Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 6, Part 1

I don't know what to quote here. The whole chapter is so good. It's an ode to books. Severian is sent to fetch some books from the library, where he meets the master of the curators Ultan and his apprentice Cyby. These are both the names of saints, unsurprisingly. St. Ultan collected and illuminated the works of his niece St. Brigid, so that makes sense, but St. Cyby had nothing to do with books at all, as far as I could find with an admittedly brief search. Wolfe describes Ultan's voice thus:
"Who's there?" a voice called. It was a strangely resonant one, like the sound of a bell tolled inside a cave.... Again I seemed to hear bronze, and quite suddenly I felt that he and I were dead, and that the darkness surrounding us was grave soil pressing in about our eyes, grave soil through which the bell called us to worship at whatever shrines may exist below ground. The livid woman I had seen dragged from her grave rose before me so vividly that I seemed to see her face in the almost luminous whiteness of the figure who spoke.... The name rang through the dark corridors I sensed all about me as the iron tongue struck the echoing bronze on one side, then the other....
This is a reference to Stentor, a herald of the Greeks in the Iliad. In that story, he's described as having a "voice of bronze." From his name comes the word stentorian. Wolfe describes a cathedral superbly: "It is, it is. The cathedral is very fine too, once we reach it. There are banks of tapers, as though the sun were shining on the night sea. And candles in blue glass to symbolize the Claw. Enfolded in light, we conduct our ceremonies before the high altar." Usually, when someone says that prose is "pure poetry," I don't agree, but "as though the sun were shining on the night sea" is poetry. Wolfe then slips into a casual conversation a truly incredible proposition (he likes to do that):
"You are in close contact, then, with your opposite numbers in the city," I said. The old man stroked his beard. "The closest, for we are they. This library is the city library, and the library of the House Absolute too, for that matter. And many others." "Do you mean that the rabble of the city is permitted to enter the Citadel to use your library?" "No," said Ultan. "I mean that the library itself extends beyond the walls of the Citadel. Nor, I think, is it the only institution here that does so. It is thus that the contents of our fortress are so much larger than their container."
So this underground library extends to the House Absolute, miles and miles outside of a huge city. If paper books don't become obsolete, I agree that's the logical conclusion of billions of years of book writing. In the metaphorical sense, it could mean that the practices of institutions in the center of culture have effects that reach throughout a society. Even if it's the center of culture of long ago, this is true: ideas developed at the Acropolis of Athens still influence us today. Ultan reminds us that this is no ordinary library:
His grip on my shoulder tightened. "We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no trace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations - books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them. "We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books too whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have also that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. There is a cube of crystal here - though I can no longer tell you where - no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a harlot might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other.
All this reminds me of a story by Borges, from Labyrinths. In it, there is a library containing all possible books of a certain length and a certain fixed alphabet. This renders it pretty much useless as a source of information. Wolfe's library is huge, but it's not quite as ambitiously huge as that. It also is at least partially usable, since the librarians know where the books Severian wants are. But Wolfe implies that there are only two librarians for the whole immense library, which might explain why "Some of the shelves were disordered, some straight; once or twice I saw evidence that rats had been nesting among the books, rearranging them to make snug two and three-level homes for themselves and smearing dung on the covers to form the rude characters of their speech." Oh, by the way, this might be a figure of speech, or rats might have evolved written communication. In case you weren't having enough trouble with the continent-spanning library and its acid-infused books, there's a little something to keep you unsteady. Curse Gene Wolfe.

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