A Reflection on the Achievement of Gene Wolfe, with Gregorian Chant Echoing Offstage

by Blackstone Crow

“Robert, I think he’s lost his mind.”

“He has eyes, Marie, and you don’t.”

“What do you mean by that? And why do you keep looking out that window?”

Quite slowly, the man turned to face us. For a moment he looked at Agia and me, then he turned away. His expression was the one I have seen our clients wear when Master Gurloes showed them the instruments to be used in their anacrisis.

Like that? It’s a haunting scene, one from a weighty tome of haunting scenes, capped as a lyric with a couplet by that edgy comment about the countenance of those wretches who see the “instruments” whom the “Master Gurloes” – the reader at this stage of the novel knows Gurloes to be a Master Torturer of the Guild of Torturers – reveals to his “clients” about to suffer their “anacrisis”, a term from the Ancient Greeks referring to the torture used when, in a law case having interrogation and inquiry, torture was applied.

And lift a tip of an interior ear to that “You have eyes, but you do not see” echo from the Gospels. But it is cast in a semi-pagan way, too, that line, cast as it is with the very modern, “I think he’s lost his mind” coupled with it in a dynamic and very conjugal way. Something is askew here, a mismatch, hints of the Christian Faith and instruments of torture. Or maybe not? One could easily picture this scene in the sunny background of the High Middle Ages, in an office of some Star Chamber court. But in fact, it takes place on a far-future Earth almost (not quite, there are hints!) unrecognizable.

This vignette is taken from page 190 of volume 1 of my Fantasy Masterwork edition of the late Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun multi-tome epic. All four volumes, on every page, have scenes word-woven on such a level. Ursula K. Le Guin said of Wolfe that: “He is our Melville” – maybe so, but he strikes me as more an Old Testament author (whom Melville himself hoped to “channel”, perhaps?). Wolfe strikes me as a Master Chronicler of the Guild of Haunting Unsettlements, or he would do so if the Prophet Ezekiel had ventured into essaying a Science-Fiction novel. Wolfe haunts; he unsettles. One just doesn’t “read” such an author. Does one “read” Shakespeare? One spends a lifetime carrying Shakespeare about, and one does that with Wolfe. It is a gift very few writers achieve at all, and fewer still on a sustained level. Besides the Avon Bard himself and Wolfe, I can name two others: Tolkien and Homer.

Gene Wolfe died on April 14 of 2019 at the age of 87. Having survived both polio and the Korean War, he became an engineer – and if you have a taste for Pringle potato chips, Wolfe helped create the machine that forms them. His wife Rosemary, born the same year as Wolfe, died in 2013 after long illness, including Alzheimer’s. Wolfe has a quote about her recorded in The New Yorker in 2015 that, “There was a time when she did not remember my name or that we were married, but she still remembered that she loved me.” After a long life as a melancholy observer of Earth’s all-too human scene, I have to say that is a poignant line; indeed, there have been few such loves.

With this essay, I stand here before the Assembly of Readers as Wolfe’s Advocate. He deserves to be read, whether a particular writing of his is Science-Fiction or whether it is Fantasy. Wolfe deserves to be read because all of us deserve the mystery he conjures. Justice is giving something its due, and Science-Fiction itself is due the gift of seeing reality as something that can act on us as much as we think we can act on it. Sci-Fi – the art, relying as it does on building imaginative narrative architecture based on the empirical sciences – more than deserves mystery: it needs it desperately, for all Creation needs a return to the sense of mystery – and of course in the heart of mystery resides beauty. Or terror. Yet beauty is allusive, non-capturable – and in that peculiar oubliette in the Mansion of Meaning, Wolfe is THE master “mystery” writer, “mystery” in the Catholic Sacramental sense. Wolfe himself was a Catholic, a convert who initially studied the Faith to marry his beloved Rosemary, and much speculation orbits that question as to what extent his religion influenced his writings. Wolfe himself averred that it did. As he converted in the 1950s, before the controversial changes in the Church, he thus experienced an older, more transcendental theology than those whose Catholic experience dates from the 1960s or later.

Do a writer’s personal religious beliefs color his oeuvre? Enlarge it? Or restrict it? It’s a common enough question when discussing where authors cultivate their ideas, and how they wrestle with the concepts they create, yet Science-Fiction (nor most of the rest of Modernity) often doesn’t have the “religious gene” that way; at best, reality is matter to manipulate and we’re Descartes’ Ghosts in the Machine – pure matter ourselves, yet oddly “haunted”. The natural world in which we live in our technological bubble is not considered that type of mystery, not a Mysterium requiring awe and contemplation but a material reality needing exploitation for profit. Though an author of more than 25 novels and twice that many short stories, no reader of his can believe Wolfe wrote with much of an eye for profit. His fiction is not “pop” fiction, written to sell high volume, though Fantasy is a huge seller in general, compared to “literary” works.

Wolfe’s fiction is instead a wondering, a cosmos-wide pondering on whether it is reality that is a player in the game, whether it can exploit us, or transform us, as in his Fifth Head of Cerberus, a three-novel combo asking the question of whether the long-settled human colonists of a planet haven’t actually been replaced by the aliens native to the place. Who does the haunting? (Or is it more like possession?) The humans who have replaced the natives or the natives, haunted by what happened to the humans they have altered themselves to pantomime? In the Fifth Head, Wolfe also asks whether a machine can hold a human’s mind, and whether a clone can continue the life of its original, whether prostitution offers a greater freedom and whether suffering is…. Well, one doesn’t just “read” Wolfe, one interacts with Wolfe, and one does so sacramentally, for as the Catholic Sacraments are physical channels of invisible, divine grace; in Wolfe’s art, his characters experience the worlds he creates as believers experience the drama of divine life in such a sacramental metaphysic.

Alien that is, of course, to our present world, and it is fitting an author of Science-Fiction engages in it; but that raises another reason for Wolfe to be read: he’s work. He takes effort. As suggested here, his form of storytelling is quite different from the norm. And he can be more work than Tolkien, more than Homer, for he has an anti-Mysterium world to work against. And that’s Sacramental too. From his unsettling reflections on who we are and contemplation of what we might be, even if unbeknownst to ourselves, to his wonderful, exquisite prose and his penchant for creating words – one often finds oneself looking up a word only to realize Wolfe has made it up – in all of that, Gene Wolfe is a transcendent author, or perhaps, suggested by the unsettling questions raised in The Fifth Head of Cerberus, he is Ezekiel come again; an ancient phantasmagoric, a prophet of the supernatural imperiously striking itself through the natural world, an extraordinary visionary who sees a higher reality our world in itself can only dully reflect – perhaps the prophet has indeed replaced the potato chip machine maker.

Read Gene Wolfe, and you’ll wander in these wonders, and over time, bit by bit – perhaps – garner that most elusive of graces: wisdom.

~

Blackstone Crow blogs at corvinescatholiccorner.blogspot.com

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