I recently (re)read The Mad Man, by Samuel R. Delany. Which is a book that I’m still trying to figure out: on the one hand, it’s one of the most life-affirming books that I know, but on the other hand, it’s pornography, and pornography where the protagonist spends a fair amount of time drinking piss. Which, if you’d asked me earlier, wouldn’t have been qualities that I would have expected to link together.
Though, now that I think about it, perhaps I should revise my expectations. I might also use the term ‘life-affirming’ to describe the Kushiel trilogy, for example; and, while that series is not pornography, there’s quite a bit of fucking going on it. No piss drinking that I can recall, but lots of pain inflicted as part of the sex in those books; still, the result is something that I very much see as on the side of the goodness in humanity. I’m fairly sure that, by the end of this blog post, it will be clear that that isn’t a coincidence, that there’s a reason why my brain interprets both books that way.
Anyways, back to The Mad Man. Like I said: pornography, piss drinking. The latter is far from the only sexual act in the book, or far from the only substance consumed: the protagonist spends a fair amount of time going down on other men (as does Delany himself, of course), so semen certainly shows up frequently. (One might even say that it spurts forth.) In fact, in general, if a substance comes out of a body, it gets consumed in this book: while the protagonist is not in this number, a couple of the side characters have a fondness for eating shit, to the extent that we run into people in the book who claim never to go to a bathroom, they just hold things in until they run across a friend who will dispose of their waste products for them.
I suspect it’s a manifestation of Delany’s love of symmetry (or a hidden desire to be a management consultant?) that he completes the quadrant: we’ve sexualized the production and consumption of solid and liquid waste products, and we have semen: if we wanted to make the latter solid, what would we do? The answer, of course, is to have characters who have stretched their foreskins to abnormal extents, and who like to whack off and then leave the semen hanging around in there for a few days; eventually, it apparently takes on a more solid, cheese-like texture, becoming a different sort of delicacy to be consumed by its aficionados. (The protagonist becoming one of those aficionados.) Who knows, maybe that is a thing, maybe this is simply Delany reporting.
Because report he does. I said above that the book is pornography, and if I had to pick a single genre label for it, that is the one that I’d choose. But it crosses genre boundaries in ways that, for example, his Equinox doesn’t: and one of its other themes is to provide a picture of what life could be like as a gay man in pre-AIDS New York City. And what life could be like is: you can get laid all you want, and if there are particular behaviors that you eroticize, you can easily find people to engage in it with you, should you so choose. So, for example, he goes into a fair amount of detail about a bar that regularly had evenings devoted to the consumption of piss, with loving descriptions of the care taken to make sure that your clothes are wearable, the way people replaced urinals in the bathrooms during those evenings, the effects on your insides of having large amounts of urine flowing through your system.
Of course, pornography is (frequently) devoted to entirely imagined portrayals of sexual excess, but that’s not what’s going on in the above descriptions. For one thing, they’re called out as reporting instead of pornography within the book itself: while the book describes a trip of the narrator’s to that bar, it frames that trip in the context of a letter from the narrator to a less-cosmopolitan friend of his, giving context about the possible life of a philosopher that the narrator is describing, with the tone of: you clearly don’t realize what the range of quite reasonable possible behavior for a gay New Yorker is, so I’m going to explain it to you. (And, as I do a bit of googling, Delany didn’t even construct a fictional bar as a composite of real examples: the Mineshaft, the bar he described, existed and was much as he said.) It’s explicitly marked as reportage in the context of the book, and Delany these days clearly feels that it’s important for him to speak out accurately about the variety and quantity of sex available for those desiring it: the interview that leads off The Polymath has him talking about a typical day of writing in the early sixties where he’d work on a novel for a few hours in the morning, then go to a bathroom in Central Park and blow four or five men, then go home and write some more, then go to a movie theater for more sex, then grocery shop and go home and cook dinner for his wife, then write some more, then go off to the trucks to give another five blow jobs. Easily hundreds of sexual partners a month, thousands a year.
Those movie theaters show up a lot in The Mad Man, too, and he’s written a quite good nonfiction book about them, too, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. That book is partly about the destruction of those theaters, and what we’ve lost by that destruction. A theme that comes up in The Mad Man, too; and while I won’t say it’s the reason for their destruction (or for the shutting down of the Mineshaft), AIDS is one of the main ways in which the city government justified their actions in that regard. The Mad Man straddles the boundary of the appearance of AIDS, and explicitly addresses that transition.
Addresses it not just in terms of what was lost in terms of institutions, but in much more personal terms: of having friends suddenly die, of living in fear not knowing that you’re going to die, of living in resignation assuming that you must be infected, given the number of people you’ve fucked, so what’s the point of taking precautions? And it’s written in (in my view entirely justified) anger at the scandalous paucity of solid research into what behaviors lead to what levels of risk of catching the disease. There’s way too much unsupported “sex is scary and bad, especially gay sex” talk out there, and on the sex-positive side way too much “sex is very dangerous without a condom but safe if you have one” talk out there; Delany’s survival (those thousands upon thousands of men he’s gone down on weren’t wearing condoms) gives anecdotal evidence that the truth is rather more nuanced than that, but anecdotal evidence isn’t research. The Mad Man contains, as an appendix, a 1987 Lancet article entitled “Risk Factors for Seroconversion to Human Immunodeficiency Virus among Male Homosexuals”, which is a start; Delany claims that it hasn’t (or at least hadn’t at the time the book was written, say by 1994) been followed up in anything approaching an appropriate fashion. That is part of the context of the sex acts that are featured in the book: Delany wanted to write about people having (lots of!) sex in ways that could plausibly not lead to their getting AIDS.
So yeah, there’s reportage in there, and well-done polemically-informed reportage at that. And, uh, reportage that’s kind of hot. Which is one of the interesting things about the book: trying to figure out what’s pornography, what’s fiction that’s describing people that fuck a lot but in realistic rather than fantastical ways, and what’s reportage. That division isn’t simply something I’m reading into the book: as I mentioned above, the book explicitly addresses the existence of reportage, and it also explicitly addresses pornography, in the form of events told by narrators who prove later to be unreliable.
And this variety of narration, coupled with an even wider variety of sexual acts that are described, means that when reading it, I’m always asking myself: is this something I like to do? Is this something I would like to do, but haven’t done? Is this something that I kind of think I would like to do but I’d need to get drunk to have the courage to do it? Is this something that I think is hot to read about but that I really wouldn’t want to do in real life? Is this this something that is so obviously fictionalized pornographic excess as to be too ridiculous to even think about in real life? Is this something that I wouldn’t want to do about in real life, but am completely comfortable with the idea of? Is this something that I’d honestly rather not think about too much, but that when I do think about it seems fine if that’s what you’re into? Is this something that seems wrong to me? There’s stuff in the book that I’d put into each of those categories, and mercifully little that I would put in the last of those categories; and one side effect of (re)reading it is that the number of acts that I’d put into the next-to-last of those categories is shrinking.
Which is one of the reasons why I find the book so life-affirming. It sends a strong message that: whatever you’re into (well, almost whatever you’re into), that’s okay, and you’ll find somebody else who is into that, too, you’ll find sexual satisfaction. And that’s a glorious statement! And another message, that worrying too much about fitting yourself into boxes or what the correct labels are to apply to yourself just isn’t necessary. For example, we frequently see in those theaters (and elsewhere) men who label themselves as straight but who really enjoy being (frequently!) blown by other men; the novel may gently poke fun at them for that label, and suggest that those men would be happier if they weren’t so attached to it and could take a more honest look at their lives, but ultimately the fact that those men are finding sexual fulfillment is what matters.
Also, the book is equally strong on the flip side of that message: whatever you’re not into is fine, too. Even if you label yourself as gay, that doesn’t mean that you have to be into doing anything that another man wants. So there’s little or no anal sex in the book, for example (mirroring Delany’s own preferences), and generally characters in the book have a fairly strong leaning towards going down on other people or towards having other people go down on them. (Delany generally prefers the former.) It’s fine to want to do A a lot, to never want to to B, to want to do C once or twice a week, to be happy enough to do D if you’re with a partner who prefers it but to stay away from it otherwise, to have wanted to do E ten years ago but to not be into it these days, to not be quite sure yet if you want to do F or not. That, coupled with an equally strong message that people with complementary preferences are out there somewhere, is something that I find rather wonderful.
So far, I’ve been mostly focusing on different kinds of sex acts. But, of course, there’s a lot more to sexual desire than the act itself: doubtless there are people out there who would be happy to fuck anybody with the appropriate set of orifices/organs/desires to match their preferences in sex acts, but most of us get turned on/off by other specific physical characteristics and behaviors as well. And this too is a strength of Delany in general and of The Mad Man in particular.
Any Delany fan is well aware by now of the frequency with which Delany’s main characters get turned on when seeing somebody else with heavily bitten fingernails; this is one of Delany’s own fetishes, but it also goes back to the life-affirming nature that I mentioned above: whatever you are into is okay. (Though, just to be clear here: I am not saying that I approve of all forms of sexual behavior, consent is crucial to me. I’ll get to the intersection of desires with politics in a bit.) There is no need to feel shame; think about where your desires might come from, if you wish, but if you have a preference for something, that’s fine. I honestly can’t remember how much bitten fingernails show up in The Mad Man, but there’s one key character who has quite the interest in the details of feet, for example.
And equally life-affirming (actually, probably more life-affirming) is the converse: there’s going to be something out there who is into you, even into aspects of yourself that society suggests you should be ashamed of; and, for that matter, just because society marks something as negative (or as positive) doesn’t mean that anybody should care about that one way or another! (Again, I’m talking about sexual attraction here, not politics.) The book reinforces that last point in a rather direct way: a lot of the people that the protagonist has sex with are homeless. (And not some sort of pornographically fantastic attractive young homeless people, either: homeless people who have had a rough time of it, who have been aged by the process.) It’s not that the protagonist has a fetish for homeless people; he just doesn’t care about that the way that society expects him to. I don’t want to portray the book as autobiography, because it’s not, but this isn’t some sort of abstract political statement: Delany has been living for the last twenty years with a man he met while the latter was homeless. (See Bread & Wine for some of the details about that one.) Think about what’s important to you (sexually, yes, but in a partner more generally), and try to see that without being blinded by what society tells you. (And, for that matter, try not to get too attached to those initial hypotheses if you haven’t actually checked them against your behavior and feelings towards real people.)
That’s the physical side of attraction, of eroticization; what about the mental side? This is actually the area in the book that gave me the most pause, as it turns out. To take one example, I hope I don’t make a habit of calling people stupid in the real life, but I’m sure I’d be more likely to do that than to, say, drink piss; when reading and thinking about those two actions in the book, though, I end up realizing that the former bothers me rather more (and at a more fundamental level) than the latter.
It is very much to The Mad Man‘s credit, however, that it’s helped me think through these issues, to understand where my boundaries lie and what’s good about my disquiet, but also to appreciate the positive aspects of what he’s describing. In general, if you’re calling somebody stupid, you’re just being an asshole. (At best: at it’s all-too-common worst, it’s actively destructive, potentially to the point of leaving scars for life.) I’m coming around to understanding, though, that in an explicitly marked fantasy zone, that can be okay behavior.
In general, I’m not hugely into talking dirty as an actual part of sex (though I’m pretty strongly into verbal play in general, and I’d be very unlikely to be attracted by somebody who didn’t appreciate and wasn’t capable of some level of verbal gymnastics), but I can see (I can feel!) the pleasure of talking dirty. Also, in general I’m not into power play in sex (and there my sexual preferences mirror my non-sexual preferences), but I’m not so blind as to deny the existence of that one, either. And, to be honest, I suspect that I’d be perfectly happy to experiment with being on the submissive side of a sexual power dynamic, though I’m also perfectly happy giving it a miss and I doubt that I’d want to either go too far in that direction or make that a particularly frequent part of sex.
So: if modeling power relations turns you on, if insults are part of that, and if for that matter you get turned on by being called stupid, then that’s totally up to you: your preferences are your preferences, your turn-ons are your turn-ons, and if you find a partner willing (even eager) to play a complementary role, then that’s great. (That partner just won’t be me!) Unlike some of the stuff I’ve talked about above, I’m not going to uncritically accept most power dynamic sexual preferences as being innate to your brain chemistry (in general, I’m sure there are exceptions); but even if it is the case that those sexual desires are shaped in part by societal forces that I think are bad, even evil (which I’m also not going to uncritically put forth!), that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to try to repress those sexual desires. Work with them, figure out how to find pleasure; and if they bother you, confront that, figure out what’s going on, and it’s my (quite uninformed) guess that you’ll have more luck dealing with what bothers you in areas outside of sex first.
(At least that’s my current tentative working hypothesis. I really do not claim to have a well-informed opinion about all of this, and I’m almost positive that there are ways in which I’m being a condescending asshole here. And just typing the words “brain chemistry” above reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a couple of months ago that I should pick up again: she has a much more directly informed opinion about how brain chemistry would affect some of these issues than I do!)
Returning to our specific example: in the grand scheme of things, calling somebody stupid is a relatively mild form of power dynamic; Delany confronts some power dynamics that are a lot worse, and where I’m glad that it’s a black man who is writing about them. The more intense the power dynamics get, the more he goes out of his way to emphasize the boundaries of where they’re acceptable and where they’re not, to emphasize that enjoying something in the context of sex does not in any way mean enjoying something in a different context, and that desiring a label in the context of sex does not mean that that label is either welcome or accurate in other contexts. And even with that, there was one place in the book where I was intensely grateful a certain bit of narration was revealed to be false within the book’s internal context, a bit of internal pornography. Which relates to the distinction I mentioned above between sex acts that you’d enjoy actually doing versus sex acts that you get turned on by reading about them: just as (consensual, always consensual!) interactions during sex are in a different space from interactions in other contexts, so too are explicitly fictional descriptions of behavior different from real-world behavior.
Phew. Quite a book; quite a lot to think about. It certainly hits on my taboos—I finished my most recent reading of the book more than two months ago, and it’s taken me most of that time to accept that, yes, this book really is important enough to my brain that I’m going to write about it even if that means writing about characters who are turned on by eating shit. (And this hesitation isn’t purely academic: one real-life friend had asked about the book a couple of times, and when I finally gave in and started talking about it, got squicked out in quite short order by my description.) And, as is obvious from those last few paragraphs, it hits at issues that I’m still not comfortable thinking about.
But the book has also helped me become surprisingly comfortable with a wide range of scenarios, and did so a way that points uniformly towards acceptance of and glorying in the wonderful variety of human behavior. And, equally important, in a way that paints a wonderfully optimistic picture of opportunities and acceptance that’s out there for you! Delany’s world is a fascinating one, and one that I like more and more as I’m getting to know it better.
This post has not been revised since publication.