Father Inire's Catoptromancy

Tue Feb 15, 2005

(I first my apologize to my classes yesterday for two things: first, I was not serious about your last papers having to be written in the hypothetical Ursprache of Tlon. Second, “catoptromancy” was the word I was looking for.)

Chapter 20 of Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer is entitled “Father Inire’s Mirrors.” The protagonist Severian is remembering a story that Thecla had told him about a visit her friend Domnina paid to Father Inire after he saw her see something strange in a mirror. (The fact that Thecla, through xenopharmaconecrophagy, is now part of Severian should not be ignored, however; though he told this story before that happened, he had not yet written it.)

“She realized when she see saw them that the wall of the octagonal enclosure through which she passed faced another mirror. In fact, all the others were mirrors. The light of the blue-white lamp was caught by them all and reflected from one to another as boys might pass silver balls, interlacing and intertwining in an interminable dance. In the center, the fish flickered to and fro, a thing formed, it seemed, by the convergence of the light.

”‘Here you see him,’ Father Inire said. “The ancients, who knew this process at least as well as we and perhaps better, considered the Fish the least important and the most common of the inhabitants of specula. With their false belief that the creatures they summoned were ever present in the depths of the glass, we need not concern ourselves. In time, they turned to a more serious question: By what means may travel be effected when the point of departure is at an astronomical distance from the place of arrival?‘” (127-128)

In attempting to explain FTL to Domnina, Father Inire says that, with concentrated light and “optically exact” mirrors, “the orientation of the wave fronts is the same because the image is the same. Since nothing can exceed the speed of light in our universe, the accelerated light leaves it and enters another. When it slows down, it reenters ours–naturally at another place” (129). She then asks Inire if the fish is a reflection, and he answers that for a reflected object to exist without having an object to originate it violates the laws of the universe, and thus one will be brought into being.

Delatte’s La captoptromancie grecques et ses derives is just one of many sources describing the ubiquity of this practice among the Greeks, and I believe it’s likely that’s who Inire has in mind when he says the “ancients,” though the general time frame of the novel would seem to be in the unimaginably distant future. Of course, there are many direct instances of future time-travel (the Green Man) and past (the dwellers in the hut in the jungle, who are likely able to be visited by strollers in the garden via the same type of catoptromantic time-distortion that Inire describes before).

I doubt that the “fish” is accidental.

Wolfe, Gene. The Shadow of the Torturer. New York: Orb, 1980. [Shadow/Claw omnibus edition.]