Book Review: PHALLOS by Samuel R. Delany

cover of phallos by samuel delany“A tale of a tale,” to cite Delany’s own characterization, thus situating his text within the tradition of self-reflexive literature associated so closely with Borges; declaring it a phallus-obsessed Ficciones is inevitably reductive but sketches out the general textual landscape. Just like the Argentinian master, Delany unapologetically takes it as a given that literary esoterica and other epistemological pursuits can be just as thrilling as an adventure yarn or mystery story. For Phallos is indeed a mystery at heart, albeit unconventionally so.

A brief opening note outlines the experience of a young potential reader who, after failing to track down a copy of an obscure erotic novel called “Phallos” by an anonymous author, is forced to resign himself instead a lengthy synopsis posted on the internet by an obscure academic residing in Moscow, Idaho. This summary is what constitutes the main text of Phallos.

Thus two different intertwined narrative strands immediately come into play. The first is story (re)constructed via the synopsis, revolving around a man named Neoptolomus and his relentless pursuit across the ancient Roman world in search of a sacred statue of a phallus stolen from a temple he happened to be visiting on business. As it turns out, his ensuing journeying has the happy bonus of creating endless sexual opportunity, and with each new area ventured to Neoptolomus quickly and without fail manages to fall into bed with one or more of the (male) locals.

Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany

But remember this all isn’t actually the story itself: it’s merely an approximation of another text, a framing device. Soon digressions, personal references, and especially footnotes soon begin appearing, the latter quickly taking on the life of their own as they record the feedback of two of the academic’s friends. Also fans and scholars of “Phallos,” they begin to describe what they think should be reported in the synopsis, and chide the author on what is omitted, which in turn relate additional micro-narratives… on and on, endlessly. Delightfully so, in my opinion.

Delany is celebrated for his extensive knowledge on a range of subjects, which he interjects into his writing. Phallos is no different, and operates as a clever dramatization of Lacan’s influential formulation of the phallus, where he located a differentiation between a (literal) penis and a symbol of power. What for the French psychoanalyst was psychological in nature, however, Delany renders tangible in the form of the phallic statue and all that it symbolizes for those who encounter it.

But if Lacan isn’t your thing—and in all honestly it’s not really mine either—no need to get tangled up in these aspects of the text, especially when there is so much else to savor and enjoy. For one, despite the fact that all of the explicit sexual material has been edited out (the author worries over issues of hosting sexually explicit material on a university website), I found much of Phallos to still be a surprisingly sexy read. Delany is masterful at conveying titillating solely through inference, and goes a long way in demonstrating how it’s not necessarily the explicitness of material that is inherently arousing, but all of the factors orbiting around it such as context, power dynamics, novelty, spontaneity, unexpectedness, and the particularities of a person, situation, etc, when encountered at a specific moment in time. I also ended up being quite touched by Neoptolomus’s constant discovery and affirmation of the polymorphous quality of love, sex, and desire: “with each of my adventures,” he muses at one point, “I had thought I’d learned a lesson about love, only to discover, with the next, I’d merely learned a lesson about a lover.” And to claims Neoptolomus as a democratic lover would be an understatement: his bedfellows encompass all races, ages, nationalities, and takes no mind of class status, level of education, sexual proclivities, or even orthodox standards of attractiveness.  It’s constantly a pleasure to encounter how our protagonist discovers beauty and sexual fulfillment simply by being open to their possibility.

 

attic red figure kylix greek pottery displaying gay erotic scenes

Red-figured kylix adorned with scenes featuring activities and configurations of the type alluded to and celebrated throughout “Phallos.”

I’m not sure if the novella of Phallos is republished here in its original form, or has been altered in this “enhanced and revised edition,” which is essentially a scholarly edition of the text. Addended at the end is an “Afterward” as well as three scholarly essays—they’re all very academic in nature (that is, highly theoretical and employ the terminology of the academy), and I found lots of interest while perusing them without getting too caught up in the intricacies of their arguments. I’m glad they’re included as they affirm that a text like Phallos merits such close scholarly attention, though I also think it would have been nice to also include at least one analysis immediately accessible to the casual reader.

In the end what I found so wonderful about Phallos is that it essentially invites the reader to embrace the text as a kind of sophisticated variation on the “choose your own adventure” formula. Delany seems to intentionally avoid ever dictating how the text should be read or understood, placing that control (literally) into the reader’s hands. Skip over the extensive footnotes, or dig into the minutiae. Ponder over the broad philosophical questions that are slyly invoked, or simply be entertained by a quick-paced erotic adventure tale. Admire the intricate narrative construction, or marvel at the meticulous historical detail. It’s up to you.

Works Cited

Delany, Samuel R. Phallos: Enhanced and Revised Edition. Ed. Robert Reid-Pharr. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Print.

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