Samuel Delany: The Motion of Light in Water

I’ve been thinking for a while about what to say of this book. It’s a personal book, mostly (but certainly not totally) bereft of the hardcore cultural theory that attracted Delany later in his career. It is a relatively straightforward memoir of Delany’s childhood, ending more or less with the end of his marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker, and most of the book chronicles their life in the East Village in the early 60s. As it is a record of what was important to him during the largest developmental stages of his life, and what he remembers of it, the best assessment I can offer is how it differs from what I would expect a recollection of this sort to contain and the conclusion that Delany is a very, very different person from me, and not only in the obvious ways.

The summary: Delany grows up in a somewhat harsh but well-adjusted black family in Harlem, attends Bronx Science, and marries Marilyn Hacker at around age 18 after impregnating her (it ends in a miscarriage). They move into an East Village apartment together and both devote themselves to writing, sometimes taking odd jobs. Delany sells a science-fiction book and quickly writes four or five more over the course of the memoir, books that he implies are precocious juvenilia. He writes a libretto for an opera by an older composer, meets Auden, plays guitar in folk clubs. Delany is already identifying as gay, but there’s no evidence that I could detect that Hacker later would. Delany voraciously explores the world of anonymous and non-anonymous gay sex in New York and struggles with the definition of himself as a gay black writer. He and Marilyn eventually split up and he heads off to Europe and parts unknown for new adventures.

These are the basics, and they make for a unique and historically significant document. Here are the odd bits:

First, despite what a singular figure Delany is (is there another writer anything like him?), he seems so willing–no, compelled–to identify as part of a group. The ideas of blackness, gayness, writerness, etc., weigh very heavily on him, and he pursues them in an realistic (not nominalistic) fashion, as though they were Platonic gestures that he imprecisely embodies. His actions, he points out on several occasions, stem from these identities. They do not limit him, not in the slightest, but he uses them to give definite shape to his existence. He readily heads into this sort of abstraction.

This tendency towards universals is complemented by a visceral physicality. Delany apparently remembers raw sense data from decades previous with a vigor that I can hardly apply to last Saturday’s dinner. This is most apparent in his descriptions of his sexual encounters on the docks and elsewhere, but it pervades every event he describes, until I could imagine the character of the walls in his apartment and

We have the body and the mind. Where is the spirit, Plato’s third component of the individual? For the most part, it feels noticeably absent. I’ll put it this way: were I to write of my life in my late teens and early 20s, it would first off be a lot less interesting than Delany’s life. What it would chronicle would be the intersection of shifting but undoubtedly myopic views of the world with shifting but confused interactions with other people. This is not at the forefront of Delany’s chronicle. When he meets people, he describes their appearance, their demeanor, and what they talked about. If they have sex, he describes that. But there is little emotional introspection or cross-examination, at least not by my standards. Hacker herself remained quite opaque to me; many of her poems are quoted, but even they seem to leave her as an observer more than a subject.

All of this comes to a head when Delany is institutionalized for panic attacks. He suffers from acrophobia amongst a host of other odd phobias, but his approach to them is anything but Freudian. Even in the hospital, his pathologies do not seem to ever touch emotion. In earlier years I would have called this simply impossible; now I can believe it, but it is hopelessly distant from how I interact with the world.

I think of Proust saying that the artist must not waste time with useless conversations and must devote himself in isolation to his art. Proust admits his failure to do this for much of his life and solves his problem but withdrawing from society entirely to achieve the necessary distance. Delany? He appears to have had the distance from the very start, as well as the ability to maintain it even when in intimate physical and verbal contact with another person. No isolation was necessary.

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