I continue to love these episodes. What I love in particular are the pacing — going through the story this slowly & carefully draws our attention to all sorts of details we missed, which is fabulous & vital. I also love the wild speculation, the basing it on only the material read so far — it gives a sense of the play of possibilities, the false leads, the sheer overwhelming meaningfulness in these texts.
I continue to worry — as usual, I suppose — about (to use Marc Aaramini's term for it) apophenia. The texts are richly suggestive; it is hard to know what suggestions are meant, and what we are seeing in the clouds. But I love the seeing in the clouds, so for the moment it doesn't matter. (I think I will at some point write up a longer essay about Wolfe and reading, with invocations of other writers, etc — but some other time.)
A few random thoughts:
- You talk, interestingly & persuasively, about the parallels between various Christian ceremonies/symbols (baptism, the eucharist, etc) in the story. But it's worth remembering that Wolfe also includes grotesques of these symbols: he has said in interviews that the Thecla/alzabo bit is not a symbol of the eucharist, but a dark, twisted version of it (not his words, but something to that effect). So maybe the Shadow Children's devouring is like the eucharist — or maybe it's a twisted version of it? Particularly given the fact that (IMS you mention) elves are, in the tradition, not only mischevous, but often cruel & wicked as well. (By the way, I loved all the background about the shadow children & elves, particularly the mentioning of particular early texts. I also appreciated the name-drop of Susana Clarke's JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL, one of my favorite fantasy novels!)
- The elements reading was very persuasive.
- Brandon, I think it was, at some point described the epigraph as a renunciation of the physical (ie desire) in favor of the non-phsysical — not, at that moment, just the spiritual, though, because that was what brought me up short. It is not only the desire for the physical world that John of the Cross is renouncing: he renounces the desire for *knowledge*, which is not physical! (Ok, a modern neuroscientist might claim it is, in some sense; but that can't be how John of the Cross saw it.)
- While we're at it, you assume throughout your discussion that the epigraph that it was placed by John V Marsch. I always read it — without, I grant you, much thought — as being placed by Wolfe, i.e. as Wolfe's comment on Marsch's story. Certainly in other cases Wolfe uses epigrams that do not seem to be by the first-person narrators of the texts — the Book of the New Sun is an obvious example, but there are others, too (he likes both epigrams and first-person narrators!). Do we have a reason to ascribe the placing of the epigram to Marsch not Wolfe? There is the placing after the title, but I don't see that as dispositive.
- You mentioned in the recap the eye and the other eye, but not the reason they might be called that: if the river is the nose, and the delta the mouth, then they would *look* like eyes... from space. Which implies that the Marschmen (it was they who named them, right?) have seen the view from space before. Which is interesting.
- I think you're correct in reading the abilities as real, and not just theological/mythical/symbolic. But one of the joys of the story is that we can't know! Most of us encounter religious beliefs (our own or others') with a firm sense of whether the metaphysics are true or not. If we read a historical report where people saw the future in dreams, we don't think that maybe they really did; we think they believed false things. (Well, most of us do.) But here we can't know: because of the SF elements, the theological beliefs are, at least initially, ambiguous as to where the theology ends and the description of the world begins, which makes us take the theology more seriously. I love that.
- You don't make as much as I thought you would of the idea of the Marshmen that the river is *holier* than God — an idea that would be heresy in nearly every religion that i know of. Are there *any* monotheist religions that think something is holier than God?
- Glenn (I think it was) defined "holiness" at some point as "specialness". In Judaism, holiness — 'kadosh' — is traditionally understood as separation, made distinct: the shabbath (Shabbat) is made *separate* from other days, the Jews are separate from other people (Leviticus 20:26), etc. It's about distinction.
- While I'm at it, Glenn mentioned the change in way God is seen in the Hebrew Bible from early to late, the withdrawal. Let me again plug Richard Elliott Friedman's book The Hidden Face of God on just this point.
- And on the Jewish beat: Glenn mentions Islam as one of the religions which absolutely refuses the Christian Trinitarian notion (along with some Christian sects). You should add Judaism to that list! The *oneness* of God is central — probably the most important prayer in Judaism is the Sh'ma, which in its short form is a single verse, Deuteronomy 6:4 (Hear, Israel! Hashem our God, Hashem is one.) (Hashem = "the name", the tetragramaton, which in prayer, but not casually, is pronounced "adonai", "lord"). The Rabbis were divided on whether Christianity counted as monotheism: the ones living in Islamic lands said it wasn't, those living in Christian lands said it was — presumably because they'd have been killed if they said otherwise. But the trinity is a notion very foreign to Judaism.
Looking forward to Part 4 & beyond.
Fantastic comments about my favorite section of the entire book. "Separate" is far better than "specialness" (and this is implied in the idea of sacred vs. profane) and I appreciate the book recommendations, too.
Thanks so much for these insightful comments. We definitely need to improve our approach to Wolfe as purely catholic (or worse, generically "Judeo-Christian"). I'm so glad you continue to challenge us on this notion because I think you're right to point out that there is more to Wolfe than a christian-theological reading of his texts. I'm especially grateful for your explanation of "holiness."
The John of the Cross business is very challenging. I can't believe I missed that knowledge is "non-material". I suppose I read the renunciation of knowledge as short hand for something like "worldly knowledge" rather than knowledge per se because the end goal of the dark night of the soul or ascent of mt. carmel or maybe even any ascetic/christian mystic practice is deeper knowledge of the spiritual realm (though that might be sensitivity to, or awareness/understanding of the spiritual).
We'll have reasons by the time we get to V.R.T. to suggest that it is the writer of A Story by John V Marsh who placed the epigram rather than Wolfe. In fact our reading of all of Fifth Head seems to go against the conventional readings provided thus far, primarily through Marc Aramini, who we get to interview about his position on the novel.
Also, I think I read somewhere that Susannah Clarke has had some health problems, but I really hope we get the sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell some day.
Thanks for continuing on this journey with us and giving us so much food for thought!
PS: Glenn's attempt to briefly define the notion of the trinity reminded me of this classic video, which I heartily recommend to all those interested in religion, Christian & otherwise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw