Saturday, May 28, 2016

Going To Drown Yourself Again? - The Culture Hero And Book Of The New Sun

Book Of The New Sun is one of the great fantasy novels of the 20th century and a great accomplishment in literature more generally. In my brief review, I highlighted a lot of the personality of the main character and how he connected to Jesus and touched on the "Postmodern Catholicism" of the series. Gene Wolfe is one of the great writers in this category, along with - one of Wolfe's major inspirations - Jorge Luis Borges.

But I didn't manage to get across how wide this series is. It isn't just an inverted cross stretched over five books. Book Of The New Sun works within, plays with and expands ideas that are found across fantasy literature. We gonna take a long detour through that literature to make that point.

Joseph Campbell's name is associated with the thesis that all cultures have a "Bildungsroman" story. That means that each culture has a story in which a culture hero begins as a boy, learns to overcome challenges and ends as a man - in control of himself and his surroundings. We can apply this analysis to, for instance, The Odyseey. This story begins with Odysseus, wisest of all men, weeping and missing his home - a child-like state. It then goes through his mythical adventures fighting horrifying creatures and wicked societies including: the indolent Lotus Eaters; the monstrous, wheel-eyed giant Polyphemus; the cannibalistic Laestrygonians; the possessive cannibal-witch Circe; and finally the fearsome abomination Charybdis. Odysseus defeats them by combining strength and stratagem (except Circe, who even Odysseus needs divine aid against). For instance, Odysseus clings to a tree to avoid Charybdis's maw and uses his knowledge of the tides to get his raft back. But this is only half the story. In the second half, he reconciles with his wife and son and defeats those who abused his hospitality in his absence. After father and son defeat the false fathers (Freud would be proud), Odysseus takes his place as husband, father and King Of Ithica, lord of himself and all he surveys.

There is much packed in this story. There is, of course, the implications that foreigners are lazy, dangerous cannibals and you should thank your family god you are in Athens. The most obvious to a modern is the culture hero Odysseus's underhandedness. But there is a moral lesson: to the Pre-Socratic Ancient Greeks, wisdom was power just as muscle was power. "Knowledge is itself power" as Hobbes (who was very influenced by the Greeks) said. Muscle allowed you to exert your will over the world by force, wisdom by stratagem. A harsh ethic for a harsh existence. Indeed, the poetical tropes of Homer required there to be a death in every chapter, even if it makes no sense.

As an aside within an aside: Socrates's students and followers devoted a lot of time and ink explaining why their master allowed himself to die rather than use his wisdom to exert his will on the jury - a shocking choice to the Ancient Greeks. This is, itself, a sort of Bildungsroman with this moral: The childlike pre-philosophical boy fears death, the philosophical man does not. Even Plato cannot conceive of wisdom without power - there is no doubt in his mind that Socrates could have escaped if he wished.

I don't want to go on too long about Greek Mythology. There's a lot of it in Book Of The New Sun (perhaps a philologist would be able to recover Theseus from a thesis and Minotaur from Monitor). But we had to highlight the Bildungsroman aspect of The Odyssey, how it followed Odysseus into his life as the ideal Greek Man - the culture hero - to define what Book Of The New Sun develops. Of course, other stories have followed similar patterns (if they didn't, it would have been Hero With One Face). There's Rama, who was Campbell's initial inspiration. Moses, of course.

In modern times, the "growth of the culture hero" story has taken on new forms. One of the most interesting artistic works is Wagner's Ring Cycle, which is about the decline and fall of one culture hero - arrogant & duplicitous supernaturalist Wotan - and the rise of a new one - the natural ubermensch Siegfried. SPOILER NOTE: I know Siegfried dies in the last opera, but his naturalist culture lives on.

Barzun once said that there was a time when he was young in which one could learn a man's every opinion based only on his opinion of Wagner (it was - to use language he would not approve of - a sufficient statistic). Tolkien was initially quite influenced by Wagner, though as he developed as a philologist soon abandoned him for the real thing (mythology and ancient poems), at least consciously. Tolkein's great epic The Lord Of The Rings has a similar end of one culture hero/start of another plot. The biggest difference is that Tolkien's humanism allows him to be comfortable with ordinary men inheriting the Earth, and his conservatism allows him to enjoy the Mythic Age. Wagner's Wotan is a backstabbing hypocrite - personally, sexually and politically. Tolkien is able to be much more subtle in his depiction of the age of myth (more subtle than Wagner - there's some weak praise!).

But let's concentrate on Tolkein's earlier, simpler story: the fairy tale The Hobbit. This is a story of an obstinate, prejudiced and proudly dull upper middle class Englishman (oops, I meant to say "hobbit"!) forced to see how the world really is on an adventure. In the end he's: seen the world; survived a war he tried to stop; had to steal to save lives (including his own) - and out of convenience; made friends of all races and backgrounds; discovers real, scary, beautiful, powerful nature; gone without food; learned the difference between a furrier and a fur-changer - and maybe even learned a bit of humility. The lesson is obvious: go see the real world and you'll learn something, dammit! With Tolkien's background, the culture hero starts out lazing about smoking a pipe - today he'd be drinking something trendy and reading things on the internet he already agrees with (it's lucky I don't have readers).

This concludes the quick dip into the history of culture hero stories.

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether Gene Wolfe learned culture hero stories from Wagner, Tolkien, Campbell or The Church Fathers. Likely it was all of them and more beside. No matter where it came from, Book Of The New Sun is consciously developed as Campbellian Growth story - but not by Wolfe. Instead, Severian - the author, narrator and main character - develops the story as a tale of his rise to the throne. As noted before, Severian's inability to see through his culture and upbringing makes this difficult in ways similar to, though more extreme than, in The Odyssey.
Severian writes his story as his own journey from being an unimportant apprentice to becoming the Autarch - literally "Self-Ruler". But he doesn't understand (until possibly book 5) his predecessor's hints about those behind the Autarch, nor does he ever put together who it is behind the sinister Group Of Seventeen.

But this is not the full extent of Wolfe's game, nor does it even hint at it. Wagner was able to play with the culture hero by depicting him (Wotan) as an emblem of everything that is detestable about Old Culture. Tolkien was able to go further and more consistently. Wolfe outdoes them all, telling a psychologically convincing story of a man who thinks he triumphed and has become the culture hero but fails to see the real forces behind him (until the fifth book, which is a slightly separated narrative). This is a powerful conceit that gives Severian real psychological depth. He thinks he's learning, and - after all - he keeps succeeding! It would have been easier to make Severian - a torturer, executioner, etc - a backstabbing hypocrite like Wotan, justifying the divinely stacked deck as merely part and parcel of his own awesomeness. Instead, Severian is able to question himself and wonders about his often miraculous victories and tries to learn from them. It is something like humility and one of Severian's very few good points.

Yes, Severian fails to notice that the story is not a Bildungsroman - which makes it a far more interesting Bildungsroman! Okay, you might think this is a bit pretentious. I claim that Severian models his tale of his life story on the myths culture heroes, not knowing that he is really telling a story of greater powers working through him. Hegel is supposed to have called Napolean "The World-Spirit on horseback.". The World Spirit working through Severian is quite a bit bigger than that!

But there is more than just a vague feeling of similarity that points to this. Scattered throughout his memoir, Severian reveals that he simply enjoys reading about culture heroes. I've noted one above, another would be "The Tale Of The Boy Called Frog". Severian enjoys mythology, fairy tales, etc. and so I submit that he has unconsciously adopted their form even when he leaves their genre. That this applies to the reader has implications that are left as an exercise.

This accounts for Severian's writing, but let's end by pulling back and talk about Gene Wolfe's writing for a bit. Wolfe's accomplishment here is worth noting: not only did he invent a culture with a culture hero (in the vein of Tolkien) but he invented a culture with a false culture hero. He asks us not just to see a new culture, but to see it skeptically. Another book that attempted something similar is Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. But where The Iron Dream is so disgusted that it can't take it's characters "morality" seriously at all (that character being Hitler himself might have something to do with it), Book Of The New Sun is more able to sit within its character's skin. It also helps that Wolfe's expansive vocabulary and Borgesian imagery is much more fun reading that Hitler's diatribes. To put it short, Book Of The New Sun is a great accomplishment as an artistic work that can be read many times, always growing with the reader.

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