Synthesis #2: Reflections on The Polymath or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman

The film The Polymath or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman (Maestro Media 2007), directed by Fred Barney Taylor, offers a cinematic vision of Delany that complements the creative voice found in his fiction and academic work. As the documentary begins, Delany narrates his early adult years, revealing the incredible creative energy he harnessed in a prolific period spanning 1961-1965, when he composed and published five novels. Even more astounding is Delany’s recounting of his daily schedule during those years, as he wrote, ate, read, and spent time with his wife at breakfast and dinner while intermittently having sexual contact with multiple lovers at different locations in New York City. The fluidity of locations and time, then, in his queer experience, despite Delany having to navigate his itinerary around his wife’s 9-5 schedule, gave him the means to transcend the strictures of his straight marriage.

Continuing to recount his sexual experience in pre-AIDS America, Delany multiples his 13-14 sexual contacts per day to show that incrementally it amounted to hundreds of lovers per week, hence thousands each year[i] and points out that this experience had been shared by many fellow gay men. To the heteronormative, or homophobic, community, these numbers will sound unbelievable. Upon this mindset, Delany comments, “I just don’t think people have ever had or indeed still have a very realistic idea of the sexual landscape that they themselves are negotiating as you walk down the street.” On some level, people walking down streets in urban spaces probably do register these sexual possibilities for multiple partners with the individuals walking nearby, but this moment of full sexual consciousness becomes rescinded with an averted gaze or a centering of the eyes upon a non-human, hence non-reproductive, object (e.g., architecture, cars, advertising).

Upon first glimpsing the appearance of Delany’s apartment in the documentary, with thousands of books strewn on his dining room table and populating the shelves covering the walls, I gained the impression that he lives in a physical locus of the written word. So, when he remarks, “I am the kind of person who basically thinks about writing all day long and all the time,” I believe him, unlike when I hear other writers and fellow teachers make this claim but rarely produce any discourse (books, articles, conference papers, blogs, podcasts, etc.,…) denoting their love of the art form. Yet Delany self-deprecatingly admits, “My perception of myself is that there is not a lot of me there. There’s just a big emptiness in which there are a whole lot of words swimming around all the time. Sentences, fragments of sentences, that’s how I perceive what me is.” To stop here, one can argue that, from a linguistic theorist’s or literary critic’s standpoint, Delany’s statement applies to all of us as we are thinking, speaking, and writing words from language and cultural bases that are preconceived, fragmented, and recombined into recycled notions of self and an expression of this (re)manufactured being in relationship to the greater world. Delany continues in a voiceover, “I wish I found myself an interesting person – I don’t. I think of myself, as I walk through life, as the world’s most ordinary, dull, boring black faggot.” Immediately afterward, we see Delany walking around New York, about to cross the street. With this juxtaposing of words and image, Delany supports Scott Herring[ii] challenging the temporal axis of metronormatively, in which he articulates that “the hierarchized assumption that a metropolitan-identified queer will always be more dynamic, more cutting-edge, more progressive than a rural-identified queer, who will always be more static, more backward, and more culturally backward” (16).

As dull as Delany may perceive himself to be as a person, the words that stem from his mouth, again, the language that constructs his being, are anything but. Talking about living in the Albert Hotel, where many transsexuals or preoperatives were also living in the early 1970s, Delany recounts how he came to terms with not wishing to know any of their genders while riding in the hotel elevator with them:

You can get used to the degenderizing of people just by simple exposure….there are some situations, presumably, if you’re going to end up in bed with a person where you indeed might very much want to know.  But, if you’re not going to end up in bed with the person, who gives a flying fuck….That’s one of the experiences where I figure if I can change about something like that, then anybody can change about any of these things, but it take time and exposure, and it happens little by little.

Through this moment of self-confession, in overcoming his need to know one’s anatomical structuring (male or female) or medically-modified sex, Delany gives us, the viewer, a point for empathetic identification as we struggle in our own experiences to eschew the need for defining and labeling others according to their gendered bodies.

In the section of the documentary centering on the subject matter of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany gives a tour of the type of porn theater he would frequent for sexual encounters over a thirty-year period. To be honest, from his descriptions of the various theater spaces in that work, I imagined the theaters to have been cavernous, filled with hundreds of seats[iii]. However, the space Delany presents as the setting for his and others’ past sexual contacts is more akin to a small theater, more like the venue for a play, containing approximately one hundred seats. In the course of Delany pointing out where men sat to either have queer sexual encounters in the shadowy back rows or solitarily masturbate in the rows leading to the front of the theater, he elaborates on the importance of lighting for these spectacles:

If there are lights up on the wall, frequently somebody has climbed up on a chair and unscrewed the light so that it’ll be a little darker. And every once in a while, there’ll be somebody who wants that light on, so that you can see what’s going on in that chair, and frequently that’s an invitation to move closer and possibly start some sort of relationship, which people do.

As a medium for concealment or contact, the light functions as an object of power. Those individuals wishing to remain anonymous in their masturbatory acts could partially unscrew the light in order to utilize the resulting darkness as a defense against witnesses to their self-pleasuring and as a means of rejection to anyone desiring to join in on the sexual activity. Alternatively, the turning on of the light creates a beacon to a person’s public sexual performance, potentially inviting participates to join in the act. Ironically – or appropriately – while the movie screen is depicting a sexual scene recorded in the past, making it temporally static, the in-progress sexual activity initiated by the movie viewers is dynamic as it is occurring in real time and open to modification via the addition of witnesses or participants. In other words, the porn theater, in a de facto way, presents live amateur sexual performances in the space of its viewing seats.

In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany praises the social virtues of porno movies during the 1970s: “Generally, I suspect, pornography improved our vision of sex all over the country, making it friendlier, more relaxed, and more playful – qualities of sex that, till then, had been often reserved to a distressingly limited amount section of the better-read and more imaginative members of the mercantile middle classes” (78). At this point, Delany is not defining our according to the labels of heteronormative or queer culture. But, considering that gay men had already been habituating the porn theaters before it became more socially acceptable for straight couples to watch an adult film, post Deep Throat, in a theatrical space, I suspect that his statement alludes to the former group. Thus, for me, the most revelatory moment in the documentary occurs when Delany denounces heterosexual culture:

I think that heterosexual monogamy is a really viscous and silly way to live….But I respect the people who like to do it….I think of it’s a game they play, very close to a religious choice, and I also have a respect for what goes along with an American democratic respect for other peoples’ religions…And so I’m perfectly happy….to extend the same kind of respect even though I don’t agree with it, I don’t think it’s good. I think they shaft themselves left, right, and center when they do it. I see them again and again make themselves miserable over this….and I think there are other ways not to be miserable.

Applying the idea that humans have three basis needs: food, shelter, and sex, one can argue that most of the people involved in a heterosexual monogamous relationship adequately possess the first two, which should make them content or somewhat happy with their lives. That just leaves sex, and since people predominately seem unsatisfied in society, we can perhaps narrow the cause of their unhappiness to this need remaining unsatisfied. In the future, if we happen to see a rise in the number polyamorous couples, an elimination of any sexual labeling whatsoever, and an increase in public spaces for group sex, then we will know that Delany’s critique of heteronormative society had been correct.





















[i] Delany later in the documentary reveals this number to be over 50,000 partners.

[ii] Found in his introduction to Another Country – Queer Anti-Urbanism (New York University Press 2010).

[iii] This mental picture could be attributed to my knowledge of old New York movie theaters, most of it assembled from watching such films as Woody Allen’s nostalgic Purple Rose of Cairo, where the theatrical space appears immense.

One thought on “Synthesis #2: Reflections on The Polymath or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman

  1. alexislothian

    this moment of full sexual consciousness becomes rescinded with an averted gaze or a centering of the eyes upon a non-human, hence non-reproductive, object

    Interesting that you start writing about the “sexual” here and end up with the “reproductive” — a connection that is pretty firmly broken in Delany’s case!

    I enjoyed your commentary on the film –– glad I was able to give you access to it! I think the discussion of lighting is especially (if you will pardon the pun) illuminating. Sometimes visibility encourages desire and sometimes the absence of visibility is what is needed; and the positioning of the lights also made me think about what we see or do not see based on the lenses we apply to the world (from people not recognizing the world of potential sexual contact around them to Ana not being able to see the sexual activity happening right in front of her at the movie theater.

    I do want to challenge your final discussion of heterosexual monogamy, drawing from Cathy Cohen’s framework and also Sedgwick’s maxim ‘people are different from one another.’ Would the enforcement of nonmonogamy necessarily make for a better world? To argue that heterosexual monogamy is the root of all unhappiness is quite different from arguing that the privileging of heterosexual monogamy to the exclusion of all else is oppressive; even within an oppressive structure, people will experience their sex lives in different ways, and I tend to think it’s important to acknowledge that even while we area critiquing heteronormativity.


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