'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.


gwern said...

> 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.

IMO, that's no more 'interacting' with that viewpoint than Dickens interacts with that viewpoint when he has Scrooge dismiss the shade of Marlow as some undigested gruel.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Hmm. Thanks for your comment 'gwern'. I'll have to think on that. For now I'll say I think the comparison to Scrooge's comment on the shade of Marlow is not a good one. Dickens was clearly having a bit of satirical fun. The viewpoint expressed by Crane is more thoroughly 'technical' and as I said it haunts Silk throughout the series and at times he even tentatively embraces that explanation.

Is this 'interacting' with reductive-materialist explanations of religious experiences? Well, surely it is to some degree. I certainly have been haunted from time to time by the comments of secular acquaintances or authors or what have you as to the delusional nature of my faith experience. And comments from sceptics in real life are equally blustery in their quasi-scientific garb and their dogmatic-dismissive tone. Read any Dawkins? Sat in a lecture at university? The fact that Wolfe doesn't just throw this back in the face of the sceptic with satire but gives it some space to breathe in his narrative is something. Not nothing.

But your point does helpfully show that it is perhaps not as much as it could be. I suppose he could have had characters engaged in ongoing dialogues that would more fully and fairly explore the materialistic explanation for Silk's enlightenment.

I think the point remains, however, that Wolfe to one degree or another gives some fairly respectful (if not deep) air time to a naturalistic point of view in Long Sun through his characters.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

It should also be pointed out that some have seen a much more extensive interaction with 'humanistic' sort of solutions to man's problems in the very *structure* of the Long Sun tetralogy. They argue that Wolfe rather 'scientifically' goes step by step through various man-made solutions and demonstrates them emperically to only go so far but then fail to bring true liberation or life, thus demonstrating our need for a divine solution. See Nick Gevers, "Five Steps towards Briah: Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun," at http://www.ultan.org.uk/five-steps-towards-briah/.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

It occurs to me also that I should reiterate what an attractive character the sceptic Dr. Crane is in these books. Wolfe does not attempt to caricature and villainise sceptics but paints one in a likeable light in terms of characterisation.

Grobstein said...

I'd go further and say that Crane's thesis leaves open a more-or-less materialistic reading of the book -- there is not much direct evidence (as I recall) of the Outsider, rather he works through the humans and "gods" of the story, in ways that (if you squint, anyway) could be explained naturalistically.

Similarly, in _The Book of the New Sun_, the many miracles ultimately (it seems) can be explained as very advanced technology. This doesn't completely defeat the inference of divinity, but it deflates it. I think Peter Wright's take is that the Hieros and their servants are just some dudes who happen to wield great power, and the appearance of the sacred throughout the story is not necessarily to be trusted. This reading runs against the tone of the story to me, but does not seem to be ruled out by clear evidence.

On the other hand, _Long Sun_ is a very different book from _New Sun_, in the way it seems to contemplate the direct experience of God (gnosis). In _New Sun_, God is quite distant, where he is indicated at all (non-authoritative references to the Increate or the Pancreator). In _Long Sun_, he (apparently) reaches into the world to enlighten Silk. This is a rather striking difference for books apparently set in the same universe, I think. I'm not sure what to make of it.

I definitely shared your reaction to Silk as good man, by the way. He reminds me of Alyosha from the _Brothers Karamazov_, which I suppose means I don't think he's completely unprecedented.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks so much for your insightful comments, Grobstein. Apologies for a disgracefully delayed response!

I agree with you about possible materialistic readings. As the author, Wolfe certainly knows how to, and I think does, stack the cards in his own favour in the end (a theistic point of view), but it is so utterly clear that he highly values ambiguity and 'polyvalence' both for the sake of his artistry as well as recognising how pluralistically perspectival our real world is for finite persons.

I agree about the Hieros (as well as gods in other stories) - vast power does not prove divinity for Wolfe. The seemingly sacred is not always to be trusted, yes. That religion can do great evil seems to me a constant theme in Wolfe's works. It is both devious religion as well as secular materialism that do battle with Catholic theism in his stories. But as always I think he is very generous in characterising these opposing views and usually assumes the best of them and looks for their salvation in spite of themselves.

And I agree with you that God seems more remote in New Sun (though it does seem to me Severian comes closer to him by the end of his journeys, recognising his presence everywhere and in all things). I think Wolfe just wanted to bring the Divine action a little closer in the Long Sun, though as you say there is only Silk's enlightenment and then it is echoes and reverberations from then on, requiring free participation and openness from persons as significant agents. His 'apologetic strategy' if you will seems to me to be rather immersive and invitational: 'taste and see' and then, 'would you like some more?' (Watch out! Or the Wolfe will have you in his bag before you know it!)

Thanks for pointing me to Alyosha - Karamazov has been neglectedly unread on my shelf for far too long. This is one more spur to finally consume it.

Please stop by and commment again sometime. All the best,


Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...
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