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 :)

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