Gene Wolfe’s recursive opening paragraph [thought experiment]

It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.

This opening paragraph of the first book of a whole series of books by Gene Wolfe, so admirably exemplifies the principle of recursion and self-reference that it may be possible to stop reading here and find within it, the whole rest of the narrative.

The first sentence alone, often overlooked and not noticed as one rushes into a new book without having read it before (or even for re-readers), recursively contains, fractally contains, the narrative that follows.

It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.

It is possible…, or probable? It is certainly not outside the realm of possibility. It could well be. Here Severian allows a certain thought without confirming it, or ruling it out, allowing a kind of doubleness into the narrative. He does a Glomar response: he neither confirms nor denies. Or does he? It could be that I had a presentiment, but I’m not sure. Uncertainty form the beginning then, but with the weight of the implication towards the side that says, yes, he more probably did have some presentiment, more than a fifty-fifty chance anyway. We tend to one side of the question (yes, he did), but we’re not sure, upon reading what it says, in absorbing Severian’s own (pretended?) uncertainty. Does he actually know if he had a presentiment? Why would he say that if he didn’t, at the moment of writing, have some idea of his future? Is he writing this as a continuous present, or in hindsight?

The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile.

Symbol of exile: this remains in his mind. What exile? This has not happened yet (perhaps) or at least we’ve not been told what it is. A question then, as to what this exile was/is/will be. Interesting that it’s not clear whether this is in the future or the past, and in who’s future or past, it may be in our future but his past?

That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.

So the narrator names himself. He also says he has begun his account of it, what is this it? His exile. So this is an account of his exile. It’s an odyssey then. How to begin a narrative of an exile? With its symbol. Why not begin a narrative of an exile with the beginning of the exile? Because the symbol, or symbols per se, are more important than the thing(s) they symbolize. Do they have more power? Are they more primary, give rise to more effects, causes or work in the world? Do symbols have efficacy themselves? To ask these questions is not to imply that the answers are always yes. But it is to raise the question of a certain thematic that in implicit form here (which we’re drawing out) are the theme of the rest of the narrative as whole. These questions are contained recursively within this paragraph, so that you can spin out form it the rest of the narrative.

..had so nearly drowned.

He nearly drowned. Assume he nearly drowned in the river, already mentioned, now giving off its wisps of fog. He was lucky not to drown! (Or was it luck?) This near-drowning occurred previously (it’s now the “aftermath,” from the narrator’s narrative, though not form his looking-back position, which we still don’t know about except it’s in the future). Going linearly, we should not learn anything more about the near-drowning, because the narrative begins after it. But wait, this narrative is actually backwards as well, because the narrator is looking backwards, isn’t he, over his life. So the narrative is not linear through time. But we knew that because this is recursive and the present contains the future. He tells us that already in the first sentence. So now, having read through this, and having written it, I/we return to the past, in order to encapsulate the future within it.

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