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.

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