Jun 13

Episodes 65-67 (Mostly 67)


An embarrassment of riches here, at least to those of us trying to characterize them in fresh words.


The only real comments I had on the two VRT part 6 episodes were:

• You didn't mention how FUNNY the episodes of "March"'s diary, right after VRT takes over, are. All of a sudden we get lines like "Without the boy I don’t know what I’d do. He has done everything, most of the work, for the entire trip." — effusive appreciation after a diaryfull of a very limited amount of it. Which, once you know that VRT is suddenly writing, is really funny.

• I may be reaching here, but does anyone else hear an echo of Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls in the scene of the boy's death? Like that famous fall, there is a fundamental uncertainty about who went over. And somehow that manner of death just reminds me of Holmes.


Going into episode 67, I was going to suggest that, as an experiment, you try reversing the theme & puzzle episodes next time (for Peace, I suppose, in a year's time). The argument is that, hopefully, the answers to the puzzles would enrich our understanding of the events of the story, which would enrich our understanding of the theme. It just seems to make more conceptual sense. Of course you made this recommendation difficult to make by putting out such a splendid theme episode — my favorite yet, perhaps.


I loved all your talk of freedom & slavery, especially the stuff about the ancient context; as an Americanist, I tend to think of it totally in an American context. (I loved the Latin lesson about famulus in particular. Am I correct in understanding that it would not be the term for a plantation slave, just for a household slave?) I also liked the link you made between flourishing & freedom; I had heard similar ideas, but never that term before; it fits beautifully. (One critique of the libertarian idea — and at least some versions of the anarchist idea, if not all of them — is that it sets up a sort of freedom that inhibits rather than enables flourishing.)


Anyway, I did natter on about this before, and I won't repeat myself, except to say again that Constant's views on slavery are all familiar from American slavery defenders (including the idea that freedom is the freedom to enslave, a very familiar idea to our slaveholding founding fathers!), and that his notion that Government health care is akin to slavery is one deep in (quite recent as of 1972) conservative thought, so that I am not entirely sure that Wolfe is holding that notion up to spite, as you both, and I, do, and as everyone should. (I hope he is; and he may well be — he put it in the mouth of a slavery apologist, after all. But I'm not quite sure.)


But on the multiple, complex and contradictory ideas of freedom, let me strongly recommend the work of the historian David Hackett Fischer, in particular the opening chapter or two of his book Liberty and Freedom (the whole book is good, but the best bit is summarized in the beginning). He talks about liberty (libertas) as arising from a Roman notion of freedom, and freedom (freiheit) as arising from a Germanic one, and about how they are, basically, opposite ideas, which worked their way (in altered form) into American culture. (His section on the Civil War is called "Liberty vs. Freedom"). In his earlier book, Albion's Seed, he talks about four of the founding cultures of the US (Massachusetts puritans, Virginian cavaliers, Pennsylvania Quakers, and backcountry folk), and for each defines their notion of freedom — four very different ideas. Anyway, it's interesting stuff, and it pertains directly to the sort of thing you were talking about — freedom as being independent (as Jefferson would have it, in an idea derived from the Roman world), versus being part of a free society (as the Massachusetts puritans would have it, in a German idea). Check it out.


Also he makes (in Albion's Seed), the following superb point, which I never tire of quoting: "The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be."


There's a lot of wonderful stuff to say about the contradictory ideas of freedom in an American context — I used to teach a whole unit on this in an American studies class — but I will stop there.


A few other notes:


• In talking about humans v animals, you talk about the idea that what makes us human is our knowledge of good and evil. But you don't cite the most famous (and relevant to Wolfe) source of that idea: the story of the garden of Eden! What makes humanity (alone among animals) fall is that we eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil which is to say that it is that which makes us human.

• You spoke about VRT's choice between independence (staying among the free people, if he found them, or at least staying in the back of beyond) and going in search of his mother. You didn't quite make the final connection (perhaps thinking it too obvious!), that a need for a mother is about as pure a symbol of human dependence as you can get.

• You mention, casually, that nowadays we believe all human beings have rights, and point out, correctly, that this is a fairly recent belief. At a time when the government of this country is putting undocumented people into concentration camps — including one of the very same camps that was used previously to intern Japanese Americans during WW2 — that assurance that we have, in fact, moved once and for all over that barrier is unwarranted (as I am sure you actually know).

• Also in the "you probably know this but you said otherwise" category: you mention Emerson & Thoreau, and in particular you allude to Emerson's essay "Self Reliance" (I think your point about evil genius is a combination of his use of genius in that essay and the passage ""But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.""). But you say they are post-civil war figures. Thoreau didn't even survive the war; Emerson did, but the contributions are referring to are antebellum ("Self Reliance" was published in 1841).


Hey, I'm almost caught up! I'll see if I can catch up by the time your episode with Marc Aramini airs.

Brilliant observations, as always! And we've already taken your suggestion about reversing the order of the wrap-up episodes, as you'll see! But, seriously, we've gone into each of these two-part wrap-up episodes thinking we'd outlined a single episode (only to discover what fools we are), and so we'd done it up in the order that we thought would be helpful. Sometimes we think the themes help solve the puzzles, sometimes the opposite.


I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but my wife works on slavery in early Islam. Some of our first dates mostly were excited conversations about Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Persian terms for different types of slaves. I assure you, it would make a great romcom. Anyway, famulus would refer to a household slave, which doesn't mean a slave who wasn't involved in agricultural labor but means a slave who spends a lot of time with his owner. So it's more expansive than "house slave" in the American sense, but an American "house slave" would be a famulus. This was also the term used for the slaves who more or less comprised the bureaucracy of the Roman state during the first and second centuries.


Thank you for pointing out that maybe not everyone is on board with the idea of basic human rights. I'd like to think this is a problem of individual empathy rather than a problem of our intellectual culture, but perhaps that's too optimistic.


I'm nearly done with my current Chesterton book and will be looking for something else to read to help me with Wolfe's intellectual milieu. You've mentioned a lot of books (especially relating to V.R.T.) that would be really helpful, but if you had to pick one, which would it be?

Jun 16

Glenn, I know you don't have time to do a complete review of evolving attitudes to slavery in a short podcast, but as you touched on St. Augustine's writings on slavery, I thought his letters (the "Divjak letters") on his parish's "direct action" release of slaves who had been taken by Galician slavetraders, discovered in the 1970s, gave an interesting perspective on his views as it applied to the actuality of the slave trade in the late Roman Republic. I saw this paper recently which went into more depth on it, would be interested in hearing your views: https://www.classics.upenn.edu/sites/www.classics.upenn.edu/files/ElmStudPatrist_ART2015_475.pdf

Susanna Elm is a big deal and she's working on an entire monograph on Augustine and slavery. I haven't read this article yet, but I will and I'll report back. This coming weekend, we're taking a little wilderness break with some other scholars, most of whom work on fifth-century North Africa, so it'll do double duty as a conversation starter over a campfire, too.


And, even though she is a huge deal and likely very busy, I'll see if I can get her on Agnus to talk about this article.

Glenn: Yeah, I saw right after I posted that that you'd switched the puzzles/themes eps for the full book! Silly of me not to notice before.


You mentioned that your wife works on Islamic slavery in the episode (and that you used to work on ancient slavery). I hope I wasn't sounding condescending or anything! I just think that an Americanist's perspective (even if I am not, myself, focused on the topic of slavery) might be useful.


Wolfe's intellectual milieu. Ok, I am going to recommend a bunch of books, and recommend you read two of them. (Yes, I know that two is more than one. Ask an academic, even a lapsed academic, and that's what you get. :) ) The revival of the conservative movement in the 1950s produced a very rich literature. I think the best book was Russel Kirk's The Conservative Mind — that's the one I assigned in my U. S. Intellectual History Since 1865 class. My only hesitation in recommending it is that what Buckley did was put together "fusionism", a merger of three intellectual streams — anti-Communist, free-market libertarians, and social conservatives — and Kirk is not balanced between them the way that Buckley was; while supporting all three, he leans towards group three. So a more balanced overview is historian George H. Nash's (sympathetic) book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. That's an after-the-fact overview, and isn't as rich a book on its own as Kirk is, but might serve your purposes better. A third temptation would be to recommend one of Buckley's books — probably God and Man at Yale, which made his name and captures the spirit of the movement he was forming. One advantage of Buckley is that it's a lot shorter — Nash and Kirk are both doorstopers. (When I assigned Kirk I had them skip a lot of the material on England, and focus on the US stuff, although do read the stuff on Burke; he's foundational.)


Anyway, pick one of those — probably either Kirk or Nash, possibly Buckley. But all of those are books written from the right. And I also think (here I show my bias as a leftist) it's important to get a sense of the other side of the argument. In this vein I would strongly recommend Corey Robin's book The Reactionary Mind — written, as the title suggests, with Kirk in particular in mind — as a really smart, balanced, fair, but ultimately very critical overview of the same field. There were two editions; the first was subtitled Conservatism from Burke to Sarah Palin, and the second Conservatism From Burke to Donald Trump. I strongly recommend the second edition; it's not just a retitling; it's a very substantial rewrite, and the second version really conveys the argument much more clearly. Also, Robin is (like the Buckley, unlike the Nash & Kirk) refreshingly short, and if you are really pressed for time, you can just read the introduction & maybe the chapter on Burke and get a good sense of his argument.


That's two books. I guess if you really wanted to do one, I'd say to read either Kirk or Nash. But I will still suggest two!


This all is the intellectual mileu, of course. There's a huge literature on the socical & political milieu of mid-twentieth century conservatism too — it was a neglected field as recently as twenty to twenty-five years ago, but it's been a very hot topic since roughly 2001 (go figure). But I will spare you a list of titles for now...

This is awesome, thank you. I probably won't get into this until the summer is over, but I'm excited to modernize my horizons a little!

Jun 16

I thought of the Reichenbach Falls as well. "• You didn't mention how FUNNY the episodes of "March"'s diary, right after VRT takes over, are. All of a sudden we get lines like "Without the boy I don’t know what I’d do. He has done everything, most of the work, for the entire trip." — effusive appreciation after a diaryfull of a very limited amount of it. Which, once you know that VRT is suddenly writing, is really funny." I thought that was funny as well. I was trained in and did a fair amount of casework in forensic linguistic profiling, and you consistently see that as a feature in texts and narratives written as false "poison pen" letters directed against the actual author, in an attempt to gain sympathy for them as a victim and/or to redirect suspicions of guilt away from them. It's controversial, but it's been noted as a feature in the "ransom note" that the Ramsey family urged the police to look for in their home after the JonBenet Ramsey killing. A supposed "foreign" group of conspirators is blaming her father in the letter for the purported kidnapping, but keep talking about what a really smart man he is and what a great and successful businessman.

New Posts
  • Damn that was a good story. I last read it in the 1970’s before I went to medical school (I am now an internist and geriatrician). It didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but it sure does now! I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but am looking forward to doing so. I will share my thoughts about the medical aspects of the story. There are some spoilers, so read the story first. Medical schools are adding close reading of literature and patient narratives to their curricula. (1) This would be an excellent source for that. I’ll show how that might be done. Page numbers are from the 1st Orb edition of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. Page 80 - ‘a stubble of brown hair threatened to erase the marks of the sutures; with dilated eyes…he paused’ The boy has had head trauma and/or brain surgery. A drug or toxin is likely responsible for both eyes being dilated. A unilateral dilated eye would indicate acute brain damage. Page 86 - ‘his head swaying from side to side as he walked, like the sensor of a mine detector.’ He probably has a visual field defect, possibly related to the brain surgery/trauma. Page 86 - “I set fires to things.” Could the surgery have been a lobotomy to control his behavior? Page 88 - “and cut all the way through my corpus callosum.” Nick’s brain surgery was a corpus callosotomy. (2) This surgery is usually done in patients with difficult to control seizures. The main side effect is problems with speech and alien hand syndrome—control of the non-dominant hand. (3) Nowadays, newer medications and other neurosurgical procedures have mostly supplanted callosotomy. Page 88 - “I only see what is on the right of what I’m looking at, and the other side…only the left.” This is known as a hemianopsia (4) and is a result of the callosotomy. The ‘I’ is the speaking half of Nick—the left side of his brain -or- “left-brain Nick.” Page 89 - “He had uncontrollable seizures.” “Did you?” the girl asked. “I had visions.” We find out the reason for Nick’s callosotomy. He had visual auras before the seizures when he would “see things.” Nick seemed to enjoy these auras and was probably upset when they ended. Page 91 - “there’s something you ought to know about Diane, she gets confused sometimes, we’ve had her to doctors, she’s been in the hospital…try not to get her excited.” Diane has some major Issues. The most likely conditions to cause a 19 year old to be hospitalized would be major depression, a debilitating anxiety disorder like OCD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Although Diane is skinny, anorexia nervosa is unlikely because the treatment certainly wouldn’t be stranding her on an island with no food! Page 92 - Diane said, “I feel better when it rains.” “That should help you to understand yourself.” Is Dr. Island using cognitive behavioral therapy? (5) Although this is a rather expensive way of doing it! Page 94-95 - “Sickness is…relative” “Diane was not functioning…you were not functioning either.” This is a major motif of the story; illness, specifically mental illness, is defined by society. In our society, a schizophrenic person may take a night job at the post office working alone, then go home to their one bedroom apartment and pull the shades to keep out the world. They would watch TV, eat dinner, go to sleep. They are content and even happy with this routine. They are contributing to society. Are they mentally ill? Page 96 - “We have treatment for disturbed persons…but we have no treatment for disturbing persons.” “Disturbing persons” - people with personality disorders? The best you can do is place limits on people with personality disorders and teach their families/friends how to cope with them. If they become unmanageable, societies tend to place them in prison. Could Dr. Island be a prison? Page 97 - ‘He noticed…that she was looking at him oddly, then realized that his left hand had risen to touch her right breast.’ Alien Hand Syndrome! (3) “Right-brain Nick” is acting inappropriately. Page 98 - “They kept me locked up because I kept burning stuff…I bite people.” Again, “right-brain Nick” is causing all these problems. Page 98 - “Then they stuck me full of Tranquil-C.” That is why Nick’s eyes were dilated. Page 98 - “I still think you’re angry somewhere, deep down.” Taking away Nick’s auras (visions) could be the root of his anger. Perhaps the visions occurred in “right-brain Nick” and that’s why he burns things? Or is "right-brain Nick" just frustrated at his lack of control? Page 101 - “My knees are rough…when I came here they were still smooth…I used to put a certain lotion on them. Because my Dad would feel them…Mum wouldn’t say anything but she would be cross after.” I don’t know Diane’s diagnosis yet, but we have a good idea what may have caused her decompensation. Page 104 - ‘There was no reply. The girl sat staring at the ground in front of her…she did not move when he touched her. “She’s catatonic isn’t she,” he said. “Catatonic schizophrenia.” We now know Diane’s problem; she has schizophrenia. Catatonia is no longer consider a subtype of schizophrenia and is more a part of the symptomatology. (6) Schizophrenia affects young adults and is a chronic condition. Some do well, but many others have major disabilities and suffer from problems with functioning and socializing. It seems that Diane is quite disabled and has a poor prognosis. It is possible that her decompensation was caused by an abusive father. Page 104 - ‘The doctor had been a therapy robot, but a human doctor gave more status. Robots’ patients sat in doorless booths…and talked to something that appeared to be a small, friendly, food freezer.’ I have never heard of Amana being involved in cognitive behavioral therapy. Page 104 - “What is the cause? I mean for her?” “I don’t know.” “And what’s the treatment?” “You are seeing it.” “Will it help her?” “Probably not.” With all their space bending technology, it seems that the prognosis for schizophrenia hasn’t changed much in the Wolfe-ian future. Page 113 - “Your record shows no auditory hallucinations, but haven’t you ever known someone who had them?” “I knew a girl once…she twisted noises.” Auditory hallucinations are very common in schizophrenia. Ambient background noises are screened out by the normal brain. People with schizophrenia are unable to ignore them and experience the noise as voices saying bad things to/about them. The voices could also be internally produced by the brain.(7) Page 115 - “Let Ignacio tell you a story…” After unpacking Ignacio’s tale, it seems that he is a feral child. Unlike other feral children, he was taught language and self-care skills. His only lack was human contact and learning how to interact with others. Feral children have a lot of problems becoming socialized and integrating back into society. They usually aren’t homicidal. (8) Perhaps being a “high-tech” feral made him violent to others. Page 119 - “Did I tell you about the bird, Nicholas?” She had been not-listening again. “What bird?” “I have a bird. Inside…She sits in here. She has tangled a nest in my entrails, where she sits and tears at my breath with her beak. I look healthy to you, don’t I? But inside I’m hollow and rotten and turning brown, dirt and old feathers, oozing away. Her beak will break through soon.” Okaaay, as Nick would say. This dispels any doubts that Diane has schizophrenia. She has a somatic delusion, which, while not as common as paranoid delusions, are frequent in schizophrenia. “Usually the false belief is that the body is somehow diseased, abnormal or changed.” (9) Page 119 - “I have been trying to drink water to drown (the bird.) I think I have swallowed so much, I couldn’t stand up if I tried…” Diane has psychogenic polydipsia, which is common in schizophrenia. They can drink gallons every day—so much so that they disrupt their electrolyte balance and develop very low serum sodium levels. (10) Page 125 - “About 100 years ago, Dr. Harlow experimented with monkey’s who had been raised in complete isolation.” Harry Harlow is a real person who did indeed perform these experiments as Dr. Island has carefully outlined. Harlow was a Professor of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (11) Many of those experiments are now considered an unethical treatment of animals. I suspect that the inspiration for The Island of Dr. Death came about when Wolfe read about Harlow’s research. You might consider Dr. Death to be a 2150 version of Harlow. ================Major Spoilers================== Page 129 - “Nicholas, you are upset now because Diane is dead—” “But you could have saved her!” “—but by dying she made someone else—someone very important—well. Her prognosis was bad; she really only wanted death, and this is the death I chose for her.” This is the death I chose for her. Those words are the core of the story; did Dr. Island have the right to sacrifice an individual for the greater good? In medical ethics, this encapsulates the conflict and tension between the ethical models of deontology and utilitarianism. (12) It seems that Dr. Island is a firm believer in the later. This is why The Death of Dr. Island would be a great source for a close reading of literature. It is a natural jumping-off-point for a spirited discussion of medical ethics. Page 130 - “Nicholas, who was the right side of your body, the left side of your brain, I have forced into catatonia.” Dr Island has essentially killed “left-brain Nick,” the person who has been our view point for the entire story. This is the death Dr. Island has chosen for Nick. Did he have the right to do so? REFERENCES 1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4721945/ 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corpus_callosotomy 3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_hand_syndrome 4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemianopsia 5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy 6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schizophrenia 7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auditory_hallucination 8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_child 9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delusion 10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_polydipsia 11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Harlow 12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4778182/
  • My wife and I listened to this episode on the long drive back from a music festival this weekend. The podcast caused great discussion in the car, making the miles go that much faster. Jessica thinks that Wolfe didn't have the new messiah being born to one of Zozz's people because it would have overly complicated and lengthened the story. I agree. It got me to thinking about what Wolfe's inspiration might have been. Then I remembered that National Lampoon had an infamous cover of an alien crucifixion done by Frank Frazetta. The question is, when did it appear? A little research showed that it it was probably on the streets in May 1972. La Befana appeared in the January 1973 issue of Galaxy; probably too soon after the Nat Lamp issue for it to have been an inspiration--unless Frazetta let Wolfe see it before publication. Nah. Here is the National Lampoon cover.
  • Hello, from indecisively sunny Tasmania! This is my first post, so I'd just like to say first and foremost that I am really enjoying the Wolfe podcast, which I started listening to after The Fifth Head of Cerberus enraptured me (It's quickly become one of my favourite books), and which I'm now darting in and out of as I read his Book of Days . Anywho, I can't fully recall the episodes on 'A Story by John V. Marsch', so forgive me if you mentioned it and this is a redundant post. But I was just paging through Jack Vance's Dying Earth , which is a known inspiration for BotNS, and noticed that in the chapter on 'Mazirian the Magician' the title character spends some time trifling with 'Thrang the Ghoul-Bear', and it struck me as intensely likely that this inspired the creature in the aforementioned novella, not just for the name but a particular sentence within the passage he appears. The passage reads thusly, though of course this spoils the Ghoul-Bear in that story, not that he plays a large role: "Thrang's lair was an alcove in the rock, where a fetid pile of grass and skins served him for a couch. He had built a rude pen to cage three women, these wearing many bruises on their bodies and the effects of much horror on their faces. Thrang had taken them from the tribe that dwelt in silk-hung barges along the lake-shore . Now they watched as he struggled to subdue the woman he had just captured. His round gray man's face was contorted and he tore away her jerkin with his human hands. But she held away the great sweating body with an amazing dexterity. Mazirian's eyes narrowed. Magic, Magic! So he stood watching, considering how to destroy Thrang with no harm to the woman. But she spied him over Thrang's shoulder. "See," she panted, "Mazirian as come to kill you." Thrang twisted about. He saw Marizian and came charging on all fours, venting roars of wild passion. Mazirian later wondered if the ghoul had cast some sort of spell, for a strange paralysis strove to bind his brain. Perhaps the spell lay in the sight of Thrang's raging gray-white face, the great arms thrust out to grasp. Mazirian shook off the spell, if such it were, and uttered a spell of his own, and all the valley was lit by streaming darts of fire, lashing in from all directions to split Thrang's blundering body in a thousand places. This was the Excellent Prismatic Spray-many-colored stabbing lines. Thrang was dead almost at once, purple blood flowing from countless holes where the radiant rain had pierced him." I personally think Thrang comfortably shares the same attributes as Wolfe's Ghoul-Bear: huge, thick-limbed, and stinking (sweat rarely smells pleasant). Maybe I'm reading too deeply, but a tribe that dwells in silk-hung barges along a lake shore sounds at least superficially similar to the Marshmen. Further, the specific lake they dwell next to is called 'Sanra Water, the Lake of Dreams', which you could perhaps posit has something in common with the plan to kill Sandwalker and have his soul flow into the sea and out to the stars. I'm no literary buff, but I think there's enough textual evidence to cite a clear connection between the two, especially as Jack Vance so influenced Wolfe's later work. In any event it made me feel very big-brained.

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