FIND in
<--prev V28 next-->

From: =?iso-8859-1?q?Nicholas=20Gevers?= <vermoulian@yahoo.com>
Subject: (urth) The Ziggurat: Three readings
Date: Sun, 6 Feb 2000 04:38:44 

Here's my more detailed take on "The Ziggurat" (at


Before analyzing “The Ziggurat” in detail, I’d like to
sum up once more the overall analysis I’ve offered of
STRANGE TRAVELERS, and which Jim Jordan had begun to
take further before he went away:

STRANGE TRAVELERS is a single work in mosaic form, all
of its stories presenting variations on the same
theme, their ordering in the book broadly reflecting
the progression of Wolfe’s argument. That argument is
the irretrievable horror of this world, the need to
escape that horror through transcendence (escape), and
the further need to escape or transcend in the right,
i.e. Christian, manner, avoiding hellish and sinful
pitfalls that may appear to be tantalizing routes of
escape. Unfortunately, the pitfalls are usually the
exits opted for (suicide, paganism, solipsism, etc.) 

In this context, “The Ziggurat” can be read in three
ways, all of which are simultaneously valid. The three
readings form a hierarchy, which, to be allusive and
flippant, I will frame along the lines of the three
levels of meaning in THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER: the
practical meaning, the soothsayer’s meaning, and the
transsubstantial meaning. None of these meanings is to
be scanted; they are, once again, all valid. But their
importance differs; the second is greater than the
first, and the third far outweighs the second. So,
taking the meanings in ascending order:

1) THE PRACTICAL MEANING. It may seem presumptuous to
equate John Kessel, Michael Swanwick, and others with
Dorcas’ ploughman; but they have proposed the Maximum
Delusion theory, which is the most obvious, and
therefore least consequential, hypothesis in play.
Emery may be a madman. He may have molested his
stepdaughters. He may have dreamed up the ziggurat as
a fantastic sublimation of his criminal actions. The
killings of the two time-travelling women may in fact
stand for Emery’s murders of Jan and Aileen. If Henry
James and William Hjortsberg, among many others, can
do this sort of thing, why not Wolfe? An SF story
becomes a case of maximum delusion. There’s easily
enough evidence in the text to justify this view, and
it has been intensively cited. Upshot of 1): Emery is
destined for the electric chair, a life term, or an
unpleasant few decades in a mental hospital.

reconciliation theory. The war of the sexes is
portrayed in mundane and extreme forms, which
complement each other closely. Everything that
happens, however symbolically resonant, is objectively
valid. Thus, the disagreements between Emery and Jan,
and the allegations of child abuse, are mirrored in
the nature and actions of the time travellers from the
ziggurat. Emery is precise, believing in punctuality:
the masculine outlook; Jan and the strange women
willfully manipulate time, Jan by arriving early to
avoid the storm, the strangers by using a time
machine. Men and women cannot understand each other,
even though they speak the same language (English, in
all cases). Jan is divorcing Emery; the
time-travellers are divorced from our time on every
level of understanding. The twins resemble the
time-travellers, and are about to cease to be Emery’s
children. Etcetera. This is Tiptree territory. But
reconciliation beckons: the ziggurat, a Tower of
Babel, has fallen; the women-only (monolingual) future
that is the ziggurat’s time of origin can perhaps be
averted. Emery and Tamar, using their own resources,
will come to understand each other, and build a new
life together. BUT: problems: Emery’s relationship
with Tamar reeks of abuse; Emery is deluded about his
future (after all, Brook’s murder has to be accounted
for to the sheriff); and he is selfishly destroying
the ziggurat, with most of its invaluable
technological potential, to cover his tracks. Upshot
of 2): Emery is destined for prison, or is a selfish
and abusive monster, or both.

Ziggurat”’s context, STRANGE TRAVELERS, becomes
salient. STRANGE TRAVELERS is, as indicated earlier, a
religious text, or, to be more precise, a religious
anthology. “The Ziggurat” is, like most of the stories
in ST, an account of an attempted transcendence that
is in reality damnation. Emery has damned himself, as
can be seen in his own words to Alayna on page 290, a
homily against lying as something that is intensely
harmful to oneself. Having held up this high standard,
Emery violates it, lying to the law about a succession
of violent deaths, lying to the world by denying it
the truth of the ziggurat’s existence, lying to
himself in the manner of either 1) or 2). Upshot of
3): Emery is damned.

My opinion is that Wolfe intended all of these
meanings to be inferable, to be held simultaneously in
the reader’s mind, a technique he has used many times
before. The precise resolution of what is real and
what is delusional is unimportant; what matters is
that all three readings conduce to the same sense, of
Emery taking a decisively wrong turning, onto yet
another road to Hell.

Do You Yahoo!?
Talk to your friends online with Yahoo! Messenger.

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

<--prev V28 next-->