John Marr is surprised he doesn’t have AIDS. He has been having near-daily sexual encounters with strange men since before the dawn of HIV, but he remains healthy. His initiation began in the bathroom of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, and since then he has found himself at home in the darkest corners of Manhattan’s culture of anonymous gay sex. During the day, it is a different story, as Marr works on his graduate thesis—an analysis of the work of a brilliant 1970s philosopher who died mysteriously in one of the gay bars of Hell’s Kitchen. As his research and his sex life begin to converge, Marr senses that if AIDS doesn’t get him, something darker will.
The Mad Man, which the author dubbed a “pornotopic fantasy,” is more than a powerful work of philosophical erotica; it is a snapshot of a vanished moment in New York City’s gay history, when fear and lust commingled in a single powerful force.
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The Mad Man
Or, The Mysteries of Manhattan
By Samuel R. Delany
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Samuel R. Delany
All rights reserved.
PART ONE: The Systems of the World
The bios philosophicus is the animality of being human, renewed as a challenge, practiced as an exercise-and thrown in the face of others as a scandal.
Durch des Todes Tor, wo er mir floß,
weit und offen er mir erschloß
darin ich sonst nur träumend gewacht,
das Wunderreich der Nacht.
[Through Death's gates, from which it flowed to me,
wide and open it showed me—
what otherwise I only woke to in dreams—
the Wonder-realm of Night.]
—Tristan und Isolde, II, ii.
I do not have AIDS. I am surprised that I don't. I have had sex with men weekly, sometimes daily—without condoms—since my teens, though true, it's been overwhelmingly ... no, more accurately it's been—since 1980—all oral, not anal. My adventures with homosexuality started in the early-middle 'seventies, in the men's room of the terminal on the island side of the Staten Island Ferry: A guy at least twenty years older than I, clearly scared to death someone might walk in, pulled his small, uncircumcised dick out my mouth the moment he came, stuffed himself back in his fly, leaving semen tracks on his shark-skin pants, grunted a perfunctory, "... yeah, thanks," fingered through his red hair, and pushed out the door as a bored policeman walked in. "All right." Three times he banged his club on the blue, rusted jamb and blinked at me, a very tired man. "Okay, kid. You get out of here, too."
Because my father had bucked what I once thought the entire New York City Board of Education, when I excelled in elementary school, I was allowed to skip a couple of grades. "His family," my father intoned in the drear offices (we'd just heard the psychological traumas and debilitating miseries and maladjustments befalling the child wrenched untimely from his peer group), "will take care of his socialization. You take care of his education. But I hope you understand the miseries and maladjustments from spending years among lots of people stupider than you." Actually, it was just the Staten Island branch. A more civilized borough—Manhattan, or even Brooklyn—probably wouldn't have allowed it; not in the 'sixties.
Dad's request for my acceleration granted, to see that I kept up Mom rode hard on my homework, habituating me to a certain kind of "hard work." Bless them both. (Dad is a city librarian. Mom is a supermarket manager. Neat people—though they worry too much, about me and everything else.) I entered high school at twelve, college at sixteen, and graduate school at twenty, A's, A-minuses, and attendant scholarships generally and generously trailing behind. Also I was that terror of my fellows, "a good test taker." Still, though sometimes I liked to imagine I was, in no way was I really precocious.
Except, possibly, sexually.
Recalling that afternoon at the ferry terminal john, I note it was during my junior year of high school. I'd been on my way home from taking my SATs. (790 on the math; 710 on the English—not bad for a black kid in sneakers and jeans, living in such a benighted borough.) I'd heard about the Ferry from at least three different sources. Stopping off in the john had been the treat I'd dared give myself as reward for taking the test. But like so many things we dare, the doing had been a matter of real smells (musty disinfectant), real textures (metal partitions between the stained commodes, rusting through blue paint), real lights (the yellowing bulb in the ceiling's wire cage) and shadows. My response to the encounter had been simple enough: Without having been blown away by it, I'd liked it. I wanted to do it some more. Walking from the terminal up the ramp to the bus, I wondered, though, if anyone at home would comment on the smudges I still couldn't brush off the knees of my denims.
Given what is generally said about AIDS, I would have thought time and exposure would have ensured my infection since then. But my last HIV test, this past June—and since 1988 I've had one once a year—says they haven't.
I'd like to think that, in certain ways, it's not that unusual a story, however infrequently it's told. But then, in certain others—depravity, murder, mystery, love ... Well, if I'm going to tell it, I must pick an arbitrary moment and begin.
I pick one in May '80, perhaps a week after my twenty-second birthday. It was the close of my third term T.A.-ing for Irving Mossman, toward the end of my second year at Enoch State. Papers were marked. Grades were in. With all the good feeling that accrues to you upon a term well taught, turning the aluminum knob I came into the comfortably cluttered office, full of papers, spring sun, and books.
"Hi," I said. "What're you doing?"
At his desk, Mossman had just taken a photographic frame, with positions across its beige satin face for three pictures, and finished bending down the metal tabs on the velveteen backing. Turning it over, he grinned up hawkishly. Lifting it, he swiveled in his office chair. The silvery plastic overlay was rumpled, as usual, across the Olympic Selectric. Scissors lay on top of slivers cut from some photograph edges.
"Hey ..." I bent to see.
The middle picture showed the slightly dazed, Asiatic features of Timothy Hasler—from the only photograph of him I'd yet seen: the open-shirted one on the back of Pascal, Nietzsche, Peirce.
Gaunt and smiling, the photo to Hasler's right was Mossman.
Full lipped, chocolatey, broad-nosed but, I like to think, handsome for all that, the picture to Hasler's left was me.
"Professor Irving Mossman," Mossman intoned, pointing at his own image with his foreknuckle. Now he indicated the (in that photo) not yet twenty-four-year-old Korean-American, who had once jotted in the margin on his seventh published article: Does the ocean swallow every image reflected on its innumerable wavelets? Imagine, suddenly giving them all back to the sky. "The late Timothy Hasler, philosopher extraordinaire." Mossman's pale knuckle moved on: "And here we have our redoubtable graduate student, John Marr."
My first thought, looking at those three faces: I hadn't realized before we all wore glasses.
"Now, that," Mossman said, "is Hasler studies—in a couple of years. When I wind up this biography, and you finish your thesis."
Dutifully I smiled. While I was looking down, I noticed the stain darkening my jeans' knee.
"Looks like the secondary players in an old RKO war movie," Mossman went on. "The Jew, the Oriental, the black boy ..."
It wasn't more than twenty minutes since I'd been on the cement floor in the library basement john by the gray-painted partition, sucking on the dick of that nervous lacrosse player on his knees in the next stall; or had I just been creaming in my hand when the maintenance guy who'd settled in the stall to my left finally slid his scuffed workboot with his frayed blue pants cuff toward my running shoe—with him, for the first five times, I'd never gotten a thing; until that once, when I heard him chuckle—but that's another story.
Mossman put the frame on his desk. Slants of sunlight crossed it from the window's thin blinds. Staring at those photographs, I tried to assess just who the three of us were.
Myself, first: a young, bright, moderately middle-class black kid from Staten Island, who'd managed to get an undergraduate degree in philosophy—about as meaningful as an undergraduate degree ever was. But, in my senior year, two fluke seminars on Hegel—one on The Philosophy of History, one on The Phenomenology of Spirit —had pushed me on into graduate school on another coast, naïvely certain my thesis would be a 500-page tome on psychology, history, reality, and metaphysics, putting them once and for all into their grandly ordered relation. (Another way to put it, I suppose: an underweight black cocksucker—with glasses—who knew that Wittgenstein was queer, not to mention Plato; and that there was this Frenchman some of my friends in college used to talk about, Foucault ...) I don't think anyone can understand the shock, the disorientation, the disillusion of that first year as a philosophy graduate, during which I learned that—today—a 500-page tome about everything of philosophical interest was less likely to be considered a work of serious philosophy than a self-help manual starting off: "It's important to feel really good about yourself ..." Mossman had been there to inform me of the fact—as gently as he could. Then he'd worked hard to pick up the pieces: I'll always be grateful for that. Next he took that very disoriented graduate student—me—and introduced him to the work of Timothy Hasler.
The late Timothy Hasler.
Timothy Hasler, the picture in the middle: I'd always wondered where Hasler had gotten his sense of what philosophy—contemporary Anglo-American philosophy—was. But then, Hasler was a prodigy. (Certainly he'd gotten it from reading. But, like contemporary poetry, philosophy is one of those things, especially at the beginning stages, most people would rather do than study—which is why most of what gets done is so impoverished.) The first of Hasler's sixteen published papers appeared a month after his seventeenth birthday, in May 1961 (when I was a cuddly coffee bean of three): "On the Disjunctive Force in Certain Conjunctive Copulas." Hasler's grandfather had been a thin, bespectacled Englishman, Ethan Hasler, working as an engineer in Korea, a little man with a volcanic personality, who'd married a Korean woman and come with his whole, large, close family to America at the start of the Second World War. Hasler's father, Kwok Hasler, married another Korean, Jeng Shoon, who'd come to the States just before the U.S.-Korean War. A cultured and sensitive woman, apparently Shoon had been shocked into madness by the turn of events in the early fifties. (Korea, Kefauver, the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthy ...) She died in an asylum in 1954, leaving Timothy Kim Hasler (he had two younger sisters) a shy, brilliant ten-year-old, only a year away from the start—at eleven—of his three-year-tenure at Stuyvesant High School, before his early admission—at fourteen—to sprawling Stilford University.
Besides his sixteen refereed articles, Hasler was a book on the rhetoric of Blaise Pascal, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Sanders Peirce, published the year of Hasler's father's death, 1967, by an alternative philosophical press, Black Phoenix, that printed its texts offset from typescript, but with thick board bindings and snazzy four-color book jackets (hence Mossman's photograph of him), a book that looked at the semiotic aspects of all three philosophers, and that could be looked at in turn as an interesting contribution to what would eventually be called "the New Nietzsche." (Hasler had apparently read —in German—those thousand pages of lecture notes Heidegger had left on the bad-boy of German philosophy, published in four volumes at Pfullingen in 1961. And he'd done some serious searching in The Hidden God.) Hasler was also seven elegant review articles on two interesting and five wholly inconsequential new works of philosophy. As well he was a fabled friendship starting in his third year of graduate school with Almira Adler. (The Old Poet, as first Mossman, then Mossman and I, sometimes called her.) She was sixteen years Hasler's senior. But they'd spent five of his eight remaining summers together at her stone tower at Breakers' Point, California, including his last—when the two had corrected galleys on "The Black Comet." Hasler was several year- plus drop-outs from graduate school. During one of those, in 1968, he'd gone to Europe, mostly Italy, Greece, France, and Turkey. (While there, he took week-long trips to Amsterdam and Berlin, at both of which he'd been invited to lecture.) During another in 1970, in Chicago, he'd worked as a shoe (!) salesman.
And (my favorite) Hasler was six published (and, we discovered, two fragmentary and unpublished) science fiction stories, that, against titanic intergalactic backgrounds to dwarf Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dune, turned on some of the finer mathematics that informed his articles on the philosophy of natural languages.
But finally, ultimately, Timothy Hasler was his own shocking death: The prodigy who'd entered graduate school at 18 was still working on his thesis eleven years later at twenty-nine. Back in New York from Breakers' Point, in the autumn of 1973, the twenty-nine-year-old Korean-American philosophy graduate was stabbed to death in, or just behind, a bar off Ninth Avenue at Fiftieth Street, in New York City, shortly before two o'clock in the morning, the night of September 23rd—two weeks after he should have reported back to Stilford to take up a teaching assistantship that a number of faculty had gone out on a limb to secure him: Officially he'd run out of department support by several years.
Hasler's absence had already caused a disturbance at the school, when news of his murder crossed the country from New York to California and—in one fellow graduate student's words—reduced the rest of the term at Stilford's philosophy department to chaos. But even as far back as two years before Hasler's death, Irving M. had told me, he'd already noticed several prominent philosophers referring to "Hasler structures" and, sometimes, even to "Hasler grammars." And in the half dozen years after, the number of references to those structures and grammars had only grown.
For over six years now, everyone had just expected the two final chapters of Hasler's thesis to turn up—at least in early draft. But probably they'd never been written.
No one even came close to getting caught for the murder.
Then there was a posthumous collection from U. of C. Press of Hasler's papers and review articles: Formal Conjuntions/Informal Disjunctions (1976). Two years later, Pascal, Nietzsche, Peirce was reissued (1978)—this time in real type, with a rather intelligent introduction by someone I'd never heard of (Edwin Schaliapin—that was his name), but who, after I'd read it, I certainly thought should have had a place in Mossman's rogues' gallery of important Hasler scholars. Samizdat Xeroxes of some three different drafts of the first five chapters of Hasler's thesis got copied and recopied till they were all but unreadable and passed to ... fifty? ... a hundred-fifty eager readers? (Hasler really was a lively writer.) I got a Xerox of Mossman's Xerox ...
And so we reach the picture on the right: forty-seven-year-old Associate Professor Irving Mossman. A year before—when, indeed, I had been at my most distraught over the undoability of my grand Hegelian project (The Systems of the World; that really was the title I'd settled on, even before I came to Enoch, though I'd had the good sense—or the luck—not to tell too many people)—while he sat with me in a student beer hall, Mossman had explained: "You know, John, I'm going to be writing the full critical biography. It'll survey Hasler's life and work, and whatever clear and concise correspondences can be drawn between them. Nothing complicated—I intend it to be very basic. Really, what I'll be doing is fundamentally an introduction to Hasler. But, I mean, the statement's appeared in print more than ten times: If, like Wittgenstein, he'd been at Cambridge, exceptions would have been made: Pascal, Nietzsche, Peirce would have been substituted for a thesis—and Hasler would have been a professor. John, why don't you—for your thesis, I mean—do an account of the published work? You can touch on the unpublished stuff where it's relevant, of course. But you could do a careful, concise, straightforward description of the ideas in the refereed papers and the review articles—the stories, too, if you like; and Pascal, Nietzsche, Peirce. You'll be doing a useful job that scholars can turn to for years! You'll have the benefit of my research—as, certainly, I'll have the benefit of yours. Both of us, of course, will be doing very different things. But I think you're up to it. It'll be eminently publishable—and the two works will complement each other. You can even throw in an appendix on the thesis material. What do you say? Three years, we'll both be finished. I'll have my book, and you'll have your doctorate ... if not your doctorate and a publishable book!"
His suggestion didn't garner much excitement. I was silent a long time—whereupon Mossman turned his beer stein around on its wet ring and leaned closer. "You're just feeling discouraged now, John. But give it some thought. The paper you wrote on Hasler's twin-predicate logic for me was the best of anybody's in that whole seminar. If you can negotiate that, you can negotiate it all. Think about it."
So I thought—mostly, I confess, sitting in a john stall in the library basement. I remember there was an Asian kid—Chinese, I think—who used to come in, in T-shirt and baggy shorts, looking to get sucked off, whom, even though I'd seen him there half a dozen times, I'd simply never thought about doing.
Excerpted from The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany. Copyright © 2002 Samuel R. Delany. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Systems of the World,
Part Two: The Sleepwalkers,
Part Three: Masters of the Day,
Part Four: The Place of Excrement,
Part Five: The Mirrors of Night,
Appendix: Risk Factors for Seroconversion to Human Immunodeficiency Virus Among Male Homosexuals: Results from the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study,
About the Author,