Traveller's Reviews > The Claw of the Conciliator

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
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Feb 19, 11

bookshelves: dark, sf-fantasy
Read in January, 2011

The Book of The New Sun is one of Wolfe's more contraversial post-modernist experimentations in narrative structure, in which it is hard to judge each volume on its own; -to be fair, I feel one should read the cycle as a whole and judge it as a whole.

...and as to the accusations of misogynism, I don't really see much misogynism in Severian's sexual escapades as much as in his continual judgement of women as being "weak" and his continuous harping on this theme, which does come across as pretty much a machismo attitude, and which I think might be Wolfe's own attitude rather than just that of Severian's - I'd have to re-read other works by the author to be sure of this, though.

As for the 'machismo torturer' image, (Severian leaping bare-chested and cloaked onto the execution stage under much applause, for instance) I do think some of that is a tongue-in-cheek jab at stereotypes as well as a bitter look at the fascination many humans seem to feel with gore, horror and death - therefore the sick adulation that Severian gleans from the populace who love to watch him kill.

Let's face it, all of us have some kind of emotional reaction towards death, and death is indeed a topical subject for us all, as we all have to face it sometime or another.

It's also a subject which has fascinated the creators of literature since the beginnings of literature itself.

Wolfe does an interesting "take" on death, memories and immortality in the idea of continued consciousness through other humans via the rather repellent and unsavory ritual with the Alzabo gland.

Talking of stereotypes, I had consistently thought of Jolenta as the typical sexually charismatic narcissistic movie-star type (male or female) who believe they are God's gift to the opposite sex. This image was confirmed for me, and expanded to the cosmetic surgery and botox enhanced crowd that one finds in celebrity circles these days, at the end of the book when a bit of a 'reveal' on Jolenta is done. It seemed to me as if Wolfe is expressing an opinion of initial disgust which is later tempered with pity when he shows the emotional and psychological vulnerability that this type of person often carries with them behind their public masks.

I'll reserve final judgement of the series until I've re-read the last volume, which I'd read long ago as a teenager, and on which I'm pretty sure my opinion might have changed in the meantime.
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Traveller I'm doing a much-needed re-read of this. I re-read the first volume in the series last year, and I must say, because the plot is so dense, it's almost as if I'm reading it for the first time. I suspect the series could easily handle about 3 or 4 re-reads without starting to feel old... (My first read was as a teenager)


message 2: by Bill (new)

Bill I read this as a 26 year old the first time, 20 years ago. I just finished the Shadow & Claw today and posted a preliminary review. I don't think there are any spoilers, but I do have an idea about Severian that you may prefer not to read before you finish this volume (claw).

I have read the other volumes yet.


message 3: by Bill (new)

Bill I meant to say, I have NOT read the other volumes yet. (I didn't see a way to edit my previous comment)


Traveller Just below the comment is a little green edit tag, which might or might not work. :) I read the 4 books of the series, though there is a fifth book as well, ( The Urth of the New Sun)which I have purchased a while ago; and so I thought I should re-read the series before I read the fifth book, since It's been quite a while since I read the series, and have never re-read the last two books.


message 5: by Bill (last edited Jan 31, 2011 09:04AM) (new)

Bill I didn't notice the constant harping that women are weak. I think that he has a very different approach to each woman in his life. He's not a seducer nor does he aspire to be; the women he has sex with seem to be as much or more in control of the process then he does. He seems as anxious to share his (and Thecla's) book with them as he does to have sex with them, and, from the narrative certainly seems to find that experience more memorable.

Thecla is nothing less then his mentor into a growth beyond his stifling and horrible identity with the guild. Agia is his nemesis, and a worthy one at that. Dorcas is literally innocent as all her memories begin with him in the garden (reminds me of the Genesis myth); this may be weakness, but she certainly recovers from it, especially in the next volume, "Sword".

Jolenta, who I find to be one of most moving characters in the story, (I've always had a soft heart for waitresses), is somewhat stereotypical. She does represent the vast amount of poor, uneducated, women in history whose only hope of a better life (and many times, even survival) existed in their sexual desirability. Its a sad fact, but it is a fact, and I wonder if it is misogynistic to acknowledge it? Even in our western world, which is certainly more protective of human rights then Severians, the remnants of this urge to associate survival with sexual desirability seems pretty strong.
It is obvious that Severian finds Jolenta's attitude repulsive. The fact that he finds her physically irresistible, while constantly denying it and disparaging her, is more a testament to the art and science of Dr. Talos and the stereotypical male biological weakness.(Is there a word for hatred of men?)

Two other women play a prominent part later on, Valeria--from the Atrium of Time. And Burgundofara the sailor, with the unfortunate moniker of 'Gunnie' for short. Gunnie is, for me, one of the most memorable, epic, and moving characters I have ever read.


message 6: by Traveller (last edited Jan 31, 2011 09:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Hi Bill. Hehe - yes there is a word for hatred for men - it's "misandry" as opposed to hatred for women, which is, as you know, the much better-known "misogyny." I feel the latter term has become rather stretched by feminists to include "contempt" of women, and I did perhaps feel that whether intentional or not, Sev's attitude towards women in general seems slightly contemptuous, though it may be that I've been primed to look for misogyny by the reviews of other posters here. :)

I truly don't believe that Severian dislikes women - of course not - look at how he loves Thecla and later Dorcas; though I feel he could have tried a little harder to remain faithful to Dorcas.


What I definitely did not see is an initial resistance by the women and a subsequent "conquering" by Severian - in fact - Dorcas followed him around right from when he found her, - not because she adored him the moment she saw him, but because she had no memories, no recollection of who she was, and nowhere to go.

In the case of Jolenta, I think she was so narcissitic that she simply expected evrybody to adore her and want her, and probably allowed Severians' attentions partly as a homage to herself, and as a boon she felt she had granted him.

Anyhow, since I'd to a large extent forgotten what happens in the series from here onwards, I'm looking forward to reading the other 3 volumes as well.


message 7: by Bill (last edited Jan 31, 2011 11:19AM) (new)

Bill Traveller wrote: "I truly don't believe that Severian dislikes women - of course not - look at how he loves Thecla and later Dorcas; though I feel he could have tried a little harder to remain faithful to Dorcas. ...

In the case of Jolenta, I think she was so narcissitic that she simply expected evrybody to adore her and want her, and probably allowed Severians' attentions partly as a homage to herself, and as a boon she felt she had granted him. ..."


One of the things I like so much about Wolfe is that his characterizations allow a variety as well as multi-layered understanding of the characters and their actions. For example, I see Severians tryst with Jolenta as motivated by more then just lack of sexual control. I think he loves her. But the more important motivation is jealousy over Dorcas; he seemed to reproach her over her seeming to have gotten along quite well without him, and I definitely detect resentment over what he perceives to be a sexual relationship between Jolenta and Dorcas. It is in the very way he phrases the denial that he cares about their relationship, as well as in the contemptuous way he juxtaposes, in the same sentence, Jolenta's boast that she can make a lesbian of women with the observation that she nearly made a misogynist of him. (Wolfe uses a different word for misogynist--but I looked it up and it means woman hater). There seems to be a cruel satisfaction with detecting Dorcas's hurt, which she tries to hide, when they got back from the tryst.

Also, with Jolenta, I agree she is narcissistic. However, where most narcissists are such from a sense of entitlement, hers is from a completely different place of desperation. She knows the life she dreams of was given her by Dr. Talos and can be taken away on a whim. While an entitled narcissist engenders no compassion at all, I felt more emotion for Jolenta then anyone in the story right up until her heart rending demise there in the rain on top of the old abandoned ruins.


message 8: by Traveller (last edited Jan 31, 2011 11:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Yes, isn't it amazing how different people see totally different things in these books. It's almost as if Wolfe has managed to make the text seem so familiar yet obscure, that he's holding up a mirror in which different people see different things.

I hadn't even pulled the threads through of the whole 'lesbian' thing that it actually went all the way to Dorcas, I'd just thought Jolenta meant women in general.

However now that you mention it, things actually do make more sense in the context you have interpreted it, because the word "algophilist" (as I looked it up :P) means: "One who takes a morbid pleasure in the contemplation of mental or physical pain in others or in himself ", and in another dictionary "algophilia" means "Abnormal pleasure in receiving or inflicting pain."

So if one sees it in the context that he did what he did next to cause Dorcas pain, it makes a little more sense to me than it had initially done, I must admit. Thanks for offering your interpretation! :)


message 9: by Bill (last edited Jan 31, 2011 11:41AM) (new)

Bill Traveller wrote: "However now that you mention it, things actually do make more sense in the context you have interpreted it, because the word "algophilist" (as I looked it up :P) means: "One who takes a morbid pleasure in the contemplation of mental or physical pain in others or in himself. " and in another dictionary "algophilia" means "Abnormal pleasure in receiving or inflicting pain." .."

Right.right...I had misremembered; it was 'algophilist' rather then anything to do with hating women. I was too lazy to look the passage up.

I can't help but see the relationship between Dorcas and Jolenta as Severian sees it because of the extremely advanced technological achievement that Dr. Talos seems capable of in rendering Jolenta erotically irresistable (another great sci-fi concept of Wolfes), along with Dorcas's seemingly insatiable sexuality, as well as the fact that the two of them, both vulnerable and lost, had spent quite a bit of time together, on the road, with no one else but the two monsters in the company. This also puts Severian's inclination to abandon Jolenta, which he is later ashamed of, into context right along with Dorcas's hysterical refusal and her devotion to caring for Jolenta to the end.


Traveller True, that does make sense.

...and here I was thinking Dorcas is just a nice girl. How naive I seem to be, eh? ;)


message 11: by Bill (last edited Jan 31, 2011 12:36PM) (new)

Bill Traveller wrote: " ...and here I was thinking Dorcas is just a nice girl. ;)"

Seeing Dorcas in this aspect also gives a little more meaning to her adamant reluctance, in the chapter "Inn of Lost Loves" in "Shadow", for Agia to see her bathe.

I don't think my interpretation is the 'right' one, because Wolfe, in his artistic genius, does not spell out a 'right' interpretation. Its like the old saw about the meaning of the Mona Lisa's smile.

I also wanted to point out that Severian will often reveal something or someone in a completely new light that makes you say---"hey, I should have figured that one out; the clues were all there for reader as much as for Severian". When this happens, it makes the reader not only aware that Severian is smarter, but it also makes one aware of the possibility that there are a lot of hints and clues in the story that Severian is not going to reveal the meaning of; and I think this we've been discussing is one example. There are others.


message 12: by Clouds (new) - added it

Clouds This one snuck onto my list for winning a Locus Fantasy award - but as you said, would make more sense to judge the cycle as a whole - so I think this one shall languish down the bottom end of my list until I feel ready for a 5-book marathon :-)


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