The Polymath,
or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman

Maestro Media,

Fred Barney Taylor

Samuel R. Delany

Unrated, 75 minutes

Sexuality & Science Fiction 101
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, May 2009
Updated September, 2009

"I think of myself as the world's most ordinary, dull, black faggot."
-Samuel R. Delany

The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman (try saying that three times fast) is a fascinating documentary, directed by Fred Barney Taylor, about one of today's greatest living authors.

If ever there was a case to be made that somebody's sexual identity is an integral part of that person's art, look no further than "Chip" Delany. When famed writer E.M. Forster's homosexuality became known with certainty, following the posthumous publication of Maurice in 1971, many longtime Forster scholars refused to accept that the author was gay or that his sexuality influenced or shaped his books in any way. And this is just silly. In Delany's case, his sexuality is so entwined in his writings that a difference can be barely be drawn between the two. His science fiction probably features the most frank and adult treatments of sex (in all its manifestations) to ever appear in the genre.

Professor Delany is both African American and gay. An award winning science fiction author and essayist, Delany published his first novel, The Jewels Of Aptor, in 1962 when he was only 20 years old. His science fiction is noted for its unconventional mix of mythology, linguistics and deconstructed gender politics. Babel-17 (1966) featured a formidable heroine who prefigured Alien's Ripley by more than a decade, and in 1972 he wrote two Wonder Woman comic books in which she lost her super powers and was re-imagined as a feminist secret agent. His best known works include The Einstein Intersection (1967) and Dhalgren (1975), his memoir The Motion Of Light In Water (1988 - revised and expanded 1993) and his notorious two part essay about Manhattan's adult theaters, Times Square Red Times Square Blue (1999), which can be enjoyed as both a sociological dissertation and as out-and-out porn.

Delany is a unique phenomenon in modern literature. Taylor's documentary takes a very unconventional approach to examine its very unconventional subject, mixing interview footage and old home movies with abstract imagery to compose an evocative and challenging portrait of the artist.
Much of the film feels as if you are having a conversation with a close friend. What will interest queer audiences, who are unaware of the man's work, is the frankness in which the writer discusses his legendary sex life. Once married to poet Marilyn Hacker (who knew that he identified as gay), neither partner believed in monogamy. During the film's first minutes, Delany has already opened up about being 19, living in New York's lower east side, and indulging in anonymous sex with multiple partners during the day while still having dinner ready for his wife when she came home from work. The accompanying images during this prologue consist of street scenes, trains, bridges and urinals. Finally, the camera pans down a striking black & white photograph of a shirtless young black man, with a guitar, looking like Harry Belafonte. Those unfamiliar with Delany will probably be startled by his first appearance a few moments later. Sporting the trademark long white beard that he has worn since the 1970s, he barely resembles the sexual rancanteur we just heard speaking; he looks more like Santa Claus.
His unapologetic candor is disarming, but at the same time he has this folksy Burl Ives quality in which he manages to make anecdotes about having sex in the back of trucks with a half a dozen men sound nostalgic. Delany freely confesses that he has enjoyed thousands of sex partners during his life. He seems, at times, like he would be the CDC's worst nightmare, but he does address his rather cavalier attitude towards sex. Considering his history, it is a minor miracle that he never contracted AIDS, but he explains that he rarely engaged in sexual behavior that involved penetration. "I would not or could not advise anyone to follow my lead or example," he admits. Whatever one thinks about his behavior - which is decidely outside of the norm - you have to admire the man's honesty...

"My ideal sex life has always been where I've always had one central person, who one really cherishes and one is really committed to. To have several sexual partners above and beyond that, and a public sex life, and a good solid masturbatory life as well. I think that, for me, that's when I'm generally the most happy."
- Samuel R. Delany

The Polymath isn't about just his sex life, but a good chunk of it is and it all relates to his writings. Take for example an early scene in which he is reading, to an audience, the opening paragraphs of his 1966 short story, "Aye and Gomorrah" (which first appeared in fellow science fiction author Harlan Ellison's groundbreaking anthology, Dangerous Visions). The story begins in France in a pissoir and Delany describes this as "an early attempt to deal, in a highly coded fashion, with homosexuality." That it involves a public restroom invokes the obvious autobiographical element.
This is also true for Times Square Red Times Square Blue. In this nonfiction opus, Delany argues that "cleaning up" Times Square and turning it into Disneyland is not a good thing because, once upon a time, people from different races and classes, normally kept separate, met and interacted in the only social situation available to them and that was the porn theaters. Delany is one of the few writers alive who can explicitly describe the public sex, involving himself and others, that went on in these venues and work it into an essay about the infrastructure of cities.
But all of his metaphors aren't carnal. The ruined and mostly abandoned city in Dhalgren (a book that is the science fiction equivalent of James Joyce's Ulysses) was inspired by the real burned out inner cities he knew from life. He explains that the reasons for making the gender of certain characters ambiguous in Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand (1984) was because he once lived in a hotel with several transsexuals and it drove him crazy, at first, when he couldn't discern the sex of some of the people in the elevator with him.
Besides his writings, Delany also discusses his life and his family's history. His grandfather was a freed slave, a cousin was killed by the Klan, his two famous aunts (who both lived to be over 100) organized a picket line at a movie theater showing Birth Of A Nation in 1924. Chip has much to say on the subject of racism, comparing the attitudes of white students towards Paul Robeson at Columbia Law School to the skinheads who dragged James Bird Jr. to his death as he was chained to the back of their truck.
Footage of the author speaking, in various locales, permeate The Polymath. We see him surrounded by the books in his study, sitting in a subway station, visiting an artist's installation based on Dhalgren, and talking to drag queens and a man in leather at a Gay Pride parade. One playful sequence shows Delany walking through an exhibit of modern art and ends as he ponders a small urinal laying on its side on a pedestal. But this is a very experimental documentary; at times the author's ruminations are accompanied by abstract and often layered imagery. These are suggested by Delany's words. Bridges, ruined buildings and trains predominate. Light shining on rippling water (suggested by the title of his 1988 memoir) is superimposed over the tops of moving subway trains. A shot of the Brooklyn Bridge, almost hidden in fog, evokes an opening scene from Dhalgren. The structure is non-linear, like many of the author's novels, and this approach seems oddly appropriate and effective.
I freely admit that I have been a fan of Delany's books for over thirty years. I even met the man when he spoke here in Buffalo. I've always been intrigued by the mysterious qualities in his works and so I was enthralled by The Polymath. But I came to the film already armed with an arsenal of prior knowledge and I am unsure how it will play to the uninitiated. A documentary shouldn't need Cliff Notes (although this is hardly a conventional documentary and shouldn't be taken as such) and many things are left unexplained. There are curious omissions; Delany refers to his wife but she is never identified (even though she is a famous poet). Clips from an avante-garde film by Delany, named The Orchid, are shown but never elaborated upon. I suspect that some of this will be confusing, if not maddening, to the novice.

However, if you are like me and take frequent walks on the wild side when watching movies, The Polymath is right up your alley. Delany is one of the most unique gay artists living and working today, and The Polymath is an intriguing introduction to both the man and his writings. As I said earlier, this film is not conventional, but neither is Delany. If this is a documentary, it is certainly a poetic one. Certain demands will be made upon the viewer but it's all worth it. There's nothing wrong with having to think once in awhile; too many films require parking your brain at the door. You might scratch your head at times, but you certainly won't be bored.

When I wrote the preceding review, The Polymath was not yet available on DVD, The film can now be purchased and comes with a bonus disc that includes over two hours of un-used interview footage.
Watching the raw deleted footage gives the viewer a sense of the Herculean editing task faced by the filmmaker. Much of what fell to the cutting room is as interesting as what was enshrined in the finished film. Some of it elaborates on material covered in The Polymath but much of it is completely new. The bonus disc features Delany's further ruminations on: 1. Personal History, 2. Sex, 3. Books, 4. Race, 5. Gay History, 6. How I Write. It concludes with Delany's 36 minute film, The Orchid, in its entirety.
The new material is too much to absorb in one sitting. Taken in pieces, to fill the large jigsaw puzzle, the viewer is provided with an even more complete portrait of the artist. It is not uncommon, while assembling a documentary or non-fiction film, for hours of interview footage to be discarded. A special edition DVD like this one, therefore, is the ideal format when an audience hungers for more information and much of this is riveting. Delany discusses the effect of Dyslexia on his writing; his marriage to Marilyn Hacker, growing up in Harlem, his beard, his stay in a mental hospital. He explains the etiquette of public sex. On race matters, he recounts the voyage of slaves aboard the Armistead and the history that African Americans grew out of. Gay history is highlighted by his personal anecdotes about Stonewall. Delany cites Susan Sontag's 1964 Notes On Camp and offers an elaborate dissertation on gay slang and camp, complete with the linguistic and historical origins of the words coming out, camp and drag. The insights into his writing habits are particularly fascinating.

In closing, The Polymath, and all of its bonus supplements, does an admirable job introducing the casual viewer to one of our greatest, and most unique, living authors. Longtime admirers of Delany will find a smorgasbord here. A trailer can be viewed at For inquiries, and ordering information, please e-mail:


Samuel R. Delany also appears briefly in:
Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon