Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Claw of the Conciliator

This is a continuation of my previous post on Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. I was commenting on objections to the book, and had just suggested a parallel with the Grail cycle, with the Claw of the Conciliator as the "grail" that moves the plot along.

It's interesting, by the bye, that the Claw only performs "natural" miracles. It cures diseases, heals wounds, and raises the dead, but has little or no effect on the artificially enhanced beauty of Jolenta and the like. The miracle that most stands out to me is the changing of water into wine at the inn in Saltus. It is, of course, an echo of Christ's first miracle at Cana. In The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson, speaking of the attitude of the medievals toward such phenomena, has this to say:
In a way everything is a miracle. At the marriage of Cana Jesus made water into wine and everybody was astounded; but rain becomes wine in our vines every day, and we take it all as a matter of course. Nevertheless, it is God Who creates the rain and the vine and the wine; but He does it regularly, and we get so accustomed to it that we cease to wonder. Again, He speaks, and one rises from the dead and the whole countryside flock to see; but men are born every day in the usual manner and we enter the birth in the civil register as if it were the most natural thing in the world… Miraculous phenomena are not necessarily more admirable in themselves than the daily spectacle of nature; the government of the world, at once as a whole and in all its least details, is a much more wonderful thing than the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves.
He elsewhere notes:
The true Christian feeling for nature is that which finds expression throughout the Psalms, and, above all, in the Canticle of the Three Children in the fiery furnace: Benedicite opera Domini Domino; laudate et superexultate eum in saecula. And after many centuries St. Francis of Assisi will echo that song in his Laudes and the Canticle of Brother Sun, wherein not only water, earth, and air, and stars, but the very death of the body itself, will receive their meed of praise and benediction. If anywhere the heart of man entered into fraternal communion with all that lives and breathes and has being, most assuredly it did so there; for this purely Christian soul it was altogether one and the same thing to love the works of God and to love God.
This is the very spirit that runs through BOTNS from beginning to end.
What struck me on the beach and it struck me indeed, so that I staggered as at a blow—was that if the Eternal Principle had rested in that curved thorn I had carried about my neck for so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in anything, and in fact probably did rest in everything, in every thorn on every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and indeed touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground. [The Citadel of the Autarch]
Here Severian echoes Moses before the burning bush—recognizing that every bush is a burning bush—and also Francis, the barefoot friar whose optimism was equaled only by his stern asceticism, as well as Augustine of Hippo, after whose Confessions his personal chronicle is perhaps modeled:
In loving you, what do I love? No physical beauty, no temporal glory, no radiance of light that commends itself to these eyes of mine; no sweet melody of songs tuned to every mode, no soft scent of flowers or of ointments or of perfumes, no manna, no honey, no limbs that can receive corporal embrace; yet I do love some kind of light, some kind of voice, some kind of fragrance, some kind of food, some kind of embrace, when I love my God, who is light, voice, fragrance, food, embrace to my inner man…

I questioned the physical world concerning my God, and it replied to me, "I am not he, but it is he that made me." I questioned the earth, and it said, "I am not he"; and all that was in it confessed likewise. I questioned the sea and the depths, and all living things that creep, and they replied, "We are not your God; look above us." I questioned the winds that blow, and the whole air and all its indwellers said, "Anaximenes is wrong; we are not God." I questioned the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars: "Nor are we the God whom you seek," said they. And I said to all these things that surround the doors of my flesh, "Tell me about my God, that which you are not; tell me something of him." They cried out with a great voice, "It was he that made us." My questioning was the concentration of my mind, and their response was their beauty. [Augustine's Confessions, Book X, trans. Philip Burton]
After reading a number of bad reviews, I begin to wonder if the issue isn't partly a matter of prejudice. I'm reminded of C. N. Manlove's study (Modern Fantasy), which finds The Lord of the Rings and Perelandra to be unsuccessful, while books like Phantastes and Titus Groan are held up as successful. Never mind that the former are perennial favorites available in any bookstore, whereas the latter are hardly read anymore. The cause, he's forced to conclude (after some fairly tortuous criticism), is religion:
[O]nly unprejudiced realists can write fully imaginative fantasy; only those who know one world thoroughly can make another with the inner consistency of reality.
And only those who eschew dogma are unprejudiced realists who know the world, because dogma is prejudiced and unreal and ignorant. I'm not going to throw myself into that fray because I don't like writing about religion per se on this blog, but I will suggest that this attitude seems more likely to be an a priori opinion than a reasoned conclusion. The notion that Tolkien's fantasy is not "fully imaginative" when compared to Peake's is laughable. But to those who prefer the joy and the hope, the grief and the anguish of Middle Earth to the dreary pointlessness of Gormenghast Castle and the zero-dimensional caricatures that inhabit it, Manlove has this to say:
It is almost worth…the failings of The Lord of the Rings to have that one frail, beautiful vision of the vanished garden in Lothlórien. But the word is 'almost': one must leave to the cultists the readiness to dispense with [what makes a successful novel].
Indeed. You know, I find books like The Left Hand of Darkness and A Voyage to Arcturus and VALIS and The Worm Ouroboros and Mythago Wood and Hart's Hope every bit as enjoyable as (say) The Lord of the Rings or The Book of the New Sun. A writer reveals herself in her writing, whether she wants to or not; if she holds a belief, religious or otherwise, then that gets woven in there with the rest. But the end is not the communication of an idea or an opinion. The end of the novel (unless it is a failure, as Perelandra to some extent is) is a kind of beauty, and this beauty is the beauty of truth only secondarily. It can be entered into by anyone, but you have to submit to its rules and make yourself vulnerable for the moment. I admit that this is not always easy. But it has this tendency: it makes you more humane.

As far as Wolfe goes, it's clear that it really is his confessional status that bothers some people, and not the book itself, because its symbolism is as pagan as anything. For that matter, Tolkien's mythopoeic ouevre isn't as Catholic as is always made out—he departed from received dogma on at least one important point, and was taken to task for it—while Lewis' stories are strongly neoplatonist. These writers are being found wanting because of something extrinsic to their works.

We all have this tendency to get trapped in our little ghettos, me as much as anyone else; but insofar as I've limited my horizons to what I'm comfortable with, I've become less of a person. That's something I seem to have to discover again and again.

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