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.

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