Gene Wolfe aphorisms


Bruce Pennington’s cover art for Shadow of the Torturer.

Since I’ve just spent a bit of time with Foucault’s lectures on the Will to Know (WK), especially the later sections on Nietzsche, and then some Nietzsche himself, regarding the relations between knowledge and truth, I thought I would take a break last night and reread the introductory section of Gene Wolfe’s novel the Shadow of the Torturer. In case you are wondering, I’ve previously taken a go at interpreting these books in light of Foucault, here (written in late 2000).

There are a number of aphoristic moments in the book, which makes the novel more “philosophical” than most sf.  One of the most widely quoted (eg., on Wikiquote) is the following

it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all. Gene Wolfe, Chapter I, Shadow of the Torturer.

We could if we wanted get Nietzsche-like here and denounce those who believe in this “efficacy of pure knowledge” (a quote I like to repeat). It seems to sum up those who idolize knowledge, or a knowledge which is free of origin, politics, or power. It also, if you like, points to Foucault’s alternative formulation, power/knowledge. An Enlightenment knowledge, that I think both Nietzsche and Foucault were at pains to critique.

As discussed on this blog about ten years ago, however (see especially the comments) by the philosopher John Holbo who is associated with the Crooked Timber website, Wolfe’s politics and general world view (as expressed in the themes of the novels and his interviews) are more tricky.

Wolfe here opposes pure knowledge, knowing something, to the action of things, of objects. “Things act of themselves,” they don’t wait for us to know about them. The tree does fall in the forest. This opposition puts an inflection on the previous point, that we should decry the efficacy (power) of pure knowledge, of knowledge without power. If the first point is easy to agree with, the second is more difficult.

This opposition, knowledge-object, leaves open the question of what then is knowledge. The last lecture in Will to Know is a lecture on Nietzsche and knowledge. Here Foucault traces fairly closely Nietzsche’s ideas of knowledge, truth, and morality, and underlying these the will to power. Knowledge is an invention that springs from this will to power; this will to overcome oneself or to become what one is.

Foucault’s points here are fairly aphoristic themselves but pave the way in fairly plain form for the genealogies he would investigate during the 1970s.

–knowledge does not correlate to the world as a decipherment (things do not have hidden meanings or secrets). (I put it this way to invoke thoughts on correlationism, Foucault does not say correlate, but rather “joined,” p. 203).

–knowledge is malicious

–truth is also invented, later, and knowledge was not made for truth, for reasons of obtaining the truth.

For Nietzsche (says Foucault) knowledge is not pure wanting to know, but governed by basic needs such as hunger. But knowledge suppresses these needs and “wants to be pure” (WK, p. 209). “Knowledge deployed in the space of the secret…of unveiling” (WK, p. 208).

Here’s a longer chunk:

Wondering about the original nature of knowledge [prior to truth] is to accept that it is a certain type of relation between a subject and an object…to say there is no knowledge in itself is to say that the subject-object relation…is not the foundation of knowledge but is in reality produced by it (WK, p. 210).

This then clarifies the Wolfe quote above. Knowledge does not arise from the object, but is rather that which produces the relation between the subject (understood here as the knower, though beware that as MF says this is not the cogito at the heart of a knowledge bring together subject and object [p. 212]) and object. It doesn’t produce the object, it produces their relation. Is this a critique or confirmation of correlationism? I haven’t quite decided.

(In place of cogito we have will.) We can now move on to truth, beginning with the reasoning that therefore knowledge is a lie, in two senses. It’s a lie because it’s a distortion and is incomplete, it’s also a lie because it hides its true nature.

On the will: this is not willing the truth, willing it to appear. It is not a passivity or clearing away of “anything that might be an empty space for the truth” (p. 214). At the heart of will-truth is “freedom” (p. 214). These are the mistaken ideas of the philosophical tradition. What is really there is a will to power.

2 responses to “Gene Wolfe aphorisms

  1. Thanks, glad you like it!

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