- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Happy 77th Birthday, Samuel R. Delany!

Today is Samuel R. Delany Day! Celebrate by reading his writing: fiction, memoir, criticism, essays, and letters of the highest caliber. I’m constantly inspired by Delany’s virtuosity, intelligence, and iconoclasm, not to mention kindness and generosity. Here are seventy-seven quotes from Delany’s writing to celebrate his 77th birthday.

“The sentence is more flexible, sinuous, complex—one is always revising it—than the word. It’s got style. Yet it holds real danger in its metaphorical compass. The wrong one condemns you to death.”

“A writer’s reputation and fame develop around the wonderful things she or he does with language, the way he or she makes the language perform, and the things (and their intensity!) the writer makes happen in the reader’s mind, as the reader runs his or her eyes along the words in each line.”

“More accurately, literature (in its largest meaning) might be seen as the battle of the unsaid to enter the precincts of the articulate.”

“Writing fiction is work. And hard work at that. If you’re not prepared to work hard, think seriously about doing something else.”

“You must write not only to produce the text that is the historical verification of your having written. You must write to project yourself, again and again, through the annealing moment that provides the negentropic organization which makes a few texts privileged tools of perception. Without this moment, this series of moments, this concatenation of doubts about language shattered by language, the text is only a document of time passed with some paper, of time pondering a passage through a dream.”

“We love a sentence only partially because of what it means, but even more for the manner and intensity through which it makes its meaning vivid.”

“I begin, a sentence lover. I’m forever delighted, then delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying, into seeing. I’m astonished—just plain tickled!—at the sharp turns and tiny tremors they can whip your thoughts across. I’m entranced by their lollop and flow, their prickles and points. Poetry is made of words, Mallarmé told us a hundred years back. But I write prose. And prose is made of sentences.”

“To speak the unspeakable without the proper rhetorical flourish or introduction; to muff that flourish, either by accident, misjudgment, or simple ignorance; to choose the wrong flourish or not choose any (i.e., to choose the flourish called “the literal”) is to perform the unspeakable.”

“One would almost think that they [straight white males] felt empowered to take anything the society produced, no matter how marginal, and utilize it for their own ends—dare we say ‘exploit it’?—certainly to take advantage of it as long as it’s around. And could this possibly be an effect of discourse? Perhaps it might even be one we on the margins might reasonably appropriate to our profit… or perhaps some of us already have.”

“Dictators during the entire history of this planet have used similar techniques. By not letting the people of their country know what conditions existed outside their boundaries, they could get the people to fight to stay in those conditions. It was the old adage: Convince a slave that he’s free, and he will fight to maintain his slavery.”

“No man can wield absolute power over other men and still retain his own mind. For no matter how good his intentions are when he takes up the power, his alternate reason is that freedom, the freedom of other people and ultimately his own, terrifies him. Only a man afraid of freedom would want this power, who could conceive of wielding it. And that fear of freedom will turn him into a slave of this power.”

Books! Real books were Joneny’s delight. Heavy, cumbersome, difficult to store, they were the bane of most scholars. Joneny found them entrancing. He didn’t care what was in them. Any book today was so old that each word glittered to him like the facet of a lost gem. The whole conception of a book was so at odds with this compressed, crowded, breakneck era that he was put into ecstasy by the simple heft of the paper. His own collection, some seventy volumes, was considered a pretentious luxury by everyone at the University.”

“Imagination should be used for something other than pondering murder, don’t you think?”

“I saw a bunch of the weirdest, oddest people I have ever met in my life, who thought different, and acted different, and even made love different. And they made me laugh, and get angry, and be happy, and be sad, and excited, and even fall in love a little….And they didn’t seem to be so weird or strange anymore.”

“I want to talk about love. Loving someone…I mean really loving someone…means you are willing to admit that the person you love is not what you first fell in love with, not the image you first had; and you must be able to like them still for being as close to that image as they are, and avoid disliking them for being so far away.”

“‘The beginning of the end, the beginning of the end…We must preserve something… ‘The end of the beginning…Everything must change.'”

“In myths things always turn into their opposites as one version supersedes the next.”

“‘All life is a rhythm…All death is rhythm suspended, a syncopation before life resumes.'”

“If you’re going to do something stupid—and we all do—it might as well be a brave and foolish thing.”

“Earth, the world, the fifth planet from the sun—the species that stands on two legs and roams this thin wet crust: it’s changing…It’s not the same. Some people walk under the sun and accept that change, others close their eyes, clap their hands to their ears, and deny the world with their tongues.”

“‘You’re living in the real world now…It’s come from something. It’s going to something. Myths always lie in the most difficult places to ignore.”

“Oh, for the rebirth of an educational system where understanding was an essential part of knowledge.”

“You can be bored with anything if you try hard enough.”

“Dull grown-ups and bright children form a particularly tolerant friendship.”

“Bear in mind that the novel—no matter how intimate, psychological, or subjective—is always a historical projection of its own time.”

“There are three types of actions: purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous. Characters, to be immediate and apprehensible, must be presented by all three.”

“Don’t go chattering to the stars if you’re going to do it with your eyes closed.”

“The inevitable is that unprepared for.”

“If everything, everything were known, statistical estimates would be unnecessary. The science of probability gives mathematical expression to our ignorance, not to our wisdom.”

“Words mean things. When you put them together they speak. Yes, sometimes they flatten out and nothing they say is real, and that is one kind of magic. But sometimes a vision will rip up from them and shriek and clank wings clear as the sweat smudge on the paper under your thumb. And that is another kind.”

“Always remember the objects you are working with. When you make a bridge, remember you are putting steel on stone and dirt.…Some day you will write poems to a little girl: marks with ink on paper.…When you are making love, you are moving flesh against flesh. That is the basis of all magic.”

“to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.”

“You meet a new person, you go with him and suddenly you get a whole new city…you go down new streets, you see houses you never saw before, pass places you didn’t even know were there. Everything changes.”

“But I realized something. About art. And psychiatry. They’re both self-perpetuating systems. Like religion. All three of them promise you a sense of inner worth and meaning, and spend a lot of time telling you about the suffering you have to go through to achieve it. As soon as you get a problem in any one of them, the solution it gives is always to go deeper into the same system. They’re all in rather uneasy truce with one another in what’s actually a mortal battle. Like all self-reinforcing systems. At best, each is trying to encompass the other two and define them as sub-groups. You know: religion and art are both forms of madness and madness is the realm of psychiatry. Or, art is the study and praise of man and man’s ideals, so therefore a religious experience just becomes a brutalized aesthetic response and psychiatry is just another tool for the artist to observe man and render his portraits more accurately. And the religious attitude I guess is that the other two are only useful as long as they promote the good life. At worst, they all try to destroy one another. Which is what my psychiatrist, whether he knew it or not, was trying, quite effectively, to do to my painting. I gave up psychiatry too, pretty soon. I just didn’t want to get all wound up in any systems at all.”

“There is no articulate resonance. The common problem, I suppose, is to have more to say than vocabulary and syntax can bear. That is why I am hunting in these desiccated streets. The smoke hides the sky’s variety, stains consciousness, covers the holocaust with something safe and insubstantial. It protects from greater flame. It indicates fire, but obscures the source. This is not a useful city. Very little here approaches any eidolon of the beautiful.”

“The poems…are moments when I had the intensity to see, and the energy to build, some careful analog that completed the seeing…All I have been left is the exhausting habit of trying to tack up the slack in my life with words.”

“You begin to suspect, as you gaze through this you-shaped hole of insight and fire, that though it is the most important thing you own—never deny that for an instant—it has not shielded you from anything terribly important. The only consolation is that though one could have thrown it away at any time, morning or night, one didn’t. One chose to endure. Without any assurance of immortality, or even competence, one only knows one has not been cheated out of the consolation of carpenters, accountants, doctors, ditch-diggers, the ordinary people who must do useful things to be happy. Meander along, then, half blind and a little mad, wondering when you actually learned—was it before you began?—the terrifying fact that had you thrown it away, your wound would have been no more likely to heal: indeed, in an affluent society such as this, you might even have gone on making songs, poems, pictures, and getting paid. The only difference would have been—and you learned it listening to all those brutally unhappy people who did throw away theirs—and they do, after all, comprise the vast and terrifying majority—that without it, there plainly and starkly would have been nothing there; no, nothing at all.”

“It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.”

“‘The artist has some internal experience that produces a poem, a painting, a piece of music. Spectators submit themselves to the work, which generates an inner experience for them. But historically it’s a very new, not to mention vulgar, idea that the spectators experience should be identical to, or have anything to do with, the artist’s. That idea comes from an over-industrialized society which has learned to distrust magic.'”

“Life is a very terrible thing, mostly, with points of wonder and beauty. Most of what makes it terrible, though, is simply that there’s so much of it, blaring in through the five senses.”

“‘Things have made you what you are…What you are will make you what you will become.'”

“One picks one’s way about through the glass and aluminum doors, the receptionists’ smiles, the lunches with too much alcohol, the openings with more, the mobs of people desperately trying to define good taste in such loud voices one can hardly hear oneself giggle, while the shebang is lit by flashes and flares through the paint-stained window, glimmers under the police-locked door, or, if one is taking a rare walk outside that day, by a light suffusing the whole sky, complex as the northern aurora.”

“And what have I invested in interpreting disfocus for chaos? This threat: the only lesson is to wait. I crouch in the smoggy terminus. The streets lose edges, the rims of thought flake. What have I set myself to fix in this dirty notebook that is not mine? Does the revelation that, though it cannot be done with words, it might be accomplished in some lingual gap, give me the right, in injury, walking with a woman and her dog in pain? Rather the long doubts: that this labor tears up the mind’s moorings; that, though life may be important in the scheme, awareness is an imperfect tool with which to face it. To reflect is to fight away the sheets of silver, the carbonated distractions, the feeling that, somehow, a thumb is pressed on the right eye. This exhaustion melts what binds, releases what flows.”

“‘An artist simply cannot trust any public emblem of merit.'”

“No laws: to break, or to follow. Do anything you want. Which does funny things to you. Very quickly, surprisingly quickly, you become…exactly who you are.”

“Lots of people do things lots better than lots of others; but, today, so many people do so many things very well, and so many people are seriously interested in so many different things people do for their own different reasons, you can’t call any thing the best for every person, or even every serious person. So you just pay real attention to the real things that affect you; and don’t waste your time knocking the rest.”

“After all, they were nice in a useless sort of way, which is, after all, the only way to be truly nice.”

“There is so much you don’t see. You walk around in a world with holes in it; you stumble into them; and get hurt. That’s cruel to say, but it’s hard to watch.”

“‘I wonder sometimes if the purpose of the artistic community isn’t to provide a concerned social matrix which simultaneously assures that no member, regardless of honors or approbation, has the slightest idea of the worth of his own work.'”

“Everyone in a position of authority is hysterical, and everyone else is pretending to be asleep.”

“And who’s to say where life ceases and theater begins.”

“Political commitment isn’t a perimeter…it’s a parameter. Don’t you ever wonder? Don’t you ever doubt?”

“The emblem of a philosophy is not that it contains a set of specific thoughts, but that it generates a way of thinking.”

“He was learning that power—the great power that shattered lives and twisted the course of nations—was like a fog over a meadow at evening. From any distance, it seemed to have a shape, a substance, a color, an edge, yet as you approached it, it seemed to recede before you. Finally, when common sense said you were at its very center, it still seemed just as far away, only by this time it was on all sides, obscuring any vision of the world beyond it.”

“And of course that is the problem with all truly powerful ideas. And what we have been talking of is certainly that. What it produces is illuminated by it. But applied where it does not pertain, it produces distortions as terrifying as the idea was powerful. “

“While any situation could be used as an image of any other, no thing could be an image of another—especially two things as complicated as two people. And to use them as such was to abuse them and delude oneself—that it was the coherence and ability of things (especially people) to be their unique and individual selves that allowed the malleability and richness of images to occur at all. “

“Childhood is that time in which we never question the fact that every adult act is not only an autonomous occurrence in the universe, but that it is also filled, packed, overflowing with meaning, whether that meaning works for ill or good, whether the ill or good is or is not comprehended.

Adulthood is that time in which we see that all human actions follow forms, whether well or badly, and it is the perseverance of the forms that is, whether for better or worse, their meaning.”

“Nevertheless, I still wonder. Each of us, with money, gets further and further away from those moments where the hand pulls the beet root from the soil, shakes the fish from the net into the basket—not to mention the way it separates us from one another, so that when enough money comes between people, they lie apart like parts of a chicken hacked up for stewing.”

“It is far easier to argue that something nobody believes in actually exists than it is to argue that something everybody believes in is unreal.”

“And it is the notions of reality and unreality themselves which finally become suspect when either one is mirrored in art, much less when both are mirrored together.”

“But what most people mean by beauty is really a kind of aesthetic acceptability, not so much character as a lack of it, a set of features and lineaments that hide their history, that suggest history itself does not exist. But the template by which we recognize the features and forms in the human body that cause the heart to halt, threatening to spill us over into the silence of death—that is drawn on another part of the soul entirely…But all sing, chant, hymn the history of the body, if only because we all know how people regard bodies that deviate from the lauded and totally abnormal norm named beauty. Most of us would rather not recognize such desires in ourselves and thus avoid all contemplation of what the possession of such features means about the lives, the bodies, the histories of others, preferring instead to go on merely accepting the acceptable. But that is not who I am.”

“The city is very different from the country…It is a kind of shared consciousness that begins its work on you as soon as you enter it, if not well before, a consciousness that begins to separate you from the country possibly even before you decide to journey toward it. It encircles you with forces much greater than the walls and gates which imitate tinier villages or towns. People who come to it come seeking the future, not realizing all that will finally affect them in it is their own, only more or less aware, involvement with the past. The way we do things here—really, that’s all there is to be learned in our precincts. But in the paving of every wide, clear avenue, in the turnings of every dark, overhung alley, in the ornaments on every cornice, in the salt-stained stones of each neighborhood cistern, there are traces of the way things once were done—which is the key to why they are done as they are today.”

“As one grows older, one lives more and more off the little signs of whatever community one moves through day to day and less and less off the gifts that fall out of individual relationships. If one does not prepare for this change in youth, than age becomes a bitter time. This is not to disparage the beauty of one’s relationships with lover or friend. It is only to acknowledge what, for so many in the city, is a sad truth. Community can, however awkwardly, replace individual relationships. But individual relationships only grow poisonous and resentful if there is no community to support them.”

Play makes a human being!”

“‘To write for others…it seems one must be a spy—or a teller of tales.'”

“What real power can buy, of course, is anonymity.”

“Appearances are signs of possibilities, at least when one remembers that what appears may be a sign by masking as easily as by manifesting.”

Life, I sometimes think—like dreams, like stories, like plans, even like lies if you will—is to be pondered on, interpreted, interrogated: but you had best not try to change it too radically in the middle, or you risk never finding its secret.”

“I’m a public man…That means my only meaning is the web of signs I publicly inhabit.”

“Life is hard for everyone, and we must not take credit ourselves for the little that others can do with theirs. Rather look instead to whom we can give credit, if not thanks, for what little we have been able to do with our own.”

“To be morally upset about how other people take their sexual pleasure is surely the weirdest human quirk ever.”

“It is the rare society that does not abuse its artists.”

“Content, of course, must have some form. And form, of course, creates its content/commentary. This is why their chimeras have chased each other through moment after moment of history, the intense perception of one or the other producing the overwhelming effect: Art.”

“If all human production (aesthetic or otherwise) has its documentary aspect (i.e., it can be associated, by a knowledgeable reader, with a time and place), does this endanger its aesthetic aspects per se? It is the richness of the pattern that is aesthetically at stake. How many art histories does it take to make us understand that reference (a use context) and historicity are not the same?”

“The artist’s performance is always more or less aleatory.”

“In a sense, modern philosophy is a series of introductions to introductions to introductions, the movement between them controlled by the pro-tective/pro-textive play of forces about desire.”

 

 

 

 

“Young writers take that most communal object, language, and perform on it that most individual act, creation.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About John Madera

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.
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