Sparkles of Unearthly Light Off The Corner of the Infinitely-Faceted Edifice: ‘The Jewel-Hinged Jaw’ As Cerebration and Celebration
“‘When I wrote the book there was a background of events in literary criticism in general, tending to reject the idea that criticism had to be thematic and revolve around analysis of the plots, and characters. By the late 60s and early 70s there was a whole trend in criticism that was moving towards treating the texts themselves as language. JHJ was really my attempt to discuss SF texts as language, and bring SF criticism up to date. I probably should have made that really clear at the time, but I wanted to appear much more fresh and innovative than I really was.’ (laughter)” – Samuel R. Delany
“The door deliquesced.
Cool against my thigh, chest, and face, mist from the sill-trough blew back as I lifted my foot over the — “Hey, don’t step in that!” I pushed up at Rat’s shoulder —
His big foot came down with the heel a centimeter beyond the trough rim. he staggered around to face me, not looking surprised.
“You’re supposed to step over. You yell at little kids for getting their feet wet in the door trough.” I laughed. “Look…” as I stepped over.
The blue liquid, behind us now, began to foam; the foam rose, climbing at the jambs faster than in the middle; and darkening, and shutting out light as the door’s semicrystals effloresced.”- Samuel R. Delany, from Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand
I discovered The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction in 2009 at Readercon. While I had long admired (no, adored, felt dizzily annihilated by, was dazzled and delighted and upset and puzzled and overthrown and reinvigorated by) Samuel R. Delany’s fiction (since reading Nova in 1981), I had never read any of his non-fiction. I had only the year before returned to the world of fantastika after a long exile in unrelated academia, and was hungry not just for stories, but for ways to look at the literary field after a dozen years away from it. Strolling through the Dealer’s Room I came to the Wesleyan University Press table, and was startled to find Mr. Delany sitting there, with a few copies of his just re-issued book at his elbow.
I am terribly shy in person, so it took a great effort to approach him, but he was affable and signed a copy of the book for me (I later brought my old copy of Nova, the 1975 Bantam reissue, which I had kept since high school, for him to sign). I made off with my purchase hoping to read some of it immediately, but was, as usual, seduced by the allure of readings and panels and kaffeeklatsches that put all thoughts of reading, paradoxically, out of my head. When I finally did read it that fall, it was a revelation, and a wistful engagement, of ideas about how SF on the page works as we read it, and how our very notions of reading affect our reception of the words. Two years later, sitting at this year’s Readercon panel about the book, I felt, in a rather artificially narrativized way I suppose, that I had come to a new phase of a journey with Delany’s work, and this book in particular.
Listening to most of the panel gush about the influence of the book on their writing, and to Barry Malzberg give a gruff history lesson that was also to some extent a dissenting opinion, I reflected on what the book had taught me in just two years, as I dove back into writing fiction and essays. The effect of Delany’s writings on my fiction, such as it is, felt minimal, except for a few bits of inspiration in looking at the language I used, what words I employed to create whatever effect (dislocation, empathy, etc.) I was striving for in a story. In my reviews and essays, the influence was more profound, and as I listened to Delany himself engage the panel about his book (which is where the first quotation above comes from), I thought about how, above everything else, the limitless appreciation for language that suffuses the book had inspired me to write essays again, to look at language and how it transfers from page to imagination, filtered through the lens of the fantastic.
The focus on language, on a close reading of the text as text and the reader as a reader, was one that I learned in graduate school, but that The Jewel-Hinged Jaw reinforces in the reader. We can certainly argue that literary criticism has caught up to and moved past some of Delany’s points, but the combination of cerebration and celebration in the text, closely brought back referentially to the author, is singular in its effects on the reader and I have not yet found a book on fantastika that surpasses it. What makes it so significant historically, and still so potent today, is the fusion of autobiography, politics, linguistic analysis, critical literary exegesis, and discussion of both the process of writing and the performance of reading. As Gary K. Wolfe’s characterized it in Evaporating Genres:
“Delany’s frequently brilliant, often pyrotechnic approach to criticism draws equally on the highly personal experiences of a young fan turned author and on extensive study of European post-structural modes of analysis.”
To appreciate Delany’s approach, you need just the sort of book that The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is: a seemingly scattered, but cacophonously reinforcing, array of pieces that work with and in tension with each other to stimulate multiple views of the broader subject at hand.
At the panel David Hartwell pointed out that the book’s importance was that it told us that “words can mean in a different way” and that there was “no upper limit” on how good SF could be. I find that this is not the result of the book, but rather its starting point. SF literature still gets mixed respect, but what makes Delany’s writing about it so inspiring is that he assumes these two ideas and presses on, treating cherished works and assumptions with neither fannish overcompensation nor detached academic displacement. Delany clearly loves SF, but feels that to love SF is to criticize it using the most nuanced, discerning methods possible. To take it seriously is to accept its particularities while using more general techniques to tease out its combination of distinctiveness and subjunctivity, looking at as many of the connections implied by the language and its organization as possible to uncover the richness of the genre’s works.
This book is an extended cerebration, as opposed to either a meditation or exegesis, that thinks about SF from a number of perspectives and standpoints; as author, critic, person, and indeed fan, Delany wants to communicate as much as he can about what makes SF literature so powerful and challenging from many different angles. The book has many quotable observations, such as:
“In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it” (p. 40)
“In a simple sense, what science fiction does — at the level of coined science-fictional term. . . , at the level of the specifically science-fictional sentence. . . , and at the level of the uniquely science-fictional plot — is to take recognizable syntagms and substitute in them, here and there, signifiers from a till then wholly unexpected paradigm.” (p. 139)
And yet, these nuggets are also part of something more subtle, intertwined. I could pull a quotation from “A Fictional Architecture That Manages Only with Great Difficulty Not Once To Mention Harlan Ellison,” for example, but what strikes me in that piece is a moment early on when Delany describes the Grecian vista before him:
“Behind the church the sky is lemon; above us, a blue I cannot name. Over the sea a wall of salmon and gold is blurred with blood behind the hulking ghost of Syros.”
This passage, more than perhaps any other in the book, for me sums up the spirit of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: of a deep appreciation for language and its manifold effects and the pleasures (sensual, intellectual, imaginative) that it can create. It exemplifies Delany’s points about protocols and textuality even as it complicates them, and it is easy to focus on programmatic statements or conclusions and ignore moments in the text like this one that try to ground and shift the terrain of Delany’s thinking. It is in moments like that this one that I agree with Malzberg that the autobiographical parts of the book are more important than the literary analyses, not just for details of Delany’s life and its effect on his writing, but for the language shifts and the playing with words that often arise in them.
And yet those textual analyses are also powerful to this day. I was startled when I finished reading “To Read The Dispossessed” and found that my view of the book had been profoundly challenged by Delany’s reading of it. I haven’t read the book in 25 years, but it remains high on my list of significant books, and while Delany does not belittle its importance, he presents a strong reading of the book that not only casts it in a different light, but that demands that previous readers seriously re-examine their experience of the book and the meaning they gleaned from the text. This sort of writing is critically important in literature, SF or not, and seems to be something that today some authors pause to engage in.
Delany’s deep caring for SF, which sometimes seems narrow in its envisioning or too presumptuous of SF’s uniqueness, emerges in the depth of his engagement with his subjects, including his own life as SF writer. I feel that there is so much in this book to examine that a book could be written about it There are passages to yet savor, assumptions of Delany’s to be further engaged and dissected, and possibilities of envisioning fantastika yet to be uncovered within the words on these pages. I think, to gently disagree with Malzberg, that one’s age or stage of accomplishment may inflect the reception of this text, but that regardless, there is something for everyone to learn from or lock horns with in this work, and we need to engage them to keep our eyes sharp and our minds supple as SF and fantastika continue to change and move forward.
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