Samuel R. Delany never ceases to surprise his readers, mainly because he writes astonishingly well about almost anything. Convinced that both “high” and “low” culture are equally valid as pedagogic tools, his two newest projects include a unified duet of academic essays and an underground comic book: Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a fairly sober set of sociological musings from an elite university press, and Bread and Wine, a pornographic graphic novel from the publisher of the avant-pop Re/Search series. Don’t be fooled by the seeming incongruity of this two-fisted literary assault. Because no matter how different their respective formats, both books are about mainstream society’s queasy approach to issues of sex, race, and class.
In the first half of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue Delany, best known for his science fiction, defends the old red light district by extolling the merits of various class and color-blind subcultures which flourished amid its once anarchic squalor. Delany cheerfully recounts the fact that guilt-free blowjobs and public masturbation in now demolished porno theaters were often the glue holding these subcultures together. It is both a celebration of the kaleidoscopic possibilities inherent in urban diversity and a eulogy for the plurality of human contact and stimulation squelched by the Times Square makeover.
Although Delany can juggle semiotic jargon as well as any other credentialed academic, he opts for a lucid, accessible prose. Delany defends venues for public sex and pornographic media as necessary to the public good. He doesn’t say “let’s bring it into the grammar schools,” but he does point out that the organic eruption of semi-autonomous zones where these things can be safely enjoyed is a positive and fundamentally democratic event. In the essay “Times Square Blue,” Delany writes: “Were the porn theaters romantic? Not at all. But because of the people who used them, they were humane and functional, fulfilling needs that most of our society does not yet know how to acknowledge.”
At one point Delany describes bringing a curious female acquaintance to witness the almost exclusively same-sex activity at these theaters. Allowed to roam the place unmolested, she marvels at the ease with which she can either choose to observe or opt to participate. Delany equates this lack of pressure to the lack of structured expectations in a profoundly anarchic environment. As an avuncular Delany points out, “the sight of genitals when you don’t expect them in a public space, say, astonishes. . . . But it is not the greatest astonishment in the world. And acclimation mitigates it.”
This idea of acclimation comes up again when Delany discusses the first wave of straight commercial porn from the 1970s. At first almost anything more exotic than the missionary position was openly ridiculed as perverse or “unmanly” by predominantly straight, working-class audiences. But gradually they stopped laughing at scenes of cunnilingus or fellatio and began to accept them as legitimate additions to a well-rounded sexual repertoire. By visually expanding narrow definitions of the pursuit of sexual pleasure, these films made clear (if sometimes oversimplified) connections between sexual and social liberation. The subliminal message was “Free your ass and your mind will follow,” a sexual catechism which in Delany’s opinion did as much to benefit straight wives and girlfriends as the gay rights movement.
Which brings us to the psychosexual subject matter of Bread and Wine, illustrated by the painter and children’s book author Mia Wolff. Delany’s worked with comic books before, but never with such explicitly erotic material. Bread and Wine is about how the writer found and courted his live-in lover Dennis. When they met about a decade ago Dennis was homeless, filthy, and selling scavenged goods from a blanket on the street along Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Having known and befriended numerous homeless men in his theater-cruising days, Delany first bought a used book, then opened a casual conversation, which blossomed over weeks and months of similarly low-key encounters into a committed romantic relationship.
Delany writes this story in the stark but poetic language of a fairy tale, while Wolff strives for an edgy realism in black-and-white drawings that have all the raw energy of woodcuts. Wolff did an intimate study of her subjects, spending time with Delany, his daughter Iva, and Dennis to get a feel for the details in the text. She even had Delany and Dennis pose nude so her anatomical renderings would be correct.
Delany intentionally described this courtship in the tone of a fable because he knows that even for non-vanilla observers, he and Dennis seem an unlikely couple. Picture it: the unwashed, homeless, untutored white guy and the successful middle-class black college professor with a string of award-winning books to his name. Still, they met, spoke, had great sex, and fell in love with a physical passion that has lasted for nine years. For Delany, a city’s greatest gift to all its inhabitants is the possibility of mutually beneficial contact between all its various types and prototypes. Gentrification along a suburban model would destroy that urban gift right along with the porno theaters on 42nd Street.
Samuel Delany will read at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble on July 7 and at A Different Light on July 23.