Most art forms express ideas through an experience of the senses. Paintings, music, and dance all provide some tangible experience for the audience to latch on to, regardless of the underlying meaning of the work. Literature is unique as an art form in that it relies entirely upon a human construct to express an idea: language. We could think of language as a bunch of words with particular definitions strung together by a set of semantic rules, but in practice the actual definitions and rules do not matter. When I communicate through language, what I am really hoping is that the collection of noises that I utter evoke in you an intended experience. So, when an author describes a sound as being loud, they are relying entirely upon the reader to imagine the sound at the appropriate volume. If a character is described as having a sharp pain, the reader must have experienced a sharp pain before to truly understand the character’s plight. A brand-new experience cannot be impressed upon a reader using literature.
The nature of language and the challenge it presents to artistic expression are what make Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun so impressive. The novel is set in a far future “Urth” where humanity has spread itself across the galaxy before regressing back to a second Dark Age. Advanced technology is no longer understood and is indistinguishable from magic. Since the novel is written in the first person by Severian, a torturer from the Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, the reader is not granted the privilege of dramatic irony in understanding the strangeness of the world. We are entirely at the mercy of Severian’s understanding of the world, and he is entirely at the mercy of our own knowledge. So, when Severian describes the Matachin Tower, home of the Guild of Torturers, we are required to decode his vague descriptions of bulkheads and portholes to realise that he is talking about a disused rocket ship. There is a Venn diagram of what Severian knows and what we know that informs how experiences are evoked by the novel.
Part of the skill of writing is a mastery of evoking known experiences in the reader; this is the centre of our Venn diagram. We can be confident that the bread Severian describes eating, the water he drinks, and the fever he catches are all experiences that can be evoked accurately within us as readers who have had near identical experiences. The next level of skill is the challenge of relating unknown experiences to known experiences through clever prose and language. As a young boy, Severian describes himself coming across a structure known as the Atrium of Time. The structure is covered in “sundials” which do not get very much sun during the day and are tilted at odd angles. Some readers have interpreted these to be literal sundials that were brought to the tower. Given they are inscribed with Latin phrases from real sundials, such as Lux dei vitae viam monstrat, it is not an unreasonable interpretation. Other readers, however, believe Severian to be describing a collection of satellite dishes. The descriptions of unknown experiences can evoke ideas in the reader that were similar to the intended concepts, but there remains significant wiggle room for interpretation. Nobody can say with a high level of confidence what Severian actually saw when he looked at the objects he called sundials. Wolfe then takes things a step further and forces us to develop our own conceptions of entirely unknown experiences using private language.
When I say Wolfe uses a private language, I don’t really mean it in the same sense as Wittgenstein. The characters of Urth all understand the meaning of these words, and they are capable of evoking some sort of experience within the reader. The intended evocation is entirely unknowable, though, since these words were used by Wolfe with no additional exposition as to their true meaning. There is a great deal of context and connotation tied to the words “exaltant” and “alzabo” that is diegetic but hidden from the reader; it is essentially the opposite of dramatic irony. In the appendix of the first volume, Wolfe, who is taking on the fictious role of translator for Severian’s auto-biography, explains that:
In rendering this book—originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence—into English, I might easily have saved myself a great deal of labor by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so. Thus in many instances, I have been forced to replace yet undiscovered concepts by their closest twentieth-century equivalents.
The effect is that we as the reader are forced to fabricate our own images of what these words are trying to represent. We take on the role of co-author when consuming the story, resulting in an even larger divergence than the confusion between whether something is a sundial or a satellite dish. An alzabo is an alien predator that merges the mind of its prey with its own, often speaking in the voices of its past victims to lure friends and family out of hiding. We do not know what its eyes look like, what material its claws are made from, how its breath smells, or how fast it can sprint. As the reader, we must draw from our personal experiences to build some Frankenstein’s monster of ideas that represent the alzabo. It is extremely likely that the alzabo I imagined was completely different from that which was imagined by the next reader, which would be just as different again from what Wolfe conceived of while building the world. It is also possible that an alzabo is so alien and unusual that seeing one in real life imparts an experience unlike anything before it, like a blind person seeing colour for the first time. The special thing about this novel is that my journey with Severian will be unlike any other reader’s journey, despite us reading the exact same words.
Although there is something special about having such a unique experience, it really brings to the forefront just how lonely writing can be. Humans are social creatures and being social involves a constant, desperate drive to express oneself. We do this through physical affection, through painting and music and dance, we have conversations with friends over a beer, we debate controversial ideas, we tell each other stories, and some of us write book reviews. We do all of this in the desperate hope that the thing in our mind can be understood and experienced by another mind. But the tools alone are insufficient for achieving the task. If I were to have a truly unique experience, I would be forced to live alone with that for my entire life, incapable of conveying the true essence of that experience to anybody else. Perfect communication requires perfect overlap of the Venn diagrams of experience between interlocutors.
The overarching conflict in The Book of the New Sun involves a war between the Commonwealth and the Ascians. Severian is part of the Commonwealth which is headed by the Autarch, a human who has melded with the memories of thousands of other people using a drug similar to that which allows the alzabo to take on the minds of its prey. The Ascians are a totalitarian state ruled by aliens known as the Group of Seventeen. The Ascian language is entirely based upon phrases from publications approved by the Group of Seventeen, known as Correct Thought. For Ascians, the removal of individuality and freedom of expression is expected to remove any potential for conflict once all people have been indoctrinated into the society – an approved collection of knowledge is imposed upon all people. Such a solution to miscommunication and conflict seems to fail, though, since the Ascians maintain a fundamental drive to express themselves. An Ascian prisoner of war manages to tell a parable to Severian by using phrases from the Correct Thought that have special connotations which are contradictory to the intended meaning of the passages. For the Commonwealth, the merging of minds together is expected to resolve all conflict by enabling everyone to coexist with the same knowledge and experiences, providing perfect empathy by doing away with the hard problem of consciousness.
Disagreements between people in politics and media always seem to be portrayed with one side as intelligent and the other stupid, one side as good and selfless while the other is evil and selfish. When we view disagreements through this polarising lens, the philosophy of the Ascians is being used to try to indoctrinate the other side into our own “correct thought” since we view our knowledge as morally good and the other as reprehensible. People across the world exist in entirely different realities, though, shaped by their own personal histories and experiences. The definitions of words are meaningless. The only meaning is derived from what experiences I evoke in your mind with the words that I use. The smaller the overlap in the Venn diagram of what we understand, the higher the chance of miscommunication and conflict. We cannot overcome such an obstacle by just using more words to indoctrinate the other side. At the end of the day, I will still be incapable of explaining the colour red to a blind person.
Before any form of expression or consumption of expression must necessarily come the experience that is to be evoked. The way Gene Wolfe has used language throughout the novel has taught me the importance of experiencing as much of the world as possible: the highs and the lows, the relaxing and the challenging, the fun and the stressful. Having a wealth of experience to call upon will make sure that your Venn diagram of knowledge overlaps as much as possible with every different person that you meet. Although I cannot meld my mind with anybody else’s, I can get close by sharing as many experiences with them as possible. When we share experiences, it makes it possible to express oneself properly, and to understand others accurately when they express themselves. Ultimately, it is the experience before the language that helps to make us feel less lonely and more understood. I wish you all the best in your own journey to express yourself. I hope to have the experiences to understand you properly when you do.