Sunday, July 12, 2009
THE MAD MAN by Samuel Delany
Oh boy... This is the book in which Samuel Delany, never one to fly his freak flag at half-staff, runs that sucker all the way up the pole, over the top and into the stratosphere. The Mad Man is the story of John Marr, a young, gay, African-American grad student in philosophy, and his decade-long quest to understand the life, work, thought and death of Timothy Hasler, a young, gay, Korean-American philosopher murdered in a New York City hustlers' bar in the early 1970s. That's the standard Publisher's Weekly-type description of this novel, and it's pretty much bullshit. The Mad Man is nothing like A.S. Byatt's Possession (which Delany reviewed and which probably inspired the novel's conception), and Gwyneth Paltrow will definitely not be appearing in the movie. The Mad Man isn't an academic novel, either--at least not after the first 20 pages. And the 'mystery' of Hasler's death is solved with a pathetically minimal amount of investigation and no real thought at all. No, while The Mad Man flirts with these genres, uses them, cruises them, it never really hooks up for a meaningful relationship. So what, finally, is this book? The Mad Man is one of the filthiest and raunchiest pornographic novels of the twentieth (or any other) century. It's a novel that concerns itself, in explicit, extensive, sometimes comic and occasionally tiresome detail, with men whose sexuality takes the form of drinking other men's urine and eating their feces. This is Delany's long (almost 500 pages in the definitive revised edition of 2002) song of urolagnia and coprophagia, a novel in which the narrator repeatedly falls to his knees to drink the warm piss of filthy homeless men. Now, the last part of that sentence might make the novel sound rather stupid, an academic exercise in transgression, slumming for tenure. But The Mad Man isn't that, either. It is one of the most highly intelligent--indeed, intellectual--porn novels ever written, a book that belongs on the shelf with Bataille's Story of the Eye and Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom. Delany's novel might be subtitled 'Philosophy at the Mine Shaft,' for it is during an early-80s 'wet night' in that bar that the narrator begins to understand Heidegger's concept of 'meditative thinking'--surely the raunchiest context in which that thinker has ever been invoked. Delany shows us two 'wet nights' over the course of his novel, and both are among the most eye-opening scenes in the book. But if The Mad Man were only an intellectual / philosophical porn novel, it probably still wouldn't be worth 500 pages of my time. What kept me reading was the book's strange alienation effect: since Delany describes desires so far away from mine, I'm alienated from his sex scenes (the novel thus functions for most readers, straight and gay, as the very opposite of traditional pornography--another, and especially triumphant, example of Delany's deconstructive genre-cruising). I am alienated from the novel's raunchiest scenes in a way that opens up space for reflection on the nature of desire. At what may be its deepest level (understanding that the very notions of 'depths' and 'levels' would be exceedingly problematic to a postmodernist like Delany, and also that they would be, in the book's own terms, 'Hasler Structures'), the novel is an examination of the farthest shores of human desire in all its messiness and of the structures we build to contain that chaos. One critic has likened this book to "an unbelievably raunchy Magic Mountain," and while that comparison is at least a bit hyperbolic, I think it would be fair to call the novel an extended dramatic meditation on Hegel's discussion of the master-slave relationship. The narrator is impressed enough by The Phenomenology of Spirit/Mind (different translators translate geist differently; the German word denotes both meanings) to plan at one point a vast Hegelian summa to be titled The Systems of the World. The Mad Man might be read as a chapter in that abandoned effort.