'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)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Houses of Prostitution in the Fiction of Gene Wolfe

Prostitution is a recurring theme in Wolfe’s fiction and I’ve not yet seen anyone talk about it as such. It is almost always associated with a large house or hotel. We are always given at least a character sketch of the proprietor of the (often rather ‘high class’) brothel and sometimes he (or she, though they are usually male, I think) is a main character in the story. This social ‘institution’ is usually described in a very matter of fact way, accepted, seemingly, as a sort of inevitable reality, with no moral comment on it one way or the other. At least on the surface.

I usually find that, eventually, both the ‘users’ and the ‘used’ are quite humanised by means of Wolfe describing them so ordinarily, showing their thoughts and speech in such a mundane way in the flow of a larger narrative and plot. This seemingly banal portrayal of prostitution in his fiction usually tends to subtly reveal the whole enterprise as the oppressive, exploitative industry that it is. If we’re willing to read it this way in his fiction, then our real societies’ acceptance of prostitution becomes another sad comment on the state of our humanity.

But Wolfe brings the reader to this self-reflective indictment without preaching or haranguing or protesting. And in a manner that is affirming of our humanity, hinting at the possibility of redemption, rather than simply diminishing and damning people or culture. (In fact, it reminds me of how the writings of the New Testament plant the rather quiet seeds of subversion and liberation for both victims and victimisers in the ancient sex industry, as well as ancient slavery in general.)

Stories and novels by Gene Wolfe that I’ve come across, which contain prostitution, are:

The Book of the New Sun

The Book of the Long Sun

Fifth Head of Cerberus

‘Hour of Trust’ (in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories)

And I’m sure it is in other books that I haven’t read yet (e.g. I know a prostitute is a major character of the standalone novel Free Live Free; and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Soldier series has this element). But several of the above are long, major works by Wolfe where a house of prostitution is a rather central feature of the story. The two main characters of the New and Long Sun, Severian and Silk respectively, both have significant encounters in such houses rather early in their narratives. In the latter, Silk’s ongoing association with (and even spiritual ‘ministry’ in) the house of prostitution run by Orchid (the only female manager in the stories that I’ve run into, though her male employer, Blood, is the owner) is ongoing throughout the work and where a large portion of the story’s action takes place. The main character of Cerberus is described at length as growing up in such a house (run by his father), perhaps only dimly aware of its nature (though it is clear to the reader).

This theme of prostitution no doubt connects fruitfully to other major themes and motifs in Wolfe’s works, the most obvious being male and female roles in relationships and sex and desire (others would include the strong elements of sociology and politics in his works). But also, houses are a huge feature of his fiction, being where many characters are rooted and where very large tracts of action take place. (There are even several short stories featuring sentient houses, some capable of up and moving about or murdering their occupants!) The houses of prostitution fit somewhere into this scheme too (alongside aristocratic mansions, criminal mansions, monastery houses, pioneer homesteads, colonial stately homes, city and country houses, and so forth).

And, of course, prostitutes are just one of many examples of the societal misfits, outcasts, ‘unmentionables’, marginalized, and disempowered that fill the pages of Wolfe’s tales – these ‘ladies of the night’ take their place among torturers, witches, vampires, orphans, widows, slaves, the deformed, the disfigured, the disabled, the displaced, the mentally ill, thieves and other ‘petty’ criminals (as well as crime lords), mercenaries, prisoners, the exiled, and the condemned. I’m sure these classes of people in Wolfe’s work are amenable to in-depth treatment also.

This list of outcasts freshly and forcefully persuades me that Wolfe’s major ‘character’, the Creator Deity called The Outsider, who features throughout the seven volumes of the Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, is a central and profound element of his art. This Deity is described as:

‘The OUTSIDER, the god of the broken and the disparaged, whose realm lies outside the Whorl.’

(from the list of ‘Gods, Persons, Animals Mentioned in the Text’ at the beginning of Caldé of the Long Sun)

‘All that is outcast, discarded, and despised is yours.’

(from a prayer Silk prays to the Outsider in chapter 4 of Caldé of the Long Sun)

I propose that Wolfe wants us to see such ‘houses of ill repute’ as under the special care of The Outsider, who works through his agents ultimately for their liberation, as he does with all the rest of the oppressed and used.

Do share your thoughts…


Jack Smith said...

I would like to make a couple of comments about Free Live Free, which you say you haven't read. Candy the prostitute is one of the four main characters of this novel. She is not associated with a house of prostitution, being a lone wolf, and she is sadder and more lonely than the women in Orchid's house. Candy is treated with great sympathy, but Wolfe does not sentimentalize her. She is one of the oppressed, but she is also a fat drunk who trades sex for money.

The four main characters of Free Live Free are losers at the bottom of society, people who are barely hanging on. But Wolfe treats them as Christ might have treated them, as people who have value in themselves.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

[Hey, Jack, I accidentally posted this entry twice, so I moved a copy of your comment over to the other post where gwern had commented too, to keep the conversation all together. But here's a copy of my reply to you. If you reply again could I ask you to post it over there? Cheers.]

Yes, Jack, sympathy without sentimentality is the way Wolfe does it and it's genius. Flannery O'Connor does the same in her stories, I think. Even 'losers' (without trying to soften that status) have value in themselves by virtue of being made in the image of God and being objects of his world-redeeming love (in the Christian understanding). Wolfe fleshes this out subtly and therefore powerfully and enduringly.