RE: Re: black fiction
Ralph Dumain <rdumain <at> igc.org>
2002-03-13 15:16:38 GMT
What is dead is the incoherent sort of argument presented here. But at
last there is some discussion of Delany's work itself.
Now what does the Hamlet story prove? Mostly it highlights the pathetic
literalism of the sort of person who would adduce it as evidence to prove
something. And what are the background assumptions of a person who would
tell this tale? To prove that Shakespeare is not universal? And
whom is this revelation supposed to shock? Me? Have I suggested that
Shakespeare is universal? Well, feudalism is dead, and there's nothing
particularly attractive about the English. So another question would be:
why does Shakespeare live on in spite of his own provincialism? Why is
Shakespeare so adaptable to other times and places in spite of his obvious
limitations? And what does it take for a modern person to work with
Shakespeare, knowing less about the institutions and social relations of
Elizabethan England than he knows about the Tiv? This cute little anecdote
actually sidesteps the real issues surrounding the appropriation of an
alien set of social assumptions in order to extract meaning from the human
relations involved. I know little about the Tiv, though I do who they are,
but I know they are not as stupid as they are portrayed in this anecdote,
and I doubt that under different circumstances they would be as obsessively
literal-minded. I'm not a big Shakespeare fan myself, and for me to make
Shakespeare matter, I would have to engage with a social configuration as
alien to me as it is to the Tiv.
With STARS IN MY POCKETS LIKE GRAINS OF SAND, I was waiting for the other
shoe to drop, and I'm wondering what happened to the sequel. It is not my
favorite, nor will I upgrade it until I see where it is all leading.
DHALGREN is probably my least favorite, though I have missed out on some
stuff, so this judgement is not definitive. The first two Neveryon books
are brilliant, pace the fellow on this list who was displeased because this
stuff was not weird enough. This, I suppose, is the body-piercing school
of literary criticism, which likely substantially overlaps the cornholing
school. Neveryon definitely marked a new stage in Delany's development,
though this development seems to have petered out. But TRITON is a
significant advance over DHALGREN; it has much more to say than merely
painting a compelling portrait of social decay. TRITON reveals some
significant advantages of SF over "realistic" fiction.
The 1960s works are much simpler when it comes to the density of
characterization; they are more like fables. But they are still brilliant,
though more abstract. A number of them are philosophically very
significant. EMPIRE STAR is unique. Simplex-complex-multiplex: every
philosophy student should understand these terms; nay, every graduate
student in any field, unless of course one fears they will discover that
99% of them are complex at best, which is still pretty simplex in the
scheme of things. Another of my favorites is THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION,
which is precocious in its treatment of the limitations of mythical and
archetypal thinking. Whatever your color, whether or not you are inclined
to suck a cock, this is the sort of stuff everyone can learn from.
At 12:27 AM 03/13/2002 -0600, Steve Maxey wrote:
>Ralph Dumain wrote:
> >One aspect of the infantilism of this list
>You sure seem to get off on calling people you disagree with
>infantile or babies.
>Do you think this makes your arguments more credible? Do you think
>this makes YOU seem more credible? Do you think this makes people who
>disagree with you more sympathetic to your arguments? If you answered
>yes to any of these, I fear you are sadly mistaken. If not, then what
>IS the point of this incessant name-calling?
> >Yes, I've heard all this crap before. But for what it's worth, let me try
> >again. The pairing of concepts marginal-universal does not imply that the
> >only function of the "marginal" is to feed into somebody else's
> >"Universal". It means redefining and reconfiguring universality
> >itself. Secondly, the self-indulgent silliness that prevails here is an
> >adaptation to a different time, a different social and cultural
> >configuration. Any subcultural adaptation, which originates as a form of
> >resistance to other people's hegemony, can itself become a self-limiting
> >form of provincialism. I saw the bare beginnings of this in the late '70s,
> >which the babies wouldn't understand. Actually, you can see Delany himself
> >feeling out this problem in TRITON, which raised his brilliance to a new
>Oh, please. Universal/marginal is a dead concept. Dead as a doornail.
>Something truly universal would HAVE no margins, and certainly
>nothing beyond them; it would embrace all.
>All these appeals to so-called universality makes me think of Laura
>Bohannon's "Hamlet in the Bush" (excerpts below, pulled from
>http://www.csubak.edu/~bhemphill/Classes/hamlet.html , full text at
>Bohannon, L (1966) "Shakespeare in the Bush." Reprinted in Spradley,
>J. and McCurdy, D.W. (1997) editors, Conformity and Conflict:
>Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Ninth Edition, pp. 34-43. New
>This was Dr. Bohannon's second trip to visit the Tiv, and thus she
>felt herself well prepared to live in one of its most remote
>sections--an area difficult to cross even on foot. Eventually, she
>settled on top of a hillock where lived a very knowledgeable old man,
>the head of an extended household that encompassed 140 individuals,
>all of whom were either his close relatives or their wives and
>children. Like the other elders of the vicinity, the old man spent
>most of his time performing ceremonies seldom seen in the more
>accessible parts of the tribe. <...>People began to drink at dawn and
>by midmorning the whole homestead was, singing, dancing, and
>drumming. Dr. Bohannon found that she had to join the party by noon
>or retire to her hut and her books, for she was told "One does not
>discuss serious matters when there is beer. Come drink with us!"
>Since she lacked their capacity for the thick native beer, she ended
>up spending more and more time with Hamlet. Before the end of the
>second month, Dr. Bohannon was convinced that grace had descended
>upon her--that Hamlet had only one possible interpretation, and that
>one interpretation was so profound that it was universally obvious.
><...>One day she crawled in and the old man cried out "Sit down and
>drink!" he accepted a large mug of beer. The old man said "It is
>better like this. You should sit and drink with us more often. Your
>servants tell me that when you are not with us, you sit inside your
>hut looking at a paper." She...explained that "the paper" was an
>important story handed down from generation to generation from long
>ago--one of the "things from long ago" of her country. "Ah!" said the
>old man..."Tell us what this paper has to say."
>The Telling of Hamlet:
>LB: "Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago a thing occurred. One
>night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great
>chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them."
>Tiv: "Why was he no longer their chief?"
>LB: "He was dead. That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw
>Tiv: "Impossible! Of course it wasn't the dead chief. It was an omen
>sent by a witch. Go on."
>LB: "The dead chief's younger brother had become the great chief. He
>also married his elder brother's widow only a month after the
>Tiv: The elders beamed: "He did well! I told you that if we knew more
>about the Europeans, we would find that they really were very much
>like us. In our country also, the younger brother marries the elder
>brother's widow and becomes the father of his children. Now, if your
>uncle, who married your widowed mother is your father's full brother,
>then he will be a real father to you. Did Hamlet's father and uncle
>have the same mother?"
>Needless to say Dr. Bohannon was thrown by such an utter dismissal of
>one the most important elements of Hamlet--the immediate remarrying
>of Hamlet's mother to his uncle--nevertheless, she responded that she
>thought that they had the same mother, but that the story didn't say.
>The Tiv were appalled and responded severely that such genealogical
>details made all the difference in the world and suggested that
>perhaps when Dr. Bohannon returned home she ask the elders about it.
>Determined to save what she could of the mother motif, Dr. Bohannon
>LB: "The son Hamlet was very sad because his mother had married again
>so quickly. There was no need for her to do so, and it is our custom
>for a widow not to go to her next husband until she has mourned for
>Tiv: A Tiv elder's wife responded: "Two years is too long! Who will
>hoe your farms for you while you have no husband?"
>LB: "Hamlet! Hamlet, was old enough to hoe his mother's farms
>himself. There was no need for her to remarry." No one looked
>convinced by this argument, so she continued; "His mother and the
>great chief told Hamlet not to be sad, for the great chief himself
>would be father to Hamlet. Furthermore, Hamlet would be the next
>great chief: therefore he must stay to learn the things of a chief.
>Hamlet agreed to remain, and all the rest went off to drink beer."
>Dr. Bohannon paused, perplexed at how to render Hamlet's disgusted
>soliloquy to an audience convinced that his uncle, Claudius, and his
>mother, Gertrude, had behaved in the best possible manner. Then one
>of the young men asked; "Who had married the other wives of the dead
>LB: "He had no other wives."
>Tiv: "But a chief must have many wives! How else can he brew beer and
>prepare food for all his guests?"
>Dr. Bohannon responded firmly that in our country, even chiefs had
>only one wife, that they had servant to do their work, and that they
>paid these servants from tax money. How silly! The Tiv responded, for
>if a chief had many wives and sons who would help him hoe his farms
>and feed his people; then everyone loved the chief who gave much and
>took nothing--for taxes are a bad thing!
>LB: Dr. Bohannon continued noting that the great chief refused to
>believe that Hamlet was mad for the love of Ophelia and nothing else.
>He was sure that something much more important was troubling Hamlet's
>heart. "Now Hamlet's age mates, had brought with them a famous
>storyteller. Hamlet decided to have this man tell the chief and all
>his homestead a story about the man who had poisoned his brother
>because he desired his brother's wife and wished to be chief himself.
>Hamlet was sure the great chief could not hear the story without
>making a sign if he was indeed guilty , and then he would discover
>whether his dead father had told him the truth."
>Tiv: "Why would a father lie to his son?"
>LB: "Hamlet wasn't really sure that it really was his dead father."
>Tiv: "You mean it actually was an omen, and he knew witches sometimes
>send false ones. Hamlet was a fool not to go to one skilled in
>reading omens and divining the truth in the first place. A
>man-who-sees-the-truth could have told him how his father died, if he
>really had been poisoned, and if there was witchcraft in it; then
>Hamlet could have called the elders to settle the matter."
>Tiv: Another elder ventured to disagree: "Because his father's
>brother was a great chief, one-who-sees-the-truth might therefore
>have been afraid to tell it. I think it was for that reason that a
>friend of Hamlet's father--a witch and an elder--sent an omen so his
>friend's son would know. Was the omen true?"
>LB: "Yes. It was true, for when the storyteller was telling his tale
>before all the homestead, the great chief arose in fear. Afraid that
>Hamlet knew his secret, he planned to have him killed. The great
>chief told Hamlet's mother to find out from her son what he knew. But
>because a woman's children are always first in her heart, he had the
>important elder Polonius hide behind a cloth that hung against the
>wall of Hamlet's mother's sleeping hut. Hamlet started to scold his
>mother for what she had done." There was a shocked murmur from
>everyone, for a man should never scold his mother. "She called out in
>fear, and Polonius moved behind the cloth. Shouting 'a rat!' Hamlet
>took his machete and slashed through the cloth. He had killed
>Tiv: The old men looked at each other in extreme disgust. "That
>Polonius truly was a fool and a man who knew nothing! What child
>would not know enough to shout 'It's me!'" With a pang, Dr. Bohannon
>remembered that these people are ardent hunters, always armed with
>bow, arrow and machete; at the first rustle in the grass an arrow is
>aimed and ready and the hunter shouts "Game!" If no human voice
>answers immediately, the arrow is launched. Clearly, like a good
>hunter, Hamlet had shouted, "a rat!"
>LB: "But, Polonius did speak. Hamlet heard him. But he thought it was
>the chief and wished to kill him to avenge his father. He meant to
>kill him earlier that evening." This time it was clear that Dr.
>Bohannon had shocked her audience severely; for a man to raise his
>hands against his father's brother and one who has become his
>father--that indeed is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such
>a man be bewitched.
>Tiv: "No.If your father's brother has killed your father, you must
>appeal to your father's age mates; they may avenge him. No man may
>use violence against his senior relatives. But, if his father's
>brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him
>mad, that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault
>that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to
>kill his father's brother."
>LB: There was a murmur of applause and it was clear that Hamlet was
>again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed the same story
>that Dr. Bohannon thought it was.
>LB: Laertes came back for his father's funeral. The great chief told
>Laertes that Hamlet had killed Polonius. Laertes swore to kill Hamlet
>because of this, and because his sister Ophelia, hearing her father
>had been killed by the man she loved, went mad and drowned herself in
>Tiv: "Have you already forgotten what we have told you? One cannot
>take vengeance on a madman; Hamlet killed Polonius in his madness. As
>for the girl, she not only went mad, she was drowned. Only witches
>can make people drown. Water itself can't hurt anything."
>LB: "If you don't like the story I'll stop!"
>Tiv: The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more
>beer. "You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear
>that the elders of your country have never told you what the story
>really means. No, don't interrupt! We believe you when you say your
>marriage customs are different, or your clothes or weapons. But
>people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches
>and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work. We told you it
>was the great chief who wished to kill Hamlet, and now your own words
>have proved us right. Who were Ophelia's male relatives?"
>LB: "There were only her father and her brother."
>Tiv: "There must have been many more; this also you must ask of your
>elders when you get back to your country. From what you tell us,
>since Polonius was dead, it must have been Laertes who killed
>Ophelia, although I do not see the reason for it. Listen, and I will
>tell you how it was and how your story will go, then you may tell me
>if I am right.
>Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had
>many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had
>only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his
>sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a
>woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief's heir commits
>adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case
>against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to
>take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her
>so he could secretly sell her body to the witches."
>If even the basic concerns and crises of Hamlet are not universal,
>what is? In one fell swoop, the Tiv have dismissed supposedly
>universal Oedipal conflicts, monogamy, sexual jealousy, familial
>revenge, lovesickness, madness and sibling rivalry.
>Are the Tiv simply too primitive to understand Hamlet's universal
>truths? Or is the very notion of the universal problematic at best?
> >Of course sci-fi was always a subculture in itself, and a white male one at
> >that. And it is of obvious historical significance for an outsider even
> >within that subculture to break it wide open and reconfigure its
> >assumptions. But this is something that concerns us all. The point is,
> >injecting more variables into the human condition than were previously
> >acknowledged, what can now be said about the human condition in general
> >than could be said before?
>Only that there is no model at the far end of the abstract term "the
>Face it: Beyond the bare facts of birth, aging, eating, elimination,
>and death--things that we share with the whole of the animal
>kingdom--what is universal? Language and social interaction of some
>sort (apart, perhaps, from the rare occurrence of babies raised by
>wolves or lost in the jungle once every half-dozen generations or so
>and the somewhat more common instances of severe autism). Most but
>not all people engage in sexual congress with one or more others
>(usually more). Most but not all reproduce. Nearly all cultures have
>prohibitions against incest, but exactly who is considered kin for
>the sake of incest varies from place to place, time to time.
> >There is a huge contradiction in the
> >fundamental point of departure here: individuals from diverse backgrounds
> >who have something to say to everyone based on their concrete experience of
> >the world, vs. multiculturalism, or a quota system in which individuals are
> >authorized to act only as representatives of groups, as a containment
> >strategy that diversifies elites while preventing real democracy from
> >breaking out.
>The difference is even more fundamental than that--a belief against
>all evidence that there is one thing called the human condition, one
>universal vs. a world in which each individual's concrete experience
>is ultimately unique. Yes there are certain similarities to the
>experience of people occupying nearby times and locales, and the
>ability to communicate ideas to a greater or lesser degree through
>language allows us to cut across time and space to a certain extent,
>but there are also certain essential ways in which the people who
>grow up with us in the same home are as unknowable as the Tiv--or the
>Xlv of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.
>We may be able to communicate most clearly within a family, then a
>subculture, then a generation, then a region, then a culture, but
>communication is always and ever incomplete.
> >It is no longer difficult to publicly acknowledge Delany's origins; anybody
> >can do that. That is institutionalized now in a way it never could have
> >been a generation ago. Graduate students are processed like sausage to
> >think in this way. But to get to the meaning of Delany's works and what
> >that means for everybody--beyond subcultures--that's what really
> >matters. The generational component makes as much a difference as the
> >social variables you recognize: it helps to have lived on both sides of a
> >reconfiguration of the cultural order to be able to question the
> >assumptions of both.
>I lived on both sides as well. Perhaps I did not log as many years
>before the cultural changes in the late 1970s you speak of, since I
>was in high school in the mid-1970s, but I was there.
> >I find it telling, let me add, that everybody I have met in this area,
> >finds DHALGREN to be their favorite work, while I find it the least
> >valuable of them all. This speaks volumes--of what?--that remains to be
>Dhalgren is for me a sentimental favorite. When I read it in high
>school, shortly after its release, it opened my eyes personally to
>new ways of thinking about sexuality, money, work, love, friendship,
>race, language, and narrative structure.
>His greatest work? No. But certainly not Triton either, which is one
>of his lesser works, a novel that consolidated and clarified some of
>the sprawling experiments of Triton, perhaps, but provided only dim
>hints of a culture through the limited vision of a protagonist who is
>pitiable in his best moments (when he is being merely self deceptive)
>and is detestable in his her worst moments (when he/she is being
>self-pitying), and who is always insufferable and always oblivious to
>his own motivations and others' true opinions of and reactions to
>him. As a character study of such a detestable monster it is
>brilliant. But that black hole of a character absorbs anything else
>the novel might have to offer.
>I would say that Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and Escape
>from Neveryon are probably his most significant fictional works to
>date. That Stars in My Pocket transforms itself from one sort of book
>to another between the first and second readings is only part of its
>brilliance: The very passages that seem awkward on a first reading
>seem elegant and inevitable on the second, once its way of using
>language has gotten into your ear (much the same effect I find when
>reading Shakespeare or Moby Dick).
>But you probably do not care for Stars in My Pocket, since by making
>Marq Dyeth its primary narrator it sides with the multiculturalist
>Dyeth family and the Sygn against the universalist Thants and the
>Family. It limns a "world" where even the words and signs assigned to
>sex, gender, work and family hold no universal meaning, where there
>is a race commonly referred to as the Xlv that is so unknowable that
>no one has seen them or communicated with them, nor can anyone assign any
>motives to their actions.
>And Escape from Neveryon is far and away the greatest of the Neveryon
>books, with its stories of auctorial authority that dissolve into
>insubstantial mist as the story kicks free of one world and lands in
ATTENTION! -- NOTICE (21 Feb 2002)
The Autodidact Project has moved to a new location,
with its own domain name.
Check out Ralph Dumain's "The Autodidact Project":
See what's new on the site at:
Get a sneak preview of coming attractions on the site at:
"Nature has no outline but imagination has."
-- William Blake
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