Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 15, Part 2

I bestrode a great, leather-winged being under a lowering sky. Just equipoised between the rack of cloud and a twilit land we slid down a hill of air. Hardly once, it seemed to me, the finger-winged soarer flapped her long pinions. The dying sun was before us, and it seemed we matched the speed of Urth, for it stood unmoving at the horizon, though we flew on and on.

At last I saw a change in the land, and at first I thought it a desert. Far off, no cities or farms or woods or fields appeared, but only a level waste, a blackened purple in color, featureless and nearly static. The leathern-winged one observed it as well, or perhaps snatched some odor from the air. I felt iron muscles beneath me grow tense, and there were three wing strokes together.

The purple waste showed flecks of white. After a time I became aware that its seeming stillness was a sham born of uniformity - it was the same everywhere, but everywhere in motion - the sea - the World-River Uroboros - cradling Urth.

Then for the first time I looked behind me, seeing all the country of humankind swallowed in the night.

When it was gone, and there was everywhere beneath us the waste of rolling water and nothing more, the beast turned her head to regard me. Her beak was the beak of an ibis, her face the face of a hag; on her head was a miter of bone. For an instant we regarded each other, and I seemed to know her thought: You dream; but were you to wake from your waking, I would be there.

Her motion changed as a lugger's does when the sailors make it to come about on the opposite tack. One pinion dipped, the other rose until it pointed toward the sky, and I scrabbled at the scaled hide and plummeted into the sea.

Severian seems to be riding a type of dragon: leathern wings, beak, somewhat human face, a miter of bone. The beak shaped like an ibis' suggests the Egyptian god Thoth. The Greeks viewed Thoth as the equivalent of Hermes (a.k.a. Mercury, a.k.a. Odin, see a previous post). Maybe Wolfe is riffing on a theme here, or it could just be the syncretic nature of religion causing these coincidences. Some people believe that Jesus was attempting a syncretism of Judaism and Buddhism. I wonder if Wolfe alludes to that theory anywhere.

Thoth is no doubt dear to Gene Wolfe because he is said to have invented writing. In fact, "The Egyptians credited him as the author of all works of science, religion, philosophy, and magic." Thoth mediated between good and evil, order and chaos. He judged souls in the underworld. He was god of the moon, and therefore the regulation of events and time. He also is important in the Osiris myth, giving Isis the proper incantation to resurrect him. I take all this together to mean that he is the personification of the Word of God or The Law. It's interesting that he invented and subsumes "science, religion, philosophy, and magic," which are therefore all aspects of the same thing. Today they are all viewed as completely separate.

The composite winged creature and hag suggests the Harpies. I just learned that the Harpies infest the suicide's wood in Dante's second circle of Hell. That's interesting, because "The vision I had in Gyoll when I had so nearly drowned rose before me, and it possessed (as it had then) a sullen yet strong attraction." That vision is much like the second half of this dream, which I'll get to. It involves what are essentially Sirens; the Harpies were originally wind spirits, and their bird-woman form could be a confusion with the sirens. The sirens were originally bird-women (much like angels), but we have our own confusion nowadays, and tend to think of them as mermaids. Men went to their deaths willingly when they heard the Sirens. So could this vision be symbolic of suicide? Sirens were seen as in medieval times as a symbol of temptation. That interpretation is easier to rationalize, but I think I'll keep the suicide angle in mind as I'm reading.

The "miter of bone" also has religious overtones, and suggests the dragon is a bishop. I can't figure that one out, though. I'll just assume Wolfe used it because it's a nice phrase.

It's fascinating that all these gods and beings are so blended together, by accident or by design. I think Wolfe is interested in this, too, and the brown book that Severian carries may be a "Mythology of the Twentieth Century" as seen by citizens of the far future.

I'm sorry if all this seems scattered, I just can't find a way to explain all this linearly.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 15, Part 1

The old man returned with a small fish that had expired upon a slice of coarse bread, and said, "Eat this and go."

He stood and watched me while I had my supper. When I had finished it, I asked where I could sleep.

"No rooms. I told you."

If a palace had stood with open doors half a chain away, I do not think I could have driven myself to leave that inn to go to it.

This is an amusing little scene; Severian is driving away all the inn's customers, so the innkeeper gives him a room just to get him out of sight. I like it because it's a good portrayal of spite. It's a small vengeance for a small rudeness done to you. Wolfe very succinctly shows how illogical it is: if someone causes you some small discomfort, the petty need to "get back at them" sometimes drives you to cause yourself some large discomfort.

"And then I dreamed, though it may have been that Baldanders' words, too, were a dream. Yet I do not think so, and if they were, it was a different dream." Yet again Severian has trouble distinguishing fantasy and reality.

The innkeeper has put him in a room with Baldanders, "a man who might fairly have been called a giant." Baldanders is "a creature of Germanic literary myth that features protean properties... [and] is symbolic for the continual change in nature and society." Baldanders was "featured in the bestiary The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges." Wolfe does like his Borges. "Baldanders was first conceived by shoemaker and writer Hans Sachs after reading the description of Proteus in The Odyssey." Proteus "is an early sea-god... whose name suggests... the 'primordial' or the 'firstborn'". Why am I mentioning all this? Well, I've read the book before, so, like Proteus, I can see the future. :)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 14, Part 2

"How many people do you think there are in Nessus?"

"I have no idea."

"No more do I, Torturer. No more does anyone. Every attempt to count them has failed, as has every attempt to tax them systematically. The city grows and changes every night, like writing chalked on a wall. Houses are built in the streets by clever people who take up the cobbles in the dark and claim the ground - did you know that? The exultant Talarican, whose madness manifested itself as a consuming interest in the lowest aspects of human existence, claimed that the persons who live by devouring the garbage of others number two gross thousands. That there are ten thousand begging acrobats, of whom nearly half are women. That if a pauper were to leap from the parapet of this bridge each time we draw breath, we should live forever, because the city breeds and breaks men faster than we respire. Among such a throng, there is no alternative to peace. Disturbances cannot be tolerated, because disturbances cannot be extinguished. Do you follow me?"

"There is the alternative of order. But yes, until that is achieved, I understand."

Two gross thousands is 288,000. Assuming the same homeless rate as New York City, that makes the population of Nessus about 100 million. Even taking into account the fact that Nessus is a decaying city in a backwards era, so the homeless rate might be higher than estimated, it is still obviously a huge city.

A brief word on names: Later in the book, someone tells a story about the city, saying "It was not called Nessus then, for the river was unpoisoned." Nessus was a centaur in Greek mythology that attempted to rape Hercules' wife Deianeira. Hercules shot him with a poisoned arrow. "As a final act of malice, Nessus told Deianira, as he lay dying, that his blood would ensure that Heracles would be true to her forever." "Later... she spread the centaur's blood on a shirt and gave it to her husband." A bloody shirt? For me? You shouldn't have! Anyway, he died due to his poor fashion sense. So the city is called Nessus because of the poisoned river that flows through it, Gyoll.

The river Gyoll (Gjöll) is a river in Norse mythology that you have to cross to get to the gate of the underworld Hel. "The river is said to be freezing cold and have knives flowing through it." Nessus' Gyoll is very cold, but no knives that I know of (except from the cold). The Norse Gyoll has a Greek counterpart, the river Styx. Some legends said that Styx was "so foul that to drink of it brought instant death." It's interesting how the different cultures describe the river of death. The Norse describe it as freezing cold, since falling into a freezing river was probably a common and horrible way to die. The Greeks, who obviously had no experience with anyone freezing to death in their rivers, made it poisonous, since unlike the Norse they didn't have ultra-pure glacial runoff to drink, so there was probably a chance of dying from bad water.

Anyone that has an idea of what "the alternative to order" is, let me know.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 14, Part 1

"I have a gift for you," Master Palaemon said. "Considering your youth and strength, I don't believe you will find it too heavy."

"I am deserving of no gifts."

"That is so. But you must recall, Severian, that when a gift is deserved, it is not a gift but a payment. The only true gifts are such as you now receive. I cannot forgive you for what you have done, but I cannot forget what you were.

The first time I read this, I thought it was a good definition of a gift. And it is. But I see now that it's also a reference to divine grace. I was going to say something about it, but it seems like its exact nature is a point of contention between different sects of Christianity, and it raises the issues of original sin and free will. So I'm going to weasel out of this and say I'll talk about it "later" when it comes up again in the book.

I shall not bore you with a catalog of her virtues and beauties; you would have to see her and hold her to judge her justly. Her bitter blade was an ell in length, straight and square-pointed as such a sword's should be. Man-edge and woman-edge could part a hair to within a span of the guard, which was of thick silver with a carven head at either end. Her grip was onyx bound with silver bands, two spans long and terminated with an opal. Art had been lavished upon her; but it is the function of art to render attractive and significant those things that without it would not be so, and so art had nothing to give her. The words Terminus Est had been engraved upon her blade in curious and beautiful letters, and I had learned enough of ancient languages since leaving the Atrium of Time to know that they meant This Is the Line of Division....

"There is a channel in the spine of her blade, and in it runs a river of hydrargyrum - a metal heavier than iron, though it flows like water. Thus the balance is shifted toward the hands when the blade is high, but to the tip when it falls.

What's an epic hero without a magic sword? OK, maybe not magic, but certainly impressive. The description suggests that it's about five and a half feet long. The square tip and engraved motto are characteristic of executioner's swords, but I couldn't find any references that talked about real executioner's swords with a man-edge and woman-edge or a mercury (hydrargyrum) core. If you find one, let me know. Terminus is a Latin word that means boundary, limit, end, or border. Wolfe loosely translates this for the purpose of a little black humor - the sword is a line of steel that divides people's heads from their bodies. An alternative translation is "This Is the End," which is appropriately intimidating. Either meaning is fit for a weapon of death, since death is a border or an end (or both), depending on what you believe.

Terminus is also the name of the Roman god of boundaries. During his annual festival, people sanctified their boundary stones, with which the god was identified. "The marker itself would be drenched in the blood of a sacrificed lamb or pig." This has an interesting parallel with the sword, which will also be blood-drenched after a "sacrifice" of sorts. "On occasion Terminus' association with Jupiter extended to regarding Terminus as an aspect of that god;" Jupiter was the Father of the Gods, and a sword is kind of shaped like a cross. The core of mercury suggests the Roman god Mercury. "Romans associated Mercury with the Germanic god Wotan," or Odin. Odin is also Father of the gods (sort of - Norse mythology isn't so straightforward), and he "hanged himself from the tree called Yggdrasill whilst pierced by his own spear in order to acquire knowledge." So he has echoes of both the Father and the Son of the Trinity. Mercury led "newly-deceased souls to the afterlife," and the sword creates newly-dead souls. "Alchemists thought of mercury as the First Matter from which all metals were formed." This First Matter is like the Hindu Brahman, which I've mentioned before. I wanted to relate mercury to the Holy Spirit, so I'd have the whole Trinity, but I couldn't. I leave it as an exercise to the reader.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 13, Part 3

"You know of the roads?"

"I know they must not be used. Nothing more."

"The Autarch Maruthas closed them. That was when I was your age. Travel encouraged sedition, and he wished goods to enter and leave the city by the river, where they might be easily taxed. The law has remained in force since, and there is a redoubt, so I've heard, every fifty leagues. Still the roads remain. Though they are in poor repair, it is said some use them by night."

"I see," I said. Closed or not, the roads might make for an easier passage than traveling across the countryside as the law demanded.

This is letting us know that the Commonwealth is quite totalitarian. Lots of governments have restricted travel to defeat "sedition," including Communist Russia, the Incas, Nazi Germany, North Korea, the USA during the "Red Scare," and many more that I don't know about, I'm sure. Restriction on travel within a country only happens at quite an advanced state of totalitarianism, though. The last sentence is satirical (I hope); traveling isn't outlawed, just traveling on the roads. It's inconvenient for everyone, but doesn't really stop travel, and therefore seems unlikely to stop the spread of sedition.

The four books I had carried to her a year before remained, stacked with others on the little table. I could not resist the temptation to take one; there were so many in the library that they would never miss a single volume. My hand had stretched forth before I realized I did not know which to choose. The book of heraldry was the most beautiful, but it was too large by far to carry about the country. The book of theology was the smallest of all, but the brown book was hardly larger. In the end it was that I took, with its tales from vanished worlds.

I personally think this is a statement of Wolfe's preferences; He is a religious man, but if he has to choose one book to take on a trip, it's going to be an anthology of the great stories, and not a theology text. I think that this is near-universal. Even if you choose the Bible to be the one book you take, it's the stories in the Bible that are interesting (and contain the most wisdom, anyway). Once they start talking about cubits and who begat whom, your eyes glaze over and you skip ahead. Don't deny it.

"Then I abandoned all thoughts of the south and her ice-choked sea.... North lay the wide pampas, a hundred trackless forests, and the rotting jungles at the waist of the world." More evidence that this is the southern hemisphere, and the word "pampas" suggests Argentina, which I think is another hat tip to Borges.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 13, Part 2

"We cannot kill you, you see. I have had a most difficult time convincing Gurloes of that, yet it is so. If we slay you without judicial order, we are no better than you: you have been false to us, but we will have been false to the law. Furthermore, we would be putting the guild in jeopardy forever - an Inquisitor would call it murder."

He waited for me to comment, and I said, "But for what I have done..."

"The sentence would be just. Yes. Still, we have no right in law to take life on our own authority. Those who have that right are properly jealous of it. If we were to go to them, the verdict would be sure. But were we to go, the repute of the guild would be publicly and irrevocably stained. Much of the trust now reposed in us would be gone, and permanently. We might confidently expect our affairs to be supervised by others in the future.

This sounds like a concern of any self-governing body, which is scary, because this is describing a cover-up. So this means that any organization whose powers overlap with any other (and that's most of them) has a strong incentive to cover up wrongdoing. To give a relatively current example, when prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld formally apologized, but he also said this at a Senate committee hearing:

But I wish I knew how you reach down into a criminal investigation when it is not just a criminal investigation, but it turns out to be something that is radioactive, something that has strategic impact in the world. And we don't have those procedures. They've never been designed.

We're functioning in a -- with peacetime restraints, with legal requirements in a wartime situation, in the information age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.

This seems like he is lamenting the fact that there are "legal requirements in a wartime situation" (e.g. the Geneva Convention). And it seems like he really wanted a way to deal with the matter completely internally. I just worry that the easiest way to deal with something that no one else knows about is to ignore it. It makes me glad that we live in the information age. That way, at least there will be the possibility to try to make our laws self-consistent.

Yet again Severian's infallible memory becomes suspect: "I saw the red light of the sun again, and breathed that wet wind that tells in winter that spring is almost come.... The first brass-backed fly of the new summer buzzed against the port." So, is it winter, spring, or summer? Is "new summer" a figure of speech, or is Severian seriously mixed up about something as simple as what time of year he betrayed his guild? Another indication that maybe his memory is not as good as he says:

"Severian!" Master Palaemon exclaimed. "You are not listening to me. You were never an inattentive pupil in our classes."
"I'm sorry. I was thinking about a great many things."
"No doubt." For the first time he really smiled, and for an instant looked his old self, the Master Palaemon of my boyhood. "Yet I was giving you such good advice for your journey. Now you must do without it, but doubtless you would have forgotten everything anyway.

So Master Palaemon thinks Severian is attentive and yet forgetful? Hmm...

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 13, Part 1

It is said that it is the peculiar quality of time to conserve fact, and that it does so by rendering our past falsehoods true. So it was with me. I had lied in saying that I loved the guild - that I desired nothing but to remain in its embrace. Now I found those lies become truths. The life of a journeyman and even that of an apprentice seemed infinitely attractive. Not only because I was certain I was to die, but truly attractive in themselves, because I had lost them. I saw the brothers now from the viewpoint of a client, and so I saw them as powerful, the active principles of an inimical and nearly perfect machine.

Knowing that my case was hopeless, I learned in my own person what Master Malrubius had once impressed on me when I was a child: that hope is a psychological mechanism unaffected by external realities. I was young and adequately fed; I was permitted to sleep and therefore I hoped.

An interesting point on how what we believe changes over time.  One of the more fascinating things about this book is how it makes good points about both the mutability of human belief and perception, and the universal truths and immutable beings that underlie religious thought.  The latter have been postulated by humans, who are infamous for the former; how are we to trust such unreliable sources about issues this important?  I'm not sure yet if Gene Wolfe answers, but he definitely gets you thinking.

In this case, Severian's lie becomes true due to his changed situation.  But there's another way for it to happen, I think, and that's just plain habit.  This happens when you're lying to yourself, and you know it.  But over time, if you're consistent in lying to yourself, the thought starts to come so quickly and naturally that it seems like the truth.  Eventually you forget that it's a lie.  And at that point, is it really a lie?  If you think of any other ways we spin lies into truth, let me know.

The point about hope rings true with me, but if it is true, why would anyone commit suicide?  Even people with lives that appear very successful have committed suicide.  So I could make the statement that "despair is a psychological mechanism unaffected by external realities."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 12, Part 2

"I ought to hate you," she said.

I had to lean over her to catch the words. "It's all right," I said.

"But I don't. Not for your sake... if I hate my last friend, what would be left?"

There was nothing to say to that, so I said nothing.

"Do you know what it was like? It was a long time before I could think of it."

Her right hand was creeping upward, toward her eyes. I caught it and forced it back.

"I thought I saw my worst enemy, a kind of demon. And it was me."

Her scalp was bleeding. I put clean lint there and taped it down, though I knew it would soon be gone. Curling, dark hairs were entangled in her fingers.

"Since then, I can't control my hands... I can if I think about it, if I know what they're doing. But it is so hard, and I'm getting tired." She rolled her head away and spat blood. "I bite myself. Bite the lining of my cheeks, and my tongue and lips. Once my hands tried to strangle me, and I thought oh good, I will die now. But I only lost consciousness, and they must have lost their strength, because I woke. It's like that machine, isn't it?"

I said, "Allowin's necklace."

"But worse. My hands are trying to blind me now, to tear my eyelids away. Will I be blind?"

"Yes," I said.

"How long before I die?"

"A month, perhaps. The thing in you that hates you will weaken as you weaken. The revolutionary brought it to life, but its energy is your energy, and in the end you will die together."



"I see," she said. And then, "It is a thing from Erebus, from Abaia, a fit companion for me. Vodalus..."

I leaned closer, but I could not hear. At last I said, "I tried to save you. I wanted to. I stole a knife, and spent the night watching for a chance. But only a master can take a prisoner from a cell, and I would have had to kill--"

"Your friends."

"Yes, my friends."

Her hands were moving again, and blood trickled from her mouth. "Will you bring me the knife?"

"I have it here," I said, and drew it from under my cloak. It was a common cook's knife with a span or so of blade.

"It looks sharp."

"It is," I said. "I know how to treat an edge, and I sharpened it carefully." That was the last thing I said to her. I put the knife into her right hand and went out.

For a time, I knew, her will would hold it back. A thousand times one thought recurred: I could reenter her cell, take back the knife, and no one would know. I would be able to live out my life in the guild.

If her throat rattled, I did not hear it; but after I had stared at the door of her cell for a long while, a little crimson rivulet crept from under it. I went to Master Gurloes then, and told him what I had done.

This is how Wolfe answers my question from the last post, here stated in a different form: What would the Inquisitors invent if they were in a much more technologically advanced society? Although according to a wikipedia article on Inquisition, I'm off base here: "Additionally, the restrictions on torture in the inquisitorial courts were much more stringent than those that regulated the torture in the secular courts. Torture was only used for extracting confessions during a trial and was not used as punishment after sentencing. If torture was utilized, the accused was required to repeat their repentance freely and without torture" The torture of Thecla is not for a confession, it is punitive, as well as a political message. The machine that did this to her is called "the revolutionary" - what despot wouldn't want a machine that makes their enemies hate themselves? Actually, I guess it is a form of confession and repentance, forced upon her. But not in a constructive way, a completely destructive way that could only be a message to other revolutionaries. This is consistent with the inquisition: "A 1578 handbook for inquisitors spelled out the purpose of inquisitorial penalties: ...[Translation from the Latin: '... for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit.'" If this seems harsh to you, maybe you should wonder how many of our own laws have been passed for this reason. If this logic is correct, and that's how crime is actually prevented, how harsh would an "acceptable sentence" be? I don't know if it's true or not, though. It's an interesting question.

I was not aware that secular courts made even more use of torture than the church. Maybe the reason people dislike lawyers is just historical inertia from the Middle Ages.

I still think the Orwellian "punishment" is still the scariest scenario of how people of the future are going to deal with revolutionaries. If you can build a machine that can make them hate themselves, why not just build a machine that can make them think exactly as you do? That's why I put "punishment" in quotes - the ex-revolutionary doesn't even think of it that way. Frightening.

I think this is the key point in Severian's life. With this act of mercy, he splits with the torturers and starts to find his own path. How an assisted suicide fits in with the Catholic subtext, I don't know. I assume it means that Wolfe may disagree with certain points of doctrine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 12, Part 1

...among the papers on his table I found what I had, in some fashion I cannot explain, known would be there: an order for Thecla's excruciation. I could not sleep after that. Instead I went (for the last time, though I did not know it) to the tomb in which I had played as a boy. The funeral bronze of the old exultant was dull for lack of rubbing, and a few more leaves had drifted through the half-open door; otherwise it was unchanged. I had once told Thecla of the place, and now I imagined her with me. She had escaped by my aid, and I promised her that no one would find her here, and that I would bring her food, and when the hunt had cooled I would help her secure passage on a merchant dhow, by which she could make her way unnoticed down the winding coils of Gyoll to the delta and the sea. Were I such a hero as we had read of together in old romances, I would have released her that very evening, overpowering or drugging the brothers on watch. I was not, and I possessed no drugs and no weapon more formidable than a knife taken from the kitchen. And if the truth is to be known, between my inmost being and the desperate attempt there stood the words I had heard that morning - the morning after my elevation. The Chatelaine Thecla had said I was "rather a sweet boy," and some already mature part of me knew that even if I succeeded against all odds, I would still be rather a sweet boy. At the time I thought it mattered.
Ah, the antihero. Actually, I think Severian is still pretty heroic here. It's just that the heroes in the "old romances" are usually put into situations with clear-cut right and wrong actions, at least according to their own ethos. You don't ask if Frodo is doing the right thing trying to kill Sauron - "maybe we should just rehabilitate him" - see? Absurd. Of course, the best stories do have lots of characters with internal struggles (e.g. Boromir, Faramir, Gollum), but the main hero doesn't usually get conflicted about their own motivations. There are some notable exceptions, though - Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot, certain scenes from the Iliad. Of course, Severian confesses that it was wounded pride that prevented him from acting. Actually, I can't decide if it was wounded pride or anger that Thecla's feelings for him weren't nearly as strong as his. Maybe those are the same feeling. Pretty unheroic, although because of wounded pride Achilles sat around while a bunch of his countrymen were killed, and he's supposed to be a great hero. Also, the object of his pride was a slave girl, whose entire family he had probably just killed, so that shows you how standards for heroes can change over time. "I went (for the last time" - This is weird, because it's not really the last time he goes to the tomb.
The examination room - our workroom - is not divided into cells, but is a unified space, pillared with the tubes of the ancient engines and cluttered with the tools of our mystery. "The one to which I will be subjected - is that old too?" "The most hallowed of all," Master Gurloes replied. He waited for her to say something more, and when she did not, proceeded with his descriptions. "The kite I'm certain you must be familiar with - everyone knows of it. Behind it there... if you'll take a step this way you'll be able to see it better... is what we call the apparatus. It is supposed to letter whatever slogan is demanded in the client's flesh, but it is seldom in working order.
I have no idea what "the kite" is. The only definition I could find that explains it at all is "bad check." Which means that it might just be another of Wolfe's little jokes - he's just passed us a bad check. But I have a feeling that it is indeed a torture device, just a very, very obscure one, the joke being that "everyone knows of it." This is also a good reminder that at one point in time everyone did know all about the Scavenger's Daughter and the Pear of Anguish and other things that are best left in the past. Far, far in the past. While bombs have kept pace with advancing technology, torture hasn't, and we should be thankful for small mercies. I can't imagine what the result would be if 21st century engineers were willing (and encouraged) to devise new methods of torture. "The apparatus" is a reference to Kafka's story "In the Penal Colony." In that story, it's about to be decommissioned and replaced with more humane practices, yet the officer is charge fights against that. He is very impressed with its brutal efficiency, and its artistically fiendish appropriateness of punishment. My personal take on the story is that Kafka is saying "it doesn't matter how efficient brutal efficiency is, humane bungling would be better." You could interpret the officer's actions as the cliched conservative "afraid of change," but I think that Kafka is talking about the modern (c. 1914) mechanization of society. Also, the officer helped create and maintain the apparatus - it's his life's work. I suppose it's hard to admit that your life's work was meaningless or evil. In fact, no part of his conviction seems born of fear. I think the story also means that "an eye for an eye," cutting off a thief's hand, etc. are nicely literal-sounding in theory, and in practice they are wildly unjust and ineffective at crime prevention. This all has an exact parallel with the role of the torturers in Urth's society.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 11, Part 4

My bed seemed to toss beneath me. I gripped the sides and sat up and it was still, but as soon as my head touched the pillow once more the swaying began again. I felt I was wide awake - then that I was awake again but had been sleeping only a moment before. I was conscious that someone was in the tiny cabin with me, and for some reason I could not have explained I thought it was the young woman who had taken the part of our patroness. I sat up in the tossing bed. Dim light filtered beneath the door; there was no one there.
Severian is obviously still drunk, and his state of consciousness is somewhat questionable; he just had a visitation from the guild's patron saint. I'm feeling tired today, so this post will be pretty short. I'll just quote a lot of much better writing:
When I lay down again, the room was filled with Thecla's perfume. The false Thecla from the House Azure had come, then. I got out of bed, and nearly falling opened the door. There was no one in the passage outside. A chamber pot waited beneath the bed, and I pulled it out and filled it with my spew, rich meats swimming in wine mixed with bile. Somehow I felt what I had done was treason, as if by casting out all that the guild had given me that night I had cast out the guild itself. Coughing and sobbing I knelt beside the bed, and at last, after wiping my mouth clean, lay down again.
The amazing magician Gene Wolfe turns vomit into characterization. Taadaah! If the party truly involved no drug but alcohol, then Severian seems very prone to hallucinations.
No doubt I slept. I saw the chapel, but it was not the ruin I knew. The roof was whole and high and straight, and from it there hung ruby lamps. The pews were whole and gleamed with polish; the ancient stone altar was swatched in cloth of gold. Behind the altar rose a wonderful mosaic of blue; but it was blank, as if a fragment of sky without cloud or star had been torn away and spread upon the curving wall. I walked toward it down the aisle, and as I did so I was struck by how much lighter it was than the true sky, whose blue is nearly black even on the brightest day. Yet how much more beautiful this was! It thrilled me to look at it. I felt I was floating in air, borne up by the beauty of it, looking down upon the altar, down into the cup of crimson wine, down upon shewbread and antique knife. I smiled... And woke. In my sleep I had heard footsteps in the passage outside, and I knew I had recognized them, though I could not just then recall whose steps they were. Struggling, I brought back the sound; it was no human tread, only the padding of soft feet, and an almost imperceptible scraping. I heard it again, so faint that for a time I thought I had confused my memory with reality; but it was real, slowly coming up the passage, slowly going back. The mere lifting of my head brought a wave of nausea; I let it fall again, telling myself that whoever might pace back and forth, it was no affair of mine. The perfume had vanished, and sick though I was, I felt I needed to fear unreality no longer - I was back in the world of solid objects and plain light. My door opened a trifle and Master Malrubius looked in as though to make certain I was all right. I waved to him and he shut the door again. It was some time before I recalled that he had died while I was still a boy.
"No doubt I slept." I like that. It shows again that Severian, if he sees inexplicable things, assumes that he's sleeping. The thought of hallucinations, or even that inexplicable things are actually occurring, never crosses his mind. This passage also shows, in a very beautiful way, that the sun is very dim at this time, such that the sky is so dark that stars are visible during the day. While that's really cool, the science here is not quite right, because the Sun is actually going to become more luminous over time, so much so that it will destroy the biosphere within a billion years, well before it enters its red giant phase. So your 1,000,000,000th high school reunion is going to have to be held somewhere else. He sees the ghost of Master Malrubius, and he hears some animal with claws in the corridor. I can guess which animal it's supposed to be. Since this is right after Severian's Confirmation, my hypothesis is that Malrubius is standing in for the Holy Ghost. We'll see if that interpretation holds up when he next appears.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 11, Part 3

How I reached my bed I have no notion. Those who drink much have told me that they sometimes forget all that befell them in the latter part of the night, and perhaps it was so with me. But I think it more likely that I (who never forget anything, who, if I may for once confess the truth, though I seem to boast, do not truly understand what others mean when they say forget, for it seems to me that all experience becomes a part of my being) only slept and was carried there.
Severian truly does have an interesting concept of "remembering everything." This is a good reminder that there are lots of ways to be unconscious: sleeping, which Severian in his pride seems to think is the only one that affects him, but also coma, blackout, seizure, delirium, drug-induced unconsciousness, sleepwalking. These last two are interesting to me, because even though the person you normally think of as "yourself" isn't aware, someone is controlling your body. Sometimes when people indulge in drugs, they "become a different person." That raises an interesting question - maybe it's the same person, just with certain inhibitions gone or certain emotions affected by altered brain chemistry. But maybe it really is a different person. As always, a little research shows that this idea is a lot more prevalent in pop culture than among professional psychologists. It's debated whether dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder) even exists. However, they do seem to agree that dissociation exists, so that should go in our above list. I find it odd that dissociative fugues lasting days seem to be well-documented, but dissociative identity disorder is rare enough to be controversial. I think that the resistance to DID might be in part due to its complete contradiction of how we think about ourselves. Our entire society takes as an assumption one person = one body:
  • Law, and therefore most other secular activities: an individual has rights, and is responsible for their actions. "There are two people in there, acting at different times, you say? Should we hold one accountable for the actions of the other, you say? Shut up."
  • many religions: a person has a (singular) soul. "Your actions on earth will determine what happens to your soul after death. You are two people, you say? How many souls do you have, and what happens to them, you say? Shut up." This one is presumably not too big a problem because, unlike juries, most gods are omniscient, and can keep this all straight.
Another part of the resistance might be that psychologists want to downplay any aspect of their field that requires subjective ideas. I am ambivalent about this. So our current thinking is all based on the individual: their rights, their responsibilities. If they turn out to be dividual after all, it's a big mess. I personally think that we'll have to deal with it eventually, because eventually technology will enable:
  • one person = one body
  • one person = several bodies
  • one person = no bodies (unless we start redefining "body")
  • several people = one body
  • "Other"
This question of "what is identity?" recurs throughout the Book of the New Sun.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 11, Part 2

But as they bore her toward it, the wheel appeared to blur and change. In the light of the candles, it seemed at first that serpents, green pythons with jeweled heads of scarlet and citrine and white, writhed from it. Then it was seen that these were flowers, roses in the bud. When the maid was but a step away they bloomed (they were of paper, concealed, as I well knew, within the segments of the wheel).... The maid gave no answer but reached out and touched the wheel, which at once fell to pieces, collapsing with a clatter to the floor, all its roses gone. "Behead her," demanded Maxentius, and I took up the sword. It was very heavy.... I knew that the sword in falling would do her no harm - I would direct it to one side, tripping an ingenious mechanism that would elevate a wax head smeared with blood while the maid draped her own with a fuligin cloth. Still I hesitated to give the blow. She spoke again from the floor at my feet, and her voice seemed to ring in my ears. "Strike and fear not." With such strength as I was capable of, I sent the false blade down. For an instant it seemed to me that it met resistance; then it thudded into the block, which fell into two. The maid's head, all bloody, tumbled forward toward the watching brothers. Master Gurloes lifted it by the hair and Master Palaemon cupped his left hand to receive the blood. "With this, our chrism," he said, "I anoint you, Severian, our brother forever." His index finger traced the mark upon my forehead. "So be it," said Master Gurloes, and all the journeymen save I. The maid stood. I knew even as I watched her that her head was only concealed in the cloth; but it seemed there was nothing there. I felt dizzy and tired. She took the wax head from Master Gurloes and pretended to replace it on her shoulders, slipping it by some sleight into the fuligin cloth, then standing before us radiant and whole. I knelt before her, and the others withdrew. She raised the sword with which I had so lately struck off her head; the blade was bloody now from some contact with the wax. "You are of the torturers," she said. I felt the sword touch either shoulder, and at once eager hands were drawing the head mask of the guild over my face and lifting me.
This is based on the legend of St. Catherine that I referred to in the previous post. The bit about the roses sprouting from the wheel isn't in the version of the legend I found. Severian calls it all a show, but his own perceptions seem to contradict that. He says that the sword was "no more than a wooden batten provided with an old hilt and brightened with tinsel," but also "It was very heavy" and "for a moment I feared it would overbalance me." When he "pretends" to behead Katherine, "I sent the false blade down. For an instant it seemed to me that it met resistance; then it thudded into the block, which fell into two." He doesn't mention anything about it being a trick block, either. He also doesn't really explain how she could perform the sleight of hand with the wax head when he was presumably standing within several feet of her. I believe Wolfe is pointing out that religious ceremonies are simultaneously metaphoric and literal. You can pantomime being born again, or sacrificing something to a god, and view it as symbolic. But in another sense you really were born again, you really did give the god something. Another interesting possible interpretation is that even when religious ceremonies are performed by people without faith (like Severian, who believes the ritual to be fake), they still have the desired effect. The wheel is a symbol of torture, but it has a few other meanings, too. Add to those the meanings of the circle, and we have an embarrassment of riches. Then Gene throws serpents and roses into the mix, and interpretation becomes complicated, just the way he likes it. I'll give it a try, though: The blooming wheel is reminiscent of the blooming staff of Aaron in Numbers 17, showing Katharine's favor from Omniscience. The wheel is also a sun symbol - you can never have too many. There is a form of a Christ monogram that looks like a wheel, which also looks like the alchemy symbol for malachite, which is used in jewelry to suggest peacock's eyes. "The peacock was believed by the ancients to have flesh that does not decay after death, and thus became a symbol of immortality. This symbolism was adopted into Christianity, and the peacock appears in many early Christian mosaics and paintings." - This brings us around full circle. The torturer's wheel obviously represents pain, maybe it's the suffering caused by the cycle of samsara, which is sometimes represented by a wheel. Many of the religions that samsara is part of also have a concept of cyclical time, which the wheel could also represent. So the roses, which could symbolize the sun, love, and/or the blood of Christ, sprout from the wheel of suffering and time, and then destroy it. I mentioned in a previous post that this ceremony might be the torturers' version of Confirmation. In Confirmation, "the Holy Ghost is given to those already baptized in order to make them strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ." "[A bishop] anoints the forehead of each with chrism." Chrism is holy oil; here the ceremony is corrupted, and Severian is anointed with blood. A related interesting fact: "Christ" is the Greek translation of "Messiah," not a different title, and they both mean "anointed (one)." Then all the torturers say "so be it," which is the literal meaning of "amen." After the anointing, the bishop "gives each a slight blow on the cheek saying: 'peace be with thee'." From the wikipedia page on Confirmation, "the touch on the cheek that the bishop gave while saying 'Pax tecum' (Peace be with you) to the person he had just confirmed was interpreted in the Roman Pontifical as a slap, a reminder to be brave in spreading and defending the faith: 'Deinde leviter eum in maxilla caedit, dicens: Pax tecum' (Then he strikes him lightly on the cheek, saying: Peace be with you) (cf. the knightly custom of the accolade)." Severian receives the accolade from Katherine, and then he is officially a torturer.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 11, Part 1

The day of our patroness falls in the fading of winter. Then do we make merry: the journeymen perform the sword dance in procession, leaping and fantastic; the masters light the ruined chapel in the Grand Court with a thousand perfumed candles, and we ready our feast.... I have heard it said that no less than one hundred and thirty-five guilds have members laboring within the Citadel walls. Of these, some (as we have seen among the curators) are too few to keep their patron's feast in the chapel, but must join their brothers in the city. Those more numerous celebrate with such pomp as they may to raise the esteem in which they are held. Of this kind are the soldiers upon Hadrian's day, the matrosses on Barbara's, the witches on Mag's, and many others.
I mentioned the sword dance in a previous post. It's where the Matachin Tower gets its name. Sword dances were performed by certain guilds in the Middle Ages, and there was a similar profusion of guilds. Guilds in the Middle Ages also had patron saints, and threw drunken feasts celebrating the elevation of members to the next guild level. Modern universities take note.
  • St. Hadrian (or Adrian) is the patron saint of soldiers and, amusingly, butchers.
  • matross: a soldier of artillery, who ranked next below a gunner.
  • St. Barbara is in fact the patron saint of artillerymen. Everybody has a saint!
  • Mag: This is probably a short form of Magus. There's no St. Mag, but Mag is a form of Margaret. There are lots of St. Margarets, but the only connection I see is that St. Margaret of Antioch, St. Barbara, and St. Catherine are all in the Fourteen Holy Helpers. This might also be a nod to the character Magwitch from Great Expectations. The name Mag sounds familiar. I feel like I'm missing some connection here.
None but torturers, then, come to the chapel on Holy Katharine's day. Yet each year (knowing we are watched from high windows) we prepare as do all the rest, and more grandly. Outside the chapel our wines burn like gems in the light of a hundred flambeaux; our beeves steam and wallow in ponds of gravy, rolling baked-lemon eyes; capybaras and agoutis, posed in the stances of life and bearing fur in which toasted cocoanut mingles with their own flayed skin, clamber on logs of ham and scale boulders of new-baked bread. Our masters, of whom, when I was made journeyman, there were only two, arrive in sedan chairs whose curtains are woven of blossoms, and tread carpets patterned of colored sands, carpets telling of the traditions of the guild and laid grain by grain by the journeymen in days of toil and destroyed at once by the feet of the masters.
This is a great description of how lavish the feast is. The sand paintings are a nice touch. I knew that Tibetan Buddhists made them, but I learned in my reading that some people make them on the Dia de los Muertos. I find it telling and a bit presumptuous that I found this info under "Modern Culture" on the sandpainting wikipedia page, after they described the sandpaintings of Native Americans, aborigines, and Tibetan Buddists. All those groups of people still exist, I believe. What's so modern about the Dia de los Muertos? capybara: pig-sized tailless South American amphibious rodent with partly webbed feet agouti: agile long-legged rabbit-sized rodent of Central America and South America Yum. Rodent. Interesting that they're both from South America. St. Katharine (Catherine) is an important saint who was condemned to die on the wheel by Emperor Maximinus, but when she touched it, it shattered. He then ordered her beheaded. This is the same Maximinus that beheaded the saint that Thea is named after when she rejected his unwanted advances - he was a busy guy. Wolfe has the Torturers and a mystery woman reenact Katharine's legend. The mystery woman was "tall and slender, though not so tall nor so slender as Thecla, dark of complexion, dark of eye, raven of hair. Hers was such a face as I have never seen elsewhere, like a pool of pure water found in the midst of a wood." Lovely. In the torturer's version, "our patroness is condemned by Maxentius," not Maximinus. Maxentius was another Emperor contemporary to Maximinus. There were apparently four (or five) simultaneous rulers of the Roman Empire in those decades right before Constantine. And this is by design. Seems like a big mess. Wolfe is not one to make that kind of mistake, I think, so he changed the name on purpose. I can't tell what he's getting at, though. Let me know if you have any ideas. I guess I'll get to the symbolism of the actual ceremony tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 10, Part 4

"What will you be, Severian? A torturer? You may leave the guild, you know, if you prefer." I told him firmly - and as though I were slightly shocked by the suggestion - that I had never considered it. It was a lie. I had known, as all the apprentices knew, that one was not firmly and finally a member of the guild until one consented as an adult to the connection. Furthermore, though I loved the guild I hated it too - not because of the pain it inflicted on clients who must sometimes have been innocent, and who must often have been punished beyond anything that could be justified by their offenses; but because it seemed to me inefficient and ineffectual, serving a power that was not only ineffectual but remote. I do not know how better to express my feelings about it than by saying that I hated it for starving and humiliating me and loved it because it was my home, hated and loved it because it was the exemplar of old things, because it was weak, and because it seemed indestructible. Naturally I expressed none of this to Master Palaemon, though I might have if Master Gurloes had not been present. Still, it seemed incredible that my profession of loyalty, made in rags, could be taken seriously; yet it was. "Whether you have considered leaving us or not," Master Palaemon told me, "it is an option open to you. Many would say that only a fool would serve out the hard years of apprenticeship and refuse to become a journeyman of his guild when his apprenticeship was past. But you may do so if you wish." "Where would I go?" That, though I could not tell them so, was the real reason I was staying. I knew that a vast world lay outside the walls of the Citadel - indeed, outside the walls of our tower. But I could not imagine that I could ever have any place in it. Faced with a choice between slavery and the emptiness of freedom, I added, "I have been reared in our guild," for fear they would answer my question. "Yes," Master Gurloes said in his most formal manner. "But you are no torturer yet. You have not put on fuligin." Master Palaemon's hand, dry and wrinkled as a mummy's, groped until it found mine. "Among the initiates of religion it is said, 'You are an epopt always.' The reference is not only to knowledge but to their chrism, whose mark, being invisible, is ineradicable. You know our chrism." I nodded again. "Less even than theirs can it be washed away. Should you leave now, men will only say, 'He was nurtured by the torturers.' But when you have been anointed they will say, 'He is a torturer.' You may follow the plow or the drum, but still you will hear, 'He is a torturer.' Do you understand that?" "I wish to hear nothing else."
epopt: An initiate in the Eleusinian Mysteries; one who has attended the epopteia; One instructed in the mysteries of a secret system. chrism: "(Greek word literally meaning 'an anointing'), also called 'Myrrh' (Myron), Holy anointing oil or 'Consecrated Oil,' is a consecrated oil used in the Roman Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches, in the Assyrian Church of the East, in the Old-Catholic churches, and some Anglican and Lutheran churches in the administration of certain sacraments and ecclesiastical functions.... Chrism is essential for the Catholic Sacrament of Confirmation/Chrismation..." There are seven sacraments. The first is Baptism, which Severian probably went through the day he got caught in the nenuphars in Gyoll. He was immersed in water and he died and was reborn (literally). The next chapter, then, describes his Confirmation. I'll have to read up on it. I wonder if all the sacraments come in order? Hopefully, or I'll have even less chance of spotting them. I interpret the passage above in a couple of ways. One way is as an existentialist statement. The phrase "a choice between slavery and the emptiness of freedom" has that ring to it. Nowadays, existentialism is popularly synonymous with atheistic existentialism, which gives it an oddness in the context of this book (but not too odd - anyone who thinks about religion has to consider atheism, I think). I believe, though, that this passage is existentialist in the manner of Kierkegaard. It's also a statement about the difficulty of breaking with the tradition you are raised on: "the exemplar of old things, because it was weak, and because it seemed indestructible." Any institution that you grew up with, especially one that's hundreds of years old, seems eternal when you're young. It's hard to see what you could replace it with. When you're older you learn about this or that revolution that transformed the very thing you thought was immutable. Only considering the revolutions gives too much emphasis on the lone genius, though. The effect of many small changes that one hardly notices is what facilitates eventual revolution. I see this as true in physics, at least. Chime in with your thoughts on the relative importance of revolution and evolution in the fields you're interested in. In specific, the quote can be viewed as about political dissatisfaction, considering the guild not as a fixture of Severian's boyhood, but as an arm of the judicial system.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 10, Part 3

The lilies faded as lilies do, and the dark death roses came into bloom. I cut them and carried them to Thecla, nigrescent purple flecked with scarlet. She smiled and recited: "Here Rose the Graced, not Rose the Chaste, reposes. The scent that rises is no scent of roses." "If their odor offends you, Chatelaine..." "Not at all, it is very sweet. I was only quoting something my grandmother used to say. The woman was infamous when she was a girl, or so she told me, and all the children chanted that rhyme when she died. Actually I suspect it is much older, and lost in time, like the beginnings of all the good and bad things. Men are said to desire women, Severian. Why do they despise the women they obtain?" "I don't believe all do, Chatelaine." "That beautiful Rose gave herself, and suffered such mockery for it that I know of it, though her dreams long ago turned to dust with her smooth flesh. Come here and sit by me." I did as I was told, and she slipped her hands under the frayed bottom of my shirt and drew it over my head. I protested, but found myself unable to resist. "What are you ashamed of? You who have no breasts to hide. I've never seen such white skin coupled with dark hair... Do you think my own skin white?" "Very white, Chatelaine." "So do others, but it is dun next to yours. You must flee the sun when you're a torturer, Severian. You'll burn terribly." Her hair, which she often let fall free, today was bound about her head in a dark aureole. She had never more closely resembled her half-sister Thea, and I felt such desire for her that I seemed to be spilling my blood upon the floor, growing weaker and fainter with each contraction of my heart. "Why are you pounding on my door?" Her smile told me she knew. "I must go." "You'd better put your shirt back on before you leave - you wouldn't want your friend to see you like that."
This implies that Severian and Thecla remained chaste. But "The lilies faded as lilies do, and the dark death roses came into bloom." I talked about the symbolism of flowers in a previous post. Unfortunately, the lily has so many meanings I forgot to mention the Christian symbolism. The lily represented innocence, and the Virgin Mary's purity. The rose represents love and passion, and the "dark death roses" could also mean sin, innocence lost. So I think that this is a clear signal that no one is chaste here. "I suspect it is much older, and lost in time, like the beginnings of all the good and bad things." This is another sign of the age of their civilization. It probably wouldn't take billions or even millions of years to forget the origin of stories or theories or artworks. What do we know about what happened even 10,000 years ago? Maybe it's a false analogy, since our recordkeeping skills and materials have gotten better. But consider the origin of Rose the Graced:
Higden, monk of Chester, says: 'She was the fayre daughter of Walter, Lord Clifford, concubine of Henry II., and poisoned by Queen Elianor, A.D. 1177. Henry made for her a house of wonderful working, so that no man or woman might come to her. This house was named Labyrinthus, and was wrought like unto a knot in a garden called a maze. But the queen came to her by a clue of thredde, and so dealt with her that she lived not long after."
A Labyrinth and a clue of thread, eh? It's hard to say which parts of this are historical fact and which are inventions. And this is only about 850 years ago, imagine what 85,000 years would do. Barring catastrophe, though, I think the real problem in the future will be that we are so good at preserving things now. Eventually you'll have something like Master Ultan's library, stretching for who knows how far, with only two librarians to take care of it. Maybe the recording materials of the future will be well-nigh indestructible, but who is going to organize and search through all that? "She had never more closely resembled her half-sister Thea, and I felt such desire for her that I seemed to be spilling my blood upon the floor, growing weaker and fainter with each contraction of my heart." Lovely writing. So part of Severian's feelings for Thecla are mixed up with his romantic moonlit encounter with Thea and Vodalus. I think one of the signs of a good writer is giving characters complicated feelings like this (unless they're deliberately going for a two-dimensional feel).

Monday, October 5, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 10, Part 2

"Look here," she held up the brown book. "Here it says, 'It was the thought of Thalelaeus the Great that the democracy' - that means the People - 'desired to be ruled by some power superior to itself, and of Yrierix the Sage that the commonality would never permit one differing from themselves to hold high office. Notwithstanding this, each is called The Perfect Master.' "
Interesting that she has to explain what democracy means, and that she doesn't explain that it also means a form of government. I wonder how long democracy would have to be out of fashion before the word itself lost all meaning to everyone but historians? Thalelaeus and Yrieix (note - one "r") are both saints. Thalelaeus is also the name of a professor of law who wrote a Greek commentary on the Code of Justinian, and Yrieix was a chancellor (a word that used to mean a legal scribe, sometimes with judicial power) before converting to Christianity. Justinian ordered the uniform rewriting of Roman law, and he is also considered a saint by some Christians (not sure why, maybe for ordering the construction of the Hagia Sophia). So even within Wolfe's self-imposed restriction that he has to use names of saints, he uses the names of lawyers in a quote about government, and obliquely refers to a ruler and possible saint - crazy. When I write a sentence, I'm focusing on keeping the grammar correct enough to convey my one meaning. This quote is Thecla trying to explain that it's hard to tell who rules the Commonwealth, or what they'll do. It's also a little joke, because the Autarch actually does fulfill both requirements for a ruler (as you'll find out three books from now). The Perfect Master is probably a reference to a satguru of Hinduism. This is "an enlightened [sage] whose life's purpose is to guide initiated [disciples] along the spiritual path, the summation of which is the realization of the Self through realization of the God." Thecla's name means "glory to God," "fame of God," or "heavenly glory," and she is teaching Severian about "ancient knowledge," so she may be his satguru. Her name also fits her imposing beauty.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 10, Part 1

I think it was Master Gurloes's intention that I should be brought to that house often, so I would not become too much attracted to Thecla. In actuality I permitted Roche to pocket the money and never went there again. The pain had been too pleasurable, the pleasure too painful; so that I feared that in time my mind would no longer be the thing I knew. Then too, before Roche and I had left the house, the white-haired man (catching my eye) had drawn from the bosom of his robe what I had at first thought was an icon but soon saw to be a golden vial in the shape of a phallus. He had smiled, and because there had been nothing but friendship in his smile it had frightened me. Some days passed before I could rid my thoughts of Thecla of certain impressions belonging to the false Thecla who had initiated me into the anacreontic diversions and fruitions of men and women. Possibly this had an effect opposite to that Master Gurloes intended, but I do not think so. I believe I was never less inclined to love the unfortunate woman than when I carried in my memory the recent impressions of having enjoyed her freely; it was as I saw it more and more clearly for the untruth it was that I felt myself drawn to redress the fact, and drawn through her (though I was hardly conscious of it at the time) to the world of ancient knowledge and privilege she represented.
This is confusing; Except for the name of the Algedonic Quarter, I didn't get the impression that the ladies of the House Azure were specialists of that sort. "I feared that in time my mind would no longer be the thing I knew." An interesting fear. Any strong stimulation (ahem) could have that effect. Is Severian saying that he has, in modern terms, an "addictive personality?" Also interesting that he thinks he knows his own mind. He's described "obscure" emotions, and expressed complex ambivalent thoughts, and yet he thinks he understands himself. That brings up a question reminiscent of one of the great theological questions: can you think a thought so complex that you can't understand it? I think so. I have the opposite fear, I think: that my mind will stay static, and I'll never get an original thought, or a new skill, or surprise myself in any way. Interesting that "only friendship" would frighten someone, but as usual Wolfe describes a complex reaction succinctly and accurately: if a strange pimp shows you a phallus-shaped vial and smiles, you expect lust, cajolery, lewd invitation, salesmanship. Friendship towards you is nonsensical, and when people behave in a nonsensical way, it's frightening. anacreontic: Pertaining to the Greek poet Anacreon and his manners; jovial, festive. Anacreon mainly composed poems about love, drinking, and parties. "I believe I was never less inclined to love the unfortunate woman than when I carried in my memory the recent impressions of having enjoyed her freely;" A cynic could use this as support for the stereotype "men only want one thing, and when they get it, they lose interest." My own version of this is "men want many things, and when they're only offered one, they lose interest." You'll notice that Severian used the word "love" and not the phrase "knock the boots with." He didn't want the triviality of his relationship with the false Thecle to define his intimacy with the real Thecla.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 9, Part 3

Here is one of the weirdest conversations I've read. The conversation, characters, and setting are all normal for an sf novel, but the combination is very strange:
I raised my hand and she added quickly, "There are people here to protect me. All I have to do is scream. You may hit me once, but you won't hit me twice." "No," I told her. "Yes there are. Three men." "There is no one. This whole floor is empty and cold - don't you think I've noticed how quiet it is? Roche and his girl stayed below, and perhaps got a better room there because he paid. The woman we saw at the top of the stair was leaving and wanted to speak to you first. Look." I took her by the waist and lifted her into the air. "Scream. No one will come." She was silent. I dropped her on the bed, and after a moment sat down beside her. "You are angry because I'm not Thecla. But I would have been Thecla for you. I will be still." She slipped the strange coat from my shoulders and let it fall. "You're very strong." "No I'm not." I knew that some of the boys who were afraid of me were already stronger than I. "Very strong. Aren't you strong enough to master reality, even for a little while?" "What do you mean?" "Weak people believe what is forced on them. Strong people what they wish to believe, forcing that to be real. What is the Autarch but a man who believes himself Autarch and makes others believe by the strength of it?" "You are not the Chatelaine Thecla," I told her. "But don't you see, neither is she. The Chatelaine Thecla, whom I doubt you've ever laid eyes on - No, I see I'm wrong. Have you been to the House Absolute?" Her hands, small and warm, were on my own right hand, pressing. I shook my head. "Sometimes clients say they have. I always find pleasure in hearing them." "Have they been? Really?" She shrugged. "I was saying that the Chatelaine Thecla is not the Chatelaine Thecla. Not the Chatelaine Thecla of your mind, which is the only Chatelaine Thecla you care about. Neither am I. What, then, is the difference between us?" "None, I suppose." While I was undressing I said, "Nevertheless, we all seek to discover what is real. Why is it? Perhaps we are drawn to the theocenter. That's what the hierophants say, that only that is true." She kissed my thighs, knowing she had won. "Are you really ready to find it? You must be clothed in favor, remember. Otherwise you will be given over to the torturers. You wouldn't like that." "No," I said, and took her head between my hands.
Everyone in Wolfe's universe is a philosopher, it seems. Of course, if this girl is really a courtesan and not just a poor girl prostituting herself, it's more likely that she's educated in a wide range of subjects. Nothing like a discussion about the nature of truth and a double entendre about the theocenter as foreforeplay. "Weak people believe what is forced on them. Strong people what they wish to believe, forcing that to be real." That's a strong statement. The girl seems to be making it an argument about self-confidence and its ability to make others confident in you. I don't like it, because I think its end result is more often close-mindedness and delusion than simple self-confidence. You need moderation there, because what would happen to the Autarch if he believed no one was plotting against him? He wouldn't be Autarch for long. The power of positive thinking only gets you so far before you have to deal with reality again. "I was saying that the Chatelaine Thecla is not the Chatelaine Thecla. Not the Chatelaine Thecla of your mind, which is the only Chatelaine Thecla you care about. Neither am I. What, then, is the difference between us?" Her earlier argument about self-confidence is now an argument that one's beliefs matter more than reality? This is solipsistic in the extreme. We all have a mental picture of a person, but it's at least partially based on observation. People who embellish their internal pictures too much are asking for trouble when reality sets back in. It's interesting that both the torturers and the prostitutes use the word "clients."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 9, Part 2

So in the last post I likened the House Azure to a temple of Ishtar. The exact meaning of the practices there is open for debate, but a common interpretation is:
What gave the rite of sacred marriage its spiritual significance was its impersonal nature. Those taking the roles of priest and priestess were acting not as man and woman in a human relationship but as incarnations of a divine being. In this way, the participants could expect to have a direct experience of the power of the Great Goddess and feel deeply enriched and energized as a result. Any child born of the union would, as in Sumerian custom, belong to the temple. In many temples, the priestesses would undertake the sacred marriage with any male worshipper who wanted union with the goddess. The man, whom the priestess had not met before and would not meet again, spent the night with her in the temple precincts. Their intercourse would put him in contact with the rejuvenating energy of the Goddess, mediated through her priestess who would bestow on him an ecstatic experience. For the priestess, the sexual act represented a ritual offering to the goddess. A very real benefit was therefore enjoyed by all concerned, not least the temple itself which could expect to earn considerable income from such worshippers. As a result, priestesses often engaged in commerce and might be involved in import and export, land management, and other profitable endeavors. The modern brothel of our own culture, with its "madam," might perhaps be seen as a somewhat pale reflection of the temple of Ishtar.
This is from Mythology of Sex, by Sarah Dening. This is plausible, but my cynical nature makes me wonder what the actual feelings of the participants were, given the disparity between theory and practice in modern religion. Since the House Azure is a pale reflection of the temple of Ishtar, the happenings there are of a personal nature, and a non-religious one. At the same time, it's depersonalized in a worse way:
"It can be quick, if that's what you want. You don't have to talk to the woman if you don't want to. She doesn't care. Of course, she'll talk if that's what you like. You're paying - in this case I am, but the principle's the same. She'll do what you want, within reason. If you strike her or use a grip, they'll charge more." "Do people do that?" "You know, amateurs. I didn't think you'd want to, and I don't think anybody in the guild does it, unless perhaps they're drunk." He paused. "The women are breaking the law, so they can't complain."
I think this implies that Roche has gotten drunk there, or may be condoning the abuse. It also points out one of the dangers of prostitution being illegal. By giving testimony that might put their attacker in jail, a prostitute guarantees that they themselves are going to jail. Or they could get a pimp, assuming the pimp guarantees to protect them, but pimps are known to commonly be abusive. So it's a catch-22 (or two).
Though this girl seemed quite different, there was much about her that reminded me of the "Chatelaine Barbea" who had come before her. Her hair was as white as the flakes that floated past the windows, making her youthful face seem younger still, and her dark complexion darker. She had (or seemed to have) larger breasts and more generous hips. Yet I felt it was almost possible that it was the same woman after all, that she had changed clothing, changed wigs, dusked her face with cosmetics in the few seconds between the other's exit and her entrance. It was absurd, yet there was an element of truth in it, as in so many absurdities. There was something in the eyes of both women, in the expression of their mouths, their carriage and the fluidity of their gestures, that was one. It recalled something I had seen elsewhere (I could not remember where), and yet it was new, and I felt somehow that the other thing, that which I had known earlier, was to be preferred.
This whole chapter could be offensive to people looking for misogyny. The first half of the previous quote could be interpreted as "all women are the same" if you wanted to stretch its meaning. I think it means that "all courtesans are the same," and it qualifies itself as "absurd with an element of truth." I don't think if this were a chapter about Severian going to get his taxes done, and he thought that all the accountants were the same, people would say "gee, this is really offensive to accountants." It's just easier to be objective about taxes than sex. Except at tax time, anyway. The second half is saying that these women are imitating the true grace of Thecla which is "to be preferred." So it seems that Severian doesn't think all women the same. In fact, he chooses the girl pretending to be Thecla.
I asked how many of the court were here, and she paused, looking down at me obliquely. Something there was in her face that might have been vanity satisfied, love, or that more obscure emotion we feel when what had been a contest becomes a performance. "Tonight, very few. Because of the snow. I came in a sleigh with Gracia." I nodded. I thought I knew well enough that she had come only from one of the mean lanes about the house in which we were that night, and most likely on foot, with a shawl over her hair and the cold striking through old shoes. Yet what she said I found more meaningful than reality: I could sense the sweating destriers leaping through the falling snow faster than any machine, the whistling wind, the young, beautiful, jaded women bundled inside in sable and lynx, dark against red velvet cushions.
I like that Wolfe describes emotions that there are no names for; it seems like lesser authors forget they exist. Severian doesn't believe these women are from the court, despite the girl's uncanny resemblance to Thecla. But Wolfe doesn't like anything to be perfectly clear, so maybe Severian was initially fooling himself:
I took a step away from her. (It brought my back almost to the door.) There was nothing of Thecla about her. All that had been a chance resemblance, some gestures, a similarity in dress. I was standing in a small, cold room looking at the neck and bare shoulders of some poor young woman whose parents, perhaps, accepted their share of Roche's meager silver gratefully and pretended not to know where their daughter went at night. "You are not the Chatelaine Thecla," I said. "What am I doing here with you?" There was surely more in my voice than I had intended. She turned to face me, the thin cloth of her gown sliding away from her breasts. I saw fear flicker across her face as though directed by a mirror; she must have been in this situation before, and it must have turned out badly for her. "I am Thecla," she said. "If you want me to be."
Severian nearly strikes her after this. I personally think this is just a very accurate portrayal of how badly we can react if one of our illusions is shattered. So why do so many people take what I consider a logical leap and call the book misogynistic? If you are such a person, let me know.

"Shadow", Chapter 9, Part 1

Roche shows up to take Severian to the Echopraxia, in the Algedonic Quarter. "Algedonic" means "pertaining to pain, especially in association with pleasure." From the context, the Echopraxia is a brothel, but the name means "the involuntary repetition or imitation of the observed movements of another." That's interesting, because earlier, in chapter 7, Master Gurloes says:
"Well now, for decency's sake they have these khaibits, what they call the shadow women, that are common girls that look like the chatelaines. I don't know where they get them, but they're supposed to stand in place of the others. Of course they're not so tall." He chuckled. "I said stand in place, but when they're laying down the tallness probably doesn't make much difference. They do say, though, that oftentimes it works the other way than it's supposed to. Instead of those shadow girls doing duty for their mistresses, the mistresses do it for them. But the present Autarch, whose every deed, I may say, is sweeter than honey in the mouths of this honorable guild and don't you forget it - in his case, I may say, from what I understand it is more than somewhat doubtful if he has the pleasure of any of them."
Roche and Severian are shown women that are called "Chatelaines," and the proprietor claims that they're flown from the court. Severian expresses disbelief, but these women are either the khaibits Gurloes spoke of, or some other women trained to look and act like the Autarch's concubines, and what use would that training be, except at court? Gurloes' use of the word "khaibit" is interesting. It's an Egyptian word meaning "shadow." The exact metaphysical meaning seems to be unknown, at least according to the most reputable sources I found. These women could be the shadows of the Chatelaines, however. The proprietor has a different name for the brothel: the House Azure. I think its name is, as usual for Wolfe, overloaded with symbolism. "Blue" can mean "suggestive of sexual impropriety" -- thus it's a brothel. "Blue" can mean "aristocratic" -- thus the women are called Chatelaines, and it has kind of a courtly feel. "Blue" can mean sad, and I think it a fairly sad place. I think it has religious tones as well, because Severian says "It was as though I were awaiting the beginning of some ceremony in the ruined chapel, but at once less real and more serious." The Ishtar Gate of Babylonia was blue, and The Golden Bough says: "Thus at Babylon every woman, whether rich or poor, had once in her life to submit to the embraces of a stranger at the temple of Mylitta, that is, of Ishtar or Astarte, and to dedicate to the goddess the wages earned by this sanctified harlotry. [emphasis mine]" The color blue is important in many religions, probably because the sky is blue. The Hindu gods are often depicted as blue. From the Talmud: "The blue wool resembles the ocean, the ocean resembles the color of the sky, the sky resembles the purity of the sapphire, and the sapphire resembles the throne of G-d." In Catholicism, blue symbolizes heavenly grace. The Virgin Mary is often depicted wearing blue clothing. So this place could be a sort of Babylonian temple as well.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 8, Part 1

"When I am free," she said, "I shall found my own sect. I will tell everyone that its wisdom was revealed to me during my sojourn among the torturers. They'll listen to that." I asked what her teachings would be. "That there is no agathodaemon or afterlife. That the mind is extinguished in death as in sleep, yet more so." "But who will you say revealed that to you?" She shook her head, then rested her pointed chin upon one hand, a pose that showed off the graceful line of her neck admirably. "I haven't decided yet. An angel of ice, perhaps. Or a ghost. Which do you think best?" "Isn't there a contradiction in that?" "Precisely." Her voice was rich with the pleasure the question gave her. "In that contradiction will reside the appeal of this new belief. One can't found a novel theology on Nothing, and nothing is so secure a foundation as a contradiction. Look at the great successes of the past - they say their deities are the masters of all the universes, and yet that they require grandmothers to defend them, as if they were children frightened by poultry. Or that the authority that punishes no one while there exists a chance for reformation will punish everyone when there is no possibility anyone will become the better for it."
Agathodaemon: "A benevolent spirit as opposed to a cacodemon (an evil daemon)... A good spirit/demon that was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. He had the shape of a serpent with a human head. The flying serpents or dragons venerated by ancient peoples were also called Agathodemons, or good genies." "In ancient Greek religion, Agathos Daimon or Agathodaemon (Greek: αγαθος δαιμων, "very good spirit") was a daemon or presiding spirit of the vineyards and grainfields and a personal companion spirit, similar to the Roman genius, ensuring good luck, health and wisdom." This might seem to be an attack on theology, and it may even be. Anyone who wants all their beliefs to be logical and self-consistent has to be frustrated into bad-mouthing religions every now and then. Of course, there are two types of people here:
  • people who want all their beliefs to be logical and self-consistent, and are frustrated that faith in contradictory things is required: their faith is an imperfect thing. This includes most people, from all religions (including atheism, as I'll argue below).
  • people who think that all their beliefs are logical and self-consistent, and therefore you are a fool for disagreeing with them. These people are fundamentalists (again I include atheists), and should be avoided if possible.
Here's a good page on Aquinas' 5 proofs of the existence of God. One of the pages linking off it shows that a couple of the proofs depend on the axiom "nothing comes from nothing." All you need to do is change the axiom to "the universe came from nothing" and you've just proved the atheistic conclusion. The author of that page views both these proofs as question-begging. There is also a link to a refutation of that. You can see how frustration might accrue. One of my friends recently posted the quote "What is asserted without reason, may be denied without reason." This is a nice summary of the last paragraph. I get the bad feeling that when atheists use that quote, there's an undercurrent that their lack of reason is much more reasonable than your lack of reason. So their axiom is much more reasonable than yours. Let's look at the above axiom of atheism, "something came from nothing:"
  1. Never in my life have I seen that.
  2. Most atheists have a great (dare I say spiritual?) respect for the economy and beauty of physical law. One of the key axioms of all current physical sciences is "something cannot come from nothing." In fact, a theory is not considered economical and beautiful until it satisfies this axiom. So the key axiom of atheism and a key axiom of science (and common sense) are contradictory. No shame in that, it justs means that atheists are as frustrated as everybody else.
  3. There is a quote by Carl Sagan "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." It expresses normal skepticism, which some people think is synonymous with atheism (atheists, mostly). Seeing as how the claim that the universe came from nothing is fairly extraordinary, I'd say atheists have some 'splaining to do.
Atheism as a theology is minimalistic, since the claim "God doesn't exist" is much simpler than the claims a religion makes. That's just because for something to be called a religion is has to weigh in on not only the origin of the universe, but morality, the exact nature of God, free will, governance, jurisprudence, eating habits, etc. etc. Naturally your average religion has more contradictions than atheism. But considering the huge contradiction above, I think that atheism would rack up its fair share of inconsistencies if it tried to tie together all those subjects. Whether or not a religion should try to deal with all these things is another question.
...it was starting to snow, fluffy flakes as big as the end of my thumb sifting so slowly through the air that it seemed they must have been falling for years. There was no wind, and we could hear the creaking our boots made in breaking through the familiar world's new, thin disguise.
Nothing to say, just beautiful writing.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 7, Part 2

Gurloes was one of the most complex men I have known, because he was a complex man trying to be simple. Not a simple, but a complex man's idea of simplicity. Just as a courtier forms himself into something brilliant and involved, midway between a dancing master and a diplomacist, with a touch of assassin if needed, so Master Gurloes had shaped himself to be the dull creature a pursuivant or bailiff expected to see when he summoned the head of our guild, and that is the only thing a real torturer cannot be. The strain showed; though every part of Gurloes was as it should have been, none of the parts fit. He drank heavily and suffered from nightmares, but he had the nightmares when he had been drinking, as if the wine, instead of bolting the doors of his mind, threw them open and left him staggering about in the last hours of the night, trying to catch a glimpse of a sun that had not yet appeared, a sun that would banish the phantoms from his big cabin and permit him to dress and send the journeymen to their business. Sometimes he went to the top of our tower, above the guns, and waited there talking to himself, peering through glass said to be harder than flint for the first beams. He was the only one in our guild - Master Palaemon not excepted - who was unafraid of the energies there and the unseen mouths that spoke sometimes to human beings and sometimes to other mouths in other towers and keeps. He loved music, but he thumped the arm of his chair to it and tapped his foot, and did so most vigorously to the kind he liked best, whose rhythms were too subtle for any regular cadence. He ate too much and too seldom, read when he thought no one knew of it, and visited certain of our clients, including one on the third level, to talk of things none of us eaves-dropping in the corridor outside could understand. His eyes were refulgent, brighter than any woman's. He mispronounced quite common words: /urticate, salpinx, bordereau/. I cannot well tell you how bad he looked when I returned to the Citadel recently, how bad he looks now.
This is an incredible characterization. Unfortunately, I'm having trouble thinking of anything to say here. I don't believe I've met anyone like this. I have met people who do the opposite, try to appear more complex than they are. Actually, I'd say they're already complex, and trying to look complex in a different way they think is more impressive. That's because I would consider most people fairly complex. Maybe you would disagree, but they are complex enough to try to act more complex: I wouldn't call that simple. The closest thing I can think of is people who fly thousands of miles in jets, then drive another very complex machine to a park maintained by a large group of people who work for a very large government agency, then take a walk with hundreds of dollars of camping equipment. That's called "getting back to nature." I'm not putting them down, it's an enjoyable activity. It's just not a return to the practices of our naturalistic primitive ancestors, or it would involve a lot more starvation and infant mortality. That's only one specific activity, though, not a whole persona. Have you ever met someone like Gurloes? Since I don't have much to say, I'll look up the archaic words Wolfe uses:
  • pursuivant: a junior herald
  • bailiff: in this context, seems to be similar to a small-town sheriff.
  • urticate: whip with or as with nettles
  • salpinx: a trumpet-like instrument of the ancient Greeks; a tube in the uterus or the ear
  • bordereau: A detailed statement, especially one containing a detailed listing of documents or accounts
These words would be quite common to Master Gurloes, who is a warden/manager/torturer/medical professional.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 7, Part 1

Whatever the reason, I loved her at once - loved her, at least, insofar as a stupid boy can love. But being only a stupid boy, I did not know it.
Severian has just met Thecla. There's a St. Thecla (surprise) in the apocrypha, who was a companion to Paul. In that story, she's a chaste maiden, which doesn't quite fit. But she visits Paul in his cell when he's arrested, which is quite nicely symmetric with Severian visiting Thecla. Later, Thecla is sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts. This has an analogue later in the book; we'll get to it. Before that, she was to be burned at the stake, which might also have an analogue later in the book. Sorry about teasing you all, but I'm trying to avoid spoilers. Wolfe seems to put down stupid boy love. But is it because it's simplistic? The way a pet or a small child loves you - is that somehow substandard, too? And since we've got the religious angle here, isn't that what your love for God should be like - simple, pure, unconditional?
She smiled, and I felt as I had when I had been in the Atrium of Time and had come inside to a warm room and food. She had narrow, very white teeth in a wide mouth; her eyes, each as deep as the cistern beneath the Bell Keep, shone when she smiled. "I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't hear you."
We've all been there, I think. Also, this again illustrates that Severian can't really remember everything, just everything he is focused on. "She sighed, and all the gladness went out of her face, as the sunlight leaves the stone where a beggar seeks to warm himself." -- Gene-ius.
"Wait. Aren't you going to ask me why I'm here?" "I know why you're here," I said as I swung back the door. "To be tortured, eventually, like the others." It was a cruel thing to say, and I said it without reflection as young men do, only because it was what was in my mind. Yet it was true, and I was glad in some way, as I turned the key in the lock, that I had said it.
If one were jumping to conclusions, this could indicate the fabled misogyny that some people find in this book. But let's read the next couple of paragraphs:
We had had exultants for clients often before. Most, when they arrived, had some understanding of their situation, as the Chatelaine Thecla did now. But when a few days had passed and they were not put to torment, their hope cast down their reason and they began to talk of release - how friends and family would maneuver to gain their freedom, and of what they would do when they were free. One would withdraw to his estates and trouble the Autarch's court no more. Another would volunteer to lead a muster of lansquenets in the north. Then the journeymen on duty in the oubliette would hear tales of hunting dogs and remote heaths, and country games, unknown elsewhere, played beneath immemorial trees. The women were more realistic for the most part, but even they in time spoke of highly placed lovers (cast aside now for months or years) who would never abandon them, and then of bearing children or adopting waifs. One knew when these never-to-be-born children were given names that clothing would not be far behind: a new wardrobe on their release, the old clothes to be burned; they talked of colors, of inventing new fashions and reviving old ones. At last the time would come, to men and women alike, when instead of a journeyman with food, Master Gurloes would appear trailing three or four journeymen and perhaps an examiner and a fulgurator. I wanted to preserve the Chatelaine Thecla from such hopes if I could.
So he was glad he said it because he loved her and didn't want to give her false hope. I don't know whether I agree that no hope is better than false hope. Especially in this case.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 6, Part 3

I opened the book at random and read, "...by which means a picture might be graven with such skill that the whole of it, should it be destroyed, might be recreated from a small part, and that small part might be any part." I suppose it was the word graven that suggested to me the events I had witnessed on the night I had received my chrisos. "Master," I answered, "you are phenomenal." "No, but I am seldom mistaken." "You, of all men, will excuse me when I tell you I tarried a moment to read a few lines of this book. Master, you know of the corpse-eaters, surely. I have heard it said that by devouring the flesh of the dead, together with a certain pharmacon, they are able to relive the lives of their victims." "It is unwise to know too much about these practices," the archivist murmured, "though when I think of sharing the mind of a historian like Loman, or Hermas..." In his years of blindness he must have forgotten how nakedly our faces can betray our deepest feelings. By the light of the candles I saw his twisted in such an agony of desire that out of decency I turned away; his voice remained as calm as some solemn bell. "But from what I once read, you are correct, though I do not now recall that the book you hold treats of it." "Master," I said, "I give you my word I would never suspect you of such a thing. But tell me this - suppose two collaborate in the robbing of a grave, and one takes the right band for his share, and the other the left. Does he who ate the right hand have but half the dead man's life, and the other the rest? And if so, what if a third were to come and devour a foot?" "It's a pity you are a torturer," Ultan said. "You might have been a philosopher. No, as I understand this noxious matter, each has the entire life." "Then a man's whole life is in his right hand and in his left as well. Is it in each finger too?" "I believe each participant must consume more than a mouthful for the practice to be effective. But I suppose that in theory at least, what you say is correct. The entire life is in each finger." We were already walking back in the direction we had come. Since the aisle was too narrow for us to pass one another, I now carried the candelabrum before him, and a stranger, seeing us, would surely have thought I lighted his way. "But Master," I said, "how can that be? By the same argument, the life must reside in each joint of every finger, and surely that is impossible." "How big is a man's life?" asked Ultan. "I have no way of knowing, but isn't it larger than that?" "You see it from the beginning, and anticipate much. I, recollecting it from its termination, know how little there has been. I suppose that is why the depraved creatures who devour the bodies of the dead seek more. Let me ask you this - are you aware that a son often strikingly resembles his father?" "I have heard it said, yes. And I believe it," I answered. I could not help thinking as I did of the parents I would never know. "Then it is possible, you will agree, since each son may resemble his father, for a face to endure through many generations. That is, if the son resembles the father, and his son resembles him, and that son's son resembles him, then the fourth in line, the great-grandson, resembles his great-grandfather." "Yes," I said. "Yet the seed of all of them was contained in a drachm of sticky fluid. If they did not come from there, from where did they come?"
The picture referred to is a hologram. Unfortunately you lose resolution if you try to reconstruct a hologram from a small part, so it's not quite as perfect as it sounds. As for the possibility that a person's whole life exists in every part of their body, I'm going to have to disagree. "A man's life" seems in this case to mean his memories, which exist only in the brain. In fact, even "motor memory," which you would think might have a significant component in the muscles, seems to be almost entirely located in the brain. The analogy between memories being in every cell and the genes responsible for facial characteristics being in every cell is flawed, I think. Of course, according to quantum mechanics, every group of particles that have ever interacted with each other still technically form one system, so I guess it's possible that all the information about an entire person's body could be extracted from one atom thereof by some complicated, as yet unknown means. There is also the theological reading, comparing the practice of the corpse-eaters to the Eucharist. I think Wolfe is trying to work out some Catholic aspects of transubstatiation, specifically: "Believing that Christ is risen from the dead and is alive, the Catholic Church holds that, when the bread is changed into his body, not only his body is present, but Christ as a whole i.e. body and blood, soul and divinity. The same holds for the wine changed into his blood. This belief goes beyond the doctrine of transubstantiation, which directly concerns only the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ." So maybe he's trying to make analogies about how the whole of Christ can be in each part of the Blessed Sacrament. Reading about memory, I came across hyperthymesia, incredibly good autobiographical memory. This is much better documented than eidetic memory, so it seems a person like Severian could actually exist. I was also reminded of another short story by Borges in Labyrinths called "Funes the Memorius" about a boy who remembers everything in perfect detail. This is obviously one of Wolfe's inspirations. "Before I had so much as opened any of the other volumes, I felt that pressure of time that is perhaps the surest indication we have left childhood behind." The question is, does that pressure come from responsibilities (as I think Wolfe is saying), or from awareness of your own mortality? Although maybe that knowledge makes you think keeping active is very important, so you give yourself a responsibility to do so. I haven't even begun to cover the ideas raised in these quotes. Since I'm feeling lazy, that's what your comments are for :)