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 :)

"Shadow", Chapter 6, Part 2

"You are familiar, I suppose, with the method by which we recruit our numbers?" I admitted I was not. "In every library, by ancient precept, is a room reserved for children. In it are kept bright picture books such as children delight in, and a few simple tales of wonder and adventure. Many children come to these rooms, and so long as they remain within their confines, no interest is taken in them." He hesitated, and though I could discern no expression on his face, I received the impression that he feared what he was about to say might cause Cyby pain. "From time to time, however, a librarian remarks a solitary child, still of tender years, who wanders from the children's room and at last deserts it entirely. Such a child eventually discovers, on some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold. You have never seen this book, and you will never see it, being past the age at which it is met." "It must be very beautiful," I said. "It is indeed. Unless my memory betrays me, the cover is of black buckram, considerably faded at the spine. Several of the signatures are coming out, and certain of the plates have been taken. But it is a remarkably lovely book. I wish that I might find it again, though all books are shut to me now. "The child, as I said, in time discovers The Book of Gold. Then the librarians come -like vampires, some say, but others say like the fairy godparents at a christening. They speak to the child, and the child joins them. Henceforth he is in the library wherever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more. I suppose it is much the same among the torturers." "We take such children as fall into our hands," I said, "and are very young." "We do the same," old Ultan muttered. "So we have little right to condemn you."
This is a good description of the most virulent strain of the reading bug. I personally think that for most people who read a lot, the habit is just that, a habit. Our tastes change as we get older, but reading is something that one gets accustomed to at a young age. At least it was for me. Of course, only the people who enjoy reading keep the habit. The enjoyable habits are the hardest to break. The Book of Gold appears in other works by Gene Wolfe, and of course the idea appears in many stories: the perfect book, containing all knowledge and wisdom. Wolfe segues very nicely into the next part, which implies that we are about to meet this story's version of the Book of Gold:
"I think you know the contents of every book here, sieur." "Hardly. But Wonders of Urth and Sky was a standard work, three or four hundred years ago. It relates most of the familiar legends of ancient times. To me the most interesting is that of the Historians, which tells of a time in which every legend could be traced to half-forgotten fact. You see the paradox, I assume. Did that legend itself exist at that time? And if not, how came it into existence?" ... A subtitle announced: "Being a Collection from Printed Sources of Universal Secrets of Such Age That Their Meaning Has Become Obscured of Time."
I don't know what story the legend of the Historians refers to; maybe I'll research it later. I wonder if any of our current legends at all will survive that far into the future. People talk about how hard it is for different cultures to understand one another, but there's always some commonality because we're all human beings. The time is fast approaching, though, when human beings will have so much control over their bodies that I think we're going to have to drop the "human" and just call ourselves "beings." What if you come from wildly different planets and your body (an therefore brain) chemistry is adapted to that planet? What happens when the line between biological and mechanical is completely erased? Will different groups of people have enough thought processes in common to have a set of legends they all understand? It'll be like Babel, except people will have entirely different bodies and sets of feelings, not just different languages. At least the Tower of Babel legend might survive :)

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.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 5, Part 2

"Thought so. Nobody never talks about [the torturers], though. You're angry about those armigers and I don't blame you. But you ought to know how it is with them. They're supposed to be like exultants, only they're not. They're afraid to die, afraid to hurt, and afraid to act like it. It's hard on them." "They should be done away with," I said. "Vodalus would set them quarrying. They're only a carryover from some past age - what possible help can they give the world?" The old man cocked his head. "Why, what help was they to begin? Do you know?"
According to an appendix of the second volume "The Claw of the Conciliator," the exultants are a hereditary ruling class. The armigers "seem much like exultants, though on a lesser scale. Their name indicates a fighting class, but they do not appear to have monopolized the major roles in the army; no doubt their position could be likened to that of the samurai who served the daimyos of feudal Japan." "Exultant" means joyful or triumphant, and the original Latin essentially means "jumped up," which may be a little joke on Gene Wolfe's part, but I couldn't find a record of the word being a person's title. "Armiger" literally means "armor-bearer," and "In high and late medieval England, the word referred to an esquire attendant upon a knight, but bearing his own unique armorial device." There are a number of irritating things about the quote. It implies that these hereditary leaders are somehow braver and better than other people, which in my opinion is an old fairy tale stretching back to Plato's Republic (or farther). Of course, Plato envisioned himself as one of these supreme leaders, so they come off looking pretty good. Also, through much of history, those were the people killing anyone who implied they deserved the same rights as their lords. So public opinion of them remained good (or else). Nowadays, we elect these people, and surely we wouldn't elect anyone but the very best human beings to a high office? That's one theory. Another is that we'll pick the best liar, or the one whose face we've seen the most. It also reveals a contempt for middle management, which is too pat. Lots of us probably agree, but maybe that's because our bosses are middle management, and we think we're "doing all the work." No one that I've ever heard rag on managers has ever suggested how things would be run if they didn't exist, though. What would a hierarchical organization with no middle of the tree be like? My guess: total f***ing chaos.

"Shadow", Chapter 5, Part 1

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more. This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt. In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it - not into our necropolis but into one of those mountain forests of which our necropolis was (as I understood even then) an idealized but vitiated image. It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.
This is what Severian says when he meets Rudesind, the curator of the pinakotheken. Interestingly, "The name is specifically used for the building containing pictures which formed the left wing of the Propylaea on the Acropolis at Athens, Greece." So my Citadel = Acropolis theory is looking better. The galleries are incredibly extensive, since Severian says "dark arches opened to strings of chambers lined - as the hallway itself was - with innumerable pictures." and "After I had walked at least a league among these enigmatic paintings one day...." Rudesind is the name of yet another saint, a bishop and abbot of Galicia. Why does the painting affect Severian so? Maybe because it's an ancient image of a great explorer, or it could be Wolfe's own projected feelings about one of the iconic images of his lifetime, or it could be because it's a scene of desolation, and Severian wants to take it to a place of vitality. My favored guess is that he somehow knows that it comes from a time when man still was driven to explore the stars, something that is rare or nonexistent in his world. Vitiated means corrupted or diminished, by the way. In case you haven't guessed what the picture is:
"There's your blue Urth coming over his shoulder again, fresh as the Autarch's fish...." "Is that the moon? I have been told it's more fertile." "Now it is, yes. This was done before they got it irrigated. See that gray-brown? In those times, that's what you'd see if you looked up at her. Not green like she is now. Didn't seem so big either, because it wasn't so close in - that's what old Branwallader used to say. Now there's trees enough on it to hide Nilammon, as the saw goes."
The point is pretty clear: the picture is of an astronaut on the moon's surface. As to the forestation of the moon, Wolfe had made comments about "green moonlight" earlier, but that's a poetic device as well, so it wasn't really a definitive clue. The moon is currently moving away from the earth due to tidal acceleration, but it very well could move closer due to friction with the solar atmosphere when the sun becomes a red giant. Whether or not Wolfe got his science right is irrelevant, though, because a giant green moon and a giant red sun would be pretty awesome. Branwallader is, to no one's surprise, another saint. And guess what? Nilammon is too. One day I'm going to have to do some real research as to why all of these people are saints.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 4, Part 2

In the elevation of [the beast handlers'] masters, the candidate stands under a metal grate trod by a bleeding bull; at some point in life each brother takes a lioness or bear-sow in marriage, after which he shuns human women. All of which is only to say that there exists between them and the animals they bring to the pits a bond much like that between our clients and ourselves. Now I have traveled much farther from our tower, but I have found always that the pattern of our guild is repeated mindlessly (like the repetitions of Father Inire's mirrors in the House Absolute) in the societies of every trade, so that they are all of them torturers, just as we. His quarry stands to the hunter as our clients to us; those who buy to the tradesman; the enemies of the Commonwealth to the soldier; the governed to the governors; men to women. All love that which they destroy.
This is an amusing reminder of the effect of viewpoint on perception. It reminds me of The Indian Upon God. The last point reminds me of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. So you can add "women to men" to the list. The assertions that soldiers love their enemies and the torturers love their clients are interesting. If "love" means "appreciate keeping them in employment" then it sort of makes sense. Perhaps soldiers who have seen a lot of combat start to identify more strongly with other combatants than with people living at home, since the rules of war are completely different than the rules of normal society. To quote from much later in the book: "War is not a new experience; it is a new world." The point about the torturers is less tenable, since the tone towards the clients so far in the book has been very detached and cold. Maybe it means that the clients allow them to practice their art and gain a sense of professional worth, as well as feeling like they are an arm of justice in their society. It seems more of a selfish love than some of the others, though; "I love you because of the way you make me feel about myself." Although I suppose any love that destroys its object is a selfish love. This may be another instance of possible misogyny, although I think its just an instance of melodrama. Triskele (the Trinity, remember) runs away from Severian, and he pursues him through "a welter of lightless corridors of whose existence I had been utterly unaware.... Soon I was lost, and went forward only because I did not know how to go back." I believe this symbolizes the incredible maze of conflicting doctrine that exists on the Trinity. Severian surfaces in the Atrium of Time, a courtyard filled with sundials. The sundials do double duty as an evocation of the sun and of time, two themes of the book (and the sun is a way we tell time, which wraps it up nicely into a solar circle). Suggestive fact about atria: "Byzantine churches were often entered through such a space (as are many mosques, though the term is not usually used for Islamic architecture)." This atrium is also a rose garden in summer. There he meets a girl named Valeria.
"Is that what you call it? The Atrium of Time? Because of the dials, I suppose." "No, the dials were put there because we call it that. Do you like the dead languages? They have mottoes. 'Lux dei vitae viam monstrat,' that's 'The beam of the New Sun lights the way of life.' 'Felicibus brevis, miseris hora longa.' 'Men wait long for happiness.' 'Aspice ut aspiciar.' "
These are all Latin mottoes from sundials. "The light of God shows the way of life." "Happiness is brief, misery lasts long." (I like Valeria's more upbeat translation) "Look at me so that I am looked at." I found that "Aspice ut aspicari" is anecdotally the correct Roman motto. It means "Look, in order to be seen." I wish I had confirmation of that. Valeria is from Latin valere (healthy, strong). There was a martyr Saint Valeria, and the Roman emperor Valerian was captured and humbled by the Persians. This is vaguely similar to the reversal of fortune of Valeria's family. Apparently the ancient Greek word for Citadel is Acropolis. So having the Citadel overrun by a necropolis might be a pun. The buildings of the Citadel might also parallel in some way those of the Acropolis of Athens, but I'm not going to try to test that hypothesis now.

"Shadow", Chapter 4, Part 1

There are encounters that change nothing. Urth turns her aged face to the sun and he beams upon her snows; they scintillate and coruscate until each little point of ice hanging from the swelling sides of the towers seems the Claw of the Conciliator, the most precious of gems. Then everyone except the wisest believes that the snow must melt and give way to a protracted summer beyond summer.

Nothing of the sort occurs. The paradise endures for a watch or two, then shadows blue as watered milk lengthen on the snow, which shifts and dances under the spur of an east wind. Night comes, and all is at it was.

All my encounters with religion are like this. Sometimes I have experiences almost literally as he describes, except it's the "miraculous light" he refers to earlier that seems to be scintillating off every object, even dull and commonplace ones. But then my skeptical side reasserts itself, and like Severian I am left wondering if it was just a trick of my mind.

This chapter is about Severian's dog, Triskele. He has three legs (that's what triskele means), so I think he represents the Trinity. The triskele has lots of other symbolism in case that's not enough for you. In a display of Wolfian humor, it's probably also a reference to the Star Trek episode "The Gamesters of Triskelion," since Triskele is a fighting dog. I think this chapter is an allegory of Wolfe's feelings about the Trinity. I don't think it's about the doctrine of the Trinity because "the" doctrine doesn't exist. Interpretation of the Trinity's meaning is one of the best-developed competitive sports among theologians. Wolfe's irritation with the resulting confusion shows through. Triskele is "pitiful," the encounter with him "changes nothing."

If I had found him a year, two years, before, he would have been a divinity to me. I would have told Drotte and the rest, and he would have been a divinity to us all. Now I knew him for the poor animal he was, and yet I could not let him die because it would have been a breaking of faith with something in myself. I had been a man (if I was truly a man) such a short time; I could not endure to think that I had become a man so different from the boy I had been. I could remember each moment of my past, every vagrant thought and sight, every dream. How could I destroy that past? I held up my hands and tried to look at them - I knew the veins stood out on their backs now. It is when those veins stand out that one is a man.
I think this is a statement of how open-minded children are. It's definitely an ambivalent sentiment. It seems to be saying that children are credulous, in both its good and bad senses. Its a tricky balancing act to be discerning without becoming close-minded. Children accept things on very little to no evidence. But how much evidence is enough? To learn genuinely new things, especially revolutionary things, I think there's an initial period when you have to let go of the "evidence" that you've accumulated. Maybe you were misinformed, maybe you're selectively remembering only opposing evidence, maybe you have too much invested in one way of thinking to really think objectively. Maybe children will believe almost anything you tell them, but some adults won't believe their own eyes. But I don't agree with the sentiment that you should hold on to the beliefs of childhood simply because you don't want to "destroy the past." Nostalgia is not a good enough reason to believe something, I would say. And anyway, destruction and rebirth is good in the physical, mental, and spiritual sense, right?
  • Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
  • Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.
  • As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.

Anyway, the Trinity is a very sticky wicket, and it'll be interesting to see what else Wolfe has to say about it later.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 3, Part 3

There was a loose stone in the floor almost at the foot of my funeral bronze. I pried it up and put the chrisos under it, then muttered an incantation I had learned years before from Roche, a few lines of verse that would hold hidden objects safe:

"Where I put you, there you lie,
Never let a stranger spy,
Like glass grow to any eye,
Not of me.

Here be safe, never leave it,
Should a hand come, deceive it,
Let strange eyes not believe it,
Till I see."

For the charm to be really effective one had to walk around the spot at midnight carrying a corpse-candle, but I found myself laughing at the thought - which suggested Drotte's mummery about simples drawn at midnight from graves - and decided to rely on the verse alone, though I was somewhat astonished to discover that I was now old enough not to be ashamed of it.
This is confusing me. Severian is obviously doing magic, and he thinks it will work. At the same time (in the same sentence), he is ridiculing it as a sham. Again in the same sentence, he says that he's no longer ashamed of believing in magic, which implies that he used to be.

Well, that's damn confusing. Let me muddy the waters further by reprising an earlier quote: "The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all." But Severian is trying to hide something using only mental power. Maybe Wolfe is saying something about the medieval perception of magic, but I know almost nothing about the medieval mindset.

Well, I can't come to any conclusions now; maybe I'll come back to it. Let me know if you have any thoughts that might help me out. Here is some reading on magic that didn't help me with the quote, but was interesting:

Friday, September 11, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 3, Part 2

There's a funny scene in which Severian is being lectured by Master Palaemon. Wolfe nails all the little details of how boys act when they're being lectured. My favorite quote is "I squinted to indicate that I was thinking of mice." During the lecture, Severian recalls the coin Vodalus gave him: "the coin was like a coal of fire, and I dared not look." Wolfe reuses this time-worn metaphor of a distraction to also suggest the dying sun, which would look much like a coal. The coin turns out to be a gold coin, yet another sun-symbol:
This one bore what I at first thought was a woman's face - a woman crowned, neither young nor old, but silent and perfect in the citrine metal. At last I turned my treasure over, and then indeed I caught my breath; stamped on the reverse was just such a flying ship as I had seen in the arms above the door of my secret mausoleum. It seemed beyond explanation - so much so that at the time I did not even trouble to speculate about it, so sure was I that any speculation would be fruitless. Instead, I thrust the coin back into my pocket and went, in a species of trance, to rejoin my fellow apprentices.

The title of the chapter is "The Autarch's Face," and the head of state would probably be on a valuable coin. So Severian's secret mausoleum is either a former Autarch's, or belongs to an important ruling family that the current Autarch comes from.

Wolfe later uses the coin to cast doubt on Severian's reliability:

It was in this instant of confusion that I realized for the first time that I am in some degree insane. It could be argued that it was the most harrowing of my life. I had lied often to Master Gurloes and Master Palaemon, to Master Malrubius while he still lived, to Drotte because he was captain, to Roche because he was older and stronger than I, and to Eata and the other smaller apprentices because I hoped to make them respect me. Now I could no longer be sure my own mind was not lying to me; all my falsehoods were recoiling on me, and I who remembered everything could not be certain those memories were more than my own dreams. I recalled the moonlit face of Vodalus; but then, I had wanted to see it. I recalled his voice as he spoke to me, but I had desired to hear it, and the woman's voice too.

One freezing night, I crept back to the mausoleum and took out the chrisos again. The worn, serene, androgynous face on its obverse was not the face of Vodalus.

This implies that he remembered the coin as having Voldalus' face on it. Wolfe is reminding us that even when we remember something "perfectly," our mind fills in details about things we didn't pay attention to, and can even rewrite memories as time goes on. This is why eyewitness accounts of the same event by different people can vary. This kind of memory revision and interpolation is what makes it possible for us to lie to ourselves.

It also implies that Severian lies quite a bit. What I find interesting is that he lies to gain respect; in most books or movies, a person lies to "get away with something": to steal something, exploit someone for personal gain, or hide something dreadful. I'm with Wolfe here: I think most lies are told to gain respect from someone. This is hardly covered at all by other works of art. The other main reason I think people lie is to avoid dealing with something. "Lying to yourself" often falls under this category. I guess a lie to yourself can often be a lie to gain respect, self-respect. The avoidance lie is covered better in art, but I think the malicious lie is still way overrepresented. Now that I think about it, media of all kinds like to focus on clear-cut "good vs. evil" scenarios: the "white lie" doesn't make good press, and "stealing your car back from your crazy ex-girlfriend" doesn't make as good a movie as a jewel heist.

Basically Wolfe is saying that no matter how good a person's memory is, you can't believe everything they say. Caveat lector.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 3, Part 1

Speaking about the torturers' Matachin Tower, Severian says "the examination room was the propulsion chamber of the original structure". So their tower at least, and maybe all the structures in the Citadel, are converted spaceships. From other comments of Severian's, it's obvious that they were converted so long ago that no one knows why. Matachin is a Spanish word for a religious dancer. In Mexico, "The dancers are known for playing in rough-and-ready style a set drama based on the history of Montezuma. Even though the dances are based on this story, people who join the Matachines do it for a deeper religious purpose, since most of them join to venerate either Mother Mary (Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes, Immaculate conception, etc.), a saint (the group usually chooses the saint that pertains to the church they belong to), or simply to worship Christ or God the Holy Trinity." So this is simultaneously a reference to a Catholic tradition and the Aztec culture. Were you aware that in Aztec religion existence is cyclical, with the sun dying at night to rise reborn in the morning? Or that the gods created four suns that were all destroyed, but an Aztec god sacrificed himself, and was reborn as the fifth sun so that humanity might live? Neither was I, but that last bit sounds vaguely familiar. Matachin also seems to mean a dance with swords and masks from Europe, probably Moorish in origin. Coincidentally enough, the torturers wear masks and use swords on ceremonial occasions.

"Shadow", Chapter 2, Part 4

The executions I have seen performed and have performed myself so often are no more than a trade, a butchery of human beings who are for the most part less innocent and less valuable than cattle.
This quote seems very callous, and it may very well be, given the character's upbringing and profession (which are the same thing) but in context (see the last post) it's more confusing than that. Coming after a statement about how life abounds in a place of death, it almost seems like a non sequitur. It seems like Wolfe is getting at something, but I can't figure out what it is. So I'll just do some free association: Can the word innocent be applied to animals? And is that how some vegetarians view eating meat, as the slaughter of innocents? All you vegetarians should let me know. To me, innocent is a tricky word. I don't think that cattle can make moral judgments, so I don't think they can be innocent. But then, babies can't make moral judgments, so I guess I wouldn't call them innocent either. And by the time you can make moral judgments, you've probably done things that upon reflection you consider wrong. So maybe "innocent" is one of those useful theoretical words like "stationary" that you only see approximated in real life.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 2, Part 3

The necropolis has never seemed a city of death to me; I know its purple roses (which other people think so hideous) shelter hundreds of small animals and birds. The executions I have seen performed and have performed myself so often are no more than a trade, a butchery of human beings who are for the most part less innocent and less valuable than cattle. When I think of my own death, or of the death of someone who has been kind to me, or even of the death of the sun, the image that comes to my mind is that of the nenuphar, with its glossy, pale leaves and azure flower. Under flower and leaves are black roots as fine and strong as hair, reaching down into the dark waters.
Purple roses symbolize mystery and enchantment; since some people find them hideous, they could be very dark purple (black), signifying death. The color purple is also associated with royalty, which could very well describe someone in Severian's culture who rates a mausoleum in the most exclusive part of a very large cemetery. The nenuphar is a word for the white waterlily or white lotus. Of course, here it's "azure" so it may mean the blue lotus. Wolfe seems to like flowers that have too much symbolism to pin down, since the lotus is one of the most prominent symbols in the Indian religions, and the blue lotus was very important in a number of African civilizations of the ancient world. "It was considered extremely significant in Egyptian mythology, since it was said to rise and fall with the sun. Consequently, due to its colourings, it was identified, in some beliefs, as having been the original container, in a similar manner to an egg, of Atum, and in similar beliefs Ra, both solar deities." Since that's definite sun symbolism, and the Indian religions have appeared before now, he's probably giving both traditions a nod here. As if the rose and the lotus didn't have enough meanings separately, here Severian seems to imply that they are the same flower. Maybe he's just free associating. In the Indian religions, the "dark waters" are the muddy waters of attachment and desire. Gene Wolfe might think so, too, since his "miraculous light" is the source of all life, and it never reaches too far into the water. So, the water might also symbolize death, whose depths we know little about. One thing confusing about the Indian symbolism, and maybe about Wolfe's, is that the nenuphar does indeed have roots in the muddy, material world, and without them it would die. So the blossom part of the plant, which stands for spiritual perfection, has its roots in attachment, desire, and death. So the roots, one source of life for the blossom, are something to be overcome? How then would the blossom exist? Seems strange to me. I'm going to leave the cattle comment until tomorrow.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Shadow", Chapter 2, Part 2

For my part, I had already adopted as my own the device graved in bronze above the door of a certain mausoleum. They were a fountain rising above waters, and a ship volant, and below these a rose.
The fountain is a symbol of the life-force, purification, and rebirth (e.g. the Fountain of Life). The ship is a symbol of adventure, a journey (e.g. the journey from this world to the next), and to Christians the soul's refuge on the sea of troubles. Severian's ship is flying, which is a symbol of freedom (since the sky is a symbol of spirituality, possibly the freedom from the earthly material world). Also, a flying ship has the more literal interpretation of a spaceship. Below both of these, which might mean it's the foundation for them, is the rose. It's most commonly a symbol of love, but since we don't know what color the rose is, it could mean a number of things. Different color roses have symbolized love, martyrdom, faith, purity, beauty, grace, completion, achievement, perfection, joy, secrecy, silence, mystery, delicacy, transience, jealousy, friendship, elegance... you get the idea. Its interpretation is problematic. Roses appear later in the book, too, so maybe that will narrow down the possibilities. Severian describes watching the secret life of animals from his hidden place:
A moment suffices to describe these things, for which I watched so long. The decades of a saros would not be long enough for me to write all they meant to the ragged apprentice boy I was. Two thoughts (that were nearly dreams) obsessed me and made them infinitely precious. The first was that at some not-distant time, time itself would stop... the colored days that had so long been drawn forth like a chain of conjuror's scarves come to an end, the sullen sun wink out at last. The second was that there existed somewhere a miraculous light - which I sometimes conceived of as a candle, sometimes as a flambeau - that engendered life in whatever objects it fell upon, so that a leaf plucked from a bush grew slender legs and waving feelers, and a rough brown brush opened black eyes and scurried up a tree.
Did I mention that his hidden place is the mausoleum, a tomb, situated in the necropolis (city of death) that completely surrounds his home? So in the midst of death, he is observing life, and finding it precious. His first thought is about death. Possibly just his own death, or maybe the death of everything. This makes life infinitely precious, because it could stop at any moment. His second thought is about the force that generates life. Maybe the things he saw were infinitely precious because they were examples of this force at work. That one I'm less sure about. Suggestions are welcome.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 2, Part 1

But Ymar the Almost Just, observing how cruel the women were and how often they exceeded the punishments he had decreed, ordered that there should be women among the torturers no more.
Now that's the kind of inflammatory statement a blog needs! I've seen comments about the book that call it misogynistic. A couple points: first, it's told entirely in the first person, and Severian just said he was raised in a medieval, monastic-like, all-male environment, where most of his interactions with women were with "clients" or "the witches" (more on them later, maybe). So if Severian is sometimes a misogynist, that doesn't mean that the book is misogynistic: it's just good characterization. Second, "misogyny" is a very strong term that I think is overused. Severian's attitude towards women is rather more complicated than hatred or love or condescension or respect. It's all of those and more: a realistic attitude, in other words. I suppose you've never been cruel to a man, ladies? ;) As to whether men or women are inherently more cruel, all my experience suggest rough equality here. Comments welcome. Ymar is the name of another saint, by the way. Couldn't find the etymology of the name. :( I just had a random thought about the title of the book ("Shadow of the Torturer" for those following along at home). I already mentioned that "shadow" could be the initial reference to all the sun symbolism, but shadow can also mean the spirit or soul. Also, in Jungian psychology:
The Shadow is considered to be a collection of inferiorities, undeveloped, and regressive aspects of the personality. They are primarily of an emotional nature and have a kind of autonomy, displaying an obsessive or more accurately a possessive quality. These aspects are generally associated with projections. Projection is defined as "the situation in which one unconsciously invests another person (or object) with notions or characteristics of one's own.
So this first book could be about Severian's "undeveloped soul."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 1, Part 3

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life—they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.
I agree with certain parts of this. I do believe that we are influenced by things we're not aware of. I think symbols are the natural mental shorthand of the subconscious mind. Soem people think that the subconscious is inferior to the conscious "rational" mind, but I've read too many accounts of fanous scientists, mathematicians, authors, and poets getting great ideas from a dream, a daydream, or a flash of insight. I disagree with the "hard, defining edges" part. I think that symbols are so powerful precisely because they're not exactly defined. For instance, during the Crusades, I'm sure that the cross meant something rather different to people on the two sides. And I'm sure that each person attached a slightly different meaning to it. But I'm also sure that all of them had quite strong feelings about it that affected their actions. I think that some atheists, whom I'll call "militant," think that getting rid of religion will make human thinking more rational (and therefore better), because religion harnesses the power of symbols (usually dismissed as "superstition"). Unfortunately, lots of groups throughout history have used symbolism to prop up racism or tribalism or nationalism. And they'll continue to do it if religion is gone. All right, I made it through Chapter 1.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 1, Part 2

I actually didn't even read more of the book today. I read more about the concept of Maya. Through the evil that is Wikipedia, this led me to transcendence, then naturally to immanence, then to Kant. I'm not sure whether to curb these little excursions in the future. I'm sure Gene Wolfe wants his readers to think about what he's written, but does he want it at the expense of never finishing the book? I'm sure all those concepts have bearing on what comes later, though, since they're all around us like the air we breathe; Radio Society playing low in the other room, making us tap our foot unconsciously. Plus Wolfe probably studied them all consciously, too. These are all huge ideas (vague notions on which entire systems of ideas are based, actually) and I'm having a hard time trying to write any coherent opinion of my own. I think I've experienced a feeling of immanence (the divine permeating the physical world). Some days I just think I was fooling myself, though. I don't think I've had an experience of the transcendent, because that doesn't even make sense to me, to have an experience (even a feeling) of what is beyond experience, but I'm still convinced that the divine is transcendent. I know there's another room outside of this room, and there's a whole world outside of that. So I am convinced that there is more... something outside of this room we call the universe (although my analogy may be flawed). And if the divine exists, which I only intermittently believe, it exists everywhere. So it seems I'm a skeptical mystic. What a strange creature I am.