(urth) convo from a decade ago
danielottojackpetersen at gmail.com
Sat May 5 02:20:12 PDT 2012
Just in case you've joined this list less than five years ago, like me, I
want to share what I thought was a pretty incredible piece of analysis from
ol' Dan'l just over a decade ago (he is working off of comments made by
Michael Straight) - mainly about Long and Short Sun. It's a very LONG
paste as it includes acute responses from Steve Strickland, then Michael
Straight, then James Jordan.
Please ignore if this is old and/or unfruitful stuff for you. It really
roped me in and I thought it just might do that for one or two others.
(For the record, I essentially side with Dan'l's view, filtered through or
transmuted by James's, but would also want to absorb as much as possible of
Steve's into it, and also certainly respect and grant much of Michael's.)
The thread goes on with many more insightful responses that flesh it out
and nuance it very well, but this is where I stopped copying...
From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" <ddanehy at siebel.com>
Subject: (whorl) Fallible Narrators and Even More Fallible Copyists: a
Date: Sun, 10 Jun 2001 15:39:30
This will wander a little off the Lupine track, but trust me,
it's heading straight back there. Some points of Rostrum's
screed got my head working, and I've got a basic thesis on
what Wolfe is doing and why.
The first of Rostrum's remarks that I responded to was this:
> I remember feeling this way at the end of tBOTLS, the idea that
> some of the wonderful things Horn had told me about Silk might
> have been exaggerations or wishful thinking gave me a certain
> (fun) chill, but I never felt we have enough evidence to try to
> go back and sift and somehow uncover the "real" Silk behind
> Horn's story.
Now, I didn't really get that kind of shock out of the revelation
that "I, Horn, wrote this years later, with some help." What I
_did_ get out of it was a weird sense that Wolfe had patterned
this whole thing somehow after model the Catholic church
uses to describe the formation of the (written) Gospels.
Briefly, for non-[Catholic-Bible-scholars]: The basic idea the
Catholic church endorses is that the Gospels were formed in
1. The events that actually occurred in the greater
Jerusalem metropolitan area ca. 4 BC - 33 AD.
2. The memories of those events carried by eyewitnesses
and the communities founded by those eyewitnesses.
3. The setting-down of those memories by the communities,
probably late in the first century.
The Catholic answers to questions like "Yeah, but how do we know
it's true?" and "Well, what about the way they [seem to] conflict
with each other?" are deeply entrenched in that model, but it
gets pretty complicated at that point.
Now, what I _think_ we have in Horn's "Book of Silk" is something
similar: Horn was, admittedly, an eyewitness to some of these
events -- a fairly small proportion of them. He's gone around
interviewing people, filled in the details as best he can, and
freely admits he made the rest up to complete the narrative. It
isn't good historiography, but it suffices; it gives the sense
of someone who isn't a historian doing the best he can. The made-
up stuff, while perhaps not accurate, isn't a lie, in the sense
of an untruth meant to deceive; it is intended to convey a sense
of the probable truth.
So we have all three stages compressed into one text:
1. We have Horn's own authentic(?) memories of Silk.
2. We have the community's memories of Silk.
3. The "Book of Silk" _as written by Horn & Nettle_
collecting and collating their own memories with
those of the community.
Unfortunately, there's an implicit Stage 4, which is also
implicit in the Catholic model: The copyists get hold of
the text, and a long time later, scholars try to trace the
provenance of textual variants backwards and determine the
"true" original text of Stage 3.
In the case of the BOOK OF THE LONG SUN, we feel like we have
the product of Stage 3, but the Narrator's comments in SHORT
SUN lead us to wonder whether we might actually have a corrupt
copy, and how corrupt? Nor do Horn's comments at the end of
LONG SUN make it any easier to determine; compare them to the
first four verses of the Gospel according to Luke, and then
find out how much work goes into preparing a good textual
"edition" of that Gospel. Assurances by the author of the
text's accuracy do not greatly help when the text has been
hand-copied many times.
Which leads me to another of Rostrum's points:
> It's not that Wolfe leaves things ambiguous because he doesn't
> care whether you believe in Silk's enlightenment. Rather
> he's giving you the same kind of evidence that we have in the
> real world--do you trust the people who claim to have had an
> encounter with God and (equally important) the community of
> people who have told and retold their stories? Can we hope
> that, though mediated though our own fallibility and the
> fallibility of others, we can still have some genuine knowledge
> of God?
We have, in THE BOOK OF THE LONG SUN, one of the following:
a) Horn and Nettle's "Book of Silk"
b) one of many possible variant texts
c) someone's "edition" of same
-- and nothing to help us which. We are, in fact, in the precise
position of a non-scholarly reader of the Bible, or perhaps (given
that this discussion is happening at all) a medieval scholar with
no access to modern textual studies.
So: paraphrasing Rostrum, can we hope that, though mediated
though our own fallibility and the fallibility of others, we can
still have some genuine knowledge of Silk?
I think the answer is, and has to be, "Yes," because the
possibility that it's all made-up (within the Lupine universe
of discourse) is too drab to be worth discussing.
All this brings me to my basic thesis.
What Wolfe has reproduced, here, is the basic problem of putting
faith in a written Scripture. The following paragraph refers
equivocally to the Bible (for us, or at least those of us to
whom the Bible represents something more than a reactionary symbol
of patriarchal oppression) and to The Book of Silk (for a
representative inhabitant of the Lupiverse, modulo similar
"What can we believe about this text or its contents? By itself,
it is completely incapable of witnessing to its own veracity,
and we are not even capable of coming to certainty on what the
text actually does say in some places; yet many have believed
and do believe that it is a true account of the most important
thing that ever happened in this world. To believe that it is
completely made up by its author or authors seems impossible;
to believe that it is accurate, on a word-by-word, factual
basis, seems even more impossible (though there are some
extremists who in fact believe each of those things)."
Now, when Rostrum writes, "Perhaps Wolfe is being a gentleman; he
doesn't insist that you accept the existence of God in order to
enjoy his story," I disagree rather vehemently; to deny Silk's
enlightenment is to make the whole LONG SUN (and, by transference,
SHORT) fall apart, meaningless and incoherent. He even sets that
possibility up as a straw man (Crane's cerebral accident theory),
and _doesn't_ provide us with arguments about it, because it is
ridiculous _prima facie_. There is, I think, no way to take the
supernatural element out of the SUN books in any kind of "good
faith" (in the existential sense).
Still, I agree that "[t]here is a sense in which telling a story
from a third-person, omniscient viewpoint is cheating."
There is. And there is another sense in which all stories are
told from that viewpoint, even those told by a limited and
unreliable first-person narrator. The reader (well, all but the
most childlike and passive reader) sits outside the universe of
discourse and, if not omniscient, is at least outside the
viewpoint of the narrator, judging it. Without that basic fact,
the concept of an unreliable narrator would be entirely
Again: "We never know the world that way."
No, we don't. But somehow we _conceive_ the world that way. We have
a sense that there is a single, coherent reality, even if our own
limited knowledge can never get at it. Living in a universe run by
quantum mechanics doesn't really change that; it defines the limits
of how much we can know about it. (If there is an omniscient and
omnipotent Creator, Heisenberg's Law is a clear and present "No
From: "Steve Strickland" <SSTRICKLAND at satx.rr.com>
Subject: Re: (whorl) Fallible Narrators and Even More Fallible Copyists: a
Textual Con sideration of the "Book of Silk"
Date: Sun, 10 Jun 2001 20:35:11
A nice piece of work, Dan'l, but I think Rostrum's remarks hit the mark
closest, especially when he said:
"Perhaps Wolfe is being a gentleman; he
doesn't insist that you accept the existence of God in order to
enjoy his story."
In short, I think it is deliberate religious ambiguity Wolfe is attempting
to generate, in much the same way that he generated ambiguity in "The Book
of the New Sun."
Somewhere, maybe it is in one of the "Castle of Days" articles or in an
interview I read somewhere, Mr. Wolfe wrote about the relationship between
his faith and his writing, particularly with respect to the Book of the New
Sun. (Conveniently) I don't remember exactly what he said, but my
impression from the piece was that he was deliberately ambiguous on the
question of religion, that TBOTNS was not a religious work, but a secular
work, and that, thus, Mr. Wolfe was careful to preserve a certain ambiguity
in that regard.
Where is the religious ambiguity in TBOTNS? Well, for instance, I think,
almost certainly, that Master Ash's bleak and scientific outlook depicted
part of that ambiguity. Maybe, too, the notion visited in "Sword of the
Lictor" that, if the universe had existed for an infinite time, all things,
including angels, would have come into existence by logical necessity. And,
from my religious perspective, it's hard to imagine a more terrifying story
than Melito's story from the "Citadel of the Autarch" of "The Cock, the
Angel, and the Eagle", especially as that story was revisited and affirmed
as true in "Urth of the New Sun." The point is that within TBOTNS Mr.
Wolfe himself generates an alternative religious interpretation of the world
in which his story takes place, something that an atheistic would be much
more comfortable with than a priest. (Though there's also plenty of room
for the priest's interpretation.) To me, this ambiguity is most excellent
and makes the work, not only uplifting (as would be a purely religious
work), but also subtly frightening.
In Long Sun and Short Sun, I think there's a similar principle and purpose
at work (same author, after all). The technique here is to raise a question
about the veracity/accuracy of the storyteller. It is thus possible that
the story has an entirely naturalistic interpretation, that, for instance,
the divine visitations, Silk's goodness, could be written in after the fact.
It is again subtly frightening.
Yikes! I just read what I just wrote. It probably doesn't make any sense
at all. Sorry.
From: Michael Straight <straight at email.unc.edu>
Subject: Re: (whorl) Fallible Narrators and Even More Fallible Copyists: a
Date: Mon, 11 Jun 2001 09:10:41
On Sun, 10 Jun 2001, Dan'l Danehy-Oakes wrote:
> Now, I didn't really get that kind of shock out of the revelation
> that "I, Horn, wrote this years later, with some help." What I
> _did_ get out of it was a weird sense that Wolfe had patterned
> this whole thing somehow after model the Catholic church
> uses to describe the formation of the (written) Gospels.
I didn't get into that specifically, but, yes, this is exactly what I had
in mind too.
One of my favorite parallels: Luke and Acts are thought to have been
written by the same person (arguably, "Luke"). Luke is all third person,
and Acts is almost entirely third person until about 2/3 of the way
through (in the fourth part if you divided the two books into four parts)
the narrator suddenly says, "and then we got ready to leave for
Macedonia" (Acts 16:10).
> Now, when Rostrum writes, "Perhaps Wolfe is being a gentleman; he
> doesn't insist that you accept the existence of God in order to
> enjoy his story," I disagree rather vehemently; to deny Silk's
> enlightenment is to make the whole LONG SUN (and, by transference,
> SHORT) fall apart, meaningless and incoherent.
I strongly disagree. Horn believes that Silk was enlightened, and perhaps
Silk believed it. But I don't think Silk's story is completely incoherent
or unexplainable without it. It's certainly possible Silk simply had some
sort of moment of inspiration in which he decided he ought to try to save
the manteion (or decided that the Outsider wanted him to save the
manteion). People point to Silk having received otherwise unavailable
knowledge from his enligtenment, but its nothing Horn would not have known
at the time he wrote the story. It's not like Horn even uses this as
"proof" that Silk was enlightened, so it wouldn't necessarily have been
bad faith if he just added those parts because he believed Silk must have
had some sort of revelation.
Did Jesus really predict the fall of Jerusalem, or is that something the
gospel writers added in later?
Now I agree that the most satisfying reading of Silk's story involves
trusting Horn and his descendents and accepting Silk's enlightenment, but
I still say that Wolfe (1) doesn't cheat by saying "yes, it's true, I know
because I'm omniscient" (interviews excluded) and (2) still gives you a
good, if more tragic story should you choose to think Silk and Horn were
But then I'm the guy who thinks "Westwind" may be a sinister story.
> Still, I agree that "[t]here is a sense in which telling a story
> from a third-person, omniscient viewpoint is cheating."
> There is. And there is another sense in which all stories are
> told from that viewpoint, even those told by a limited and
> unreliable first-person narrator. The reader (well, all but the
> most childlike and passive reader) sits outside the universe of
> discourse and, if not omniscient, is at least outside the
> viewpoint of the narrator, judging it. Without that basic fact,
> the concept of an unreliable narrator would be entirely
Sure that happens, but I'm not sure that means it's a good idea. I'm not
sure, but I have the suspicion that allowing ourselves to really believe
in that feeling of having an outside, objective viewpoint is the source of
many evils. "Unreliable narrator" may in fact be a meaningless, or at
least tautologous concept. Or rather, it's the idea of a completely
reliable narrator that is a fallacy.
> Again: "We never know the world that way."
> No, we don't. But somehow we _conceive_ the world that way. We have
> a sense that there is a single, coherent reality, even if our own
> limited knowledge can never get at it.
This is a good point. We're always telling ourselves 3rd-person
omniscient stories about the world. Is that a mistake? I don't know.
From: James Jordan <jbjordan4 at home.com>
Subject: Re: (whorl) Fallible Narrators
Date: Mon, 11 Jun 2001 09:14:14
At 03:40 PM 6/10/2001 -0400, Rostrum wrote:
>I think part of what Wolfe is doing is this: If there are those who doubt
>someone so good as Silk could exist, or that he could really be
>enlightened by the Outsider, or that any god like the Outsider could
>really exist, then they are free to think that Horn embellished or was
>mistaken. Perhaps Wolfe is being a gentleman; he doesn't insist that you
>accept the existence of God in order to enjoy his story.
>There is a sense in which telling a story from a third-person, omniscient
>viewpoint is cheating.
Perhaps a slightly different take, which may be part of Wolfe's
motivation. Silk is Christlike, but he's not Christ. TBLS is like the
gospels, but it's not the gospels. Wolfe is a conservative Christian, so he
believes the gospels as originally written were "inspired and infallible"
and that they have been preserved accurately in the Church. TBLS does not
have these divine attributes. Thus:
Gospels : TBLS :: Jesus : Silk
With TBSS we move one step farther away from infallibility. TBSS
is not a second-order version of part of the Bible, but is the life of a
saint. But again, from a Roman Catholic standpoint, there is always the
question of what REALLY happened in the life of a saint. (Remember the
controversy a few years ago when the Vatican began to question whether St.
Nicholas ever really lived.) Thus, in the order of perfection and
Gospels : TBLS : TBSS :: Jesus : Silk : Horn/Narrator(s)
Maybe such considerations played no part in Wolfe's thinking, but
they make a kind of sense, given what he has done in these two books.
From: James Jordan <jbjordan4 at home.com>
Subject: Re: (whorl) Fallible Narrators and Even More Fallible
Date: Mon, 11 Jun 2001 09:21:16
At 08:35 PM 6/10/2001 -0500, you wrote:
>Where is the religious ambiguity in TBOTNS? Well, for instance, I think,
>almost certainly, that Master Ash's bleak and scientific outlook depicted
>part of that ambiguity. Maybe, too, the notion visited in "Sword of the
>Lictor" that, if the universe had existed for an infinite time, all things,
>including angels, would have come into existence by logical necessity.
>from my religious perspective, it's hard to imagine a more terrifying story
>than Melito's story from the "Citadel of the Autarch" of "The Cock, the
>Angel, and the Eagle", especially as that story was revisited and affirmed
>as true in "Urth of the New Sun." The point is that within TBOTNS Mr.
>Wolfe himself generates an alternative religious interpretation of the
>in which his story takes place, something that an atheistic would be much
>more comfortable with than a priest. (Though there's also plenty of room
>for the priest's interpretation.) To me, this ambiguity is most excellent
>and makes the work, not only uplifting (as would be a purely religious
>work), but also subtly frightening.
FWIW, this is exactly and precisely what Roman Catholic James
Blish does in his classic *A Case of Conscience.* Wolfe shares Blish's
Thomism. Blish provides both a "nature" version of the story, and a "grace"
version of the story, and only the "eye of faith" can see which version is
the more "ultimate" explanation of events. It would not surprise me if
Wolfe, who certainly knows Blish's work, would do the same thing.
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