Saturday, 15 May 2010

A puzzle (one of many) from The Book of the Long Sun

I recently finished re-reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, and there is one thing that has really been bugging me. During Silk's enlightenments he is shown many images, and the significance of what he is shown is not always instantly apparent. When he sees, for instance, "lights beneath everyone's feet, like cities low in the night sky," he is seeing the stars and distant worlds of the cosmos, something completely foreign to Silk, who has lived his life on the inner surface of the hollowed-out asteroid that is the Whorl (Nightside 7). During his second enlightenment he is shown "a ragged child weeping on a mattress of straw," which is surely an image of the Nativity (Caldé 559).

However, there is one vision that I cannot understand the significance of. During his initial enlightenment, Silk is shown "a dead woman in an alley off Silver Street, and the people of the quarter," and a moment later "the dead woman seemed to stir, rags fluttering in the hot wind born halfway 'round the whorl" (Nightside 7-8). He mentions this vision of a dead woman some time later when describing his enlightenment to Doctor Crane: "There was a dead woman who had been left in an alley, and Patera Pike, and it was all connected, as if they were pieces of something larger" (Lake 490).

I've been trying to figure out the significance of this "dead woman in an alley" for some time—a few days ago I posted a message on the mailing list, but no reply just yet. Anyone have any idea what this could mean? It's driving me nuts!

Page numbers refer to omnibus editions of Nightside of the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun collected in Litany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty Associates, 2000); and Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun collected in Epiphany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty Associates, 2000).

Monday, 10 May 2010

Patera Silk's "cerebral accident"

Nightside of the Long Sun, the first book in Gene Wolfe's masterful tetralogy The Book of the Long Sun, opens with Patera Silk's enlightenment by a god he calls the Outsider. During his enlightenment, Silk is shown many images and hears a multitude of voices, which he believes are all, somehow, one voice. It takes Silk the rest of the series to understand his enlightenment—the visions he was given, and the meaning of the Outsider's message. I'm currently writing my honours thesis on religion in Long Sun; specifically on the limited "gods" of Silk's whorl and the infinite, transcendent god that Silk calls the Outsider, who is certainly none other than Wolfe's own Catholic God. The following examination of Doctor Crane and his explanation for Silk's enlightenment was originally written for the first chapter of my thesis, but most of it had to be cut (I was way over the word limit for the chapter).

Doctor Crane, the rational sceptic of Long Sun, brings the validity of Silk's enlightenment by the Outsider into question when he laughingly reduces it to a medical phenomenon:
Crane smiled, and for a moment actually appeared cheerful. '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 all that uncommon. Wernicke's area, it’s called.' He touched his own head to indicate the place. (Lake 494)
Crane takes visible pleasure in "debunking" what he sees as Silk's irrational faith. His medical explanation for a seemingly supernatural event reflects theories that the visions Saint Paul experienced on the road to Damascus were caused by a pre-existing neurological condition. In "St Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy," D. Landsborough speculates that the New Testament accounts of Paul's conversion bear "a close resemblance to the psychic and perceptual experience of a temporal lobe seizure" (659). Wolfe seems to be playing with these speculations, and challenging them, when he presents Crane’s theory, which ultimately fails to explain what Wolfe himself has called a "purely miraculous" event ("The Wolfean Oracle Speaks"). During his enlightenment, Silk is shown things that he could not possibly have seen or known otherwise: he is shown the stars, something completely foreign to those living on the inner surface of the hollowed-out asteroid that is the "starcrosser Whorl"; he is shown the inner workings of the "clockwork" ship and given a mission to save it (or rather, its inhabitants); and he is shown scenes from the life of Christ. A supernatural enlightenment would seem to be the only possible explanation for Silk coming to possess this knowledge. Theories that Silk received this "enlightenment" from a Sacred Window or "glass" (downloading the information into his mind) are also flawed, since there was no such object on the ball court where he received his enlightenment (furthermore, this interpretation has been argued against by Wolfe in the Q&A linked to above).

Doctor Crane's explanation also seems to be medically dubious, since he attributes Silk’s "cerebral accident" to a burst blood vessel in the Wernicke's area of the brain, located in the temporal lobe. Trauma to this area usually results in aphasia, "the partial or complete loss of language abilities," resulting in outbursts of unintelligible speech and a total loss of language comprehension (Bear, Connors, and Paradiso 640, 645-47). Silk experiences none of these symptoms, and is seen fluently talking to Maytera Marble and the students of the palaestra immediately following the incident. Although the Wernicke's area is working in overdrive during temporal lobe hallucinations, and can be connected to the hearing of incomprehensible voices, it is not connected to visual hallucinations, such as the visions that Silk receives (Shergill). Furthermore, Silk understands what the many voices (which he believes are all the one voice, somehow) are saying to him. Hence, Crane's hypothesis would seem to fail on a medical level, as well as a narrative one.

In spite of its apparent inability to explain his enlightenment, Crane's scientific explanation still troubles Silk, and causes him to doubt the Outsider and his own experiences:
But the Outsider had doubtless been, as Doctor Crane had maintained, no more than a vein’s bursting.
     Or had Doctor Crane—who had thought himself, or at any rate called himself, and agent of the Rani—been in truth an agent of the Outsider? Doctor Crane had made it possible for him to proceed in his attempt to save the manteion despite his broken ankle; and Doctor Crane had freed him when he had been taken by the Ayuntamiento. It was conceivable, even likely, that Doctor Crane's skepticism had been a test of faith.
     Had he passed?
     … If he had, he would almost certainly be tested again, after this surrender to doubt. (Caldé 273)
Silk overcomes his doubts and begins to see Crane's scepticism as a test of faith; a test that would seem to apply to the reader as much as it does to Silk. Nick Gevers argues that scientific rhetoric like Doctor Crane's "entices the secular-minded reader into Wolfe’s text. Then, too late, the reader realises that scientific analysis will not serve, that a religious paradigm must take over" ("Five Steps towards Briah"). The reader, then, is forced into accepting, at least within the universe of Wolfe's Sun books, the actuality of a god that Silk calls the Outsider, which is, undoubtedly, a form of Wolfe’s own Catholic God. It is for this reason that Gevers rightly calls The Book of the Long Sun "a masterpiece of subversive persuasion" ("Five Steps").

Page numbers refer to omnibus editions of Nightside of the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun collected in Litany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty Associates, 2000); and Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun collected in Epiphany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty Associates, 2000).