I am becoming increasingly convinced of the necessity of what seems to be a very crude intentionalist method in literary interpretation: that in many cases, the attitudes reflected by characters (or, to a lesser extent, situations) in various texts are in fact direct statements of the author’s own views. Sophisticated readers tend to reject such a notion absolutely, and the reasons for this are usually good. Many attempts at creative writing start from what might be called the idealized projection of the self, or the creation of an environment in which certain wrongs might be redressed.
For those of us who pre-order the latest Gene Wolfe novel and read it immediately, irrespective of the circumstances, the last two books have presented some difficulties. Wolfe seems to have entered a “late style,” where the natural suspicion, caution, and, to be fair, interpretive charity that veteran readers of Wolfe bring to the text have yielded unusual results. Pirate Freedom seems to have escaped much of the exegetical explosion that An Evil Guest received on the Urth mailing list for Wolfe enthusiasts, even though both books involve reality distortion and time travel (well, I think there’s some type of reality distortion in Pirate Freedom), fictional devices that admit no logical limits on narrative analyses.
It’s understandable why a veteran Wolfe reader would be both constantly vigilant and forgiving when reading one of his new books. Many of the short stories, Peace, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and (probably to a lesser extent than the commentaries would suggest) The Book of the New Sun have subtle and significant details that the reader must be very careful to notice. Much of his fiction contains subtle details even when they are not in fact significant.
Using a modified (and depleted) version of this script written by digital historian blogger William J. Turkel, I tried to see how useful of an automated source generator Amazon’s Statistically Improbable Phrases and Capitalized Phrases data would be for Gene Wolfe’s Solider of Sidon: SIP red land Atlantis: Insights from a Lost Civilization Soldier of Sidon Red Land Yellow River: A Story from the Cultural Revolution The Golden Star of Halich: A Tale of the Red Land in 1362 SIP first healer Soldier of Sidon *The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body’s Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation Breathing The Healer’s Keep DreamHealer: A True Story of Miracle Healings SIP seven lions Soldier of Sidon Cool Creatures, Hot Planet: Exploring the Seven Continents A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science The Women’s Bible Commentary - expanded SIP singing girl The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P’ing Mei: Volume Two: The Rivals.
I’ve turned some of my recreational reading attention to Starwater Strains, and the aforementioned story is worth teaching as an introduction to reader-response theory. A lot of Wolfe might be, actually, but this exemplifies precisely. Another of the many interesting things that happened in 1926 was the switch to the Einheitskurzschrift system of shorthand in Austria from the Gabelsberger method (“Godel’s Gabelsberger Shorthand,” Cheryl A. Dawson, Collected Works III: 7). Another bit from Godel: A real contradiction between relativity theory and Kantian philosophy seems to me to exist only in one point, namely as to Kant’s opinion that natural science, in the description it gives of the world, must necessarily retain the forms of our sense perception and can do nothing else but set up relations between appearances within this frame (“Theory of Relativity and Kantian Philosophy,” CW III: 257).
“The Tree Is My Hat” I mentioned earlier that I found the anthropology in this story to be dubious. What difference does that make, though? I’ve been wondering for some time now about the phenomenology of error in fiction. Are there ever legitimate grounds for determining when a writer’s incomplete understanding of some concept or fact can be separated from that of the narrators’? (Enormous portions of the critical corpus rely very heavily on drawing this distinction to be sure, but I think it’s a poorly understood topic.) Did I find myself reminded somehow of Robert Stone, Joan Didion, and even The Stars at Noon here?
I’ve just bought Innocents Abroad and the other recent collection, Starwater Strains, and I hope to have an overview post similar to these: Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories Strange Travellers Book of Days In the near future (and also the long-promised Endangered Species edition). I’ve only read the first three stories in Innocents Abroad at the moment, and I wanted to note how impressed I was with the A Rebours reference.
I think foreign policy should definitely be taken out of men’s hands. Men should continue making machines, but women ought to decide which machines are being made. Women have far better sense. They would have never introduced the infernal internal combustion engine or any other of the evil machines. Most kitchen machines, for example, are good; they don’t obliterate other skills. Or other people. With our leaders it is too often a case of one’s little boy saying to another: “My father can lick your father.” By now, the toys have gotten far too dangerous.
“One Highlander on the beaches of Dunkirk was overheard telling a comrade: ‘If the English surrender too, it’s going to be a long war’” (318 qtd in. “Hitler’s England: What if Germany Had Invaded Britain in May 1940?” by Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson. In Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. Ed. Niall Ferguson. New York: Basic, 1999. 281-320). I am currently going through Ferguson’s volume on the Rothschilds. “At the Twilight of the Gods the serpent will devour the earth and the wolf the sun.” (Borges “The Uroboros,” Book of Imaginary Beings).
(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.
“How the Whip Came Back” This seems transparently misogynist. Might link Gershenfeld’s When Things Think to the robot. Last image of the husband in chains is clearly meant to be symbolic–should also pay closer attention to what kind of memory alteration the protag. has had. UN again. Soviet domination–penology. Note “Lincoln’s Birthday” “Of Relays and Roses” 32 our economy has come to depend on people getting married more than once Mark XX: Mark 10-11 and 10-12 tell of Jesus forbidding divorce Is there a hint of the subversion of the natural order by Marcia choosing him as a husband here?
“Bluesberry Jam”/“Ain’t You ‘Most Done” The first story seems to be told by a dream in the character in the second. Apparently the latter ties-in in some way with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which I’ve actually never read. In fact, I’ve read nothing at all by Gaiman. I feel somehow shamed writing that, but it’s true. The second story is the type of backstory that a reader usually has to imagine for himself when reading Wolfe’s fiction, so it’s unusual for things to be as clear as they apparently are.
I’ve read an astonishing amount of Gene Wolfe over the last two years or so, and I just finished his most famous short story collection, The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. (Other than a few stories in Strange Travellers, some of Castle of Days, the Soldier books, Peace, Castleview, Operation Ares, Free Live Free, the Holly Hollander book, Wizard, and uncollected miscellany, I’ve read it all.) Wolfe’s short fiction is exceptionally cryptic and often disturbing.