Phallos (novella)

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Delany Phallos.jpg
Cover from the 1st edition
Author Samuel R. Delany
Cover artist John Del Gaizo & Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novella
Publisher Bamberger Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 95 pp
ISBN 0-917453-41-7
OCLC 57233463

Phallos (2004) is a short novel — or novella — by Samuel R. Delany, published by Bamberger Books. It was reissued by Wesleyan University Press in 2013.

Phallos takes the form of a modern online essay recounting the history and giving a synopsis of a nonexistent novel also called Phallos, set in the Mediterranean during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.


The long story, or “novella,” has been a favorite form of Samuel R. Delany’s since the beginning of his career: The Ballad of Beta-2 (1964), Empire Star (1965; which has much in common with Phallos thematically), "The Star Pit" (1965), and "We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line" (1967) (the latter two collected in Aye, and Gomorrah, and other stories [2004]) are early examples. Some of the tales in Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series use a similar structure: "The Tale of Old Venn" (1976), "The Tale of Fog and Granite" (1984), "The Mummer’s Tale" (1984), and "The Game of Time and Pain" (1985) (this last discussed at length in Walter Ben Michaels' study, The Shape of the Signifier, Princeton University Press: 2004). Delany’s return to the form, for They Fly at Çiron (1993), Atlantis: Model 1924 (1993) and Phallos (2004) should not, therefore, surprise.

Plot summary[edit]

In many ways Phallos is a coda to Delany's exploration of prehistoric attitudes and technologies, psychologies and sexualities, and a story that connects the prehistoric "nameless gods" from his four-volume series Return to Nevèrÿon, to the historical world of the actual Roman Empire.

As does the Nevèrÿon series, Phallos uses a frame story — a double frame, in fact. The first is a brief trio of paragraphs telling of a young man, Adrian Rome, whose adolescent encounter with the book leads to his adult attempt, a decade later, to acquire a copy: and how he settles for an on-line synopsis posted by one Randy Pedarson of Moscow, Idaho. The second frame is more complex — and far more interesting: it concerns the dubious (fictive) editor Randy Pedarson, presumably of Moscow, and his relations with two graduate students, Binky and Phyllis, also enthusiasts of the novel, at the university there. According to Pedarson’s posting, as far as Pedarson can tell, an anonymous gay pornographic novel, Phallos (one of Pederson’s three favorites: the other two are John Preston’s Mr. Benson and William Talsman’s The Gaudy Image — both of which are known for their better-than-average writing), was published in 1969 by Essex House of West Hollywood, California. While the anonymous introduction to that volume suggests that Phallos was known to numerous literary gay men of the past, from the 18th century advocate of Greek beauty, Johanne Joaquim Winkelmann, through the 19th century Oxford aesthetician and novelist Walter Pater, to the historian John Addington Symonds (whose seven-volume The Renaissance in Italy [1875-86] acted as a sort of counterbalance to Pater’s brief single volume [of 1873/75], The Renaissance, still widely read and quoted today), and moving on to such characters as Baron Corvo (pseudonym of Frederick Rolfe) and sex researcher Havelock Ellis, Pederson concludes that all this is simply the kind of bogus folderol that accompanies so much of the pornography published in that licentious decade, as an attempt to legitimize it. If one has any knowledge at all of the sexual revolution occurring throughout the Oxford Aesthetic Movement and the Edwardian decade that closed out the Age of Victoria, however, one recognizes Pedarson’s account is presented with some wit.

Pederson goes on to synopsize Phallos — during which synopsis, now and again, he quotes from it more or less liberally. That synopsis, along with the footnotes — some of them as extensive as five or six pages — provided by his friends, recent Ph.D.'s Binky and Phyllis, make up the text of Delany's novella.

The Novel Within the Novella[edit]

Phallos proper begins with a Greek epigraph — the "Anaximander fragment," presumably the oldest piece of written Greek philosophy extant from the Ionian presocratics, dating from the last years of the 6th century BCE. This is glossed by a footnote from Binky, who, in four pages, gives his version of Nietzsche’s, Hegel’s, Heidegger’s, and finally Sir Karl Popper’s take on Anaximander, with a few potshots by Phyllis (virtually footnotes to the footnote).

Thematically, the idea is to point out all the things the presocratics did know that, later, were forgotten — that the earth was round, what caused the moon to shine and go through its phases, etc., and concomitantly how modern some of their commentators — such as Pater — actually were. This is to make us more willing to accept the relevance to the modern world of what our hero learns of life in the 2nd century CE, as well as to explicate those thirty-one words from the Ionian island and coastal culture of the 6th century BCE, which managed to slip through into the modern world.

Pederson reproduces Phallos’s whole first chapter. It serves as a prologue to the novel proper as well as to his own synopsis. Also, it introduces us to our narrator, Neoptolomus, the son of a gentleman farmer on the island of Syracuse (Sicily) who reads Heraclietos and can recite some of Æsop’s fables in Greek. His mother is a one-time Egyptian slave woman, freed long ago. When his parents are killed by a fever in his 17th year, Neoptolomus comes under the protection of a rich Roman merchant who keeps a summer villa in the area. The rich Roman takes young Neoptolomus to Rome and sponsors him as an officer in the Roman army and, on his release, asks him, in return, to travel to Egypt and help him acquire some lands across the Nile from the city of Hermopolis. The Roman Emperor Hadrian is visiting Hermopolis at the time, and Neoptolomus becomes involved with the murder of the emperor’s favorite, Antinous. At the temple of "a nameless god," whose priests control the lands across the river at Hir-wer, Neoptolomus learns that on the day of Antinous’s death, bandits have broken into the temple and, from the statue of the god, stolen the "golden phallos, encrusted with jade, copper, and jewels" — phallos is Greek for the male member. This theft has thrown the whole religious system into chaos. Almost immediately Neoptolomus finds himself kidnapped by a bandit gang, whose leader is certainly the man who killed Antinous. The first third of the novella deals with Neoptolomus, his relation with the bandit chief, and the period before and after the bandit sells him to a scholar in Alexandria. The plot is interlarded — indeed, held together — by numerous gay sexual encounters. Ironically, while Pederson mentions them, his synopsis omits much — indeed, most — of the explicit sexual description. This produces the novel’s first and most pervasive irony: Phallos is pornography with virtually all the sex excised.

After several years of the hero's wanderings, the novel’s middle third finds Neoptolomus back in Rome. Once more he is working for his Roman patron, now as a broker of warehouse space in his patron’s several Roman warehouses. After his early education in the sex life of the desert and the barbarian outlands, Neoptolomus finds himself sampling the intricacies of civilized urban sex — as well as negotiating the complexities that arise for him as a gay man trying to have friendships with — and work among — straight men. Through all this, we watch his several attempts to retrieve the phallos, which take us from Rome to Byzantium, back to Syracuse, and even to the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna. High points of the central third include a drugged Walpurgisnacht among the volcanic peaks and the sad history of a Roman street boy, Maximin, who Neoptolomus wrongly decides is trying to steal from him, though in reality he has been the victim of one of Neoptolomus’s jealous lovers.

In the final third, years later an older and wiser Neoptolomus returns to Hermopolis, where he meets a young black African, Nivek, sent to the Temple of the nameless god, much as Neoptolomus had been, also to acquire rights to the land across the Nile at Hir-wer — which, since Antinous’s death, Hadrian has transformed into the gold and marble city of Antinoöpolis, now a shrine to the memory of the emperor’s late lover, who has officially been declared a god. Here history would seem to repeat itself, only Neoptolomus is in a different role from the one he occupied as a youth. Through this switch in position, Neoptolomus comes to understand a great deal about some of the mysteries around his earlier visit to Hermopolis. (Though the plot elements are entirely different, the narrative technique is similar to the one Delany used to relate the first half to the second half of his novella The Game of Time and Pain in his Return to Nevèrÿon series.) In his relations with Nivek, we get a chance to watch Neoptolomus apply many of the lessons he has learned during his adventures to the problems of an open relationship. Delany makes the point that open relationships take as much care, concern, and commitment as do monogamous ones. Soon, under the pleasures of his committed life-partnership with Nivek, Neoptolomus gives up his search for the phallos. Because of his success both in business and in life — and because they know how much energy in the past Neoptolomus has put into searching for the phallos — many of the couple's friends, however, including a poet, a Christian priest, and a horse-loving adventurer, assume the two, now successful merchants on their own, have secretly found it. Their friends cleave to them in the hopes that they will learn more of the phallos and can perhaps share in its power. "Though," Neoptolomus tells us, "all we had — which, yes, each mistook for its sign — was a certain pleasure in the world and in each other, a pleasure our friends were sometimes rash enough to call happiness." Nivek and Neoptolomus run into problems holding their annual orgies in their own summer villa in the Apennines above Rome — sometimes with their neighbors, sometimes with their guests. Though Neoptolomus and Nivek have given up the search for the phallos, because of their friends’ interest in that object they are almost as greatly plagued by its possible existence — or non-existence — as they were before. The novel more or less concludes when Neoptolomus’s rich Roman patron dies, and Neoptolomus and Nivek return to Syracuse to take over Neoptolmus’s late father’s lands, using some of the money that his patron has left him. Meanwhile, Neoptolomus has generously sponsored a young goatherd, Cronin, with a commission in the army, as Neoptolomus himself had been sponsored in his youth; and Nivek has just invited a sexually interesting farm worker, Aronk, to come and work for them — because he realizes that Neoptolomus finds him attractive. In a moving scene in which the two men embrace in an acceptance of the cyclic, yet unpredictable, nature of life, the novel proper ends. The commentary from the triptych of our editor and his friends, however, goes on. In another footnote Binky points out Pederson’s tendency in his synopsis to downplay any racial tensions dramatized in the book. Phyllis has the last say, pointing out in her final note an equally misogynistic streak in Pederson's selection of the materials he has included (and, even more so, left out), so that the final word we read in the text is her accusation against Pedarson of subjecting his version of the book to a certain order of "castration."

Outside the Frame[edit]

The outer frame story of Adrien Rome reflects an earlier work of Delany's. In Babel-17, we learn that Rydra Wong (the novel's protagonist) has a friend named Muels Aranlyde (an anagram of "Samuel R. Delany") who wrote books about someone named "Comet Jo", one of which was named Empire Star. Empire Star is, of course, a book by Delany whose protagonist is one "Comet Jo". Similarly, upon carefully reading Delany's 2007 novel Dark Reflections, we learn that the protagonist of that novel, Arnold Hawley, is actually the anonymous author of the novel Phallos that Adrian Rome encountered as an adolescent.

The Meaning of the Phallos[edit]

Village Voice reviewer Brandon Stosuy — a one-time student of Delany’s at SUNY Buffalo some years before he wrote his review — called Phallos "a lapidary, digital-age Pale Fire." The text-within-the-text and the built-in critical responses, not to mention the extraordinarily vivid and playful writing, certainly justify pointing out the correspondences between the books.

The treatment of the phallos itself in Delany’s book recalls the frequently quoted sound bite from commentators on Lacanian psychoanalysis: "The phallus is not the penis or the clitoris, which is merely its most common symbol." Indeed, as Delany writes, just after the book’s midpoint, through his critical alter ego Pedarson: "[T]he reader, if not Neoptolomus, will have come to suspect that [the phallos] is an illusion . . . That is to say, it is always something someone else possesses, never oneself: wealth, power, brilliance, knowledge, a bigger cock than yours, fame, talent, wisdom, social assurance, a way with women or with men. . . . something that only functions as the phallos once the seeker realizes it is an illusion — that indeed the other does not have what once you thought he or she possessed. The author of Phallos even identifies the revelation of its illusory basis with 'castration.' Reflecting Freud and anticipating Lacan, he shows that the phallos . . . only works through castration, frustration, and desire — the growing suspicion of its non-existence alone allowing it to serve as an ideal." Or, to put it in terms closer to the narrative surface: While we think the value of whatever we seek has been preset by history, society, and tradition, we actually create that value — and invest our object with it — through the energy alone we put out to attain it.

"[Phallos] creates new opportunities for self-reflection by sexually active gay men," John Garrison concluded his article on the book in the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide (May–June 2005), "though any reader open to frank discussions of sex and sexuality could appreciate this book. For all its brevity the novel’s complex narrative will have readers delightfully paging back to earlier sections to better understand Neoptolomus's journey of self-discovery."

Phallos is dense, witty, playful, self-critical, and lively — and is finally, as critic Steven Shaviro has pointed out [1], a species of "wisdom" writing (to borrow a term from critic Harold Bloom). It is a philosophical novel, in the same genre as is Voltaire’s Candide or Diderot’s Bijoux indiscret: "[U]ltimately," as Shaviro writes, "it is a book about how to live."