The Timelessness of Delany’s Dhalgren
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Published in: September-October 2021 issue.


THE BODIES AND MINDS of homosexual men have historically been subject to both real and psychological prisons. Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish and A History of Sexuality, examines regimes of incarceration, played out on specific, arrested bodies but resonant with generalized experience. While reading Foucault’s work, the word incarceration is evocative, palpable, you can smell it: the fleshy confinement, the ripeness. In the relationship between pleasure and power for Foucault, the homosexual body is a bruised and weary fetish, due to the wringer it has been put through. This much-abused body has a mind which is neither a single nor a separate entity but shares its fears with others who are equally persecuted for their sexuality. Juridical and social homophobia, physical arrests and confinements, find their parallel in psychological structures. Even when the mind revolts from the body’s abuses, it does not escape them. For the mind, the very attempt at transcendence makes its own prison: exile.

            Samuel Delany’s 1974 novel Dhalgren is described as “psychogeographic.” The novel has a distinct, urban location—Bellona—but it is ultimately impossible to decide whether this peripatetic novel takes place in a dystopian U.S. city or in an incarcerated person’s mind. The answer is: both. Like the symbolic ghettoization of Manhattan, as the whole island is turned into a federal prison in the 1981 movie Escape from New York, Bellona is a social state of mind: “Very few suspect the existence of this city. It is as if not only the media but also the laws of perspective themselves have redesigned knowledge and perception to pass it by. … It is a city of inner discordances and retinal distortions.”

            Dhalgren is set in a landscape of marginalization. Kid, the novel’s bisexual protagonist, is a classic existential hero, an outsider wandering through the streets of a science fictional or real dystopia, trying to come to terms with this world. For queer people, physical incarceration and social rejection have psychological repercussions. Even when the body is not incarcerated, the mind is exiled, cast out from society, until both mind and body find their freedom and return. This may not be peculiarly a homosexual condition, but forms and themes of the interplay of imprisonment, seeing the bars of the prison, and being an outsider on the inside resonate through gay and queer literature from Oscar Wilde to Jean Genet, from Michael Arditti to Uzodinma Iweala.

            Delany’s novel spectacularizes the cityscape and mindscape of the disenfranchised in 1970s America in the midst of race riots and financial collapse.

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