critics of SF and as a writer of a demanding form of fantasy that combines the subgenre of sword-and-sorcery with poststructuralist theory - what we might call a hybrid species of critical fiction. And increasingly, with books like Longer Views, Delany is garnering serious attention as an original critical mind, period.
Longer Views, which gathers together some of Delany's lengthier essays, poses a real challenge to any reviewer who isn't as much of a polymath as Delany is. Consider the contents: a piece, subtitled "A Play of 19th and 20th Century Critical Fictions," that reads Richard Wagner and Antonin Artaud in relation to one another; a reading of Donna Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs"; an essay with the permutating title "Aversion/Perversion/Diversion" that deals with gay identity; "Shadow and Ash," a multidiscursive piece that functions, I think, as a partial but perhaps typical itinerary of Delany's engaged and questing mind; an essay that describes itself as "Some Notes on Hart Crane"; and, as an appendix, a meditation called "Shadows," which Delany himself, in his preface, describes as follows: "If 'Shadow and Ash' is the most important essay here, then 'Shadows' is its lengthy, chrestomathic preface."
In the essay on Hart Crane, Delany's response to the sheer lyric power of Crane's language brought back my own response to his work when I first encountered him in my youth; moreover, his references to Novalis, James Thomson (The City of Dreadful Night), and Jean Toomer all evoked certain memories, sounded particular chords. Delany's particular take on Crane is persuasive to me, not because of the authority of his scholarship, but because I feel a kinship with the personal poetics of his experience with Crane's work.
If one were forced to select a single word to characterize Delany's writings in general, a logical choice would be complexity. Delany's work takes complexity in its various forms as its broad subject (whether he is talking about webs of worlds in a farflung galactic future or the negotiations of identity experienced by a gay black man in late-twentieth-century America), and his work manifests complexity in style, structure, and vision. Another useful term would be alterity. (Complexity facilitates alterity, and vice versa.) Science fiction - and it is important to reiterate that Delany began as a science fiction writer, and remains one, whatever other avenues he has pursued - is all about alternatives, (im)possible worlds and adventures, aliens. It may have been essentially conservative for much of its history - an excess of technofetishism, sexism, and xenophobia stalks the pages of many a science fiction tale - but it always had the potential, buoyed in part by its celebration of the imagination, to promote radical thinking, not just about the future, but about the present, which, some writers and critics would argue, is always (if only implicitly) SF's real subject.
Before one attempts to negotiate this textual labyrinth, I highly recommend reading Ken James's substantial and elucidative commentary "Extensions: An Introduction to the Longer Views of Samuel R. Delany," which follows Delany's own preface. James carefully situates Delany's work within the overall history of the essay, explaining that Delany is engaged in "a radical reworking of the essay form . . . in part by combining . . . the 'impersonal' rhetoric of literary analysis with the 'personal' voice of the Montaignean essay." He also notes the way in which Delany has brought his sophisticated fictional techniques and tropes to bear upon his nonfiction writing. Perhaps his most crucial general statement involves the extent to which Delany's work is concerned "with the social, material, and historical forces that generate cultural myths." Delany's essays "share this concern. But they are also equally concerned with myth-breaking - with the analytical practices required to discern, interrogate, and dissolve myths." It is easy to grasp the significance of Delany's effort to dispel the enshackling myths of supremacy (of "race," gender, culture, etc.) that support oppression and continue to generate faultlines of struggle despite the present-day "posting" of progress or, at least, pervasive critique. What may be harder for some of us to deal with is the fact that Delany's demystifications are equally aimed at derailing the myths that the oppressed and their theorizers promulgate - myths that frequently homogenize and romanticize identity and experience in ways that rally emotions and sharpen allegiances but don't particularly promote deep understanding.
Although Delany is a black author, all of his work, whether fictional, autobiographical, or critical, serves to drive a postmodern stake through the heart of the undead notion that any identity - "black," "gay," "writer," what have you - is given and fully defining, rather than partial and contingent. (This includes our identity as readers, for, as Delany notes at the outset, "reading is a multilayered process - like writing.") But to describe Longer Views as a black text would, for most readers, be stretching the idea of blackness toward infinity - which might not be a bad thing (certainly someone like Sun Ra would have applauded it), though it surely would raise the hackles of folks for whom "black" / "white"/ (name your perusasion) must be easily recognizable, nationalizable, and (intellectually or otherwise) commodifiable. The extent to which Delany's blackness suffuses his work, is always present, despite not being upside your head or in your face, will be a mystery to those still clinging to the old school of identity politics and its ready-to-wear, ready-to-bare essentialism.