"Obsidian Mine": The Psychic Aftermath of Slavery
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"Obsidian Mine":
The Psychic Aftermath of Slavery

Oh, yes, I had my bad dreams. I had my good ones, too. Both required critique.

Gorgik, Return to Nevèrÿon

He [the analysand] must find the courage to direct his attention to the phenomena of his illness. His illness itself must . . . become an enemy worthy of his mettle, a piece of his personality, which has solid ground for its existence and out of which things of value for his future life have to be derived.

Sigmund Freud, "Remembering, Repeating and Working Through"

In the foundational article "All the Things You Could Be by Now, If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother: Psychoanalysis and Race" (1996), Hortense Spillers argues "that the psychoanalytic object, subject, subjectivity now constitute the missing layer of hermeneutic/interpretive projects of an entire generation of black intellectuals now at work" (377). A mere handful of African-American writers serve as the exceptions that prove this rule, and the experimental science fiction and fantasy writer Samuel R. Delany is foremost among them. As both literary practitioner and critic, Delany has deeply considered the possibilities [End Page 686] and the limitations of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis as a conceptual framework and as a means of psychic repair for black and/or queer subjects in the late-twentieth century. However, because Delany's oeuvre has often been analyzed outside the context of African-American literary and cultural studies, the implications of his engagement with and critique of psychoanalytic theory for black cultural discourse have not heretofore been explored. Representing psyches and, more specifically, sexualities damaged through racialized and gendered forms of oppression has been one of the most significant projects of twentieth-century African-American literature, at least since W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903). The internal operation of psychic recovery—the means by which psychological repair might be accomplished—takes up much less space within black American literature, and when the process of recovery has been represented, spiritual and cultural communion are, more often than not, the paths to psychic health.1 Thus, Delany's deployment of psychoanalytic practices of narrative healing, coupled with his critique of the homophobic orientation of much psychoanalytic theory, render his Return to Nevèrÿon series the most thorough engagement with psychoanalysis within African-American fiction since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952).2

The Return to Nevérÿon books—in the form of six short stories, three novellas, and two novels—narrate the history of a civilization that might or might not be a lost precursor to modern Western society. Delany's trademark engagement with contemporary critical theory makes this historical narrative explicitly philosophical. Described as "postmodern sword-and-sorcery," the Nevèrÿon tales suggest forgotten moments of female empowerment, gender equity, and tolerance for queer sexualities, and represent the birth of alphabetic literacy, a money economy, and mercantile capitalism.3 Located in the Mediterranean, Africa, or Asia (its exact site a subject of debate in the faux archaeological and anthropological discourse Delany has constructed), Nevèrÿon is a society dominated by black- or brown-skinned people who often wear their hair in braids or dreadlocks, a society in which pale-skinned, "yellow-haired" people are referred to as "barbarians" and live on the margins (Tales 67). Slavery and its abolition are central themes in the cycle, whose opening story, "The Tale of Gorgik," depicts the psychic and social development of the scarred, dark-skinned giant of a man who becomes known as "the Liberator" for his role in ending the practice of bondage in Nevèrÿon.

Delany's representation of a former slave-turned-statesman clearly alludes to Frederick Douglass, but the Nevèrÿon cycle [End Page 687] undertakes an exploration of the sexuality and subjectivity of such a figure in terms inconceivable in the nineteenth century and rarely attempted in the twentieth. These fictions imagine a Douglass-like figure as a gay man, in an ancient world, trying to come to terms with his experience as the object and subject of sexual coercion. Gorgik is captured at the age of 15, when his parents are...