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Longer Views (1996)

by Samuel R. Delany

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1141210,903 (3.88)1
"Reading is a many-layered process -- like writing," observes Samuel R. Delany, a Nebula and Hugo award-winning author and a major commentator on American literature and culture. In this collection of six extended essays, Delany challenges what he calls "the hard-edged boundaries of meaning" by going beyond the customary limits of the genre in which he's writing. By radically reworking the essay form, Delany can explore and express the many layers of his thinking about the nature of art, the workings of language, and the injustices and ironies of social, political, and sexual marginalization. Thus Delany connects, in sometimes unexpected ways, topics as diverse as the origins of modern theater, the context of lesbian and gay scholarship, the theories of cyborgs, how metaphors mean, and the narrative structures in the Star Wars trilogy. "Over the course of his career," Kenneth James writes in his extensive introduction, "Delany has again and again thrown into question the world-models that all too many of us unknowingly live by." Indeed, Delany challenges an impressive list of world-models here, including High and Low Art, sanity and madness, mathematical logic and the mechanics of mythmaking, the distribution of wealth in our society, and the limitations of our sexual vocabulary. Also included are two essays that illustrate Delany's unique chrestomathic technique, the grouping of textual fragments whose associative interrelationships a reader must actively trace to read them as a resonant argument. Whether writing about Wagner or Hart Crane, Foucault or Robert Mapplethorpe, Delany combines a fierce and often piercing vision with a powerful honesty that beckons us to share in the perspective of these Longer Views.… (more)
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When Delaney is writing about literature he loves, he's fascinating. His philosophy is trite ("About every fragment of reality, an infinite number of different statements can be made. For every fragment of reality, an infinite number of different models can be made.") and his formal criticism is to me incomprehensible; the worst of this collection is far too personal and unpleasantly confessional.

Folk who know Delaney won't be surprised by that last response, but might be surprised by what provoked it. I'm not bothered by his sexual anecdotes (indeed, there's a fascination to a sexual experience so different to mine and to what I consider in many different ways the mainstream). Instead, what left me embarassed for the guy is the kind of self-conscious self-judgement on show in the following:

"Like many children who get along easily with their peers, I was an incredibly vicious and self-centred child, a liar when it suited me and a thief when I could get away with it, who, with an astonishing lack of altruism, had learned some of the advantages of being nice to people nobody else wanted to be bothered with." This paragraph is followed by "I think, sometimes, when we are trying to be the most honest, the fictionalizing process is at its strongest." I couldn't agree more, but Delaney seems to say this in the same confessional mode ("What do they remember that, perhaps, I have forgotten--either because it was too painful, too damning, or because it made no real impression at all?") while I'm left wishing he'd written with a little more distance and a little less grovelling.

It's a shame to only be able to quote in support of my negative response, but the positive one (which on balance outweighs the negative) comes much more from the large-scale structure of these essays than from any specific felicities of phrasing. The preface describes the collection of long essays as "the least commercial of all works", while the introduction by Ken James notes the "norm which is somehow being supplemented, exceeded, transgressed" presupposed by the term "extended essay". Some of these essays are simply long, like an unextended essay with more of the same. But some are structural experiments that do indeed transgress, as gay critics are wont to do, and delightfully so.

7. I never thought of myself when young as someone who, someday, would have "quite a collection of old moustache-wax brushes." But I do ... simply because I now have quite a moustache! And much later in the same essay (which begins with the proposition "Rhetoric is the ash of discourse"): 24. "Man," says Dennis in the half-dark, "I'll fuck you up the ass so much the cum'll be runnin' out your nose--you won't need any moustache wax!" Odd how affection manifests itself in various ages and epochs, in various social niches. The humanity undercuts the pretension, and forces you to reconsider the possibility that there might be something to "the ash of discourse" after all... if you can identify with a gay man's sexual affection via his moustache wax, maybe you can identify with a postmodern critic as well.

(I'll be honest: my identification didn't go so far as to make any part of the "cyborg" essay Reading at Work comprehensible to me.)

I left this collection with enormous curiosity for Delaney's fiction; I'd be equally curious about his autobiography if I didn't expect him to spend a good deal of time excoriating his former self. ( )
  tikitu-reviews | Oct 28, 2007 |
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"Reading is a many-layered process -- like writing," observes Samuel R. Delany, a Nebula and Hugo award-winning author and a major commentator on American literature and culture. In this collection of six extended essays, Delany challenges what he calls "the hard-edged boundaries of meaning" by going beyond the customary limits of the genre in which he's writing. By radically reworking the essay form, Delany can explore and express the many layers of his thinking about the nature of art, the workings of language, and the injustices and ironies of social, political, and sexual marginalization. Thus Delany connects, in sometimes unexpected ways, topics as diverse as the origins of modern theater, the context of lesbian and gay scholarship, the theories of cyborgs, how metaphors mean, and the narrative structures in the Star Wars trilogy. "Over the course of his career," Kenneth James writes in his extensive introduction, "Delany has again and again thrown into question the world-models that all too many of us unknowingly live by." Indeed, Delany challenges an impressive list of world-models here, including High and Low Art, sanity and madness, mathematical logic and the mechanics of mythmaking, the distribution of wealth in our society, and the limitations of our sexual vocabulary. Also included are two essays that illustrate Delany's unique chrestomathic technique, the grouping of textual fragments whose associative interrelationships a reader must actively trace to read them as a resonant argument. Whether writing about Wagner or Hart Crane, Foucault or Robert Mapplethorpe, Delany combines a fierce and often piercing vision with a powerful honesty that beckons us to share in the perspective of these Longer Views.

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