Samuel Delany, author of more than 40 works of fiction, literary and cultural criticism, comics, and memoir, all of which are equal parts delicious prose, complex meditations on the function of language, frank examinations of the erotic, and perhaps most important, stunningly bold disruptions of largely unspoken notions regarding what constitutes respectable discourse, has established himself as one of the premiere intellectuals of his nation and his generation. After reading Dhalgren (1975), Triton (1976), Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), the Return to Nevèrÿon series, The Mad Man (1994), Dark Reflections (2007), The Motion of Light in Water (1988), Heavenly Breakfast (1979), Times Square Red/Times Square Blue (1999), About Writing (2005), Aye, and Gomorrah and Other Stories (2003), Atlantis: Three Tales (1995), and most recently, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012), one is left choking on a question stuck at the back of the throat: "Can he say that? Can anyone say that?" More unsettling still, the most sensitive, most generous of Delany's readers might easily find themselves caught off guard by the simple realization that if Delany has found a way to smash through so many long-established, seemingly insurmountable boundaries of stifling (literary) propriety, then perhaps so can we. Thus our encounters with Delany's oeuvre are at once infinitely pleasurable explorations of the ways in which language allows access to ideas, images, and forms of consciousness that break with both social and syntactical norms, while also being exhaustive—and exhausting—examinations of the many strategies we utilize to seal ourselves off from awareness of the full complexity of what it means to be humans inhabiting this planet, reproducing these societies, and speaking these tongues. [End Page 680]
In introducing this symposium on the work of Samuel Delany and celebrating the profundity of his intellectual achievements during the 50 years since the 1962 publication of his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, I must admit my preoccupation with what one might think of as Delany's pedagogical practice. Much of the thrill of reading Delany's work stems from his continual demonstration of the fact that our ability to make meaning necessarily turns on the capacity to discern and articulate multiple layers of discursive sedimentation. Even our most casual readings of texts or contexts are built on the assumption of some ill-defined social and historical depth to which the reader must attend. Part of what makes Delany a distinctly avant-garde writer, however, is that he refuses to remain within the often unspoken limits that distinguish "literary" fiction from paraliterary forms like science fiction, pornography, comics, and literary criticism. On the contrary, Delany remains tightly focused on demonstrating the full range of the social, discursive, and aesthetic contours of the worlds he imagines. This explains why he has produced so many powerful—and often provocative—depictions of the homeless, slaves, intellectuals, the disabled, and the unlettered, characters whose social presence might be remarked within "literary" fiction, but whose reading practices, those everyday confrontations with "social and historical depth," often go unnoted. Delany goes from the center of the societies that he considers to the margins, picking through the detritus that he discovers in order to produce a level of thick description and discursive complexity that is matched by few living authors.
Delany . . . demonstrate[es] the full range of the social, discursive, and aesthetic contours of the worlds he imagines. This explains why he has produced so many powerful—and often provocative—depictions of the homeless, slaves, intellectuals, the disabled, and the unlettered, characters whose social presence might be remarked within "literary" fiction, but whose reading practices, those everyday confrontations with "social and historical depth," often go unnoted.
I would point you toward the many descriptions of the retrieval, disposal, cataloguing, and interpretation of waste, human and otherwise, that one finds throughout Delany's oeuvre. Much of the Return to Nevèrÿon series turns on the interpretation of the Kolhar fragment, a piece of ancient text that leaves open the possibility of incredibly complex dystopian civilizations. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand treats the processing and interpretation of trash as...