Discomfort and Desire
Return to Nevčr˙on, the final volume of Samuel R. Delany's Nevčr˙on sequence, concludes the story of Gorgik, the great liberator engaged in a lifelong campaign to eradicate slavery from a country far in our past. Gorgik has crossed and re-crossed the four volumes of the series, his exploits depicted mostly through hazy rumor and the distant perspectives of friends and strangers. Return to Nevčr˙on is also a return to his perspective. In "The Game of Time and Pain," we meet him as an older man, a minister in the Court of Eagles, his campaign to end slavery completed several years prior. We leave him behind briefly in "The Tale of Rumor and Desire," the story of Clodon, a bandit, drunkard, and liar. Then we end with "The Tale of Gorgik," the very same story that opened the first volume, Tales of Nevčr˙on. Again, Gorgik is a child on the Kolhari docks, is captured and placed in slavery, is freed, returns to Kolhari, glimpses the power and limitations of the Court, and enters the military. We see him anew, "a man who was -- in his way and for his epoch -- the optimum product of his civilization." Thus does Nevčr˙on end.
Actually, though, the end is the Appendix, "Closures and Openings." Though barely discussed in my previous columns, the introductions and appendices to Nevčr˙on are as integral to the whole of the series as any individual story. Through the introductions and appendices, we meet K. Leslie Steiner, S.L. Kermit, and Samuel "Chip" Delany. The letters and essays of Steiner, Kermit, and Delany provide a parallel narrative strand to the stories of Gorgik, Raven, Pryn, et al. This narrative strand -- which holds the structure and trappings of nonfiction, and especially of academic theorizing -- provides a context for the characters' antics. While Gorgik and the others act and react through stories of knowledge, yearning, and power, the introductions and appendices tell a complementary story about the affections and antagonisms between a study of the past and a fiction of the past, as well as a story about the past entering into the present and vice-versa.
In "Closures and Openings," the last Appendix of Nevčr˙on, Delany writes about excess: in desire, in fiction, in language. According to one model, he says, language begins as the grunt accompanying a gesture -- the gesture as communication, the grunt as an excess. Eventually the grunt, which is in excess to meaning, becomes a system of meaning itself. Becomes language. Then language creates its own excess -- writing -- "which begins to recomplicate all over again, again upsetting the power hierarchy, contouring it not to its former value but toward a new one. Through its richness, meaning has become power." One way to read the Nevčr˙on sequence (and to read Delany in general) is with an eye toward excess, toward those many moments in which symbols and holders of meaning surge beyond meaning. They are moments that are narratively hooked, yet don't add up to a single sum. For example, rubber balls recur throughout the series, as do red ships, astrolabes, and hints to the political opposition between the Eagle and the Dragon. All of these in combination contribute to an intrigue that could easily comprise an entire plot of suspense, mystery, and revelation. But they don't lead to revelation -- the closest is the moment in Neveryóna in which Pryn is (maybe) poisoned. But even Pryn can't explain what happened after:
"You say they tried to poison you because you freed one of their slaves...?"
It seemed hopelessly complicated to explain right then that it was the other way around. Pryn nodded.
Action and consequence are switched; there is no simple explanation, no revelation. Everything is hopelessly complicated; everything is exactly as it seems.
This excess can be uncomfortable. Hopeless complications that can't be explained? Symbols and scenes that exist in excess of meaning? Don't we read in order to find meaning -- in the world, in our lives? Eh, maybe. Sometimes. I've previously made my appreciation, even love, known for the confusing and the opaque, not despite the confusion they cause but precisely because of that confusion. The world is full of the inexplicable -- too often novels undercut their own mystery by providing an ultimate explanation, undoing the mystery in the end.
There is another form of discomfort in Delany's writing however. One of the through-lines of Return to Nevčr˙on, and also a place of excess, is desire. Chewed down fingernails, scars on a back, elongated feet -- for the characters of Nevčr˙on, these are all places of desire. Makeup around a woman's eyes. Beating someone, or being beaten by them. Desire accretes to physical characteristics and situations, or maybe desire is created by them. Whatever its shape, desire may be beautiful at times, but as often it is cruel, disgusting, or ugly.
One key symbol of desire in the Nevčr˙on books is the metal, locked collar worn by slaves. Gorgik's campaign to end slavery is accompanied by encounters of lust and desire charged by using a slave collar. In "The Game of Time and Pain," Gorgik meets a boy in an abandoned castle. Through idle talk, the boy and Gorgik discover that both have previously found sexual pleasure by using a slave collar. They discuss using the collar themselves, together, but instead of sex, Gorgik launches into his stories, which seem to be offered to the boy as a...well, not an explanation of his desire but as a tracing of its architecture through his life: the slaves he saw as a child; the time when, a slave himself, he saw a lord put on the collar; and later when, as a minister, he rejected the sexual overtures of one of the last remaining slaves in Nevčr˙on. It becomes clear, through Gorgik's memories, that the desire for the slave collar is not a desire for the horror and violence of slavery, but it also cannot be fully separated from the horrors and violence of the slavery in which the collar was used. Furthermore, when the slave collar is used with the consent of both parties, deliberate and controlled violence and cruelty can become a part of relationships of affection and kindness.
The possibility of kindness and pleasure amidst cruelties and violence -- physical or emotional -- is also integral to the brief story of Udrog, the boy who listens to Gorgik's memories. Only fourteen at the time of his encounter with Gorgik, Udrog has already lost his parents, been abused, been cared for with somewhat more affection, and finally pushed out into the world on his own, making his way by working a day here, a day there. His life has been one of "petty thefts and minor pillagings, of irregular hunger and regular isolation, of surprising kindness from a woman hoeing an orchard or a man driving a chicken cart." Within that mixed life, lived at the margins of Nevčr˙on society, Udrog has found pleasure and power in sexual encounters in which he chooses -- asks -- to be beaten. Though Udrog is fourteen, many of these sexual encounters in which he finds pleasure and power have been with adults.
This is a place of discomfort, for me at least. Gorgik is well over fifty, while Udrog is fourteen. There is undoubtedly consent between the two -- it's Udrog who propositions Gorgik -- but the age difference and power differentials remain, and while reading this encounter I had in the back of my mind the narratives abusers tell themselves about consent and pleasure, which differ greatly from the experiences of the people they abuse. Discomfort is, obviously, uncomfortable. We want to rid ourselves of what causes us discomfort. In reading, this usually means we look for explanations. I thought about the characters throughout the series who repeatedly refer to Nevčr˙on as a cruel and barbaric place. I was reminded that this is a series set well in our past, which according to certain ideas about history would mean it was "backwards" and "ignorant" as compared to the present day. But I also remembered the discussions in the Introductions and Appendices which lay the groundwork for seeing Nevčr˙on as a prismatic view of contemporary (1970s-era) society. Then my thinking shifted directions as I noticed that Gorgik and the boy never actually have sex -- the stories, boring to the boy, go on for too long. I also noticed an aside in the description of Gorgik's morning: "Really, he was too old for boys like that!"
Ultimately, though, I'm not certain the story guides us to any explanation that could ease my discomfort. The age difference between Gorgik and the boy, the situation they are in, exists within a web of other differences and relationships, power differentials, cruelties and kindnesses. My discomfort, too, is one of many reactions to the story, which presents cruelty, kindness, hope, and despair in turn.
The next story, "The Tale of Rumor and Desire," also concerns itself with uncomfortable desires. Clodon, its focal character, is a drunk and a liar, who spends some of his time on the road stealing from travelers and even more of his time attaching himself to fellow drunkards in small villages, laying about and causing mischief until he has worn out his welcome. The narrator tells us that desire has been a constant presence in Clodon's life:
With every material force and ill-known economic motive that pushed Clodon, however unaware he was of it, desire always lay ahead of him, lazy and limpid, to pull him in the same direction. Wherever profit or personal whim attracted him, desire was always behind to impel, however dimly he perceived it, maniacal and murky
Desire is written into the spaces between sentences and running down the margins of the pages. It pushes or leads him into theft, violence, (possible) murder, and other cruelties. Desire is there with him, producing, and produced by, moments of happiness and cruelty, kindness and despair.
As the second to last story, "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" prompts us to consider the place of desire throughout the entirety of the Nevčr˙on series. Gorgik's campaign to abolish slavery has, from early on, been linked directly to complex desires regarding freedom, life, power, and lust. Pryn, in Neveryóna, is on a quest driven by desire for knowledge, of herself and of the world, prompted in part by her learning to write her own name. The smuggler in "The Tale of Fog and Granite" is driven by a desire for Gorgik the Liberator, either to know him personally or simply to know the truth of the legendary man. These characters have relatively focused and directed desires, while for Clodon desire is a haphazard leader. In some ways, he is perhaps most similar to Raven, the warrior woman who wields a sword with two blades. Though Raven's desires seem far more directed (and directing) than Clodon's, both characters are agents of chaos within their stories. They travel as their whims and abilities direct them. They are often at the center of violence, Clodon in his own bumbling fashion, Raven with quick ability and threat. They both carry more than a hint of cruelty in their depictions.
"The Tale of Rumor and Desire" also performs a key function in the narrative arc of the series. As a younger man, Clodon has a brief encounter in Kolhari with an older man whose lusts and desires are caught up in the use of slave collars. This older man identifies the potential for cruelty in Clodon as a skill that could be used to fulfill the desires of the older man, as well as others like him. He puts a slave collar with a broken lock on Clodon and asks him to wear it for a week, working the Bridge of Lost Desire (a site of prostitution), seeing how he is approached and what he can gain while wearing the collar. (Note that, chronologically, this story takes place during a time in which slavery is still very much in existence in Nevčr˙on.) Clodon wears the collar for three days. Though he says no to every inquiry, he begins to feel like something is being taken from him by the collar and the interactions it creates. He wanders off to an empty yard, where he naps, sits, and thinks. Finally, he removes the collar and drops it in a cistern. He goes on with his life. In the last story, "The Tale of Gorgik," the same story that began the series, we see this moment again. We read how Gorgik as a young boy in Kolhari is greatly impacted by seeing a man he thinks is a slave remove his collar and drop it in a cistern. After seeing this, "Gorgik was left with [...] a kind of hunger, a groping after some tale, some knowledge, some warm and material feeling against his body of what had escaped through silence."
And so, from a moment of hunger, of desire, we are launched again into the tales of Nevčr˙on.