‘Phallos’ by Samuel R. Delany
Author: Justin Linds
October 10, 2013
The enhanced and revised edition of Samuel Delany’s 2004 novella Phallos, edited by NYU professor of American Studies Robert F. Reid-Pharr, is a provoking book to hold in your hands; what should you expect from a “synopsis of a gay pornographic novella” and what is to be done with “a gay pornographic novella, with the explicit sex omitted”? Who would write such a thing?One does not often find simplification in essays by Berkeley professors, but in “I Can See Atlantis From My House: Sex, Fantasy, and Phallos” by Darieck Scott, one of the three essays about Phallos appended at the back of the enhanced edition, there is permission to read Phallos in any of the non-literary states of mind that the book provokes. Even if you’re confused, aroused, or off on some fantastically imaginative mind-tangent, Phallos’s immersive creativity will carry you forward.
Scott writes of the possibilities of Phallos, “the novella sprinkles its enchantment by seducing us to dream in the hyperbolic way of the fantasy genre about what might otherwise be dismissed as prosaic or unworthy.” Phallos allows your dreams and your interpretations to flourish—no matter how silly or puerile—under the pretense that they contain “secret wisdom”, a theme in both the novel’s historically-fantastical narrative and its rhetorical ponderings.
The actual experience of reading Phallos involves two distinct narrative voices. Voice one, written in the first person, is the voice of a young boy named Neoptolomus. Born in Syracuse during the reign of the second century emperor Hadrian, Neoptolomus is given a Roman name so that he might achieve great things. He speaks with a confessional innocence that equates all experiences; it is beautiful when he lists the “first hundred or three hundred” Greek words he learned—“…beauty, thunder, all, hear, steersman, nothing, love, freeman, pain, water…”—and then half a page later recounts how he would frequently lie among his flock while a Roman gentleman “sucked [his] cock to one and another pleasurable emotions.” The simplicity with which Neoptolomus relays his sex acts makes for an erotic and intimate reading, and because the acts are transported out of our modern context, a context as arbitrarily structured as the three hundred words Neoptolomus first learns, there is no sense of shame in Delany’s writing or Neoptolomus’ recounting. Phallos is a long treatment of sexual adventure, and it’s hard to say if it’s the book’s historical moment or the sexual acts themselves, increasingly imaginative, orgiastic and then violent, which make the book so arousing to read.
The second narrative voice is that of a scholar who is summarizing Phallos. He writes in the third person (and in slightly larger text), and makes commentaries on the narrative when it needs to be clarified, moved along, or when it is too graphically sexual to quote directly. This is an example of the explicit sex being omitted:
under the ceiling’s dripping beams, on a corner pile of straw, they have sex. It goes on for several gloriously explicit pages, indeed, for the bulk of the chapter: wet, passionate, near-acrobatic—and exhausting.
Even the summaries are erotic, and it’s certainly the withholding of sexual detail which keeps the reader wanting more. Delany is smart enough to know that desire is stimulated by lack, and Phallos has the perfect balance of explicit and denied moments.
Throughout the novel, the plot of Phallos is at odds to be more compelling than the rhetorical turns and twists that come out of the narrative, and it’s no easy fight. The story really picks up when Neoptolomus goes to Hermopolis to visit the temple of a nameless God that holds land his master wants. Before reaching the temple, Neoptolomus beds a “well-hung, handsome youngster” and then encounters the boy’s older-lover who explains the complexities of their relationship. To Neoptolomus’s surprise, the older-man and his protegé have an agreement where the young boy enacts sexual fantasies that the older man dreams up so that he can watch in secret. Neoptolomus asks if the gentleman is “jealous” when he sees his young lover with “three great Nubian sailors… [or] a pair of yellow-haired children of the north”, but the older, wiser man corrects his simple question: “his exhibitionistic adventurousness and my voyeuristic inquisitiveness are as complementary as much of the uncritical world finds to be male and female.”
The old man, a man of importance in disguise, beautifully expounds on topics from the value of sex that “contributes little to procreation” to the “twin fires” of lust and sympathy which burn when sex becomes a “bloody” or “violent” act, and this brief monologue is as exciting as the journey Neoptolomus begins when the aforementioned temple is unable to do business with him because the phallus of their nameless god has been stolen.
Eventually Phallos does become more pedantic than exciting, but the pedagogy of the sexually and spiritually curious can only go on for so long before a kind of intellectual blue-balls sets in. The first 60 pages of my copy of Phallos have more underlines and exclamation points written into the them than do the latter 60, but I am already looking forward to my first rereading of Phallos and the secret wisdom I will uncover, or not uncover, in its exciting flights of narrative and rhetoric fantasy.
By Samuel R. Delany
Wesleyan University Press
Paperback, 9780819573551, 224 pp.