Oct 13, 2018

Five's Anthropology of Slavery


I recently listened to your latest episode and was somewhat surprised to hear you describe 5's view's on slavery as Aristotelian. While I can see why one might argue that, since Aristotle does talk about natural slaves, I thought it would be a better fit to describe 5's anthropology, and probably his morality, as Nietzschean. However, I think this is interestingly contrasted by his existential questioning, which I think would best be described as Kierkegaardian. I think Five is at the point in his existential thought that Kierkegaard would describe as needing to take the "leap of faith". Five can't seem to do this, however, and I think this is portrayed in his rejection of the humanities and his retreat into the sciences, the idea that, if he just looks hard enough, he can bootstrap himself out of his problem by his own sheer force of will. This would be where his Kierkegaardian leanings end and his Nietzschean tenancies begin.

Oct 14, 2018

Hi James and welcome to the forum! I agree that Number 5 does not buy into Aristotle's Natural Slave Theory. This line from the slave market stands out to me. “I spoke to him and would have bought and freed him, but he answered me in the servile way of slaves and I turned away in disgust and went home.” Clearly he doesn't think that it is the nature of this person that makes him a slave because otherwise he, too, would be servile since they share the same nature. Therefore, it is something in his nurture that made the slave this way.


I'm not familiar with Kierkegaard or Nietzsche on slavery, though, and would love to know more about where you see Number 5's comments lining up with them.

Oct 16, 2018

Hey James! Thanks for your insightful comment. I think You're right in saying that if Number 5 had had a copy of anything kierkegaard on hand, he would have been in better shape. The big blocker for number 5 in my mind is that he really had nothing hopeful to hang his hat on that would cause him to make the leap of faith. His only desire seemed to be to free himself from the presence of his father, and he does make a rather large leap, so to speak, in the sense that he believed that all would be well if he murdered his father. But this action only leads him to the pit.


I can see how number 5 forcing his way on the world could have overtones of nietzsche, but the ending of the book, including his judicial punishment, seems to indicate that wolfe is condemning such a notion.

Oct 18, 2018Edited: Oct 20, 2018

Wow! Both Glenn and Brandon. I feel like I'm talking with a couple of celebrities!.


Let me further elaborate on what I was thinking. This is, of course, going to be in broad strokes and I'm sure someone more familiar with both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche could to a better job, but here goes:


Like I said, I think 5's existentialism is stuck at the point of needing to take the leap of faith. I think the reason for this is that he cannot, as Kierkegaard puts it, "move beyond the Socratic". In a certain sense, 5's entire project, and that of his father, and perhaps all the way back to whoever it was that became Mr. Million, is entirely Socratic, they want to "Know Thyself". And they're doing it in a very Socratic way. As I'm sure you guys know, Socrates\Plato's epistemology was one of aletheia, of un-forgetting. For, in the transmigration of souls, the soul would pass into the after life, come to know all things, and then pass thought the river lethe and forget it all again before being re-ensouled in a body. Thus, for Socrates\Plato, the process of coming to know something wasn't really learning something new, but remembering something you had forgotten. Thus the entreaty to "Know Thyself" was entirely appropriate for Socrates because one only needed to look into oneself to find knowledge. 5 is doing the same thing, and is, in fact, trying to do it so hard that he has made copies of himself to that he could come to know himself all the more. He also literally looks inside of things in his laboratory work. But Christianity changed all this. Christianity, of course, claims that there are truths that are beyond our ability to reason to. That, in fact, there are truths that must be revealed to us by God. Thus, Kierkegaard says we have to move beyond the Socratic to come to know those things because they cannot be found within, they are radically different than us despite them also being what makes us up at our very metaphysical core. Thus the irony is, to come to know ourselves more perfectly, we have to give up ourselves entirely, take the leap of faith, and hope that God will catch us and return us to ourselves.


The other point I had in mind is that I think that 5's is, more or less, Nietzschean in his moral and social outlook. I think that the quote that Glenn brought up above illustrates this well. In that quote, 5 at first sees the slave as something that he might buy and help until the slave shows himself to be truly slavish by responding in that "servile way" of slaves, and he is disgusted by it. Why is he disgusted by it? Perhaps because he sees himself as a wolf and the people below him in social standing, and perhaps in intelligence as well, as prey. This, Nietzsche says, is the trick of the slaves, to make the "non-slaves" feel bad for them and to then elevate them to equal status. Nietzsche says that not only is it absurd for the predator to feel sympathy for the prey, it is also absurd for the predator to be held accountable for being a predator and killing prey. This was also one of Nietzsche's critiques of Christianity, namely, that it wanted to invert the power structure between the slaves (the Jews \ the early Christians) and the masters (their many oppressors \ the Romans).


Anyway, I've written a huge wall of text now so I think I'll stop. However, I think there are also interesting metaphysical questions like the ones you have both brought up in your recent episode. I think the question of who are human and who are rational \ intellectual creatures is an important one. A creature can be rational \ intellectual and be not human and a creature can be rational \ intellectual and not be part of Christ's salvific work. Perhaps very few of the character in the story are humans and were thus not saved by Christ's salvific work and are therefore in hell. Perhaps David is the exception, which is why he was able to leave the brothel permanently.

Oct 21, 2018

This is great. The whole society reads this way. Deeming empathy and compassion as weaknesses that result from deception and classifying people as predator or prey might be a better explanation for the cruelty that Aunt Jeannine sees around her than aliens.

Oct 21, 2018Edited: Oct 21, 2018

The relationship of the various beings within the story is incredibly complicated. What I mean is, Nietzsche says that the slaves trick the masters into thinking that they are the same, affirming that there is some significant difference between them. This is, of course, not true, the masters and the slaves are both of the same kind, viz., human beings. On St. Croix , however, not only may there be actual non-humans (abos, half-abos half-humans, human clones that may have had their DNA so altered that they can no longer properly be called human), but, moreover, some of those non-humans (the abos) may, in fact, be tricking the actual humans into thinking that they (the abos) are actually human by imitating them. I think the important question then becomes, what is the true nature of the Abos. Are they truly rational animals - are they persons - or are they simply able to pass the Turing Test? This, of course, would then make us think of Mr. Million. Is he a human? I would say no. Is he a person? He certainly seems to be able to pass the Turing Test, but that does not a person make, and personally I am sympathetic to Searle's Chinese Room argument. I'm not sure Wolfe gives us the information we need to make a conclusive judgement.

Oct 22, 2018

I think you're hitting on something that is a big theme in Wolfe's whole oeuvre, which is the question of personhood. It is a theme that dominates this trilogy of novellas in particular and glen and I spend a lot of time talking about this issue.


What makes a person a person? How do we ascertain whether a person should be offered certain rights or have those rights withheld from them? How do we determine who is allowed to participate in our society? Who should rule? who should be excluded?


We see this question examined in many future Wolfe novels. I'd be interested in learning more about how Wolfe utilizes ideas found in Nietzsche or Kierkegaard, or whether he's engaging with those philosophers just on the basis that their ideas have trickled down through culture, or their conclusions are drawn by other folks that Wolfe is engaging with. I had not really thought to put Wolfe in explicit conversation with Nietzsche or Kierkegaard because I've not considered Wolfe to be making a statement about the Existentialist movement or even the debate between existentialists and Essentialist. I look forward to keeping an Eye on this line of thought in the future.

Oct 23, 2018Edited: Oct 24, 2018

To be honest, I haven't read that much Wolfe. I have read BotNS, UotNS, 5th Head, and I'm about halfway through The Sorcerer's House. BothNS, UotNS, and 5th Head all, to me, smack of existentialism. The reason for that is that the driving question behind existentialism, and what differentiates it from other philosophical realms of thought, is the question of, "Who am I as an individual and what is my relationship to the world?" I think it could be argued that this is the central or foundation question of BothNS, UotNS, and 5th Head. The existentialists are a funny lot. Most of them are given to atheism but there are a few notable exceptions, including Kierkegaard, who is considered the founder, and Dostoevsky. Christians, and especially Catholics, are also incredibly interested in the question of personhood, they may have even invented the concept. The reason the two, that is to say, Essentialism and Existentialism, come together in Catholicism is because, as I'm sure you know, Catholicism works, more or less, within the Aristo-Thomistic metaphysical framework (i.e. Essentialism), but has to be concerned with the person-as-individual (Existentialism) because Christ was an individual person and therefore lived a person-as-individual life that was peculiar to Him. In some sense the marrying of the two philosophies is the project of Christianity.

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  • 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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