(urth) Wolfean theologies

Craig Brewer cnbrewer at yahoo.com
Wed Feb 4 08:12:09 PST 2009

Catholicism makes all of this a bit tricky, too. Catholicism, of course, immediately brings up questions of orthodoxy vs. whatever. It's easy to assume that since Wolfe is Catholic, his beliefs are orthodox. It's also easy to assume that since he's comfortable sharing his personal beliefs, that his fictions all ultimately match those beliefs. But to go from Catholic orthodoxy straight to interpretation misses two important mediators: fiction and the author.

My questions are always: why must an author's fiction necessarily match their personal beliefs? Couldn't their fiction explore alternatives, express doubts, raise questions, etc.? (With Wolfe, I'm always curious how an engineer might reconceptualize Catholic theology in a completely mechanical way...I see points where Wolfe toys with these ideas that, to me, aren't heretical but certainly aren't orthodox, either.) And just because Wolfe is Catholic, can we assume he's an orthodox Catholic? There's an interview where he discussed converting to Catholicism,* saying that he didn't read a lot of theology but read Chesterton and other Catholic writers. The interview also suggests that he might (and this is of course reading between the lines) have rationalized himself into Catholicism rather than simply accepting it whole cloth in one swoop. (Although what his attitude is now might be incredibly different.) Furthermore, he wrote the books at different times
 during his life when his relationship to his faith might have changed. In other words, turning to orthodox theology as a way to interpret the fiction seems to miss a few steps. The point is that knowing a few general things about Wolfe's general relation to Catholic orthodoxy in general never tells us much about specifics.

I'm also never comfortable talking about an author's intentions. An author can, of course, misunderstand him/herself. (Look at the later PKDick, for example...an extreme one since he was losing his mind, but it still applies.) Or maybe an author failed to communicate as he wanted? Or maybe the story was more complex than they intended? You don't have to be a raging postmodernist to recognize that writing and story-telling, no matter how well crafted, are media -- at once communicating but also a barrier between writer-as-person and reader-as-person. (That insight is at least as old as Plato.) While that never means that "anything goes" in interpretation, it also means that authorial intention is only one factor.

Of course Wolfe's religion informs his fiction. You have to be blind not to see that. But it takes textual argument to connect an author's personal beliefs to the words/story in a substantial way. There's never a necessary connection. When interpreters get into discussions about theology or mythology, I'm always skeptical when they want to suggest that because a source puts something one way, Wolfe must as well. Instead, I'm almost most interested in how the details of the text relate to the source material and what they change. After all, isn't that the entire point of the Brown Book: Nothing is ever completely different, but nothing is ever completely the same when filtered through time/culture/writing.

*"About his conversion, Wolfe says: "I was raised in a
rather lax fashion as a Presbyterian. I don't think my
father had any particular religious convictions. My
mother had been raised as a Presbyterian and so I was
nominally a Presbyterian. It was largely an answer to
give when people asked you. . . . I married a Roman
Catholic and had to take instruction in it in order that
we could have a Catholic wedding I became interested
in it, read and studied, and talked to people about
it and so forth, and eventually converted. . . . I didn't
read a lot of theology.... I read Chesterton's book on
St. Thomas Aquinas . . . and ended up reading everything
of Chesterton's that I could find. I had gone
through very much the same thing earlier with C.S.

(Quoted in John Farrel's "The Distant Suns of Gene Wolfe," First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life; Apr2007 Issue 172, p28.)

----- Original Message ----
From: David Stockhoff <dstockhoff at verizon.net>
To: urth at lists.urth.net
Sent: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 9:12:28 AM
Subject: (urth) Wolfean theologies

Perhaps, but I don't see the relevance, or rather the parallels, to the discussion. Following your understanding of these terms, one must always call the Catholic christ-interpretation "Christ" and the "heretical" christ-interpretations "Christ-like." This is or would be patently absurd and useless and irrelevant, and I object. Feel free to adopt that convention, but recognize that it is merely a convention. 
None of this affects what Wolfe believes or how that affects interpretation---only how such data are asserted.

I am indeed arguing for a broader field of potential interpretations than some here seem comfortable with. But I have not argued what you have said. To repeat myself, this has as much to do with forum etiquette as anything else. I don't mind arguments from theology. I object to arguments from authority rather than logic---as I have very clearly stated.


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Date: Tue, 3 Feb 2009 23:55:57 +0000
From: Chris P <rasputin_ at hotmail.com>
Subject: Re: (urth) Urth Digest, Vol 53, Issue 59
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There is wiggle-room for interpretation, but generally interpretation is supposed to stay close to the original intention of the speaker or at least not contradict it without absolute necessity. This may sound nitpicky but without it you get "radical" interpretation where everything can mean anything you want at any time.

I could basically use the same form of argument you used there to say that well, to me in my belief system, calling someone "Christ" or "Christ-like" is the same as saying that they are Richard Nixon. Thus you can't argue that my interpretation of BotNS as a retelling of the Watergate story without privileging an interpretation based on Wolfe's religious beliefs, right?

-- "When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set." -- Lin Yutang

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