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Date: Wed, 6 Mar 2002 14:54:05 -0800 (PST)
From: Jerry Friedman 
Subject: Re: (urth) electro-torture of Urth

--- matthew.malthouse@guardian.co.uk wrote:
> On 05/03/2002 16:03:09 Michael Andre-Driussi wrote:
> >Jeff Wilson quoted and wrote:
> >>> Thecla (p. 239) correction, she did not exactly take her own life to
> >>>avoid another session with the revolutionary, rather, she did so to
> avoid
> >>>further torment by
> >>> the in-dwelling demon summoned by the device.
> >>
> >>      I think that this bears closer examination. Rather than a device
> that
> >>literally summons demons (just as the Book contains hierodules rather
> >>than literal angels), I think that the Rev is meant to be an
> >>electroshock device of fiendish refinement that divides the brain by
> >>damaging tissue electrically and leaves the non-speaking part greatly
> >>resentful of the trauma and perhaps envious of the speaking part.
> >
> >In "Languages of the Dying Sun" (Damien Broderick's EARTH IS BUT A
> >also in NYRSF No. 149) I wrote something somewhat similar.  I was
> talking
> >about how Wolfe uses techniques to make common sf notions fantastical
> >(using old words for new things), and also making 20th century items
> very
> >strange (through reversals that employ magical thinking):
> >
> >"In other words, the revolutionary is an electro-shock therapy device
> that
> >instils suicidal depression rather than removing the same. Such a thing
> >seems implausible, impossible; since we know that sane people are not
> made
> >insane by electrical shock. But a moment of magical thinking shows that
> >suicidal depression can be seen as an entity which cannot be destroyed,
> it
> >can only be sent away;
> There is a mistaken premis here.
> ECT can induce changes, physiological and emotional, that themsleves can
> lead to suicidal tendancies.  Here I write having observed the effect
> culminating in my cousin's suicide jump from the Rosedale Bridge,
> Toronto.
> The official conclusion was that the treatment had not been
> "inappropriate", the concequence "unfortunate".
> It seems plausible to me that very little would be required in the way
> of
> "refinement" to turn ECT into a torment.  Perhaps no more than a
> difference in intent.

ECT does help some people, including my late grandmother.  I suppose in
those cases the consequences are fortunate.

> One thing struck me about Thecla's reaction: it didn't appear so much a
> depression as akin to that condition (the medical name for which escapes
> me) where a person is convinced that (typically) a limb doesn't belong
> to
> them, indeed is so alien that they require it removed.  There are cases
> where no remedial therapy is effective and surgical removal of the
> offending limb is the only "cure" available.  Thecla's involuntary
> clawing
> at herself, her horror at her own form and existance seem similar,
> albeit
> perhaps applying to the whole body.

I totally agree that there's no need for magical thinking.  The
revolutionary literally does just what Master Gurloes (I think) says:
activates the victim's death wish, as Freud called it.  Mantis's
speculation on depressions cured by ECT being transmitted to the
future strikes me as fascinating but unnnecessary.

I somewhat disagree, though, about depression.  Self-hatred is often
part of the suicidal feelings in depression, and it's precisely the
way Thecla describes the experience.  The revolutionary showed her
herself (not just her body) as her worst enemy.

Judging from this passage and from the Long and especially Short Sun
books, I'd say Wolfe knows something about depression, either from his
own experience or from reading and conversation.

Taking the descriptions literally, though, doesn't conflict with
people's symbolic readings of sin and redemption or political
revolution, which I'm grateful for your mentioning--more depth for
the BotNS!

> Following this discussion I was wondering if there was any indication of
> post-the-revolutionary Thecla in Severian after he receives the Alzebo
> of
> her.  Surely "she" should have the memory of her excruciation and death
> and with it potentially the same effects.  Shouldn't post mortem Thecla
> be
> just as mad?  Yet I don't recall any hint of it.  Could death, suicide,
> be
> a redemptive or curative act?  That too doesn't seem obviously indicated
> because Thecla's memories - particularly those invoked while Severian is
> in the House Absolute  - suggest only a slight change of perspective and
> priorities concequent upon her stay with the Seekers of Truth and
> Penitence; not a fundamental alteration.

Now there's a good point, which hadn't occurred to me!

Jerry Friedman

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