Castle Diuturna


Nuns and Salt Cellars: Wolfe's How the Whip Came Back

Having been pandemically granted a certain amount of free time recently, I thought I might try reading Gene Wolfe's Book of Days throughout the year, matching holiday to corresponding short story. Of course, being a consistent procrastinator, I'm already behind a couple of holidays, and that guy who told suborder Serpentes they weren't welcome where they had little intention of being is coming up fast. Book of the New Sun is one of my all time favorite science fiction stories and The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories is probably my favorite short story collection in general. So I suppose it's safe to say I'm a bit of a Wolfe fan, but this will be my first encounter with the majority of the stories in Book of Days.

The story for Lincoln's birthday, How the Whip Came Back concerns the reintroduction of slavery at some unspecified point in the near future. We follow Miss Bushnan, an official observer at the United Nations Conference on Human Value taking place in Geneva. Miss Bushnan represents some unnamed charitable organization. She is in her opulent suite sullenly longing for her imprisoned ex-husband, Brad, when the Pope decides to pay a visit. The rest of the narrative plays out as a conversation between the His Holiness Pope Honorius V and Miss Bushnan as various diplomatic officials message her via video chat to pressure her to make a symbolic affirmative vote legalizing slavery and establishing an international market for the practice.

I'll admit to being somewhat underwhelmed by this on the initial read through. So much of it seems quaint in the current age given the excesses of the prison industrial complex within my own country and the widespread forced labor practices abroad. It's also amusing to read of this future in which somehow the Soviet economic system "forced [the US] to the wall."

The main character, Miss Bushnan, feels unpleasant with an underlying viciousness. She is introduced in a moment of self pity lusting for her conman ex and downing a cocktail quicker than she realizes. She ostensibly represents a charity, but as she quickly admits to the French delegate, it's more to "meet the class of people I want to meet with it. I mean my co-workers, of course. It's really rather exclusive." The rich privileged child of a former government official, within her is a "terrible bitter woman...the gibson had not quite drowned" that by end of the story is fantasizing about presenting her vote while Brad stands behind her enslaved "naked to the waist, with his wrists in bronze manacles" made at Tiffany's.

Of course, the second read through brought me a better appreciation of the story (though it's still pretty far from a favorite piece of Wolfe fiction). There are so many strange details to it: Miss Bushnan's red and green leather furnished 125th floor suite with its copy of Cellini's Saliera as a water fountain, a talking mobile Louis XIV cabinet robot named Sal that pesters its lessee for paid updates, and a cheap cigar smoking Pope that while impoverished still name drops the president of Olivetti as a friend. There is even the small joke that Sal is as much creeped out by the Pope as the Pope is by her.

Both the WolfeWiki entry on this story and Marc Aramini's analysis suggest it is tied into the reformations of Vatican II, and though I'm not particularly well versed in Catholicism it seems plausible given Wolfe's well known faith and the Pope's asides about the Kyrie and the decline of nuns. He comments on how the masses have "surrendered their faith in us to put it in the governments" which is funny given that the story begins with Miss Bushnan (somewhat sarcastically) blessing her hotel, Geneva, the Swiss Republic, and the United Nations for her lavish lodging. Toward the Catholic Church in contrast she suggest it "should have been squashed a long time ago."

One of the themes that piqued my interest especially given that Wolfe would revisit it in Book of the New Sun is history divorced from historical context. There is the aforementioned Cellini salt cellar copy repurposed as a water fountain. Sal is a Louis XIV cabinet. Miss Bushnan references the nuns' habit as "those wonderful flowing robes you see in pictures." Her history education seems to have been nothing more than selecting names of leaders in multiple choice tests. The Americans and Soviets argue over the use of the word "slave" but not the institution of slavery. Even the Pope seems somewhat at a loss: his pitch to women for joining the nunnery consists of listing "all the things they wouldn't have to give up" as opposed to providing any actual accounting for the institutions existence in the first place. Pointedly, as the Pope takes his leave of Miss Bushnan, Sal recites a rote fact about Saint Macrina and the origin of nuns; church history free of context as a purchasable program for a leased machine.