Delany's Divinities
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Delany's Divinities

Near isAnd difficult to grasp, theGod.

Friedrich Hölderlin, Patmos

"If a god has no name, what sort of god can he be?" So queries a befuddled sophisticate in the Egyptian city of Hermopolis in the year 130 when asked by Neoptolomus, protagonist of Samuel R. Delany's novella, Phallos (2004), about the location of the temple of "the nameless god" (14). The man's question about the object of Neoptolomus's search is perhaps more argumentative than nonplussed; it's fairly easy to imagine his response enunciated in a barbed tone, at least when we read it from a temporal location that flips the Hermopolite's assumptions, in a modern world gripped by fervid monotheisms, where the god who has a name is likely to be viewed as a relic of "myth," a human-sized efflorescence of primitive imagination limited in the domain of his (in any case, mistakenly attributed) powers, while the deity that is "real" is implicitly understood to be, is implicitly spoken as, immanent and omnipotent, qualities communicated by the vagueness of its generally being addressed by a title rather than through the diminution of a proper name. For the reader of Phallos, as for Neoptolomus whose quest we follow in the novella, the hidden name of the nameless god is just one of a series of mostly unsolved riddles and mysteries within the pornographic-philosophical adventure story. And by the lights of a familiar framework for taking account of that god's presence in the text—a framework taught to us by the three Mesopotamian traditions [End Page 702] which stamped out once-haughty beliefs in the likes of Thoth, whose chief shrine once was in Hermopolis—we might even understand the god's namelessness to be the key exemplar of the novella's exploration of its multiple mysteries: by these lights, the only essential mystery of human existence, for which all other mysteries are simply elaborations, is the right apprehension of a relationship to the "God" that imbues and explains all existence. The quest at the core of all quests is this quest, and the solution to all mystery is a profound understanding of the riddling answer given on Mount Sinai, when God tells Moses that his name is, "I am that I am."

So might we read a nameless god if we find it figured in, say, James Baldwin or Philip K. Dick. In Delany the riddle must be read differently. The nameless god or gods as a figure plays a recurring role in Delany's universes: they are sworn by, sometimes worshipped, and actually even manifest—or seem to—in Delany's ancient-world tale Phallos, in his fantasy of prehistory, the Nevèrÿon series (1979-1987), and even arguably in the contemporary porn novels The Mad Man (1994) and Equinox (1973), though in the latter two the figures are unnamed as gods and unnamed, period. But Delany's fictional universes, peppered though they often are by mutants and monsters, and informed sometimes by the exploration of mythic themes, are not generally read as pointing us toward what such figures and themes are often a vehicle for in the traditions of American speculative fiction, which, according to Jeffrey Kripal, is mysticism, revelatory encounters with higher and deeper structuring truth or reality.1 Delany tends not to elaborate the stories of his characters in mystical or spiritual terms, instead offering dense descriptions of their experience of material realities (even the realities of space-pirates), of minute variations in perception and affect and psychic orientation (especially as these coalesce in moments of apperception), and, of the rich panoply of bodily sensations, of the life of the flesh. Delany generally attempts to find alternatives to the recourse to representations of a higher and deeper spiritually unified structure as the guarantors of the human (or alien-human, or humanoid) subject's experience. Mysticism and its claims of access to a dimension of experience which can be described as divine Delany thus takes with postmodernist grains of salt. Such claims, in his view, usually play handmaiden to the subject's illusory and elusive hidden unities, about which Delany...