Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapters IX-X

SYNOPSIS: Severian and Roche arrive at the House Azure, and Severian chooses to bed a prostitute who both has the same name and likeness as Chatelaine Thecla. The episode is disturbing enough to prevent him from wanting to return to the brothal. As time passes at the Citadel, Thecla effectively becomes Severian’s educator. Since he is coming of age, he is offered the options of either leaving his apprenticeship behind and becoming a journeyman, or to leave the guild.

ANALYSIS: The first notable thing is the identities of the people at House Azure. The owner is described thus:

The person who had admitted us wore thick-soled shoes and a yellow robe; his shourt, white hair was smoothed back from a wide but rounded brow above a beardless and unlined face. As I passed him in the doorway, I discovered that I was looking into his eyes as I might have looked into a window. Those eyes could truly have been of glass, so unveined and polished they seemed – like a sky of summer draught.

A little bit later on, he introduces his women:

“All the beauties of the court are here for you,” our host said. “Here in the House Azure, by night flown here from the walls of gold to find their dissipation in your pleasure.”

Half hypnotized as I was, I thought this fantastic assertion had been put forward seriously. I said, “Surely that’s not true.”

“You came for pleasure, did you not? If a dream adds to your enjoyment, why dispute it?”

The irony is that there is an element of reality to the fantasy here. In chapter vii, we found out that the Autarch wants the Chatelaines of House Absolute to be sexually vulnerable so as to keep their respective families at bay. If the exultants do anything, their daughters will pay.

The House Azure is the manner by which he does this. Real noblewomen are brought here to roleplay in a fantasy version of their own lives for the pleasure of others. And this, indeed, suggests that the owner may be none other than the Autarch himself.

This raises the question of who, exactly, the fake Chatelaine Thecla is. I have no good answer; just a slightly crazy hypothesis. From what we later learn about the Autarch’s vizier, Father Inire, it would not be beyond the pale for him to have access to cloning technology.

Severian’s conversation with the fake Thecla gets unusually philosophical:

“Very strong. Aren’t you strong enough to master reality, even for a little while?”

“What do you mean?”

“Weak people believe what is forced on them. Strong people what they wish to believe, forcing that to be real. What is the Autarch but a man who believes himself Autarch and makes others believe by the strength of it?”

In pithy fashion this actually illustrates one of the problems with relativism. If there is no truth, and what counts as “true” is merely a function of its enforcability on people, then power has nothing to answer to. Many proponents of relativism tout that it protects the vulnerable by removing any rational justification the powerful can have to oppress them. But in the process of doing that, it undercuts any rational claim that the weak might have to justice; they are weak, so they lose. It is an ideology that serves the interests of those who desire, and are able to maintain, power. The totalitarian regime is the most relativistic form of government.

The whole incident also indicates that Severian’s ability to relate to the opposite sex is extremely damaged (he almost beats her). This is something of an unpleasant running theme throughout the series.

And now, the real Thecla:

“No one really knows what the Autarch will do. That’s what it all comes down to. Or Father Inire either. When I first came to court I was told, as a great secret, that it was Father Inire who really determined the policy of the Commonwealth. When I had been there two years, a man very highly placed – I can’t even tell you his name – said it was the Autarch who ruled, though to those in the House Absolute it might seem that it was Father Inire….”

There’s an onion-like quality to the political intrigue in BOTNS. The House Absolute won’t actually be visited until the Claw of the Conciliator, but everything that has been said about it so far (including the trip to its literal self-parody, House Azure) should make us wonder exactly how much of it can be taken at face value.

I told him firmly – and as though I were slightly shocked by the suggestion – that I had never considered it. [leaving the guild] It was a lie….Furthermore, though I loved the guild I hated it too….I do not know how better to express my feelings about it than by saying that I hated it for starving and humiliating me and loved it because it was my home, hated and loved it because it was the exemplar of old things, because it was weak, and because it was indestructible.

One example of why people can sometimes find it difficult to leave a situation that they know to be perverse or hurtful to them. While Severian recognizes that he can leave, it seems to be an almost futile option for him. “Where would I go?” At this point, he can’t imagine himself living a life where he is not a torturer, because this is the reality that he has grown up in.


About Josh W

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4 Responses to Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapters IX-X

  1. wgosline says:

    I love that you are doing a veritable exegesis of this work, but I don’t always entirely agree with you. Are Totalitarian regimes really the most relativistic of political systems? This is an interesting claim and would profit from some elaboration.

    When one considers how long it must have taken Gene Wolfe to finish his tetrarch, his philosophical ambulations take on a greater interest. As a converted Catholic, it is quite possible that Wolfe came to some faith conclusions while writing these books, for the writing in the earlier volumes seems darker, richer, more convoluted somehow than in the later volumes in which the prose is denser yet sparer. Likewise, the semiotics of the earlier volumes feel more clouded and duplicative than in the later ones.

    Interested in your thoughts.

    • Josh W says:

      My claim about relativism and totalitarianism would likely require at least a blog post to give a decent defense of (perhaps another time).

      iirc, Wolfe converted to Catholicism sometime in the 50s, so BOTNS isn’t capturing him in the throes of a conversion. Whether he underwent some finer theological shifts during the writing of it is difficult to say, given his canniness.

      It’s been a few years since I’ve read the later books; school makes it pretty difficult to do this project in anything other than a piecemeal fashion, so I’m in a less than apt position right now to say much about its evolutions in prose style.

  2. Pingback: Further reading | Zoopraxiscope Too

  3. David says:

    These posts have been helpful as I make my way through this series. I’ve also been listening to the great podcast “Alzabo Soup.”

    I have to say though, this is the first time I’ve outright disagreed with something you said. The House Azure is referenced by its nickname in the previous chapter, “Echopraxia” meaning “meaningless repetition or imitation of the movements of others.”

    The Lexicon Urthus gives this definition:
    “The name of a specific brothel in the Algedonic Quarter of Nessus, or more likely, a category of brothel where the theme is mimicry. At the one in question, the House Absolute is mimicked as the House Azure.”

    It really seems like it bears no direct connection to House Absolute, and I seriously doubt the noblewomen there are actually from the court, or that the Autarch would be spending time here. He wants these women to, essentially, be hostages. Why send them to a run down, nearly empty brothel in Nessus where they can potentially be rescued by their powerful families? Why put himself in a position where his enemies can get to him easily?

    Remember, the fake Thecla was shorter than the real one, that’s the only real difference Severian notices. This lines up with a description earlier of the Autarch’s concubines by Gerloes, where he says the Autarch doesn’t actually sleep with the noblewomen, instead employing “shadow women” who resemble them in every way, except that they are shorter.

    I think, given that line of dialogue, and how completely fooled Severian is by the fake Thecla in every way but her height, you can make a very good case for them being clones. They probably aren’t as tall because their genetic code is edited so as to make it clear they aren’t really the exultants they resemble, as that would lead to political chaos. Or perhaps it’s simply poor nutrition resulting from them being treated like commoners/servants rather than the nobles they are copies of and fed the same way. We’ve already gotten several hints that there’s simply not enough food to go around, leading to an ever shrinking population and incidents of cannibalism. Severian and his fellow torturers seem to survive on poor quality bread, lentils, and occasional mutton. The complete lack of milk, cheese, or dark leafy greens could lead to a calcium deficiency.

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