Jun 6

VRT, Section IV


Wow. What a rich couple of episodes! I am going to reverse my usual procedure, and start with quick thoughts, before moving into the meat of what I want to talk about:


• Since you mentioned at the end (of episode 62) your ongoing confusion about the term "the free people", I thought I'd re-up an interpretation I offered a few posts back, and say that I think it is (also, if not only) a Kipling reference, to The Jungle Book where the tribe of wolves (wolves!) call themselves "The Free People". As for how a people lacking basic rights would come to call themselves that, this seems to me easy enough to explain in several ways: A) perhaps the name predates the French conquest, and was intended to contrast the marsh-men with the hill tribes (the term is specifically said to be only about the later, after all), or B) they see (or at some point in the conquest saw) their way of life as the authentic free way, but that doesn't mean that, with the conquest now completed, they don't also want rights in the colonizer's system.

• You mentioned that this is Marsch's first fieldwork, which (IMS) the text supports. But we're told he has his Ph.D. already. You certainly can't get a Ph.D. in anthropology without doing fieldwork! (These days it doesn't mean camping, of course; it can be in an urban setting. But it's fieldwork as defined in the field.) Not sure what to make of this — perhaps Marsch did the fieldwork but didn't really appreciate it? Perhaps we're meant to indicate that standards of changed? Perhaps Wolfe simply blundered? — but it's odd.

• And, not to contradict the wish that I (and Marc) expressed in the previous thread, but I will say I was quite, quite impressed by how much evidence for Marsch's being replaced you saw, to the point of being basically sure that the prisoner was VRT by these episodes. I, at least, didn't pick that up until the second time through. In some ways, sufficiently slow and careful reading can replicate on a first reading the experience of a second! It's quite impressive, particularly for first-time reader Brandon.

• I loved your readings of how our ideas of the authorship of "'A Story' by John V. Marsch" change, particularly your observations about what is left out (the cliff) being things that VRT doesn't like, the lack of fathers in the story, etc. Marvelous.


Okay. To saddle sideways into the main thing I want to talk about, I would say that, without contradicting the echoes of Vichy you were both hearing (they seem to be clearly there), I would note that you hardly need to go to Vichy to get to this sort of police state. I think that both St. Anne and St. Croix can be seen as variations on common colonial patterns. (In an earlier episode, you described the "conquer but not replace" version as not colonialism but imperialism. This may be true according to some strict definitions, but since a very large number of the central, canonical examples of colonialism — the British in India, the Europeans broadly in Africa broadly, the French in Indochina, to say nothing of the U.S. in the Philippines, Puerto Rico & many other places — were not replacement systems, so I think the word clearly has evolved to include that meaning.) Brandon mentions in passing that you can't conquer other nations without replacing their people, but obviously this is historically not true: the way described as occurring on St. Croix — co-opt the elites — was precisely how the British ruled in India, the French in Indochina & all the rest. All of which is to say, do we need to reach to Vichy, given that this is a common colonialist pattern in a story all about colonialism? The only additional thing Vichy gets us, I guess, is the French as ruled not rulers, which isn't nothing, I grant you. But I am hearing other echoes.


I say this in part because I think that Americans are too quick to think of Nazis as examples of evil, despite the presence of plenty of evil in our own history (and the history of societies we identify with, like the British). Another example from these episodes: you said that the rhetoric from Constant about how their government is the greatest reminded you of Nazi rhetoric. Well, Americans also have a very long history of saying that our government is "the greatest ever on God's foot-stool" and many similar things, from shortly after independence all the time to the present day, when our confidence that we have the greatest government (and therefore society) leads some Americans to disregard examples of other systems on issues where we could improve (health care & gun control come to mind).


Which brings me to the main thing I want to talk about: the slavery section.


Brandon mentioned in passing in episode 61 that Constant's defenses of slavery are odd, and you both spoke in the following episode about how they might be religiously interpreted, etc, and called them obviously wrong. But to me, as an American historian, all of them uncannily echoed some of the common arguments for slavery offered by Americans in antebellum times (to the extent that I have to assume Wolfe read some in a class somewhere). The idea that slave-owners have to take better care of their slaves if they're sick, for instance, was offered by Southerners in the antebellum era — for instance George Fitzhugh, possibly the most famous pro-slavery intellectual of the 1850s (intellectual as opposed to politicians like Calhoun) said precisely that. He also argued, explicitly, in his book Cannibals All! that northern workers were slaves as well, just as Constant argues that workers were slaves. That last point, actually, was not limited to slave-owners; socialists of the time made it too, they just drew the opposite lesson from it, not that slavery was good but that the emerging system of industrial capitalism was bad. (Richard Hofstatder, one of the most famous American historians of the mid-twentieth century, once called Calhoun "the Marx of the master class": namely, he saw what Marx did, but from the point of view of the owners/capitalists. And Fitzhugh read deeply in contemporary socialist critiques of northern working conditions, citing them (with a great deal of distortion and denial about life in the south, naturally) in his pro-slavery arguments.) These arguments may seem obviously wrong to us, but in a society in which slavery actually exists — such as the antebellum American south, and, presumably, St. Croix — their wrongness isn't self-evident in the slightest.


And this brings me to the most puzzling line in that section of the story, whcih you spoke about at length: "Then you see who their owners are." (p. 210). You seemed, over the course of the episode, to go from assuming that this is a line that Wolfe might agree with (comparing it to some of his critiques of government in Operation ARES) to assuming that it is one he disagrees with (since it centers the body not the soul). Honestly I don't know what to think. On the one hand, Wolfe puts it in the mouth of a defender of slavery, which suggests he disagrees with it.


On the other hand, it is, as you correctly note, continuous with Wolfe's critiques of government in OA. It is also quite similar to then-contemporary conservative critiques of American policy. One of the most prominent American conservatives in the Buckley tradition (as Wolfe said he was, shortly before this writing if not still) — not yet the most prominent, but already one of the most — was, of course, Reagan. One of the things (alongside his support of Goldwater) by which Reagan came to public attention as a political figure (and not just an actor) was his attack on Medicare and Medicaid. In a famous speech — released as a record; you can hear it now on youtube if you google it up — called "Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine" he makes something quite similar to this case, saying that those then-proposed programs will lead to socialism and "one of these days we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free." (This is sometimes still quoted, rather risibly, by contemporary conservatives as a bit of Reagan's insight, rather than as a prophecy that fell completely flat on its face as an example of unwarranted scare-mongering about social programs. Reagan himself eventually embraced those progams he said would lead to the end of American freedom, to the point that he lied, at least by omission about it: his famous line to Carter in their debate — "there you go again" — was when Carter said that Reagan was an opponent of medicare & medicaid.)


To some extent, this simply reveals the rather uncomfortable but clearly true fact that proslavery thought in the U.S. falls centrally within the conservative tradition, and the continuities are still quite visible — if you look at histories of conservative thought which don't pretend it began in the 1950s, this is pretty clear — e.g. Russell Kirk's* enormously influential The Conservative Mind, which devotes half a chapter to John Calhoun. I'm not, repeat not, saying that Wolfe was secretly pro-slavery. What I am saying is that none of us are entirely free of the complexities (including the unknown complexities) of our own history, including the history of ideologies we believe in. And that the confusion over whether this line is something that Wolfe would support might be an example of those things I think we should always bear in mind as a possibility, namely, not a confusion planted by Wolfe as a subtlety, or a trick, or a clue, as he does with so much of his work, but an actual honest-to-God confusion within Wolfe's own thought, one that he might not himself have fully grappled with.


You said at the end of episode 62 that you hope that these podcasts are enriching our readings of Wolfe. All I can say is: they certainly are for me, more than I can say (even by repeating myself on this point (as I am doing (sorry))). So thanks.



* In the "don't I know you from somewhere" department, Kirk in addition to being one of the most prominent intellectuals of the mid-20th century conservative revival, was also a writer of genre horror and fantasy, and a winner (after 5th Head was published) of the World Fantasy Award, which is to say, he was a contemporary of Wolfe's, and Wolfe may well have known his work both as a conservative thinker and as a fantasy writer. Years later, they shared a table of contents in (long-time Wolfe editor) David G. Hartwell's marvelous anthology The Dark Descent.

I love this! Slavery was a real interest of mine when I did my Classics degree and it's what my wife works on in the Islamic world, and I love learning more about it in a modern context. You've mentioned Fitzhugh to us before, and I'm going to incorporate him into a new lesson that I have planned for covering the Industrial Revolution whenever I next have to teach The World Since 1500 -- so thank you for that.


Of course I teach slavery all the time in its ancient context -- indeed, I've been fascinated to discover that it's one of the things students are really interested in. The heart of my content is to complicate the notion of what "slavery" is and to show students that there is a whole spectrum of freedom (or unfreedom) and that many societies have had gradations of servility and many societies included people with political, military, or economic power but who were still the physical property of another person. Once I've complicated this for them, I have a lot of fun asking them to figure out what are the necessary and sufficient components of slavery and then listening to them argue about it. Naturally, the issue of economic dependency arises as does the issue of government subsidies and services and so on. For a few days at least everyone becomes an anarchist or a libertarian and the arguments really come down to something like this very conversation.


We picked slavery as one of the central themes of V.R.T, so you'll get to hear us talk more about it (and I think in some of the other sections, as well). So I'll leave off saying too much more for now so that it won't be repetitive.



As for talking about Vichy, we weren't thinking of police states, but of collaboration -- members of a community selling out other members of that community to a new regime in order to secure their own positions. Of course there are loads of other examples (I work on one of them), but I suspect that Vichy France is the one with which people will be most familiar, and therefore it's easier to use as a discussion point. I use the term "imperial intermediary" for this sort of thing, which does come from early modern colonial historians.


I think that "Trip, Trap" also features a newly minted PhD. going on his first field expedition ... in a discipline that would have required it to earn the degree. At any rate, there's an article to be written about academics in Wolfe!


Finally, and most importantly, I had no idea who Russell Kirk was, but I'm looking at his bibliography ... and he wrote weird fiction ... and we have a podcast for that. Expect to hear us talk about him later this year or early next! Thank you for that!



Yeah, I'd forgotten I'd mentioned Fitzhugh before. Fascinating figure. IMS, first person to publish a book in the U.S. with "sociology" in the title. I used to teach a bit of him the US survey, to give some sense of Southern antebellum thinking.


Kirk is fascinating too. I should emphasize that while he seems to be a respected weird fiction author (not really my field, but I will definitely listen if you do an episode on him!) he really was central in the formation of conservative thought. Probably second most influential in the immediate post-war era after Buckley. These days he's known mostly for that I think — The Conservative Mind (problematic but fascinating book) is still in print, I believe. (I've taught that one, too, but in U.S. Intellectual history, not the survey.)


Looking forward to part V (and beyond).

Kirk came up at LaffCon yesterday! And we've ordered some books, and I'm very excited about checking out his fiction at least.

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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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