Sep 16, 2018

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Part 2

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One thing these second two episodes have convinced me of is the importance of literary allusions. I'm still not sure where they are intended and where they are being read into; but as Glenn and I mentioned in the thread on Part 1, it hardly matters. Certainly the recap made a great case for the ongoing centrality of Coleridge; and I really appreciated Glenn's recap of the history of Cerberus (I had no idea he had any number of heads but there anywhere save this story).


So let me start with the allusions.


You two do a good job on why Wolfe might have invoked Dickens. But why did Number 5 do so? What was in his mind as he compared his aunt to Betsey Trotwood? On the surface level, of course, Betsey Trotwood's focus on David Coperfield's utterly hypothetical sister, and her wishing he had been a girl, seems to Number 5 to parallel Aunt Jeannine's question about whether he has a sister. But on a deeper level, Betsey Trotwood was originally cold to David Coperfield — upon learning he was a boy not a girl, she abandoned him for years — but upon his showing up to beg for help, she ended up saving him from a tyrannical step-father. (And if Number 5 really is a clone, then his "father" might be seen as analogous to a step-father, i.e. not a biological father.) Thus the comparison expresses, perhaps subconsciously, Number 5's wish for Aunt Jeannine to rescue him from his tyrannical father. (And to make him rich, which, (rot13) fur yngre qbrf.)


Nabokov: the connections to Lolita are, I think, deeper than you trace. First, in that novel Humbert Humbert is also a step-father, or a false-father (he marries the mother of Dolores Hazes (whom he calls Lolita) to get at her, and becomes her sole support, and unhindered tormentor, when her mother dies). And Humbert is, of course, a sexual pervert (to use the old-fashioned language that seems to fit) and abuser — just as #5's father, a brothel-owner, might be said to be. And Lolita is a novel written (save for the brief forward) by a narrator in prison on the charge of murder — as (I think we've already seen by this point) Number 5 was, although he writes once released. Interestingly, this makes Number 5 both HH (the murderer writing his own justification in a "fancy prose style") and Dolores Haze (the child tormented by the false father, who is a sexual pervert). This dual identity for #5 is, of course, very fitting, given the whole course of the story, and fits the duality of his character well. (By the by, the author of Lolita's name is pronounced NabOkov, not NabAkov, as was famously done by Sting in the Police song; the last two vowels are the same rather than the first two.)


Finally, two very small points about Proust: first, you say in your recap that the drugs his father give him makes Number 5 "lose time" (your exact phrase!) — as we also see later in the story. Well, of course Proust's novel is In Search of Lost Time. Make of that what you will. Finally, the term " demi-monde" is used several times — in particular, I believe, for Odette, Swann's love (and later wife). So that's a connection there, as well. (By the way, I just loved the connection that demi-monde is literally half-world, as the planet that Number 5 is on is a half-world, and that the abos are nymphs du bois, since they have sex with trees.)


On other topics...


- You mention that the narrator's father's experiments on him started when he was seven. Well, this time around I noted that what he actually says is that he was "seven of our world’s long years" — which highlights the fact that the years are the years of Saint Croix, which might be different from those of Earth. Which is to say, we don't actually know how old he is at all. (Is "long year" comparative? Or just poetic? We don't know.)


- I mentioned in my comments on Part 1 the issue of Number 5's first name, but of course it turned out you covered that here, making the same points I did. Ah well. Unlike you two, I don't live in the future....


- Toy soldier symbolism: you didn't note, and maybe you took it as obvious, another reading here, which is that the larger thing that Number 5 wants to knock down (projected, Freudian-style, onto the boy and the toy) is his own father, who is bigger than he is. FWIW, in Wolfe's autobiographical musings quoted in Ellison's introduction to Wolfe's stories in the anthology Again, Dangerous Visions — writtena round the same time as this story — Wolfe says of his father: "He was a man who was home only on weekends, and brought me one or two lead soldiers every time he came, until I had a corrugated board box of them so heavy I could not pick it up. If we're so much richer now, why can't you buy those lead soldiers any more?" Not sure there's much to make of this, but it's interesting that Wolfe's association with his father is also toy soldiers. (The answer to Wolfe's question is so obvious you'd think he would know it: because lead poisons children's brains, and children put toys in their mouths. But that's off-topic.)


- We talked in the discussion of the recap episode about how the notion of mimicking of consciousness, in which the mimicry becomes, or doesn't, or maybe does maybe not, equal to the whole, is a recurring theme in Wolfe (both in stories you've covered, and later in BotNS, and elsewhere). Here, of course, it is present in both the issue of Number 5's identity viz-a-viz his father, and also Mr. Million. But it is also parallel to the question of Veil's hypothesis, in which the same thing is thought to happen on a solar system-wide scale.


On Veil's hypothesis: Of course the name, Veil, has multiple meanings — is the abos own identity vieled from them (that was how I took it: not that the abos all knew they were abos, but that they had mimicked humanity so closely that they mimicked humanity's identity, losing not only their mimicry ability but also their own memories of having done this, hence, "they're not dead, we are").


And to answer the question Glenn left readers with: no, we can't tell if Veil's Hypothesis is true from this part of the story. Bloody hell, we'll be lucky to be able tell if it's true after we've read the whole darn novel.


One question though: if Veil's hypothesis were true, and the abos killed all the humans and mimicked them, how did Number 5's cloned ancestors survive that purge? (I did like the idea that Veil's hypothesis did happen, in a sense, culturally, with the English replacing the French... although this perhaps shows how the hypothesis could not be true, since the mimicry could never be perfect: the French, here, does persist; if the hypothesis were true, wouldn't alien culture be even harder to eradicate than an earlier same-species one?)


Re: the ethnicity of Celts... you mention the idea of Elves surviving, a la Robert E Howard: but Celts themselves play a role rather like the French in this story: replaced, intermingled, with only scraps of their language surviving in street names and sayings. (Ok, that last is exaggerated, people still speak Celtic languages, but you get my drift.) The allusion doesn't need to be to stories about elves; it could be to actual history.


I had the same interpretation of the three heads of Cerberus that Glenn did — with the neutral one being Mr Million and the joking one Aunt Jeannine. But I wonder if, by the end of the story, all three will have some aspects of all three? And what are we to make of David's joke, later in the story, about Cerberus's fourth head?


Finally, one small question: why was the seven-masted ship towed? Is that standard in harbors, or does it indicate something about the society's level?


Thanks, as always, for a splendid episode, with superb close reading & many other great insights. Looking forward to part 3....

Sep 17, 2018Edited: Sep 19, 2018

Stephen, I'm obsessed with these sailing ships! It is normal for such ships to be towed through canals like this, and sometimes through harbors (though more often it is simply the case that a special harbor pilot takes over the sailing ship).


Wow, you nailed the Nabokovian reading of this story. We're nearly done recording our V.R.T. episodes, so we'll be getting on to our final wrap-up episodes very shortly. We will almost certainly be talking about prison narratives as a genre, and it looks like we'll have to include this. It's not our first and certainly won't be our last debt to your insights.


There are a large number of intellectual problems with accepting Veil's Hypotehsis. One of them is the biological mechanism of the shape-shifting. What exactly changes? How much choice does the organism have in the process, or is it in some ways an autonomic response to the environment? What happens to internal organs -- especially the brain (or, whatever nervous system these beings have)? What happens to genetic material -- can you reproduce with a true member of the species you are mimicking? Another problem is the timeline. Veil's Hypothesis supposes that this happened when the French settlers arrived (and maybe it did), but decades later there was at least one more group of settlers, the English-speaking (i.e. American) colonists. Were they also murdered by Abos -- Abos who were by then masquerading as humans and perhaps actually thought they were humans? Are there two sentient species on Sainte Croix now: the human descendants of the American colonists and the Abo descendants of the people who took the appearance of the French colonists?


Of course I missed a perfectly obvious Freudian element here. I need to work on this. Is there a type of therapy where you can overcome your antipathy to Freud so that you can actually recognize Freudian motifs when they're right in front of you?



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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. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.
  • 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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