Category Archives: Samuel Delany

What to do with Delany’s Hogg?

            How does one go about responding to something like Samuel Delany’s Hogg? Or perhaps a better question would be how I or how ought I go about responding, as that is the task before me. Most basically and uncritically, we have before us in that piece what I see to be the best example of a combination of explicit revulsion and a hidden, forbidden-feeling sort of fascination in a reader response. It was a rude and rough transition to make from something like Lolita, which was so disconcerting because we were really able to get in the mind of a psychopath and if not empathize with him, at least understand his thought through the first half of the book, to something like this novel, though to be fair, there’s probably not any real way to transition smoothly into Delany. Hogg, unlike Lolita, largely resists the development any sort of feelings of similitude with any of the characters, including the narrator. Certainly, I’d hope that we’d be unable to identify with the rapists for hire and their modes of conduct, but Delaney’s narrator is so passive, complicit, and faceless that we find him difficult to empathize with as well. It’s as if the whole time we read and things happen to him, we just want him to rise up and rebel against the abuse that he encounters. This is because he seems like a relatively relatable narrator; he isn’t the one actively seeking to engage in such abhorrent activities, and he describes events in a way that would initially implicitly indicate to us that he shares our impulse to characterize what’s occurring as depravity. He seems like a normal narrator, a mere observer of events. However, his position is complicated when he participates in the abuse or becomes complicit in taking abuse, thus forcing us to question our relationship to the narrator and to the events. How are we really any different from him if all we do is effectively watch the same way that he does?

            Speaking to the characterization of the narrator as a decently reliable source (excepting those problematic moments of complicity or voyeurism), he seems to describe and regard the situations around him with a particular sort of insight that proves to the reader that he has adequate, and maybe even special, powers of perception. For example, we see what we imagine would be a realistic characterization of all the customers of the “business” Pedro is running with his sister and the narrator out of the basement of their building. He describes these clients grotesquely, as “dirty,” “sweaty,” (14) having disgusting eating habits, having horrible conceptions of personal hygiene, such as keeping “black-rimmed nails” and smelling “like something burning in front of a vegetable stand on a hot day” (12) and physically unattractive, with attributes such as a “nest of acne” (14). Similarly, as he watches Hogg rape that first woman (whose name we don’t even get to know, interestingly), he describes the scene in painstaking detail and goes on to describe Hogg himself in a way that someone repulsed by him might. The narrator describes his smell as that “like a stopped toilet-stall, where somebody had left six months of dirty socks, in the back of a butcher shop with the refrigeration on the blink, on fire” (23). This sort of description, as it elicits a response of revulsion from the reader, might indicate to us that, since it’s coming to us as filtered through the narrator, he shares in our feelings of revulsion. However, it’s disorienting and disconcerting when we find that this may not necessarily be the case. In the scene where Hogg first rapes the narrator, he, the narrator, tells us that as Hogg “kept on fucking…I was pushing like I had to take a shit. That felt good,” (28). This idea that rape of any sort could possibly feel good is deeply troubling to us. How could this violent act as a blatant disregard of honoring what conventionally makes the act of intercourse sacred possibly feel good?

            Statements like these call directly into question two things, one more immediately than the other. The first and more obvious is the actual authority of the narrator. Can we actually rely on him to transmit to us a perspective that we would get viewing the situation? Or one that might portray the situation accurately? However, what’s called into question extends further. As we take a step back from the immediate issue of narrator authority, we must consider our own role as implicated by this cursory question. Most of what the narrator seems to describe seems as though we should have no reason to question it. Thus he seems to be mostly reliable. If he’s mostly reliable, it may not necessarily be implausible that all of what he says has a grain of truth to it. And then what would that say about how we personally might react when placed in similar situations? Or what would it say about the way in which we participate in a similar complicity as the narrator (one that so abhors us) by simply continuing to read the book?

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Posted by Loy’s Baedeker.

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“Pushing the limits of the readable”

I have been waiting to lose sleep over one of our readings. Samuel R. Delany’s Hogg was responsible for a rather sleepless night. It was not so much the disturbing and sometimes frightening content that energized me; it was caused more by a question that I have been carrying with me over the past couple of weeks. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped me to formulate it. Tim Dean’s “The Erotics of Transgression” caused it to overflow. Delany’s Hogg provided the perfect case study.

How do we deal with literature that pushes the limits of the readable? Transgressive art possesses the ability to explore and push boundaries that one is unable to broach in real life without consequences. Dean writes, “literary representation… has the capacity to bring us into contact with matters that otherwise would remain untouched, indeed, untouchable… Literature, like sex, is not always safe. The risk of transgressive literature,” he continues, is “that it may expose the self to extreme boundary violation [which] is the source of its erotic power” (78). It is an internal voyeurism that compels individuals to approach this literature in which the unknown becomes so appealing.

Almost the entire body of literature we have explored this quarter couples transgression with sexuality. Dean explains, “transgression is bound up with sexuality,” and that eroticism, “remains inextricable from transgression” (68-9). According to Dean, “transgression involves violating not so much rules or social conventions, but, more precisely, taboos. It is far from a matter of inconsequence to transgress something that one regards as taboo, since taboos radiate a genuinely aversive power,” (70). If we were to explore the “taboo” through a wider, more inclusive lens, would our understanding of transgression in literature change?

I would like to reflect on the more terrifying side of transgression, such as murder, genocide, torture, mutilation, and non-romanticized depictions of rape. If explorations of transgression were to expand to include more a truly more offensive and terrifying taboos, how would theories of transgression shift? Would Foucault’s metaphorical spiral hold up, or do some limits, even after the death of God, simply not move? Perhaps they even retract to encompass more rigid and conservative interpretations of the limits. How would our class discussions change if we were confronted with literature that explores truly unimaginable horror? I would just like to add that I’m really, really glad our class materials do not encompass these topics!!!

Delany’s Hogg does to some extent broach this question. One of the main protagonists is a serial rapist, who surrounds himself in a coterie of fellow serial rapists and sociopaths. The depiction of the rape that we read for today is violent and terrifying, unlikely to arouse most readers. But this rape is presented as a larger part of a story about Hogg’s and the narrator’s transgressive sexuality. The presentation of the rape is not really about rape from the perspective of the victim, but of an acquaintance of Hogg. The victim is raped as a form of punishment (reasons that remain unknown), is dismissed as a lesbian by Hogg, and left broken and bleeding in the street.

In response to Hogg, Dean suggests, “Scenes of violence and rape, require us to confront the politics and ethics of the literature of transgression. Given that murder, rape and incest have been central to literary representation since the ancient Greeks, it cannot be a question of whether the depiction of these acts is permissible but of how their depiction is framed” (77). Dean underscores a main issue, acknowledging a major conflict between transgressive literature and ethics. One way to negotiate this tension relates to framing and reception.

Dean addresses the importance of distance between the act and the audience. Distance has the potential to determine if one feels implicated in the acts described: the audience has the potential to feel either horrified, or horrified and aroused all at once (78). Throughout most of the class, the literature we confronted deals with transgression in a way that affords us a degree of removal and comfort, an ability to identify with the subject, and the freedom to explore our own ideas about the topic. But what then do we do with literature in which there is no ability to identify or commiserate with the action being described (torture, murder, mutilation)? What happens to a work’s reception when the divide between the literature and the audience is too great to be breached?

Ultimately, reception is subjective and every individual receives a text in his or her own way. But I think it would be worthwhile to explore reception as part of a winder consideration of transgression, the limits of the readable, and the ethics of producing art that has the potential to cause harm. Early in the article, Dean laments the exhaustion of the category of transgression in literary studies (66). I think a turn away from sexual transgression, transgressive sexualities, and the erotic toward texts whose material is so transgressive that it is rendered unreadable could provide a new and refreshing conversation about art, boundaries, and ethics.

– Madame Oshey

 

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Blank Spaces in Hogg

Posted by “Chip Delany”

The first section of Hogg leaps into descriptions of sexual actions between minors, incest, and murky—if not entirely absent—consent. Among the depictions of sexual acts including vaginal intercourse, fellatio (oral sex on men, colloquially blow jobs), cunnilingus (oral sex on women), and masturbation there is only one sexual act that occurs in this section that is not described: anal intercourse between two men. While Maria’s sexual encounters with her brother, her father, and the narrator are described in almost painful detail, down to the abrasiveness of genital hair, the two instances where the narrator might plausibly be about to participate in anal sex ends with an abrupt temporal shift in the narrative. The first time, the narrator goes from describing a partner saying, “Shit, come on and sit on this n*gger dick, white boy!” to an empty space on the page (Delany 13). No details are provided and a curtain is abruptly drawn on the action before the narrator actually “sits” on the penis. It comes across much like a scene switch in a movie. Readers are given a tantalizing glimpse at the sexual act through the remark of his sexual partner before switching to the next morning when, “The bikers woke us up about four in the morning” (13). The refusal to describe anal intercourse in particularly pointed since other vivid descriptions of sexual acts surround it. Prior to the command for the narrator to “sit on this…dick” he describes how “I held his wrist and licked his thumb and the back of his hand” to remove semen after oral sex (13). Following the abrupt break, he describes how a biker was “on his knees at the mattress, trying to eat out Maria’s pussy…” (13). Among these almost too vivid details, including positions of sex (on knees) and bodily fluids (semen), it comes across as a particularly odd act of self-censorship for the narrator to not include the scene of male-male anal sex.

Another instance where sexual acts with the narrator are not included in the narrative can be seen later in the first section. This act is less clearly defined. Instead of a clear command of how the narrator should interact with a sexual partner—“sit on this…dick”—the narrator is simply commanded to “Get it, cocksucker!” before there is a temporal shift (19). Contextually, this moment can again be read as a refusal to depict male-male anal sex. A few paragraphs before the “Get it, cocksucker!” assertion, one of the bikers seeking sexual services makes an aside that, “I think I’m gonna fuck this cocksucker!” (18). This alone does not indicate penetrative sex or even the kind of penetrative sex (oral versus anal) since it could colloquially refer to a situation in oral sex where the partner with the penis “fucks” the mouth of the narrator rather than the narrator’s anus. The continued description of how the man “slid his hands back down to his crotch” do firmly plant the suggestion of bodily interactions between his penis and the narrator in some way. One thing that distinguishes the “Get it, cocksucker!” from the earlier command of “…come on and sit on this n*gger dick, white boy!” is the amount of time that elapses following the command. While the first act has a shift of perhaps a few hours—from evening to early morning—the shift after “Get it” moves not only temporally but also spatially in the text. The narrator and Pedro both are in the process of leaving the basement to take a walk after this shift and this walk transforms their reality from dirty basements and semen-stained mattresses to a more idyllic space where the “sky was just going blue,” indicating at least early morning (19). This moment is not only differentiated by the movement outdoors, but also by the descriptors used by the narrator. The sun is “close enough to the horizon to drip gold on the sound,” it is “still warm,” and the river “lapped” beneath them. These three descriptions all indicate comfort and beauty, if not simply a more idyllic situation. “Lapping” and “warmth” apply to two different senses—hearing and touch—to pull out a feeling of stability. The river is not described in violent, aggressive terms of “rushing,” “pounding,” or “crashing,” which would oddly echo the violent sexual acts earlier, but instead uses the fairly passive, quiet term of “lapping.” The ground is not cold or hot, two temperatures that might indicate danger to young children while walking, but “warm.” Warmth indicates some manner of comfort since it does not fall into an extreme category of temperature. The narrator is no longer in the basement among adults acting out their sexual desires on children, no longer near a father sexually exploiting his teenage (underage) daughter, but is walking in a public area that is described in positive or neutral terms rather than aggressive terms. Likewise, the narrator is no longer forced to obey orders of adult men to “Get it” or “sit on this,” but is able in this space to part ways with Pedro without saying a word.

While the narrator ultimately removes himself from this sexual situation, his removal does not resolve the narrative choices for the physical space of the page. Refraining from describing sexual acts is not unheard of and has been seen frequently in other texts, such as in Madame Bovary, but this decision typically starts at a particular level of sexual explicitness. In other words, the authors will excise a certain level of detail, such as all sexual acts between partners beyond kissing. This section of Hogg, on the other hand, scatters explicit sexual details all throughout the written text. Readers are not spared from all of the explicit content in these two “blank spaces” nor are they spared from the taboo sexual acts of incest between siblings and between a father and daughter. Since these moments are not part of the written text, it is not possible to justify or argue the merits of some sexual depictions versus others. Alternatively, it is worth considering whether readers are moved away from these acts in an attempt to maintain some sense of sexual decency standards or, alternatively, if through these spaces readers are told a specific aspect of the narrator’s identity. These moments are some of the only times during the first section when the narrator is commanded to perform a sexual act by adult men who have some physical control over his eleven-year-old self. Other times the narrator does perform sexual acts, but either initiates them or responds to verbal and physical stimulation by other men. If it is the command that causes this break in narration, is this an indication of an emotional or psychological break? Is this an instance where the narrator blacks out during a sexual action? What does it mean to have a narrator who cannot or will not depict certain actions and does that make it possible for us to examine him in another way? It is important to pay attention to the few alterations in the format of Hogg, the few times when the narrator leaps ahead within his narrative if only because Delany is known for utilizing the form of his narrative with a skillful hand.

 

Word Count: 1211

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