"Across Never": Postmodern Theory and
Narrative Praxis in Samuel R. Delany’s NEVÈRŸON Cycle
It is something of a truism that sf writers like to work at the
cutting-edge—if not the wacky limits—of science. Although Samuel R. Delany
favors the "softer" disciplines, his novels usually operate at, or ahead of, the
speculative edge. There is, for example, the brilliant extrapolation from
computer languages in Babel-17 (1966): what if people constructed reality
using a language without concepts of "I" and "you"? Virtual reality is
anticipated in the giant computer hoax of The Fall of the Towers (1966),
and postmodernity foreshadowed by the discussion of a centerless culture in
Nova (1968). Equally long-standing has been Delany’s insistence that form in
sf is as important as content ("Letter"; "Zelazny" 10).
Delany also shared the cutting-edge of cultural movements like feminism. His
early work owes much to the input of Marilyn Hacker (Motion 167-71, 253);
he himself contributed to debates on women and sf such as the Khatru
symposium in the mid-1970s (Lefanu 105-106); and he has had an ongoing
intellectual relationship with Joanna Russ. Since his entry into the academic
scene in the 1970s, his work brings dispatches from another cutting-edge, that
of the post-humanist intellectual revolution as recorded in the writings of
heavyweights like Foucault, Lacan, Baudrillard, and Derrida.
These concerns appear in Triton (1976), for example, in feminist
elements such as the vignette of a man who wet-nurses his commune’s children
(§7:282) —thus answering Shulamith Firestone’s demand in The Dialectic of Sex
(1970) for reproductive equality—and in Delany’s portrait of Bron, the male
chauvinist to end all chauvinists. Michel Foucault, too, is in evidence here,
from Delany’s epigraph to the entire ambience of Tethys. Its "heterotopian"
nature owes as much to Foucault’s distrust of utopias as to Delany’s supposed
response to LeGuin’s The Dispossessed ("On Triton" 300-01).
Triton is also Delany’s first novel in which theoretical interests fuse with
concerns for form in ways which affect the narrative praxis of the text.
Kathleen Spencer has elucidated this fusion in her "Deconstructing Tales
of Nevèrÿon: Delany, Derrida and the ‘Modular Calculus, Parts I-IV’." If, as
she argues, Bron’s story is about inadequate models of reality (63), then
Delany’s Appendices enact the failing of the fictional model, the "story" of
Triton. If "supplements add something...presumably important and necessary
...the text is not complete after all" (86). Thus the Appendices use Derrida’s
own praxis, in which works perform their own theoretical propositions (Derrida,
"From" 144), to enact Derrida’s notion that "all representation requires a
supplementary element" (Hawthorn 97).
In doing so, the Appendices cause the whole of Delany’s text to gesture
toward the postmodern attention to margins: endings, beginnings, the nature of
borders, and the theoretical fields of feminism, queer theory, and post-
colonialism, which deal with marginalized groups. The Appendices blur the
margins of Triton; it is no longer possible to speak about a
"novel"—"Whoever heard of a novel that needed an appendix?" (Spencer 64); it is
no longer clear where "fact" becomes "fiction," an effect intensified because
the "factual" Appendix is fictional.
Delany’s sf has always spoken from the margins. Privileging the soft
sciences, using artist or criminal protagonists drawn from minority cultures, it
enacts its writer’s position as a gay black writer of sf, marginalized in the
literary community as well as in communities of sexuality and race. Marginality
attracted Delany in Dhalgren (1974), where he imagined the protagonist as
able to "articulate, at least for a while, workings of the social margins" (qtd.
in McEvoy 120); this was enacted by the jottings in "The Anathēmata" (Dhalgren
§8:723-879). The form of Triton extends this experiment. But in the
Nevèrÿon cycle Delany created a series that is all margin. Here his
involvement with postmodern theory flowers in a narrative praxis that can
affiliate the conflicting axes of sexuality, history, and race, to produce a new
(form of) mythology.
It is perhaps inevitable that a writer so interested in form and models
should have been concerned with mythology from the first. His 60s novels mark an
increasingly decided resistance to white, heterosexual, patriarchal Western
myths, from the quiet interposition of black gods among the white Argos in
The Jewels of Aptor (1962), to the choice of an Oriental woman poet as
protagonist in Babel-17, to the interrogation and outright refusal of
myth- making in The Einstein Intersection (1967), and the shattering, in
Nova, of both the Grail myth and the narrative itself. The nadir of this
demolition is Dhalgren, in which the falling city and the text’s
linguistic collapse suggest myths foundering along with the system that
generated them. Although Triton begins to change narrative praxis, it
takes the Nevèrÿon cycle to raise a phoenix from these ashes, to produce rather
than to demolish a mythology.
To this myth-making, "high" postmodern theory is crucial. Spencer has
explored the series’ first narrative strategy, which is a systematic
disappointment of the experienced reader’s every expectation about the
sword-and- sorcery subgenre, itself a marginal relation of sf (64-74). One
example of this lies in what we might call the "outcrops" of theory—analogous to
Derrida’s "archetrace" of writing or Lacan’s "absent fathers" (Neveryóna
§11:416, 515) —that appear as content in these texts. Such outcrops are common
enough in sf; but they are not common in sword-and-sorcery, and are
certainly not delivered by the "hero," as is Gorgik’s Marxist lecture in
Neveryóna (§3:73-87). Theory-as-praxis exceeds this, however, most
spectacularly in the blurring of narrative margins which becomes more complex as
the series proceeds.
The Symbolic Order: Derrida. My own copy of Tales of Nevèrÿon
(1978) is a second edition, which makes me the ideal reader who can "only
return" (Tales §0:18) to that "distant once" (9). The Preface, responding
to previous readers, pre-fixes the text as already in retrospect. Worse, it
leaves the archetrace in some Codex immured in the basement of the Istanbul
Archaeological Museum (§O:11), its content mediated through Delany’s use of
decryptions by a certain "K. Leslie Steiner." Already "the beginning" is blurred
between Now and Then, and if Then, When? The Appendix goes on to question
Steiner’s translations, while the common L-K-S initials and its author’s dubious
name "Kermit" disrupt its own credibility. Are these people or personae? Where
does Story/fiction start and Preface/fact end?
The blurring deepens as real readers’ comments merge in Steiner and Kermit’s
exchanges, in which the supposed author becomes as shadowy as the Codex. "What
absolutely baffles me," writes Kermit, "[is] who is this Delany?" (Neveryóna
§A:532). Such praxis enacts the theory of deconstruction as both an "overturning
of the classical opposition" (Derrida, "Signature" 108) that upholds
hierarchical privilege, as in "speech/writing...good/evil" (Derrida, "Plato's"
85)—or fact/fiction—"and a general displacement of the system"
(Derrida, "Signature" 108). "Text" and "author" lose their authority; but
"appendix" and "commentator" cannot be elevated in their stead. This reenacts
Derrida’s concept of the supplement as superfluous addition "AND/OR" necessary
substitute (Johnson xiii), and his remark that a "text" can no longer be seen as
self-contained but as a "fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other
than itself" (Derrida "From" 257).
Together, the four books of the Nevèrÿon cycle perform Derrida’s concept and
praxis of displacement or decentering. As with sf future history, their order of
writing and reading evades a linear progression, a sequential mythos, or a
single hero, circling instead past the figure of Gorgik, the slave Liberator,
who is described at one point as a towering, black-haired gorilla of a youth,
eyes permanently reddened from rockdust, a scar from a pickax flung in a
barracks brawl spilling one brown cheekbone. His hands were huge and
rough-palmed, his foot soles like cracked leather" (Tales §1:41).
As Spencer notes, unlike a proper sword-and-sorcery hero, Gorgik ages
throughout the tales (66-67). Yet instead of new tales being linked by his
presence, minor characters become protagonists, and once-major characters flit
through other stories, forming a vast chain of people whom the reader knows,
until with a repetition of "The Tale of Gorgik" the series circles back to its
This decentering extends to the refusal of climax and resolution in
individual tales. "The Tale of Gorgik" traces his youth and enslavement, his
release and time at the Empress’s Court; it then truncates the black success
story first shaped by Booker T. Washington in the 1900s (Smith 28-47). Rather
than follow a rise from slavery to freedom and then on to success, Delany’s Tale
offers a mere summary of later years, closing with the remark that Gorgik was,
for his time, "a civilized man" (Tales §1:96). Later, as Spencer again
notes, tales repeatedly end in anti-climax, a diminuendo and let-down, or
outright unravelling (70). Delany also blurs Here and There, most strongly in
"The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" (Flight §3:239-475), which matches
AIDS with a plague in Nevèrÿon. As the text seesaws between the two times/
places, an acquaintance of "Delany’s" imagines he saw the Liberator in a New
York movie theater (Flight §3:464); and the book ends when "Delany" meets
Gorgik’s lieutenant Noyeed, flown on a dragon "across never" to the New York
In Nevèrÿon the dragon, that staple of fantasy, undergoes a similar
postmodern transformation. To Ursula Le Guin the dragon is a symbol of fantasy,
the imagination, a "beautiful non-fact" that may lead to "truth" (45). Most
fantasy writers, however, including Le Guin, strive to present dragons as
concrete and credible. In order to establish their "authenticity," Delany
foregrounds the "reality": their inauthenticity. They become not so much
multiple signifiers (Fox 109) as figures for the Derridean signifier itself,
their meaning in constant play, their "truth" forever deferred (Derrida, Of
Grammatology 266). In the scene that closes Tales of Nevèrÿon, a
flying dragon is explicitly called "a mysterious sign" (§5:314). Its flight is
difficult, doomed never to be repeated. Yet it was also the pet of a noble whose
slaves Gorgik has just freed. Did it escape, or was it released? Is its flight a
metaphor of freedom and escape, or of their brevity?
A dragon approaches the concrete realization of the beasts in The Einstein
Intersection, "a realized commonplace" (Fox 109), as it literally flies the
female hero into the opening scene of Neveryóna, in a brief experience
repeatedly described as "joy" (§1:13, §1:17). Yet having landed, the girl must
release the beast that "won’t fly where you want to go" (§1:36). Has what seems
the most orthodox appearance of Delany’s clumsy, stupid, deliberately unheroic
beasts become a metaphor for fiction itself? Between landing and release,
another dragon figures in a nested story; the mighty sea-beast, Gauine, is the
legendary guardian of treasure belonging to an equally mythic queen. Near the
novel’s close, the hero is asked to dinner by the Earl of Jue-Grutyn, who, it
emerges, is the legendary villain’s heir. Events then reveal that the hero’s
astrolabe, a gift from the Liberator, is "a sign in a system of signs"
(§12:442), impotent in itself, yet part of a great "engine" intended to raise
the treasure (§13:439-40). When the "engine" of astrolabe, story, hero, and
villains is assembled, the hero finds herself in the sunken city. The dragon
wakes and threatens her, then city, treasure, and dragon vanish. Even with the
"engine," the entire chain of signifiers, deployed, the dragon’s presence is
fleeting and legendary. Like the Amazon Raven, seen only in story and glimpses
through the novel, Gauine is a Derridean trace, enacting the theory of
displacement, the concern with absence, that is fundamental to Derrida’s work.
Matching their central role in fantasy to the enactment of this Derridean
concern, dragons grow less and less present as the cycle proceeds, like the
monster whose touch and smell terrifies the narrator back to "the map" as he
wanders the border woods in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" (Flight
§3: 411-413); is this the void, the nameless, the abject that must be expelled
from the Symbolic Order? Or like the shadow, scent, and dragon-eggs glimpsed by
Clodon and his fetishized actress as they climb to the waterfalls in "The Tale
of Rumour and Desire"; are they symbols of that desire’s evanescent, impossible
flight? (Return §2:259-63). Yet at the close of Flight from Nevèrÿon
(1985), when Noyeed relates the nested tale of his flight "across never," the
dragon might again signify the power—fickle, frail, and arbitrary—of fiction
itself. Fiction, from the meaningless parts of the astrolabe to the legends that
surround the site, raises Gauine. Fiction’s flight pulls together the two
fictional spaces, New York and Nevèrÿon. It is a means of transit from Here to
Nowhere—and from Nowhere to Here. By the agency of that most absent presence,
Delany expresses metaphorically what he elsewhere makes explicit: "The Nevèrÿon
series is, from first to last, a document of our times, thank you very much" (Flight
Accompanying such deconstructive praxis, Marxist theory imposes a historical
moment on the series’ cultural matrix. The classic sword-and-sorcery scene is an
ahistorical world in transit from a barter to a money economy (Delany, "Alyx"
197-98). In Nevèrÿon, however, the process is seen as an exchange of slaveries
(Fox 113), for which the Old and New markets in Kolhari and the forging of money
from slave collars provide topographic and physical metaphors. And it is
explicitly theorized by characters like Gorgik in a manner quite foreign to
conventional sword-and-sorcery. To such "high" theoretical elements, however,
Nevèrÿon couples other "low" elements of postmodern culture and theory. These
elements, which play a vital and equally liberatory part in the series, are most
easily categorized as fantasy, a term whose polysemy is most clearly developed
through the image of the iron collar that in Nevèrÿon is firstly the sign of a
The Imaginary: Foucault. The series still appears in general bookshops on
the "Science Fiction and Fantasy" shelf. Like Joanna Russ’s Alyx stories,
however, it "certainly doesn’t feel like science fiction" (Delany, "Alyx"
196). And for Nevèrÿon, the word "fantast" has far deeper significances, which
the collar precipitates along the axes of race, slavery, and sexuality. In
Nevèrÿon, most slaves, like Gorgik, are made rather than born, and the normative
skin color is brown: whites are barbaric even when free. The fixed black/white
racial dichotomy of historical American slavery thus dissolves, amid a day dream
"fantasy"—prefigured by the character of Sam in Triton—of reversed racial
superiority. Then Gorgik, a slave freeing slaves, replaces white Civil War icons
with a brown "marginal" hero, who is himself marginalized by narrative structure
in the first book, and by the second is literally mythicized amid conflicting
tales of his behavior, his lovers, and his lieutenants. The study of myth’s
generation in The Einstein Intersection has become self-reflexive
generation of a marginal mythology.
To reversed racial fantasy, the collar couples the fantasies of same-sex
desire. For Gorgik as Liberator, the collar assumes double political
significance, since he is pledged to wear it until every slave is free. But the
cycle is also Delany’s literary coming out, since Gorgik is his first primarily
homosexual central character: on the margins of pre-history, "gay" in its proper
historicized sense does not apply. And by the series’ third tale, the collar is
a sexual fetish. Free Gorgik buys a small white slave of his own for sex. The
slave is amenable. But when he complains that to leave the collar on is
inhibiting, Gorgik explains, "if one of us does not wear it, I will not
be able to do anything" (Tales §3:196).
Here "fantasy" may signify firstly in the psychoanalytic sense, as "a setting
for desire" (Laplanche and Pontalis 26). Gorgik is the culminating figure in a
line of powerful, erotically-charged, criminal or quasi-criminal male characters
who can be traced through Delany’s work, from the strong sailor Urson in The
Jewels of Aptor, to the Butcher in Babel-17, to the white gang leader
in "We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on A Rigorous Line" (1968), to the
twin masculinities of black George Harrison and white Tak in Dhalgren.
Delany himself locates their ancestors in childhood masturbation fantasies of
"kings and warriors, leather armour, slaves, swords and brocade" based on Robert
Howard’s sword-and-sorcery novels (Motion 10). Gorgik thus provides for
Delany a double coming-out, as a homosexual and as an acknowledgement of this
"low" erotic fantasy.
In coupling this figure to the various senses of bondage in both black and
S/M contexts, however, the collar draws in a "low" side of postmodernism. Robert
Fox reads the Nevèrÿon books as based on "the project of Foucaultian
archaeology, which explores the transformations that constitute change and
grounds these to a great extent in power and the body" (108). More recent work
on Foucault has begun to stress the relevance of his gay S/M activity to texts
like Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality,
texts whose formulation of discourse theory, the complex relations of power and
pleasure, and the reframing of nineteenth-century sexual constructions have been
as central to gay as to post-humanist theory. James Miller’s account notes
repeatedly how Foucault acknowledged the basis of this work in personal
experience (31-32, 92-93, 262). Such experience in the gay S/M scene in San
Francisco in the mid-70s led to the complete re-writing of Volume I of The
History of Sexuality (Miller 259-62). In San Francisco, Miller suggests,
Foucault found a sadism that was consensual and role-playing (263), a liberation
rather than a hideous historic reality. Such "fantasy" sadism threads the
Nevèrÿon series. If its Symbolic order comes from Derrida, then it is Foucault
who shares, to use Kobena Mercer’s term, its homoerotic Imaginary (1).
Though gay and feminist communities are sharply divided over S/M, pro- S/M
gay theorists do agree with lesbians like Gayle Rubin that S/M is as much about
consent or, indeed, "total trust" (Edwards 75-79) as about pain and degradation.
So in Nevèrÿon, the collar, willingly donned, becomes a sign of slavery
"conquered," but also of liberated transgressive sexuality, and then of a doubly
transgressive same-sex desire: as Gorgik obligingly notes, "the collar worn in
three different situations may mean three different things" (Tales §5:
307). The sign of black historical repression thus becomes a facilitator of
same-sex desire. And in this softened Elsewhere Delany can "come out" to
confront and remodel—mythicize, fantasize—the central trauma of Afro-American
history, which his forward-looking sf has resolutely suppressed.
The entwining of erotic and mythicizing fantasy in this process emerges
vividly in "The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers," the final story in Tales of
Nevèrÿon. Here Gorgik and his barbarian lover appear, for the only time in
the series, actually freeing slaves. The story follows "small Sarg" as,
disguised by a slave collar, he tricks and slays his way past guards and
servants into a noble’s castle, to unearth at its heart the climactic image of
bondage and slavery: in the dungeon, Gorgik is being tortured by the Suzeraine.
The scene first strikes a strong political note: Gorgik the Liberator shares
the suffering of those he comes to free. It is a "game of time and pain" (Tales
§5:297), a phrase used in Return to Nevèrÿon (1989) to cover his whole
liberatory struggle (§1:119). It invokes a tradition of such rebels, going back
through martyred Resistance heroes to historical realities like that preserved
in the notorious opening of Discipline and Punish: the death of the torn,
burned, and dismembered regicide Damiens (Foucault 3-5). Gorgik, of course, does
not die. He does, clearly, suffer in earnest. Yet the Tale’s concluding scene
also makes it clear that he and Sarg have traded the role of captive and rescuer
in repeated uses of the subterfuge (Tales §5:308-309). Indeed, when
rescued, he dons the collar Sarg wore for camouflage (§5:302). And when rescued
and rescuer call each other "Master" (§5:305), the traditional props of dungeon,
bound victim, red-hot irons, bowls of blood, screams, and a gloating torturer
enter the ambience of gay S/M scenarios. Here roles are traded, bondage is the
most common element, and carefully orchestrated pains produce pleasure in a
scene terminated at will (Miller 264-68).
Delany’s torturer enunciates this discourse as he lectures on the techniques
of his "game of time and pain" of which he "enjoy[s] the prospect" (Tales
§5:297). The "infliction of these little torments" will offer "far more
pleasure" (§5:298) than breaking their victim. Meanwhile the text’s reduction of
Gorgik to a voice and "a heavy arm, a blocky bicep...a massive thigh down which
sweat trickled" (§5:296) invites the reader to share a traditional
commodification of speaking subject as sexual object, reduced to parts under a
(here) homoerotic gaze.
Such eroticism is missing from the scene near the close of Neveryóna
in which the female hero Pryn also becomes a "Liberator," symbolically taking
control of her own life as she releases an old slave woman whom the villain has
flogged. In "The Tale of Fog and Granite," however, political import is
backgrounded in an S/M encounter where a man who may be Noyeed willingly dons
the collar, chains, and masochist’s role, begging, "Abuse me, ravish me.... You
can do anything to me" (Flight §1:66). This offer of total power brings
the protagonist first to extreme sexual pleasure and then to immediate flight.
Although he resolves to avoid a pleasure that "could become the object of all
sexual searching" (§1:70), another form of slavery, he feels he has learned
something "only secondarily to do with bodies" (§1:75).
The experience of gay S/M also brought Foucault, according to Miller, to
agree with the ideas of Artaud, Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari: that an
"ordeal" of "suffering-pleasure" inflicted on the body might provide a dubious,
provisional but new "truth" (277-78). The sense of more than physical discovery
informs the most complex constellation of erotic and mythicizing fantasies in
the Nevèrÿon cycle. In "The Game of Time and Pain," Gorgik, now a respected
minister who has seen slavery abolished, tells of how some passing nobles once
decided to "borrow" a group of mine slaves and stage a mock-fight to impress the
lady they were escorting. Here the abuse of slavery is most openly delineated:
these nobles were free, free to
do anything, anything to us.... They were free to speak to us as equals one
moment, and free to call us disgusting fools the next. They were free to caress
us in any way they wished, and free to strike or maim us in any other. (Return
Exercising this freedom, one lord ruptures the bladder of a slave opponent
too terrified to fight. Kept overnight in their camp, Gorgik finds another lord,
naked, trying on a collar. The flare of sexual intensity, the recognition
between the two men of "a shared perversion" (§1:68), is "outside of language."
But in that moment, Gorgik "was given back [his] self" (§1:69):
what I wanted was the power to remove the collar from the necks of the
oppressed, including my own. But I knew, at least for me, the power to remove
the collar was wholly involved with the freedom to place it there when I wished.
And, wanting it, I knew...for the first time in my life—the self that want
In this vision, political and sexual freedom fuse.
Their union evokes the most complex of the mirror motifs in which the cycle
abounds. The lord’s donning of the collar offers Gorgik a mirror in which he
sees his own freedom, a mirror broken when he is re-collared (§1:73). Years
later, returned to the mines to free the last slaves, the minister Gorgik
glimpses the understanding that
what I’d thought were mirrors
and an ‘I’ looking into and at them were really synthetic, formed of
intersecting images in still other mirrors I’d never noticed before.... I
couldn’t hope to determine...which were real. (§1:118-19)
Intersecting unreal mirrors image the discursive subject theorized by
Foucault (Easthope and McGowan 69), fragmented among constructions of a
non-transcendent reality. Such a concept has been opposed by gays, blacks, and
feminists, who see identity as a political necessity (Medhurst 206-207; Bredbeck
xix). Foucault, however, had "misgivings" about gay liberation. To him, "People
are neither this nor that, gay nor straight" (qtd. Miller 254). Likewise to
Delany it more recently appears that "having to fight the fragmentation and
multicultural diversity of the world...by constructing something so rigid" as
identity, is a problem in itself (Dery 190). Though Gorgik’s metaphor retains a
sense of frustration at the loss of transcendent "reality," this chronologically
final portrait shows a man "so calm, so sure of himself" (Delany, Flight
§1:123) that he also figures acceptance of the conflict. Such a position Teresa
de Lauretis shapes for feminists and/or lesbians: a "space of contradictions, in
the here and now, that need to be affirmed but not resolved" (144). Like the
cycle itself, this last view of Gorgik suggests a similar affiliation of
contradictions that can be left unresolved.
Delany’s handling of slavery and erotic fantasy contests an underside of
popular fiction, the white "racist fantasies" (Mercer 11) initiated by Kyle
Onstott’s Mandingo (1959). Though they may be read subversively by
blacks, gays, and white women, texts like Robert Tralins' Black Stud
(1962) and Rampage (1969), and Clint Rockman's Black Ivory (1972)
can perniciously reinforce hostile constructions of blacks. In these novels
blacks are animals out of primeval Africa, fit only to fight and fuck. There is
repeated stripping and whipping of black male bodies, invariably massive,
splendid, and well-hung, for whom the fascinated white male gaze admits
suppressed homoeroticism. The genre also reinforces the asymmetry of taboo
sexual couplings (Gaines 31-33). White men use black women at will; white women
who couple with black men are branded sluts and the men are terribly destroyed.
Robert Fox critiques the S/M in Nevèrÿon as a "thoroughly
repulsive...psychosexual parody of a relationship...involving large masses of
people...under conditions of the most overt compulsion" (52). But in Nevèrÿon,
Onstott’s stereotypes collapse, exploitable historical accuracy is nullified,
and the transgression of gay S/M makes heterosexual taboos risible.
The Imperfect Subject: The Abject, Excess, and Feminism. These
liberations do have a cost: when Sarg becomes dangerously casual in his role as
rescuee, Gorgik leaves him in a slave-gang. Gorgik has nightmares about Noyeed,
whom he helped gang-rape in the mines, an incident Noyeed cannot remember to
forgive (Flight §1:171). The noblewoman who takes Gorgik from the mines
as "rough trade" rejects Noyeed even for "dirty" sex. In the S/M encounter he is
abused as a "low and lustful slave...low as the garbage tossed in the gutters!"
(§1:66). Noyeed, then, is not an attractive criminal, but a figure of the abject
whose ejection should purify race, class, and sexuality. But overall in the
cycle, those who expel the abject, who say No to S/M, never attain the heights.
Clodon, the protagonist of "The Tale of Rumour and Desire," declines an offer to
wear the collar and accept S/M clients for a week on the "Bridge of Lost
Desire." He becomes a sort of false Gorgik, thieving, bragging, and cheating
while claiming to be or to fight for the Liberator. He dies squalidly stabbed by
bandits, an end recounted third-hand in "The Game of Time and Pain," and his
final fall from hope, his expulsion from his current community just when he
meant to start over, closes the series’ penultimate tale.
Those who say Yes to S/M, however, are like Gorgik, or Foucault, or Delany
himself, who recounts that when confronted with a bathhouse orgy in the 60s, "I
was afraid.... But I moved forward into it" (Motion 269). In Nevèrÿon,
only those who say Yes to all parts of the self achieve fame, success, or even
self-knowledge. From this perspective, to lose Noyeed is not to be purified but
to suffer a grievous mutilation, a loss beyond that implied when Noyeed leaves
just as Gorgik becomes a minister, and of necessity, a "mirror" of those he
fights (Return §1:38).
An even higher cost is the progressive marginalizing of women as the series’
erotic and narrative focus narrows onto gay characters, gay tragedy like the
AIDS outbreak, and the space of same-sex encounters at the "Bridge of Lost
Desire." In the first book, Gorgik’s tale is followed by that of Old Venn, a
female genius with a real male mathematician’s name, who invents writing and
works out a close value for pi. In the next tale Venn’s protégée Norema
goes to the central city of Kolhari, where she meets Madam Keyne, a rising
capitalist. Norema’s adventures introduce Raven, a true Amazon from the
matriarchy of the "Western crevasse." She wields a two-bladed sword, relates a
cosmogony where "'man" is the broken mate of woman (Tales §4:225-34), and
when there is mayhem at the wicked monastery of Vygernangx, she plays Norema’s
To Spencer, Raven’s matriarchy offers a "savage" reversal of our patriarchy
(81). In historical context it can be read as an attack on the position of
feminists like Mary Daly and Susan Griffin, who promoted women as essentially
peaceful and loving, and men as violent. Their work was highly influential in
the late 70s and contingent with the politics of Women Against Pornography. By
1983, when Neveryóna was published, the schism between Daly, Griffin,
Robin Morgan, Andrea Dworkin, and Catherine MacKinnon and members of FACT like
Gayle Rubin, Pat Califia, and Carole Vance had all but fractured Western
feminism (Segal 222). Delany’s signature on the petition organized after the
confrontation at the 9th Scholar and Feminist Conference (Vance 452), the
notorious "barney at Barnard," aligns him with Rubin’s group. Raven’s
matriarchy, then, may critique not only patriarchy, but a faction of feminism.
Like Gauine, however, Raven’s culture remains an absence, outside the
narrative. In Neveryóna she offers a fleeting vision of women’s warrior
potential, like a cruder version of Joanna Russ’s Alyx. Yet Delany’s female hero
finds the women’s world of Madam Keyne’s house, with its squabbles, hysterics,
and possible assassinations, as uncongenial as Raven’s matriarchy. Despite its
protagonist, Neveryóna thus turns away from either form of women’s space.
The text closes as the hero returns to the city to challenge the "absent
fathers" (§13:515) of the present order, rather than to found an order of her
own. Such an outcome is logical, given the cycle’s reliance on Derridean theory,
which, like that of Julia Kristeva (Moi 110), sees the feminine or "woman" as a
solely negative or positional concept (qtd. Spivak 171). But by Flight from
Nevèrÿon, although Raven’s troop rescues the protagonist of "The Tale of Fog
and Granite" from an attack by Clodon, he can only feel "empty" (Flight
§1:139), "terrified" (§1:140) of her "dispossessing power" (§1:141). In "The
Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," the longest connected narrative tells of a man’s
search for physical traces of the male inventor Belham; but though Belham proves
chimeric, Venn’s fame, in a manner too close to historical reality to be safely
read as satiric, is wholly erased. And in Return to Nevèrÿon, the only
major role played by a woman character is that of fetishized actress, the
traditional object of Clodon’s heterosexual desire.
Such a tendency is a late development in Delany’s work, which was notable in
the '60s for its deliberate attempts to improve the treatment of female
characters (Motion 166-68). As repeated feminist charges make clear,
however, this is a common characteristic of postmodern theory. Even French
feminist appropriations of Lacan fail to go beyond his "linguistic determinism
and cultural phallocentrism" (Segal 91). To Spivak, deconstruction functions as
a critique of phallocentrism, but as a feminist practice it is "caught on the
other side of sexual difference" (176). And Foucault’s admirable dissections of
power/knowledge relations still "gloss over the gender configurations of power"
(Diamond & Quinby xii-xiv). Miller’s account also constructs an intellectual
world where Foucault moved almost exclusively among males. There is frequent
mention of Lacan and Sartre, for example, but none of Irigaray or de Beauvoir.
Yet Foucault’s work also extends a line of European and, in particular,
French artists and thinkers who may be called the proponents of excess. Like De
Sade, Nietzsche, Genet, Bataille, and Artaud, they push the limits of theory,
representation, and practice beyond cultural tolerance. Miller’s work shows
Foucault consciously adapting their tradition, seeking out "limit-experiences"
that would erase conventional boundaries, even the boundaries between "life and
death" (30). Foucault was deeply impressed by Artaud’s last public appearance,
whose virtual incoherence unforgettably evoked "that space of physical suffering
and terror which surrounds or rather coincides with the void" (qtd. Miller 96).
Artaud haunts Foucault’s first major book, Madness and Civilization
(1961) (Miller 96). Such an artist, speaking in "insane glossolalia" (30) from
beyond the limits of suffering and madness, appears, barely five years
afterwards, in the character of Vol Nonik in Delany’s trilogy, The Fall of
A lesser but still transgressive excess, a reaching for the abject as well as
for the heights of lyricism, marks the work of poets like Rimbaud and Villon,
and of Catullus before them. So too, in Delany’s novel Stars In My Pocket
Like Grains of Sand (1984)—coterminal with the Nevèrÿon cycle—Russell
Blackford finds "definitive forms of degradation" appearing with equally extreme
or definitive "forms of splendour and joy" (10). The two "are not necessarily
separated" (19), any more than, in gay S/M, they were for Foucault.
That splendor and degradation, truth and torture, high political aims and low
sexual practices may exist together is the point missed by descriptions
of texts like Stars In My Pocket and the Nevèrÿon cycle solely as
"enjoyed degradation" (Clute and Nicholls 317). For Foucault, degradation’s
pleasure was also a search for limits, identity, even truth. For the Nevèrÿon
cycle, only such excess, such pushing of limits—of sf conventions like plausible
extrapolation, of cultural and representative taboos like the acknowledgement of
homoerotic fantasies—can supply the imaginative basis for a new mythology, a
contradictory, marginal, but positive imaginative form.
Delany’s work has always pushed limits well beyond the usual sf parameters,
first to the heights of approval, with his Nebula Awards for Babel-17 and
The Einstein Intersection, then, with Dhalgren and his succeeding
work, beyond many sf readers’ tolerance (Bartter 337-38; McEvoy 110). In this
process, postmodern theory, as content or praxis, has been central. Robert Fox
notes the importance in the Nevèrÿon cycle of the astrolabe, an instrument in
which "one matrix is superimposed on another, and both are necessary for a
correct ‘reading’" (104). To Fox, these matrices are the present and the past. A
"correct reading," or a single pair of such matrices, hardly suffices for the
Nevèrÿon cycle. But the postmodern theorists like Derrida, the French artists
and thinkers of excess like Foucault, are also a matrix, a silent term
obliterated when the Nevèrÿon cycle is read solely against the conventions of sf
and fantasy. Only when articulated against both theory and genre does the cycle
more clearly reveal, in its complexities of meaning, its outraging of generic
conventions, and the demands it makes upon its readers, the extent of its claims
to be both a text about "limit-experiences," and a "limit-experience" in itself.
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