Reid-Pharr, Robert F., ed.: Samuel R. Delany's Phallos.
Samuel R. Delany's Phalbs (2004) takes the form of an annotated synopsis of a lost pornographic novel. The premise barely suggests the scatological ruminations on desire, spirituality, and other existential mysteries that comprise this slender, labyrinthine novella. Robert E Reid-Pharr, editor of this expanded edition, hopes to illuminate the labyrinth for readers new and old through the addition of an afterword and three critical essays. Certainly, readers new to Phalbs or to Delany's work in general will find the latter helpful as they navigate the narrative's forking paths. "Phalbs is a short book, of well under two hundred pages," notes Steven Shaviro in "Ars Vitae: Delany's Philosophical Fable." "But it contains depths--or perhaps I should say breadths--since its movement is always a lateral, ramifying one, rather than a digging down to ultimate foundations" (160).
While a protean specimen to pin down, the picaresque bildungsroman is not a bad starting point for understanding the protagonist Neoptolomus's adventures, though more Voltaire than Horatio Alger. The search for the missing phallos, a sacred artifact stolen by bandits, forms the backbone for much of the narrative's scholarly and erotic digressions. But to call Delany's work a quest is to suggest that its object is a stable, tangible thing. The more Neoptolomus learns about the phallos, the less stable it becomes as an object of desire. This vacancy starts to permeate the world of the text and the reader, via Delany's elaborate metafictional apparatus. The phallos, muses Randy Pedarson, the novel's fictional abridger and annotator, "is always something someone else possesses--never oneself: wealth, power, brilliance, knowledge, a bigger cock than yours, fame, a faithful or a beautiful lover, personal beauty, talent, wisdom, social assurance, a way with women or with men ... something that only functions as the phallos once the seeker realizes it is an illusion" (74).
Toward the end of the 2004 edition, Pedarson worries that his expurgated version "suggests that Phallos is somehow stark, Apollonian, and parabolic, when it is rich, Dionysian, and hyperbolic in the extreme" (93). The reader feels this starkness in the original in the suddenness with which Neoptolomus's fortunes change; the footnotes, a clever way of suggesting chapter breaks, and providing comic relief, in a long, continuous fictional document, feel more like devices than integral narrative elements. The current edition expands on both levels, giving texture to the fiction and the metafiction. On his first trip to Rome, in the 2004 version, Neoptolomus is quickly chastened for his rough manners and by the next paragraph is preparing to start military service. The updated version preserves these events, with an intervening sequence in which a homesick but restless Neoptolomus decides to explore the "whole grand construction" of Rome at night; "soon I found myself in my first Roman orgy!" (17). When an older Neoptolomus fears that he is not sophisticated enough for his current lover, Lucius, he is immediately reassured by the earlier version of his patron: "If anything, I believe your island manners make our Roman clients trust you a little more than they otherwise might and probably work to your advantage--and mine" (33). In its expanded version, the reassurance is delayed by Neoptolomus getting lost on the way to his patron's house. Once there, he is introduced to Yin, his patron's Asian lover: '"I find Yin quite as delightful as I found you when you were his age, Neoptolomus. His music and his affection are both a joy.'" Parenthetically, Neoptolomus "had the sudden feeling I had been called here as much for Yin's benefit as for mine" (46). The supplanting of new desire for old is poignantly dramatized, grounding headier speculations on the nature of desire with emotional weight.
The new edition also adds eight footnotes to the original ten, foregrounding the process of annotation more than in the original. The fictional footnote is typically conflated with authorly ambition rather than readerly enjoyment; it's the rare reader who appreciates the likes of Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov, 1962) or Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace, 1996) for the number and density of its notes. Nevertheless, the footnote is arguably fundamental to narratives driven by a quest for meaning--its scholarly bulwark belies the subjective inclusions and erasures at the heart of all narrative. In Jose Carlos Somoza's The Athenian Murders--a Spanish mystery from 2000 that shares a similar structure and ancient milieu as Phallos--the footnotes are essential to the suspense, revealing the protagonist's disintegration the further he proceeds with a translation project. Delany's notes dramatize the essential conflict between text and interpreter, yet another permutation of the (desiring) subject/(desired) object binary Delany deconstructs. Rather than lament the text's immanent lack, Phallos celebrates its possibilities, which are as richly various as the reader desiring its secrets. This is evident in the expanded version's final footnote, which has gone from a single paragraph in the original to roughly two pages--so long that it continues longer on the page than the main text, in effect serving as a new ending.
Those expecting resolution at any of the novella's multiple levels will likely experience the frustration that can, according to Reid-Pharr, characterize one's encounter with genius: "The child who announces the emperor's nakedness may be correct, but he nonetheless interrupts the 'innocent' pleasure one feels when watching a well-orchestrated procession" (128). At the same time, Phallos, for all its ribaldry and narrative play, is a significant addition to Delany's oeuvre. Reid-Pharr links it to the novels The Mad Man, Hogg, and the award-winning Dark Reflections, as well as to Delany's nonfiction account of gentrifying Times Square, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. "All these texts," observes Reid-Pharr, "demonstrate Delany's interest in what one might call the beastliness of human sexuality, the ways that our sexual desires and practices represent not only our need for affection and companionship but also an unquenchable fascination with violence and degradation" (129).
For those intimidated by Delany's project, not to mention his prodigious output pre- and post-Phallos, the critical essays appended to the text are an excellent introduction and orientation. Shaviro asserts that the novel's apparent digressions resonate with the channeling and control of desire exposed by Neoptolomus's quest. "But these impositions are never really effective: laws, conventions, and imposed scarcities always generate their own counter-movements and transgressions," Shaviro writes. "What else could be the case, given the actual plenitude of sexual possibilities available in a cosmopolitan metropolis like ancient Rome, or modern New York City? And this brings us back to the glorious 'superfluity' of life with which my own tracing of links began" (160).
Kenneth R. James considers the novella as "an allegory of interpretation, of reading" (136) in "Discourse and Desire, Muddle and Need: Radical Reading in and around Phallos." Alluding to Poe's "The Purloined Letter" and Lacan, James points out that the phallos itself changes in value depending on the context of presumed ownership. "Eventually Neoptolomus comes to recognize that this circuit, like Lacan's, is an intersubjective one driven by absence and lack," James writes (140). Lacan's linking of the phallus to absence is also significant to Shaviro's reading: "Neoptolomus is momentarily tempted to think that his very knowledge of this situation might allow him to, in effect, wield phallic power.... But of course, the reader (both the reader of Randy's summary on the Internet, and the reader of Delany's novel) is well aware by this point that such an impulse is only another fiction that puts the phallos/ phallus into even more frenzied circulation" (166).
The volume concludes with "I Can See Atlantis From My House: Sex, Fantasy, and Phallos," in which Darieck Scott, also invoking Lacan, reads Phallos as fantasy. "The genre of fantasy generally serves up elaborate dreams of could-be-but-ivasrit/isrit/ivorit-be/couldrit-be satisfactions," Scott observes (173). His definition of genre sets up his reading of the novel's vacant, speculative core: "The might be of Phallos is centrally an erotic speculation. For above all what is missing as much as any other absent element in the novella is the sex with which the non-existent novel is, according to its summary, replete: the explicit sex in what is presented as the writer Randy Pedarson's favorite pornographic novel. In this sense, we can read the novella Phallos itself as a hollowed-out shell not unlike the paste-and-fake-gem phallos: a porn novel in which the porn is evacuated" (178).
Whether one is new to Phallos or Delany, or whether one is looking to enrich a previous reading, there is much in this expanded critical edition to engage and provoke. The apparatus invites another look at the fiction--of Delany in general and of Phallos in particular--while the fiction invites the adventurous critic to expand the apparatus into psychoanalysis, science fiction and fantasy, narrative and genre studies, and beyond.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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