'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Thoughts on Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun (Part 2 of 2) – Evil Religion and The God Who Liberates

When all is said and done, when all the wonderful and strange elements that make up Wolfe's fine 'whorl-building' in this tetralogy have been catalogued (see part 1 of these ‘Thoughts’), it is the 'minor god' who is (barely) known as the Outsider and his servant Silk (the main character of the Book) that by far interest me the most. Their relationship is in some sense a central key to the overall story. Without the Outsider graciously granting enlightenment to Silk—that it is ‘grace’ is explicitly confessed by Silk himself—there would be no catalyst for the extraordinary actions of Silk and many others which eventually (and unintentionally on Silk's part) lead to political and civil revolution. And of course the even greater spiritual/theological revolution would not occur, not to mention the physical exodus (only for some initially) from the very ‘whorl’ starship itself. Indeed, knowledge that there were whole whorls outside the whorl at all was the unique contribution of the Outsider with which the entire drama memorably begins.

I shall sketch his progressively revealed divine character with actual quotes from the Book in another article devoted to that subject. To merely summarise here: this god is called by his name because the Outsider is

1) Outside the pantheon of Mainframe (computerized) 'gods' – the real God as Silk eventually describes him, compared to their merely super(cyber)human natures

2) Outside the Whorl created by 'Pas', the chief and 'father' god of Mainframe – that is, outside the California-sized generation starship or ‘star crosser’ the humans inhabit; indeed, outside space and time itself (i.e. he is the transcendent Creator of the whole universe)

3) The God who particularly identifies with and cares for all those who are marginalized by society, ‘God of the outcasts’

The Outsider manifests himself directly again on several important occasions, once even in human form with 'hands of healing' that make Silk recover from a fatal gun wound. The cross and its victim’s atoning blood (from Wolfe's Catholic faith) are brought in subtly by the 'sign of addition' that the augurs (priests) like Silk ritually trace in the air, for them an empty symbol with forgotten meaning. It’s meaning is hinted at in Silk's reflections around the time of his healing when he is being given blood intravenously: he meditates on the saving, life-giving power of blood (which makes the secretly blood-sucking Quetzal poignantly devilish and perhaps even ‘antichrist’).

That is a sketch of the Outsider. Now let’s sketch his servant. Silk himself is probably the first character in fiction that I've read who is essentially good in a completely believable (and even personally convicting) way. You hear about the rarity of a writer being able to do this and I always wondered what it was like. I've read plenty of 'good guy' characters who are 'on the good side' but never someone so compellingly... well, good. It totally took me by surprise. I wasn't expecting it. I just found myself some way into the series with a pang in my heart over my own lack of goodness as I repeatedly expressed in my head 'he's just so good'. It was only then that I took note quite consciously. That is powerful writing!

I hasten to clarify that Silk's goodness is not the least bit annoying or cloying or twee. It is genuinely admirable and commendable and exemplary – the kind of thing where you wish you were more like that. His un-self-conscious humility and his graciousness toward all others, high and low, noble and ignoble, lawful and unlawful, vicious and kind, is frankly shocking – but also inviting. Nor is his goodness some sort of moral 'perfection'. He is humanly and even likeably flawed and both he and those around him are aware of his shortcomings. One of his charms is his simple and heartfelt regret over his selfish or uncharitable thoughts and actions and his uncomplicated resolve to make things right or reform his attitude and behaviour. He knows he needs divine help to do this. He doesn't pursue goodness as some kind of way to get leverage over God and others by which he can congratulate himself and condemn others or demand certain rights for himself or what have you. He pursues the good for its own sake. How do you write such a character in a truly believable way that doesn't just turn into a moralistic sermon in the form of alleged characterisation? The fact that Gene Wolfe has achieved this so singularly is one very important reason why he to my mind nudges himself into the 'genius' or at least ‘great writer’ category.

In terms of this Outsider and Silk relationship, it seems to me that Gene Wolfe in the early 1990s had preemptively subverted the recent rather hackneyed clamouring of folks like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris who boldly and baldly assert the claim that 'religion is evil'. Wolfe agrees. And disagrees. That religion is a force for deception, corruption, superstition, and oppression is quite viscerally affirmed in this work as well as being equally vividly denied in the same work! That is, man-made religion is shown to be the benighted, power-hungry, mad, and spirit-crushing trumpery that it is, as played out by the pantheon of all-too-human cyber-gods that, through intentional and elaborately constructed deceit, alternately neglect and unilaterally control this unfortunate population. But this oppression is not countered by Sceptical-Secularists-to-the-Rescue! No, in Wolfe's work false religion is countered by true 'religion' (or better 'the true faith'). Undeception comes not by more unaided human effort but by real and genuine divine enlightenment enabling human cooperation with this guidance and giving supernatural aid that leads to progressive inner and outer liberation from religious oppression. It seems our dear ‘New Atheists’ never even thought of this tertium quid alternative to the tired binary scheme of superstition vs. secular humanism.

This too is another aspect of Wolfe's work I'd like to write a separate article about. Indeed, Zach over at the Silk for Caldé blog outlines his degree thesis that Gene Wolfe uses the priest character in s.f. to uniquely combine the usual antithetical options of 'priest has faith tested and loses it' or 'priest has faith tested and retains it'. Silk loses faith in the Mainframe gods but gains faith in the Outsider. It's a very interesting proposal. (He has now narrowed this to a demonstration of transcendence over against materialism in Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, which he writes about here and here. There is resonance with what I’m writing here.)

So The Book of the Long Sun seems to me to work as something of an s.f. theistic apologetic (however consciously or unconsciously intended by Wolfe). Indeed, as a foil to the perspective of ‘revealed religion’ Wolfe's memorable and attractive character Doctor Crane provides a materialistic-reductionist interpretation of Silk's enlightenment, which Silk has to internally deal with throughout the books. Says Crane:

‘You had a cerebral accident, that’s all. Most likely a tiny vein burst as a result of your exertions during the game. When that happens in the right spot, delusions like yours aren’t at all uncommon.’

So Wolfe is obviously aware of and willing to interact with secular points of view (the ‘God Delusion’ hypothesis), which should come as no surprise from such an erudite and generous Catholic writer who sets most of his fictions in a thoroughly 'pagan' environment.

Lastly, I want to briefly comment on how this tetralogy struck me as one who is already a ‘believer’, how it works on a level beyond mere apologetic and approaches something like ‘liturgy’ (this, be aware, is coming from a very 'low church' Protestant). What I find in reading Long Sun is that Silk's journey of faith becomes my own, convicting me of my selfishness and uncharitable cynicism, taking me outside myself into the needs and stories of others and ultimately into trusting the One who is outside all creation: the One who though he is absolute and eternal, yet so compassionately identifies with and is involved in his creation – the One who is graciously seeking me long before I bother to seek him, to whom I must surrender to truly live, whom I must serve to be truly free. And I do mean that these are actually themes woven through this epic s.f. adventure, not merely my own assumptions that I am reading into the text with no help from the author. Deconstructionists and other literary theorists make of it what you will!

For ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ then, I conclude that this four-part epic novel is a highly worldview-immersive/worldview-shifting experience from a generous author who gives us a true gift of Story, regardless of our current beliefs.