(image from Doug Barber's photographs of outlaw bikers here)
If you're reading this it's because you were among a select few who purchased a signed copy of Hogg by Samuel Delany. Chip appreciated the opportunity to sign books for his fans and readers, and wrote me afterwards,
It occurred to me that I'd like to do something a little special for all the folks who have been so enthusiastic about my novel, Hogg. [You can] distribute to them the attached interview with Terry Enright about the book -- and I thought the folks who coughed up for a signed copy might find it of interest.The interview is fascinating and well worth reading. It was clearly conducted via e-mail so it's thoughtful and lengthy as well -- one of Delany's "answers" about the themes and origins of his novel turns into a seven-page discoursive essay. I've highlighted a few "call outs" to pique your interest (something I always apprciated in long magazine articles, back when magazines ran long articles). As with other very lengthy texts on the web, you'll probably find it easier and more convenient to read if you print this out.
Right now, the interview is not scheduled for publication anywhere, and -- if it does see print -- won't be available for a year or more. Please feel free to send it out to anyone and everyone who got a copy.
The interview is so long, in fact, that it continues in a second post appearing AFTER this one. (That is, I posted the second part first so the parts to this interview will appear in the correct order in your backwards-in-time-reading Live Journal Friends Page.)
This is for your eyes (and brain) only. As I'm sure both parties would like to see this interview published one day, please do not copy and forward (or otherwise duplicate or distribute) this interview further.
Finally: The interview and discussion contains "spoilers" -- that is, what happens to some of the characters in the novel. You will get more out of the book, and more out of this interview, if you finishing reading the book first.
SAMUEL R. DELANY
March 26, 2004
TERRY ENRIGHT: One of the few things that’s comforting about the book is that there seems to be a real acceptance of human beings—the narrator accepts them young or old, fat or skinny, hung or not. And not just every kind of human but everything that comes out of them. In addition, no one seems ever to get jealous—Hogg never tries to claim the boy solely for himself or anything. Since this attitude prevails in The Mad Man and from what I know of your autobiography, it strikes me that you might be endorsing this as a utopic vision of love and sex. Would that be accurate?
SAMUEL R. DELANY: I feel a little odd talking about a novel as “endorsing” anything. Always, I’ve felt that novels were fundamentally records—and necessarily distorted records—of things observed in the world. It would be disingenuous not to admit that some things I observe I like and some I don’t like, but the basic enterprise is to portray them—with all the distortions—in some sort of esthetic pattern. My like or dislike of them should be of secondary, or even tertiary importance.
Because, with jealousy, you feel majorly disrespected, jealousy is different from the simple sadness of not getting what you want. With jealousy, you feel you should have what you lack—as a man, as a woman, as a wife, as a husband, as a worker overlooked for a promotion, as a child who has not received a present some other sibling has gotten, as a friend who hasn’t gotten a phone call thanking you for a gift you gave or a dinner check you picked up at a restaurant.
Fundamentally, jealousy is a social emotion. People are jealous because they are brought up to feel that they have a right to certain treatment—to other people’s attention, to other people’s work, to other people’s sexual fidelity. When they don’t get it, they feel diminished, insulted, and cheated out of something they believe society marked out as their due. Jealousy is not particularly “natural”—or, for that matter, “unnatural.” Nor do I think it’s necessarily “healthy,” or “unhealthy.” I think it’s learned. When it’s extreme, often it’s a pain in the butt, both for the person feeling the jealousy and for the person who is the object of that jealousy, as well as the world around both persons. Once we learn what it is, however, in some cases—if we live certain kinds of lives—we can unlearn how to be jealous.
The vast majority of us live in our superegos, rather than in our ids or even our egos. It’s much easer to do something we think is right (even momentarily) than it is to do something only because it’s pleasurable (and, even trying, we cannot think of an ethical justification). Indeed, it takes a highly civilized person with a highly cultivated aesthetic sensibility to do something just because it’s pleasurable. And most of the time, the necessary prior cultivation has been the setting in place of a discourse that says a certain amount or type of pleasure is itself good, moral, right, and beneficial to the individual and promotes the greater good.
Only the strongest egos can occasionally break through this mental stricture—at the behest of sex, say—and even that usually leads to a restructuring of an ethical discourse. The vast majority of the “evil” perpetrated in the world is perpetrated in the name of the superego, through which, as Freud showed us, the ego and the id try blindly to live.
In your question up there, basically you’re right as far as my own feelings are concerned. I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly jealous person. But because I’m a gay man who’s lived a relatively active sexual life, in many places the idea of sexual jealousy is so self-contradictory that I simply couldn’t tolerate it in myself. So I’ve worked—not terribly hard, when all is said and done—to eradicate those feelings. I’m glad I did. Yet once in a while a surge of it flares up and surprises me. Today, rarely do I feel jealousy for sexual reasons. Social attention from a friend—or its lack when I’m expecting it—is far more likely to set me off and leave me feeling the painful, angering deprivation that’s what jealousy is. Frankly, today even that’s pretty rare for me.
Still, I work on it.
A few people—often ones who have never thought of themselves as particularly deserving of anything in the first place—are astonishingly “non-jealous.” Certainly this is the case with the narrator of Hogg as well as Hogg himself. But, yes, such a lack of jealousy is one of the things a sexually active life may actually be able teach you.
It was Blake who said the Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom. I always suspected this was one of the things he had in mind.
Fundamentally, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily healthier about monogamy than there is about promiscuity, either. Or vice versa, for that matter. But, yes, if you lead a promiscuous life, putting some curbs on your tendency toward jealousy is the only reasonable way to do it. Only extremely powerful—and dictatorial—people can afford to be both promiscuous and jealous.
TE: The most disturbing element of the book—aside from particular scenes of especially gruesome depravity—is the utter passivity towards the pain of others (when that pain isn’t being actively inflicted). Even the characters who ostensibly provide contrast to Hogg and his crew exhibit a stunning unwillingness to intervene in the suffering of others. Red, Rufus, Mona and Harry all at least suspect Big Sambo of abusing and raping his daughter, but none of them does anything about it. Then there’s the narrator who seems almost completely indifferent to the suffering of the women—he seems aware of what they’re enduring and, at the urging of others, helps assault them. Is he supposed to be too young to be able to think these things out for himself? One reviewer was under the impression he licks a girl to ease the pain of the rape—but to my eye that’s a misreading of a pretty straightforward text. He prepares to lick her and as he does so, it occurs to him it might ease her pain—but they weren’t cause and effect.
SAMUEL R. DELANY: I think you’re perfectly right in that particular reading. But just as I believe jealousy, even sexual jealousy, is a fundamentally social emotion, I also believe identification with other people’s suffering is almost entirely an aesthetic emotion. When we watch real suffering occur, out on the street, perhaps, the fact is, most people don’t feel very much. The offers of help may be real. The shows of concern tend to be a variety of emotional miming. Sometimes people feel fear—and sometimes that fear can even linger. But that’s about all. To watch real suffering causes our emotions—unless we’ve had a particular kind of education—immediately to clamp down.
Think of the young people in Pride and Prejudice, girls and boys of 18, 19, and 20, who come in, laughing and chattering, from a pleasant afternoon watching a sailor publicly flogged—a sailor who, as happened in three out of five such floggings at the time, probably died over the next couple of days.
We learn compassion for others through works of art. It’s one of the ways art civilizes—it’s something narrative art really can teach. The major thrust of Aristotle’s argument on tragedy—pity, terror, and catharsis aside (they’re only the machinery through which it happens)—is that tragedy promotes compassion in the public audience for that public’s leaders, leaders who often, however inadvertently, make terrible mistakes. This compassion in the people is politically advantageous to the greater society, Aristotle argues. If they feel this compassion, they are more easily governed. (The fact that Hogg starts to make people feel some compassion for people both like Hogg and the narrator is, I suspect, what readers find most unsettling.) Aristotle also argues, in effect, that to have such compassion for ordinary men and women—the working classes, say—would be silly and socially counterproductive. There’s far too much suffering in the world and no practical way to relieve it. It would only gum up the social workings—and, for 4th Century BCE Greece, he was probably right.
But the fact that my characters don’t feel much compassion for each other—people who are being really hurt—only means that they haven’t spent a lot of time at the movies or watching TV.
Even by the end of the 18th Century, there was probably less compassion for the working classes among the bourgeoisie and aristocracy than there is today for the run-of-the-mill child molester. While people were proud of their own country’s soldiers killed in the line of duty, nobody felt sorry for them—unless a casualty happened to be a personal friend. Even the working classes themselves, while often they felt severe family loyalties, had little compassion for one another, as individuals or as a class. The general wisdom—which the working class itself shared—was that 95% of them were thieves and layabouts, when they weren’t retarded. Unless they were under strict supervision from overseers or army officers, they would probably rob you blind and, with half a chance, rape your daughter. (Think of all those scheming peasants in all those Balzac novels!) This was the life Hobbes described as “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short,” and thus a relief for everyone else when you were finished with it—and nobody gave much thought at all what losing it might mean to you.
In Sentimental Education (1858) Flaubert’s portrait of Dussardier is a mid-19th century analytical attempts to bring a member of the urban working class into the circle of middle-class compassion, through the aesthetic strategy of revealing what happens when that compassion is withheld, dissembled about, faked, and the bourgeois characters continue on in what at the time was their traditional manner. Dussardier’s death on the blade of Sénécal (the coldly calculating politico, Frédéric’s truly terrifying “bad conscousness”—and by implication what would be left of Frédéric were all his wishy-washy romanticism stripped away) is the moral and intellectual climax of the novel. Frédéric likes Dussardier, certainly. But he accuses him falsely of thefts to justify Frédéric himself borrowing large amounts of money (ineffectually to run after his pipe dream of an affair with Madame Arnoux), and generally abuses him shamelessly. The twin things Frédéric lacks for Dussardier are respect and compassion, and the result is that Dussardier is the character for whom the reader feels the most compassion—at least, by the calculus of 19th century melodrama that was alone available to even such an innovator as Flaubert, however flat it falls for readers today. (How could one person, for the coldest and most inhuman political reasons, Sénécal run through with a sword someone who once so good heartedly invited him to a party he gave in which he went out of his way to impoverish himself so that Sénécal might have a bottle of decent beer—that’s the question the novel asks in effect, as though writer and readers were all cousins of Nick Carraway, the narrator of Gatsby. The argument is finally one about the value of pleasure, as are finally all arguments about compassion—its poetry, its unbiquity.)
For thousands of years, people have been saying war is a terrible thing. There have still been wars. What there hasn’t been, however, is “war movies.” Starting with Battleship Potemkin, Napoleon and Intolerance, up through The Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory, The Battle of Algiers, Apocalypse Now, The Big Red One, Saving Private Ryan, and The Pianist, those are what, in not quite a century, have helped stabilized the idea that war is terrible in a world economic order where it is far more profitable to take over a country’s functioning industrial system already in place rather than to first smash its infrastructure with bombs and troops beyond the point where it can function. Wars are relatively reasonable for conflicts between agricultural countries. Replanting a battlefield is not particularly difficult. For conflicts between industrial nations, it’s extraordinarily wasteful. I hope this awareness keeps growing.
In France the working classes weren’t even expected to marry with full church ceremonies until 1875, four years after the Paris Commune—when the first laws facilitating church weddings for the working classes came in!
In John Gay’s The Beggars Opera (1765), from 110 years before the Commune, in England, when the first possibilities for working class marriage are being considered, the bone of contention is that Polly Peachum wants to marry Macheath. Polly’s parents are not married. And while Mr. Peachum thinks it would be a fine idea because then his grandchildren would not be bastards the way his daughter, Polly, is, and many of the better off artisans are trying out the new socio-legal arrangement, Polly’s mother thinks it’s a terrible idea, because then all a legal wife’s assets are entailed to her husband. That is just not a good plan in a social milieu where women are regularly abandoned and betrayed—especially by shiftless hustlers such as Macheath.
Finally, why is life pleasant enough so that most people really do want to live it for a long time? What is the basis of pleasure which is the positive measure (after the negative measure of freedom from pain, hunger, ill health, and discomfort) for general compassion—that is to say, the yearning to relieve the suffering of others. Shockingly enough, I suspect masturbation is the one truly self-administered and self-regulated pleasure central to well over half the world’s positive pleasure—along with its attendant fantasies. (Since masturbation is such a large part of people’s lives—and has been since primates’ arms reached their current length—I really believe that the reason it has been all but repressed from political and even most public discourse is that the moment it is politicized as a positive pleasure men and women have a right to, it redefines the relationship of individual to the group from the bottom up in a way we might never recover from; today, we might not even recognize what some of those new discursive definitions of humanity could look like.) Then comes sex with other people. The pleasure of sociality, work, accomplishment, and others talking and socializing with people probably comes next. Finally the pleasures of nature fall in there—which range over those of children, small animals, greenery, good food, fine weather, beautiful landscapes, and flowers. Somewhere in there is, I’m sure, art itself—music, dancing, singing, painting, sculpture, literature, architecture, as well as history and philosophy (even though the last, as Benjamin points out, has no muse). The pleasures of love are really quite wonderful—though I suspect they are rather a luxury and require a certain level of socioeconomic stability to be anything other than a mode of suffering. But certainly I feel privileged to have had thirty years of them with my daughter and fourteen with my current partner, as well as a briefer stint, now and again, with various friends, with some of whom I had sexual relationships and with some of whom I never even considered it. How these pleasures finally map out in terms of which are more or less important to us, is, I’m sure, different for each individual. But most of us will recognize the basic areas. In short, pleasures are everything the poet celebrates, directly or indirectly.
As to the characters’ leave-it-alone attitude toward Big Sambo’s relationship with children, Hogg is a historical novel after all. Specifically, it’s pre-Stonewall. As is still largely the case—and it was even more so thirty-five years back, when Hogg was written—you don’t interfere with how people raise their children. Honey-Pie is a deeply depressive and wounded kid. I’m almost certain she doesn’t attend school. I doubt she has any friends her own age. Add to it that her out-of-work father uses her as a sexual plaything, and I think that’s a truly bleak existence. There’s nothing there I’m endorsing. But the fact is, at the time, the Rufuses and Reds of the world had to protect the Sambos from the otherwise well-intentioned eyes of the Harrys and the Monas in order to protect their own practices.
Today, Rufus and Red would probably have a support group with monthly meetings and trips to play with other S&M groups in near-by cities, with whom they kept in regular on-line contact—at least I’d like to think so. They might even put out some considerable effort to get both Big Sambo and Honey-Pie some serious counseling. Failing that, they might well call the police. Certainly I wouldn’t fault them if they did, even as I would prefer them to start with the former before resorting to the latter—for the child’s sake.
As far back as the middle 1950s, I first heard, on television, a noted child psychiatrist, a Dr. Schimmel, explain to the public that, in his considerable experience, in the vast majority of actual cases, however harmful sexual relations were with children, the way the police and other social institutions brought those relations to an end was far more painful and emotionally scarring to the child than the relations themselves. There was no way for the child to read his or her subsequent removal from home and other family members, the subsequent incarceration in an institution, the new lack of freedom of motion and general harshness of how, from then on, he or she was dealt with, as anything other than punishment for what she or he had done, no matter how little he or she was actually to blame. Despite the sentimentalities of post-primetime TV (when the controversial programs are aired), rarely can you prevent a child from eventually saying: “I would have been better off if I’d kept my mouth shut or at least if I’d managed to get away and no-one had ever known.” You can dismiss this as “silly childishness” if you like, but that contravenes the entire subjective set of measures by which one acts to bring the situation to an end in the first place. One of the terrible things about our society, even today, is that, in five out of six cases, the molester who threatens the child, “If you tell anyone what we’re doing, they will do awful things to you!” is usually, in the long run if not in the short, right. And that was far more the case a quarter of a century ago.
To repeat, in no way does citing such a contradiction mean that I approve of such child/adult relationships themselves. But counseling and gentler intervention is the direction that the world is going in—it just hadn’t arrived there, yet (as in only a few cases has it today), when I wrote the novel.
In the scenes on the docks, the narrator sees (with just a little nachtraglicheit) that the garbage men’s protection of Sambo is also fundamentally self-protective. Because of it, it also facilitates what he himself desires, so Rufus and Red get points in his book for it.
The novel presents the thinnest cross-section of everyone’s experience. The real test of the extremely delicate moral structure the book is trying to set up would be for the reader to come back to Crawhole after three weeks, after two months, or after a year, then see how things are going with them all.
Do you think the narrator will still be there, with Rufus and Red? Or will he have grown tired of their S&M shenanigans and run off once more?
There is just the possibility—and I think the narrator, to the extent his fantasies ever run in this direction, probably would like it in theory—that Red and Rufus will provide him with exactly what he wants as well as whatever he needs that he himself has little way of knowing in any detail. (He is eleven!)
And, who knows, they might.
But if you, as reader, tell me that you feel it’s highly unlikely, I, as writer, am certainly not going to argue with you. I know what the world is like. I think it’s pretty unlikely too.
TE: I read an interview where you were saying that one of the deliberately unsettling parts of the book is that even the brutalizers have sympathetic qualities. Is the passivity of the other characters the inverse of this—that they are basically sympathetic with terrible flaws? Or would you disagree that it’s a moral flaw not to intervene in the unequivocal suffering of others?
Following from that, what’s the significance of “Nothin’”? How does the word link Honey-Pie and the narrator? Is it an argument for the sexual agency of children—that they are content with their situations? Maybe it’s that contrary to all appearances the subs have been controlling things all along, and both knew they could leave anytime they wanted? Honey-Pie lingers in the doorway; the narrator plots his escape—different destinies informed by a common awareness of their autonomy. Maybe that’s why you go out of your way to use chess to establish that the narrator—and maybe that other little kid Hogg kicks—are of high intelligence. Or maybe I'm way off-base? And if not, would you still, 30 years later, posit that most children that join in these relationships do so out of choice?
SAMUEL R. DELANY: That’s a lot of questions, and I don’t know whether I can tease them apart, into their respective suppositions, which is probably the level this should be addressed at. By and large, I think most children—i.e., those under sixteen—should stay out of sexual relations with people more than five years older than they are. They don’t, always. But it’s far too easy to abuse the power differential, especially when the people involved, child and adult, are part of what is called the civilized world. But it doesn’t have to be abuse; abuse is easy to fall into, but it’s not inevitable. (It’s been my experience, when they are a part of a non-civilized world, rather than hidden from view, these relationships are less likely to be abusive, because they are accessible to social policing.) But that doesn’t change the statistical leaning.
We have compassion for others not because they have compassion. We have compassion for them because they suffer—and suffer in ways we can recognize.
Although the narrator is not too concerned with the way Hogg is going to suffer over his coming absence, the reader is. The reader can recognize the kind of energy that Hogg has put into rescuing the narrator from Big Sambo on the docks—and what it says about Hogg’s feelings for the narrator, even though (or, especially though) jealousy is not particularly evident among them.
TE: I’ve thought about this quite a bit. Probably from pubescence on I would have been happy to be in a sexual relationship with an adult. But a kid’s desire to please adults and his fear of them, to my mind, probably robs him of the ability to exert his will when an adult wants sex but he doesn’t. To my mind—and I get the sense we differ here—statutory rape laws are meant to protect children who, while not without their own desires, are often powerless against adults. They aren’t just senseless, old-fashioned adherence to primitive sexual mores, like anti-sodomy statutes.
SAMUEL R. DELANY: Your supposition about statutory rape laws is one of those painfully ahistorical statements that ends up grounding vast amounts of pain, harm, and injustice. Statutory rape laws have been around in this country from before the Civil War and go back in their basic form to late medieval times. As with most rape laws, they have nothing to with protecting children (or, indeed women). “Rape” means theft. Traditionally what is stolen in rape is honor, sexual purity, and marketability. Traditionally the plaintiff in a rape is the father, husband, or brother of the woman violated—who can now no longer swear to the woman’s purity to intending suitors. In historical terms until fairly recently, rape “victims” were killed (without penalty from the state) by their families because they were subsequently useless in the cementing of family bonds, as they were no longer marriageable. I don’t see how you can defend a law that says if, unknowingly, I give a lift to an under eighteen-year-old and take her across a state line, thinking she’s twenty or twenty one, I am now guilty of the crime of rape, even if we did nothing in the car but chat—nor do I see how such a law protects children. Myself, I think that all rape legislation needs to be reconceived in terms of assault and coercion legislation; the way sexual elements can figure in assaults and coercions must be rethought without recourse to notions of honor or purity. But that’s to get away from the thrust of our argument.
I don’t think we would necessarily differ in our judgments of various relationships in the book—if you can find anything in Hogg you like at all. But we might well differ in how each of us feels such relationships ought to be prevented, policed, intervened in, or punished.
As it is in all situations where major power differentials fall between two people in a relationship, I think the margin for abuse depends largely on fear—as you seem to, above: in the case of child and adult, how afraid is the child of the adult? Children are terrified of adults precisely to the extent they feel themselves dependant on them. We’ve all watched the scene: A mother becomes frustrated by a two- or three-year-old who wants to stay and do something that just happens to be wholly inconvenient for the mother at that point. So, finally, the mother announces: “All right, Jimmy. Mommy’s leaving now,” and starts to walk away. Little Jimmy screams in fear and, crying, runs after his retreating mother, who finally catches up his hand and leads him off.
Well, precisely that fear of the parent’s abandoning the child—which I’m sure is hard-wired into most children at that age—is precisely the index to how frightened the child is—and must be, if it is to survive—of the parent.
But even with such an evident example, it’s still hard for people to understand the way love and terror can cohabit in one subjectivity.
In Hogg, the narrator doesn’t feel particularly dependant on any of the adults he’s with—which is why he’s not frightened of them in the same way that a more middleclass child would be. Yes, one of the “troubling” parts of the book is that, through a set of preposterous circumstances, we don’t see Hogg really abusing the narrator—at least in any way the narrator doesn’t actually enjoy. (The exception is Jimmy’s murder. Even there, though, so many of the separate elements have already been established as relatively egotonic for the narrator, other than the death shot, that the whole incident finally falls outside everyone’s conception—the reader’s as much as the narrator’s.) One has to remember that the narrator and Hogg are together for not fully seventy-two hours. Because the narrator hasn’t been afraid of Hogg, that’s why the relationship doesn’t feel abusive to most readers who actually engage the text—and, indeed, the fact that it doesn’t feel abusive is why it feels so uncomfortable. Right now the reigning wisdom is that all such relationships must be. Well, all I’m doing is saying: Fine. Take a look at this one—and see what you think. But through esthetic manipulation of the plot, I’ve limited it to a very small period of time. Extend that time even to a full week, or two, and the relation, both to the reader and to the narrator might start to look very different.
By the end of the three days the novel chooses to examine, the narrator has decided rather sanely that, even with the kinds of things he likes to do and have done to him, he’d probably be better off with Red and Rufus than with Hogg. Almost certainly, he’s right: He will be better off if he can manage to get back to Rufus and Red without Hogg’s knowing. Red and Rufus don’t beat up and savage people. They don’t kill people. They have socially acceptable jobs on the proper side of the law.
But I’m not eager to think about what might happen if the narrator isn’t successful in his escape plans. Given who Hogg is, and given the angle at which the tale is told, we don’t know whether, should he catch the narrator trying to escape, Hogg will say, “Aw, get out of here—good riddance to you, then!” (remember he is not sexually jealous: but his response to attentional jealousy is still a mystery) or if he will erupt in murderous hostility when he learns the narrator himself wants to leave. Consider: Hogg has already outlined an immediate future in which the narrator is to be beaten just for fun, chained up, and sexually abused by a whole series of not very savory adults. He’s done this thinking the narrator will enjoy it. But clearly Hogg will enjoy it too. The question is, how far are their desires mutually congruent? Even our perverse narrator is likely only to find this enjoyable for a very short while! One assumes that, indeed, it is the unpleasant side of this he wants to get away from.
If you were to tell me that, in reality, an hour after the book closes, the narrator tries to escape and Hogg catches him, and still an hour after that the narrator is in a ditch by the side of the road, beaten to death, I couldn’t—and wouldn’t—tell you your were wrong. It’s not a nice book. I don’t think you should try to make it into one.
But if you told me, rather, that, when Hogg realized the narrator wanted to leave, he said: “Hey, you’ve given me a lot of pleasure, kid—more than anyone else your age has ever done. So I want you to go off and give other guys like me that same pleasure. I’m not unique. I know I’m one of a group. Because you are valuable to the group I belong to, however angry I am at you personally, I want you to be free,” I’d believe that too—though I’m not sure to what extent that, itself, is a post-Stonewall reading; although there is nothing post-Stonewall that doesn’t have its traces, its multiple roots, its disseminated origins pre-Stonewall. That’s one of the things I know from living so long on both sides of Stonewall per se. Fundamentally that’s the form of Humbert Humbert’s statement to Dolores Haze, when, years after the fact, he encounters her, age 17, married, and pregnant after her escape from him in Lolita (shortly before they both die). Indeed, it’s the novel’s bid for moral responsibility.
Still, the angle from which the story is told—the attitudes toward jealousy and autonomy and even children in general—makes that sort of projection finally undecidable.
Only the fact that the narrator is narrating the novel (rather than Humbert—or Hogg) suggests that he survives his escape from Hogg (as Lolita survives hers—however briefly). How easy or how difficult that escape actually will be, I have no way of knowing. It’s outside the book. It’s not part of the pattern the book asks you to observe. But, through what it excludes as much as by what it includes, the pattern there is one that promotes our compassion.
Often, what makes us feel compassion for characters we read about is the fact that other characters, represented in the story, don’t have compassion for them. In the end, it’s the narrator’s lack of compassion for Hogg that makes the reader feel some compassion for him: Hogg has fed him; Hogg has protected him; Hogg has come after him when he’s been unscrupulously stolen and sold on the fishing boats; and Hogg has battled for him and won.
Do I want the narrator to escape. Yes—however momentarily sorry I feel for Hogg.
To the extent that I identify with the narrator sexually, which, to some extent, I certainly did when I wrote it (and still do), I want the narrator to move into a more stable social condition: that’s how, as perverts, we grow up and mature in this society—moving from a socially untenable fantasy, such as Hogg’s actions represent for most of us, to a more socially tenable reality, such as Rufus and Red’s way of life represents. Although the criminal aspect of Hogg’s activities are what make those acts socially available, the narrator is beginning to learn that it is the acts themselves, and not their criminal aspects, which he fetishizes. A different kind of pervert might have to grow along a different psychological trajectory. (The book where I first learned this was, of course, Theodore Sturgeon’s brilliant Some of Your Blood [Carol and Graff, 1961].) Now, to get back to the ending of the novel, with the narrator sitting in the truck, contemplating his escape from Hogg: Do I think such an escape is likely?
When I wrote it, 35 years ago, I thought the narrator had a 50-50 chance. Today, with what I’ve seen of the world, I think it’s closer to 25-75: one out of four. But, of course, he is still speaking . . .
But here we’ve already broached that area of inevitable distortion.
Having said all the above, I think you’d be surprised how much we do agree on, in terms of what’s right and what’s wrong about relationships across major power differentials, whether of age, or of physical strength, or of economic clout, or of intellectual abilities. But the point is, all social relationships happen across such differentiating boundaries, more or less. The question becomes, how do we police them? What, actually, are we policing them for? And is there a better way to do it? Look at the amount of child abuse that happens in ordinary families—much of which, but by no means all, is sexual.
I think most people will agree: Social censure itself is a pretty good policing process—certainly not the only one or necessarily the most effective one. Still, it’s a good one. By suddenly declaring a whole category of relationships illegal, however, you set up a situation where such relationships do not cease but rather become clandestine. And because they are never seen by others, talked about by others, and the people involved in them never get to relate to others about their relationships, they are far more likely to become spaces of abuse, through the secrecy alone.
In his monograph on masochism, Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze points out that “The sadist is in need of institutions, the masochist of contractual relations. The middle ages distinguished with considerable insight between two types of pact with the devil: the first resulted from possession, the second from a pact of alliance. The sadist thinks in terms of institutionalized possession, the masochist in terms of contracted alliance.” I suspect that, once the stressed situation is over, we all expect the relationship of Hogg and the narrator to fall back into this relatively “healthy,” or at least “traditional,” or predictable pattern, because, however excessive its elements, given what Hogg and the boy enjoy, they’ve gone about obtaining it in such a logical manner. But that’s precisely what we can’t be sure of, because the level of, yes, I’ll call it psychosis in both is too high for even that to remain predictable. The things that would make such a prediction probable are the narrator’s articulate speech, of the sort he seems capable of in the narration of the novel, how many years after the fact; and Hogg’s ability to think and listen—which is precisely what the book undercuts by the narrator’s silence-at-the-time and Hogg’s concomitant “unattended monologues” (as critic Ray Davis has characterized them), a kind of pseudo-logical speech about which Deleuze makes the telling point for sadists, at least sadists such as Sade:
[T]he intention to convince is merely apparent, for nothing is in fact more alien to the sadist than the wish to convince, to persuade, in short to educate. He is interested in something quite different, namely to demonstrate that reasoning itself is a form of violence, however calm and logical he may be. He is not even attempting to prove anything to anyone, but to perform a demonstration related essentially to the solitude and omnipotence of its author. The point of the exercise is to show that the demonstration is identical to violence. It follows that the reasoning does not have to be shared by the person to whom it is addressed any more than pleasure is meant to be shared by the object from which it is derived. The acts of violence inflicted on the victims are a mere reflection of a higher form of violence to which each testifies.However true this might be for Sade’s garrulous bishops and procurers and libertine aristocrats, for Hogg we waver a moment before committing ourselves to such a judgment (as we do for Humbert Humbert): One thing Hogg tries to accomplish, both by making its sadist definitely working class and by setting up a situation where what that sadist (Hogg) does and what the masochist (the narrator) does are so actively pleasurable to both, in such a mutual way, it suggests that the dissociation Deleuze finds between logic and practice in the sadist is actually there in more normative mutually pleasurable relationships as well: the contingent nature of their mutual ego-tonic support alone allows us, in the normative situation, to (mis)read the relationship as coherent. (Similarly, we might waver in assigning such rhetorical cascades as this one the same sort of place as we would assign Sade’s or Hogg’s diatribes a place in such a schema: Is all this, for instance, to be taken as issuing from the masochistic educator or the haranging sadist?) Is it only the reader’s desire to “learn about the book” or his/her resistance to a belief in the possibility that there is really anything to learn that contours the reading one way or the other? (The person who cannot conceive of liking any of these acts—or of finding any of them ego-tonic—can only find an argument for them, even this one, an example of sadistic violence. The person who can so conceive may find the argument masochistically educative.) Is it only the ego-dystonic disjunction of one kind of pleasure with another that allows us to see the dissociation/disjunction in the first place? When all is said and done, such a vision of the “normal”—which, yes, at however many removes, the book suggests—may be even more unsettling than the nature of the illusory content of the pleasurable association/conjunction.
Remember: for most of the past five thousand years, even the joining of a man and a woman was considered the joining of two people from vastly different sides of an unequal power relationship—quite as unequal, in most people’s minds, as the joining of child and adult: they were perceived to be of unequal physical strength, unequal educations, unequal money-making economic potential. And women—and sometimes men—were frequently married off at eight, nine, ten, and eleven. (I’ve suggested in “Sword & Sorcery, S/M, and the Economics of Inadequation” [Silent Interviews, Samuel R. Delany, Wesleyan 1996, 2nd printing, pp. 127–63] that only such power/functional differentials can be sexualized; and the idea that “normative” sex, however one describes it, somehow avoids these differentials is an easily demystified fiction.) Once we leave those cultural periods when men simply owned their women, the Enlightenment way of dealing with unequal dyadic relationships was (and remains) that the weaker partner must agree to obey the stronger; and the stronger should agree to protect the weaker. While, in social milieus such as large extended families and/or village societies where such relations can be regularly and socially policed practically hour by hour, such relationships may indeed work. But writers like George Sand were pointing out, at least since Sand’s first novel of 1830, Indiana, that the moment such a relationship becomes in any way privatized, either by money or physical isolation or urban anonymity, the same structure of obedience and protection becomes a locus of the most easily instituted and appalling abuses, psychological, physical, and economic.
This was Aurora Dupin’s (Sand’s) take on marriage itself.
Fourteen years ago, I became the life partner, by friendly mutual agreement, of a man named Dennis Rickett, who, at the time I met him, had been homeless for six years and living on the streets of New York City, among the city’s several thousand other homeless citizens. Dennis sold books from a blanket he set up daily on 72nd Street and did sweep-up jobs now and then for the merchants in the area. We knew each other for three months before we discussed the possibility of sex; we tried that out first, over a weekend at a motel, before we moved on to discuss the possibility of living together, which we tried in a subsequnt six-week trial. Only then, after talking about how we both found it, did we decide to make it permanent. If only because he was the less “socially powerful” partner, Dennis had more doubts about the initial situation than I did, even though he also had more to gain. A couple of years later, with artist Mia Woolf, I wrote a graphic novel about how Dennis and I first met and eventually came to live together. The book is still available in some bookstores. It’s called Bread & Wine (Juno Books, 1999). To draw its 46 pages, Mia also spoke at length with Dennis. He took her (and me) on a tour of where he used to live and sleep in the city, before we got together. Though I wrote the actual words, Dennis was a co-producer of the book and still refers to it as “our book”—as do I. We both took photos of where we lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. Mia had us pose for a lot of the pictures that she drew.
I mention this particular book for two reasons: First, because there are several major power differentials between Dennis and me. And, second, because just a few days ago, on the web I read a review of the book that was kind of interesting.
Apparently the reviewer found the book almost as upsetting as you might expect people reacting to Hogg: The reviewer found the book “really creepy.” He was somewhere between appalled and disbelieving that, fourteen years later, Dennis and I were still together and happy. His basic two worries were (one) how can two people who are so different in their experiences and educations even like each other, much less have anything to talk about, and (two) because Dennis had been homeless for six years and living on the street, he assumed Dennis must be crazy and psychotic and “wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had murdered Delany in his bed some day!”
Well, the answer to the first one is: Yes, I have a fairly high IQ: in spite of my dyslexia, when I was eleven or twelve it tested out at 169. I’ve written and published some 40 books, twenty-three of them fiction (my first novel appeared when I was 20) and the rest non-fiction, some of them scholarly; when Dennis and I met, I was a professor of comparative literature and the head of my department at the University of Massachusetts. Dennis stopped attending school when he was sixteen, and when we met, though he was a regular newspaper reader, he had never actually read an entire book end to end. (He has since read two, Shogun and one of mine—The Motion of Light in Water.) Dennis is also twelve years younger than I am. (Today he’s fifty; I’m sixty-two.) I find Dennis endlessly fascinating—and I think he finds me interesting, if not equally fascinating. Also, we really do like each other and enjoy each other’s company. Though I don’t always agree with them, I find his takes on the world endlessly interesting and always informative. And he is sincerely tickled, I think, to discover that someone as smart as I am and who has a fair amount of social recognition can be so absent minded or confused and befuddled by the small mix-ups of life—which he is much better than I am at keeping straight. (He is an obsessive organizer and knows where everything is; I can keep track of almost nothing.) Dennis enjoys social attention and likes people in general, as do I. When he’s occasionally mentioned in a newspaper article, usually one about me, he finds it a gas. Our day to day life is relatively private: not a lot of social or extended family “policing” goes on to make sure power balances aren’t abused—though there is some, both from family (specifically my daughter, a number of my cousins) and friends (a housemate, three or four friends). And, in words of one syllable, the sex is still good.
As to the reviewer’s objection (two), he seems wholly to have missed something Alan Moore cites in his “Introduction” that appears in Bread & Wine: Dennis was the one who was initially worried that I might be the psycho, “cutting me up in little pieces and burying them every which-where.” As Moore points out, if you look at the Dhamers and the Nilsons, not to mention the Gil de Rais’s or the Countess Barthory’s, whose fears—the middle-class reviewer’s or Dennis’s—are more grounded in actuality?
A major organizing principle by which Dennis and I live—and it seems to work—is that I make most of the major decisions having to do with money and general living arrangements. Dennis is pretty comfortable with these and goes along with them pretty easily. But perhaps to one in twenty of these, he takes exception. When he does, without question I back off. This is not something that I learned I had to do from experience, or from conflicts with him where I insisted on doing it my way and the results turned out badly. No. The first time he ever said, quietly, “No, I don’t want us to do it that way,” I just frowned, thought a moment, then said:
“Okay. We do it your way.” And we did. And everything was fine.
So that’s how it works. And it works well.
I can figure out 150 reasons why this has stabilized the relationship per se, starting from the fact that Dennis knows he has “veto power,” as it were, on anything we do; he doesn’t abuse it, and I try hard not to abuse the “primary decision making” power he has agreed, even urged me, to take. (As he’s explained, he doesn’t want it.)
Now Dennis is not a child—nor was he ever a child, in the course of our relationship. He was thirty-five when we met. I was forty-seven. He turned thirty-six a couple of weeks before we started living together.
But one of the things that I think people are coming to understand more and more is that there is a politics to any sort of relationship: that is to say, there are always rights and responsibilities on both sides. What is far more important than that they are “equal” in any objective manner is that both sides are comfortable and pleased with them and with the inevitable inequalities; and that the inequalities contour to the picture both partners have of themselves and of each other. Certainly once both sides are relatively linguistically competent, these have to be negotiated, and—in the case of parents and children, say—renegotiated regularly, year after year. Again, lack of fear is a large factor. Although I’m sure he doesn’t particularly want to, Dennis knows how to survive on the street—of which, between once every year and once every year-and-a-half, (jokingly) Dennis reminds me. In no way are we afraid of each other.
Now, nowhere in the 72-odd hours that Hogg covers do you see Hogg and the narrator—or Hogg and Denny for that matter—negotiating the rights and responsibilities that each has. (You do see [some of] it in Bread & Wine.) But finally that’s why I would say that the lack of negotiating space, perhaps under the pressure of the immediate situations that they are involved in, which pretty much takes up all their time, leaves Hogg’s characters in a high-stress situation for the duration, which occludes any such negotiations. This is what finally places the characters in a relational space in which its “health” simply can’t be judged. That’s another of the novel’s aesthetic distortions.
Part of this is, of course, the project of the novel—that is, the absence of any view of such a space (and its absence in a story where you don’t miss it; at least not right away) is part of the novel’s art. (Hogg is structured as an adventure novel, and one of the reasons people like adventure novels is because, in the relationships presented, often there isn’t time to negotiate them: people are more or less stuck with the ones that fall into their laps. Because of the stress of the “adventure” per se, people (i.e., the characters) put up with behavior in a partner they would not think of putting up with in an ordinary situation.) Certainly the implication—which controls at least some of our judgments on it, however—is that Rufus, Red, and the narrator will probably do a better job of negotiating these political decisions than would the narrator and Hogg—so that, again, the narrator’s decision to quit one situation for the other is finally, no matter the pathos entailed, a good one.
But, we need to point out, this is a bit of novelistic slight-of-hand. We’re talking about a purely relative situation here, whose relativity the writer has maneuvered to appear in just such a light. Hogg has his monologues; but has he ever really listened to anyone in his life? Save for that final word, the narrator has never spoken. We have no idea if he would be able to negotiate his own side at all. If this were reality, rather than fiction, that would be a very serious problem indeed, no matter how understanding Red and Rufus turned out to be.
Because I’m a bit of a utopian, I’m a great believer in education. All three major sexual relations I’ve had in my own life have been open relationships—one with a woman, two with men. For my particular psychology and temperament, I find open relationships preferable. I’m not interested in a monogamous relationship, and I wouldn’t be interested in getting involved over a long term with someone who wanted one. Now open relationships are very specific kinds of relationships. They require as much thought, care, concern, and—yes—commitment as monogamous ones do. But, so far, I’ve never seen a book on how to have a good one. Lots of people are in them, but they’re always having to re-invent the wheel, as it were.
Certainly there are principles that, if you follow them, are likely to reduce the strains of relationships with people across major power differentials, for both opened and closed relationships. But neither partner can be afraid—indeed, fear seems so often to be the major lever in closed relationships (the ones that break up because of infidelity), which is one of my large criticisms of them. There are many very satisfactory relationships between older and younger adults—and there are things to remember that the people involved need to know in order to make them work. Less than seventy-five years ago, in this country, however, in rural areas, marriages between twelve, thirteen, and fourteen year olds and forty, forty-five, and fifty year olds were common enough not to raise an eyebrow. But even those relationships are going to be happier if certain principles are considered, interrogated, and adhered to than if they are not.
Now having said this, not much of this relates to Hogg directly as a novel. Frankly, I don’t believe that Honey-Pie is happy in her relation with her father, Big Sambo, anymore than the narrator is happy in his relation to him. But the narrator does learn something from her, which, at the end of the novel he uses: That language can be used to dissemble—and particularly to dissemble to adults who, at the moment, would seem—like Hogg himself seems, just then—to be sincerely concerned for you.
It may seem paradoxical from my statement that generally speaking I think sexual relations between children and adults are likely to go wrong and that most of them are likely to be, start off as, or quickly become, abusive, that I also support a group like NAMBLA—which I do. But that’s because I feel one of the largest factors in the abuse is fostered by the secrecy itself and lack of social policing of the relationships. A little history helps:
For thousands of years, relations that today we assume are abusive by definition (child marriages, slavery, child labor, etc.) were the social and legal norm. They were institutional and ubiquitous. As well, behavior that we would find wholly unacceptable—flogging for slaves, wife beating in marriage, and child beating (in the family, in the school, and at the factory)—was regularly recommended by experts and clergymen as the most efficient and least disruptive way to maintain order and the necessary disciplined hierarchy for these institutions to function efficiently. More lenient ways were to be avoided, ran the general wisdom, because, while they might be attractive in the short run (as novels and melodramas welcomed more and more social types into the circle of compassion), in the long-run they produced only further troubles.
</font></span>Born a slave in northern Georgia, my paternal grandfather beat all ten of his children regularly</font></span>—with switches he made them go and cut themselves, then bring back to him. </font></span>All ten remembered him as a wise and loving father.</font></span> He was a minister, a scholar and the vice principal of a black religious college in North Carolina. His beatings were wholly operationalized: “He never hit us when he was angry,” all ten of them agreed. As well, all agreed that the real punishment was the torture of having to go cut the switches with which you would be beaten—next to which the actual beating was, if anything, a relief. All ten agreed that, without this discipline, it would have been chaos. All ten remembered as a comic mishap the single incident when, once, this operationalization broke down: in an uncharacteristic rage, he chained one of his boys to the water pump and, in a fury, beat him bloody with an orange crate until the wood was in splinters.
Presumably, it was funny because it only happened once.
Ten years younger than my father, my mother, who was born and grew up in New York City, several times said that, to her, my father’s father, whom she never met (in the last years of his life, he separated from his wife and sent her to live with her daughters in the north so that he himself could live, unhampered, with a woman who had been his house keeper, so that grandfather and grandmother were not together when either of them died, a situation none of his children would ever discuss), sounded to her like a monster and that, in her opinion, from the stories all ten of his children constantly told about him (they were a very close family), his children’s love for him verged on the insane.
Indeed, if anyone wants to see Hogg itself as an attempt on my part to work through the contradictions that swirled around the image of this grandfatherly figure who, while he was long dead at my birth, nevertheless dominated my childhood and my growing up, they are certainly free, and even encouraged, to do so.
All of these institutions changed, nevertheless, only when they were no longer economically feasible or beneficial to the greater society. My mother’s take and my father’s (and his siblings’) take on this family institution, which my slave-born grandfather represented, represent as well a conflict among discourses, northern and southern, rural and urban, slave and free, male and female, and probably many more.
The pain or strain on the participants was, in all such cases, absolutely and totally secondary—although in all these cases, once the laws were changed, in the extant public discourses about them those subjective reasons were allowed to displace the material and political reasons, almost totally. By the same token, the socio-economic reasons that brought on the actual changes were allowed to drop out of the discussion. The reasons that these relations worked as well as they did in terms of the subjectivities of the subalterns involved (i.e., the intersecting discourses, the social relations that previously had stabilized such situations) were also forgotten, discourses that were initially set in place through that social policing. Privatization and criminalization remove them from any such social surveillance and increases the possibility of abuse by major factors in all but the most priorly socialized persons.
[continues in earlier post, below]