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Quick Formatting Request re: Peace
In Gene Wolfe
stephenfrug
Jul 08, 2021
@G.L. McDorman Marvelous! Thank you.
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Quick Formatting Request re: Peace
In Gene Wolfe
Quick Formatting Request re: Peace
In Gene Wolfe
stephenfrug
Jun 02, 2021
Thanks, Glenn (on both counts)!
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Forlesen
In Gene Wolfe
stephenfrug
Dec 11, 2020
Okay, as promised (or threatened), a few further thoughts on more minor points. Was I the only one who read the name of the company as part of the joke? Maybe there's some real thing I don't know about, but "model pattern products" sounds like satire: what it means for something to be a model pattern is hard to imagine (not a real pattern, just a model one?), and "pattern products" is again almost tautological. At the same time, the name is vacuous in precisely the same way that so much of the corporate speak in the story is. You glossed over the bit in the "pseudo game" (another joke!) about Forlesen's state & strategy. He saw he owned all the stock in International Toys & Foods (what a company name!), and then offered to sell "ffoulks" (presumably the stock in that company?) at a price, and buy it at a higher price. The man next to him tries to buy & sell 500 shares in one go, but Forlesen slows him down; he sells the man 500 shares... and then walks out the door as the man gets coffee. In short: he tricks him. The game itself is a delicious parody, but I think it's supposed to be more serious, too. You point out that the fact that it's called a pseudo game means it's not really a game, i.e. it's really real. I think it represents, quite directly, the stock market, which people treat as a game, buying and selling, but which of course really affects real people's lives. (You sort of hint around this but don't quite say it, I don't think.) The above two points go together: the pseudo-game is what really happens in a financialized (when Forlesen was written, we might have said "financializing") economy: people play tricks to get ahead, it's all a game, but real people get hurt. Brandon kept referring to The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul (I think it was?), which I haven't read, but I wonder if it is that particular book that Wolfe was referring to, or if there were others making similar points? I kept thinking that Ellul, at least as Brandon summarized it, sounded fairly similar to Heidegger on technology. I very much agreed with you that the inability to read (at home, at work) was part of the hellishness Wolfe depicts. It's part and parcel, I think, of the inability to find time to grapple with higher things: the corporatized culture smashes it. I am reminded of what Wolfe, in his marvelous GOH speech at Readercon 1 (reprinted in Castle of Days, incorporated into a longer text under the title "From a House on the Borderland", but I heard it live!): "This, then, is the new illiteracy, the illiteracy of those who can read but don't." (If I were to edit a Best of Gene Wolfe, I think I'd put that speech in. Finally, the story made you think of various books; it made me think of two texts. First, there's the late David Graeber's essay on bullshit jobs (which he later turned into a book, but I haven't read the longer version). Obviously Graeber wasn't a direct influence on Wolfe (the essay was written decades later), but see if you can hear why I thought of it: These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’. It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don't really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens…. …more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets. Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don't like and are not especially good at… (By the by, he defines bullshit jobs as jobs that the people who do them think are valueless; he's not trying to tell people things they care about have no value!) The second text I thought of—in this case, not when reading the story, but when the two of you were talking (well & aptly) about the way that modern technological society takes away meaning and purpose, was a bit of Orwell's essay on the Spanish Civil War (which Wolfe at least in theory might have read): The major problem of our time is the decay of the belief in personal immortality, and it cannot be dealt with while the average human being is either drudging like an ox or shivering in fear of the secret police. How right the working classes are in their “materialism”! How right they are to realize that the real belly comes before the soul, not in the scale of values but in point of time! This is not, I feel fairly sure, a notion Wolfe would accept: it's at the root of Orwell's democratic socialism (and mine). But I think the point is apt: Wolfe is concerned about the inattention to religion (the red book), buried under the necessity to make a living. He blames corporate culture. But of course it is not a return to the middle ages (!!) that would enable people to contemplate higher things; it's ideas like Keynes's 15-hour workweek, universal basic income, and the like. (Keynesian socialism is, of course, what all the purposeless efficiency that Brandon discusses (and Wolfe depicts) really ought to be for: we get efficient so we can go live our lives. Keynes, famously, was right about productivity levels (we've reached the place which he thought would enable everyone to work a 15-hour week); he was just wrong about what the consequence would be (a tiny slice of humanity grabbed all the gains and left the rest of us, in Orwell's phrase, "drudging like an ox". I don't claim that either of these quotes are directly related to Wolfe's story. But they are relevant to it: which is itself related to the story's brilliance. It fits in the Great Conversation, as the Great-Books people like to put. It's simply marvelous.
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Forlesen
In Gene Wolfe
stephenfrug
Dec 11, 2020
I agree that there is a Christian element to Abraham Beale (and that the Christianity of the American past was undoubtedly part of Wolfe's imagining of it). But I think he's less a symbol of Christ than a symbol of Christianity, if that makes sense. Why the name Abraham? Well, of course, Abraham is the founder of the Jewish people (in Hebrew he's referred to as Avraham avinu, "Abraham our Father", just as Moses is Moshe rabainu, "Moses our Teacher"), and since he's of the founding generation of this world, I think that's a lot of it. But of course Abraham is also famous as a man of faith — a Knight of Faith, if I remember my Kierkegaard correctly. So I think he's not a Christ-figure so much as a Christian figure, or just a general religious figure: from the days when the faith was more than a red book buried under various instruction manuals. As for the government taking the farm... yeah, I wouldn't have blamed government particularly either. But, as you say, Wolfe might have seen it as playing a bigger role. And also, this is a story, not an academic tract: "gov took it" is a lot easier to sum up in a line than "complex forces of industrialization rendered it unprofitable and we sold out to a large agribusiness" would be. (Also, given the way that the government/corporate forces are seen as aligned in this story, I think it's a less important distinction in this case.) I like the idea that this is related to his trying to get out of Proctor & Gamble. Although, to be fair, at least Wolfe got to create Pringles! Not clay I guess but it's a lot more tangible than anything poor Forlesen got to do. :) As for nostalgia: I hear you. It's been a big year for you in many ways (fatherhood?!?), not to mention the ways in which it's been a long year for all of us! And time slips away fast, at our age and in our time.
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The Hour of Trust
In Gene Wolfe
stephenfrug
Dec 03, 2020
Maybe there should be no conflict between conservatism and environmentalism, but in what I like to call (after the famous phrase "actually existing socialism") "actually existing conservatism" it is clearly diametrically opposed. Roosevelt, of course, was a progressive, and was president long before the conservative movement took over the Republican party (a lengthy process in the 1960s and into the 1970s). The conservatives of his time never liked Nixon; but also, if memory serves, the EPA passed by a veto-proof majority, so it was either sign it or have it go into effect unsigned; he gets less credit for that than you'd think. And the conservatives never liked nor trusted H. W. Bush, unlike both Reagan and W. Bush. He ran as a conservative, but then was practical about violating its principles when necessary (the most famous example being the tax increase he signed); they never forgave him for it, and it helped bring about his defeat in 1992. Again, I agree: there is an idealized version of conservatism that should protect the environment. Nothing, after all, will so fundamentally change all of human society in this century as the disruptions we will get from climate change; anyone who fears change should resist that. But since William F. Buckley crystallized the modern synthesis that created the conservative movement (which begat Reagan, which begat Bush II, which begat Trump) it has been anti-regulation and pro-business, which cashes out to a bitter opposition to any and all environmental regulation. Trump is busy hurrying to do what damage he can—pretty literally!—before he is ushered out of office. I guess I insist on this because I fear a lot of conservatives vote for the image of Edmund Burke who lives in their heads, and which might not be a bad ruling philosophy, and don't notice that what they get is, well, Bush & Trump. I know from what you said that you are not in this category! But I think it's important to remember that, for practical purposes, what conservatism is is what actual conservatives support.
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La Befana
In Gene Wolfe
stephenfrug
Oct 24, 2019
I enjoyed the story & the podcast, as well. Relevant to the story's interpretation is the afterward that Wolfe wrote for the story in The Best of Gene Wolfe. He wrote: This story is based on playful theological speculation. If Jesus came into the world to save it, what about other worlds? Wouldn’t he have to come into those worlds too, if he wanted to save them? (I am misinterpreting world here in order to get a story.) Fine, and if the Savior is to be descended from King David . . . This seems to solve several of the problems raised in the discussion. Why Jews? So the Savior is descended from King David. Does the other world need its own savior, or does Christ redeem all the worlds? Well, Wolfe said explicitly that he was "misinterpreting world here in order to get a story": presumably he believed that Christ entering the world (i.e. the universe) was salvation enough, but to make the story work he was pretending that each world (i.e. planet) needed a savior. — Perhaps GW is playing with us, and hiding his complex theological speculations with these light words, but on the sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar theory, i wonder if he didn't just write a straightforward story, making the theology match. One comparison to make is "The Man" in Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, in which Jesus comes to a series of new planets, and a crew chases after him, missing him every time. Not saying it's a direct influence (although it could be; Illustrated Man was published in the early 50s), but it's an interesting story to read in parallel, I think. It was fun having Mike Morrison guest on the show. He had a very different approach than the two of you — you talk about theology a lot, of course, but he sounded like the pastor that he (if I remember rightly) in fact is. He drops a lot more bible verses. He sounds less like he's discussing intellectual history and more like he's giving testimony. Interesting approach, and it certainly worked for this story! Looking forward to the Death of Doctor Island — one of Wolfe's best novellas (which are, in turn, some of his very best work)!
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The Hour of Trust
In Gene Wolfe
stephenfrug
Oct 17, 2019
@CEG: very well said. You sum it up much better than I do! Obviously, as a fellow Jewish lefty, a world in which Wolfe was the modal Republican would be far better than ours! Nevertheless, I think that we oughtn't overlook the strong connections, just as a matter of actually existing history, between the socially conservative catholic left and what the current Republican party has become. I'm not, repeat not, saying that Wolfe did or would have made that same journey! But a lot of people did. And even in Wolfe's case it's notable that he praised Buchanan, who was actually a predecessor of Trumpian politics (anti-immigrant, racist, at least somewhat isolationist, not particularly deferential towards markets, etc). He is a good figure to see how the party of Barry Goldwater became the party of Donald Trump. For that matter, in that same interview (which is online here: https://www.gwern.net/docs/fiction/1992-jordan.pdf) he says that people in the US have gotten a lot less free over the last thirty years, i.e. between 1962-1992. This is the sort of thing that is said a lot by contemporary conservatives (sometimes talking about the 50s, sometimes about the 19th century, etc), and usually causes awkwardness when it's pointed out (fairly irrefutably) that this is only true if under "people" you don't count either African Americans or women. This is not, again not, to say that such comments are deliberately racist; but I think they speak to what people focus on, and the fact that (in Wolfe's case as in others) he was, as you pointed out, just not very interested in either the feminist movement or the black liberation movement. It's a disinterest that in some cases — although I wouldn't include Wolfe here — is in fact necessitated by ideology: as you say, conservatives in the social conservative tradition of Chesterton/Wolfe/Douthat take a particular kind of freedom seriously: but it's a sort of freedom that simply falls apart when considering the issues of women and African American, for whom collective, including state, action was central to achieving freedom as opposed to the cause of a lack of it. Which is to say that, if conservatives both cared about freedom and considered the case of the civil rights movement too closely, they would have to radically alter their understanding of either what conservatism is or what freedom is. It's hard to talk about all this without coming across as slagging Wolfe, which I don't mean to do; he's one of my very favorite writers, too. (Tied with a bunch of others, I suppose.) But one can be a great writer without being particularly politically perceptive (which is not to deny that, in other cases, a writer's political perception was central to the brilliance of their writing), and I personally think that was true of Wolfe. (But then, I'm an atheist Jewish lefty; I would say that, wouldn't I?) And, also, I don't think it's accidental that the Republican party of 1972 became what we see today. Not to say it was inevitable; just to say that you can see the seeds of today in the past; it was there in potential, although of course a lot of other things were too, of course. My guess is that Wolfe's politics, over time, will come to look like Tolkien's do today: not entirely congruent with either the modern left or the modern right, with things to please and displease both. (Both leftists and rightists can and have claimed Tolkien as inspiration.) That said, Wolfe is closer to our time, so his politics are closer to ours, if only in the background against they were formed. So that his politics map a little better onto ours — not perfectly, but better. Including a few cases that are such as to make lefty Jews uncomfortable. And while I would never want to dismiss Wolfe's works on those grounds, I don't want to blind to that fact, either.
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The Hour of Trust
In Gene Wolfe
stephenfrug
Oct 17, 2019
You may be right that I've been placing too much emphasis on that claim to be a William F. Buckley conservative. I do think that Wolfe fits in with a conservative tradition — Chesterton was a conservative, from back before Buckley cemented the alliance between social conservatives and free marketers. (Tolkien was this sort of conservative, too; there are interesting parallels in the politics of Tolkien's works and Wolfe's.) Which allows room for his suspicion of corporate power and his environmentalism, both of which were in the older version of conservatism (which was essentially very suspicious of modernity). I don't mean to be — and I hope I don't come across as — reductive, and reducing Wolfe to his politics. Wolfe is a brilliant writer in ways that are untouched by political considerations (pace those who think everything is political). I do think, however, that his politics are interesting, and I've been enjoying teasing them out. I am also afraid of assuming (which no one, of course, would do consciously, but which is easy to do subconsciously) that since Wolfe is a great writer & smart, he naturally shares my politics (for any value of "me"). It is quite possible that I overcorrect, and tend to assume his politics are the opposite of mine! One other note: I recall the interview in which he said the labels don't apply to him. I am suspicious of such claims in general. A huge number of people in the US call themselves independents and claim not to be represented by parties, but vote like faithful Dems/Repubs. I think it's easy to see oneself as Special, but the truth is we are often more standard than we think. I presume (although I am less sure) that the same would apply regarding Catholicism & theology. In particular, that remark was made, I think, in the context of preempting some myths about Catholics that aren't now widely held, but which would have been much more common in Wolfe's formative ideas. Note that it was followed up by his saying he thought Priests were not... I forget how he put it but, basically, supermen or something. That is, he was rebutting the idea that Catholics thought ridiculous things about priests, which I think is not an issue now, but for Wolfe, whose ideas were largely formed in a pre-1960 milieu, it would have been true. Which is to say that I think Wolfe was not claiming, in that remark, to have any sort of unique theology so much as warning that people's ideas of Catholicism were wrong. I do think gun control was definitely a conservative position by 2003 — indeed, by 1993, when Wolfe would have been writing that book. It was one in which there was more cross-party dissent, to be sure — rural democrats in particular were eager to be on the other side of it, and for well over a decade (from the passage of the assault weapons ban under Clinton (note: under a Democratic president, back when the dems held both houses of congress!) to Sandy Hook) a lot of people on the left basically gave up on it. It wasn't always a conservative position — modern battles for gun rights were inaugurated, quite ironically, by the Black Panthers, in response to which Ronald Reagan signed gun control laws — but it became a conservative issue pretty quickly & has stayed one. Anyway, sorry that I didn't use this story for the exchange you were hoping for! As you say, maybe in future stories. (Haven't gotten to "La Befana" yet, but hope to in the next week or so.)
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Feather Tigers
In Gene Wolfe
stephenfrug
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