PRINT July/August 2020


Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany is a novelist and critic. His most recent books include Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012, Magnus Books) and The Atheist in the Attic (2018, PM Press). He lives in Philadelphia.


YEARS AGO, I remember encountering the idea that there is no problem we have in the world that could not be solved by the proper education; you’d think, then, that education would be one of the most important things there is, and I think it is, but it is such a broad category that there is no way to define, really, what it is. Some people are educating themselves when they walk down an old street by trying to look at new things. Some people go to whole lecture series—or give whole lecture series—and take away nothing from the experience. Before I was twenty, I attended four schools in New York, the last a university from which I received no degree. Between then and now, I’ve worked in more than fifty institutions and ended up a retired full professor. Each one of them makes me think something different about the value and status of education.


    I love this place. The museum—housed in the structure where Keats died from tuberculosis in 1821—is situated just south of the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti. I visited this memorial building when I returned to Italy for the second time in the 1980s. I remember reading an account in the museum itself explaining that someone who had lived there after Keats’s death looked out the window early one morning to see the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio running down the steps to sweep up the actress Eleonora Duse, or “La Duse,” in his arms. D’Annunzio wrote a novel about their affair, The Flame of Life (1900), in which he portrays himself as the character Stelio Effrena.


    During my first trip to Europe in 1965, I visited this space—full of works by Jean Arp, Max Ernst, and other modernist heavyweights—largely because Peggy Guggenheim was a friend of Djuna Barnes. Guggenheim had given her a coat, which Barnes wore for years at her home in Patchin Place, a small, gated alleyway in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The poet Marilyn Hacker and I had friends in this storied area who lived across from Barnes’s old apartment. (I remember hearing a tale of e. e. cummings shouting out the window in the morning, “Djuna, are you still alive?”) But what impressed me most about the museum was its front door, which eventually became part of a house I describe in one of the later chapters of my novel Nova (1968).


    *Peggy Guggenheim outside the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1968.* Photo: Tony Vaccaro/Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Peggy Guggenheim outside the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1968. Photo: Tony Vaccaro/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

    Wagner is the ultimate theater, and The Ring Cycle is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk. I’ve seen it four times in three different productions and read my share of books about it. It’s seventeen hours long—an endurance test. In 1988, I took my daughter, who was fourteen then, to the Metropolitan Opera in New York to see Otto Schenk’s staging of the work, with sets designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. (I was a super at the Met long ago and saw the premier of Franco Zeffirelli’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1966—the year the new Met opened at Lincoln Center. Alvin Ailey was the show’s assistant director and choreographer; Leontyne Price played the Egyptian queen.) Some of the most moving theater I’d ever experienced was at the opera house’s old space on Thirty-Ninth Street and Broadway, before Lincoln Center ever came to be. The performance of The Ring I think about most often, however, is still the first I saw, with its minimal sets and pared-down orchestra. In 1983, the Boston Lyric Opera brought it to New York’s Beacon Theatre, which I lived close to at the time. I went to it all by myself.

    *Franz Stassen illustration from 1916 depicting Richard Wagner’s _Der Ring des Nibelungen_ (The Ring of the Nibelung), 1848–74.* From Part 1: _Das Rheingold_ 
(The Rhinegold). Franz Stassen illustration from 1916 depicting Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), 1848–74. From Part 1: Das Rheingold
    (The Rhinegold).

    I do not know if I’ve ever heard it performed in a concert hall, but this is as close to my favorite piece of music as I probably will ever get. I once listened to it for hours when I was contemplating suicide. When it was over, the world seemed like a much better place, and I’m still here.


    I’ve actually made it into this publisher’s ranks with Nova, which was reprinted as part of the two-volume anthology American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s (2020). I’ve aspired to have my work appear under the auspices of certain imprints—and sometimes it’s even come to pass, though often the nature of publishing (and that particular publisher) has changed mightily by the time it happens, which can make the success rather comic.


    This was one of Freud’s favorite novels, and it became one of my mine, as well as a work I teach regularly. Rainer Maria Rilke called it a “bad boring book.” But giants will wrangle. I also always rather enjoyed its forebear, The Death of the Gods, Julian the Apostate (1895), which has also shown up on my syllabi. I’ve also been mystified as to why, say, Gore Vidal’s 1964 novel on the Roman emperor seems completely unaware of these Merezhkovsky works.

  7. MY BOOK HOUSE (1920–71)

    This series of illustrated stories for children was an education for the eye and mind. Kudos to Olive Beaupré Miller, who not only wrote for and edited the series but also founded the company that published these beautifully designed volumes. Donn P. Crane, Dorothy Hoff, Glen Ketchum, and N. C. Wyeth are just a handful of the artists who contributed illustrations, which somehow always appear as though they were drawn by the same set of hands. I still go back to these books for elementary research.

    *Covers of the 1937 editions of Olive Beaupré Miller’s _My Book House,_ vol. 11, _In Shining Armor,_ 1932, and _My Book House: Story Time,_ 1925* (The Book House for Children, 1937). Covers of the 1937 editions of Olive Beaupré Miller’s My Book House, vol. 11, In Shining Armor, 1932, and My Book House: Story Time, 1925 (The Book House for Children, 1937).

    A small museum, an endless education: I spent a lot of time there as a young man, and it was always the little gem I would recommend to friends from out of town. (I was frequently surprised by how few people who lived outside the city simply didn’t know it was there.) You can see a trove of historical paintings by artists such as François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, El Greco, Anthony van Dyck, and Johannes Vermeer, as well as Agnolo Bronzino’s Lodovico Capponi, 1550–55, a portrait of a page in the court of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany. Capponi is depicted wearing a big codpiece, which used to fascinate me, as so much of modern men’s clothing seems designed to suggest that they don’t have any genitalia.


    People have said I predicted it, so I suppose I have a soft spot in my heart for it, though sometimes I think it may be killing us.


    *Suzanne Treister, _SURVIVOR (F)/One Million Years Before and After The Internet,_ 2016–19,* oil on canvas, 83 7⁄8 × 59 7⁄8". Suzanne Treister, SURVIVOR (F)/One Million Years Before and After The Internet, 2016–19, oil on canvas, 83 7⁄8 × 59 7⁄8".

    One social media outlet is quite enough, and this is what I’ve chosen. Some people like my time line. I admit I spend countless hours on it. I feel I’m lucky.