The view from 1984

I’ve been browsing around in Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986. In his discussion of Free Live Free, he quotes a couple of passages that have gained force in the years since the year the novel was published. I thought I’d put them here, a bit more fully.

A history of America, delivered by a man in a duffel coat near the end of the story:

“Our country was founded on the principle of the destruction of the wild by the civilized. Let me … go back thirty thousand years before Christ, when the ancestors of the Indians crossed what are now the Bering Straits to occupy what some people have called an empty land. Those Indians represented civilization. The beavers felled trees and built lodges, but the Indians killed the beavers and skinned them.

Barnes said, “Then the whites came and skinned the Indians.”

“Precisely. But the frontiersmen who destroyed the Indians and their culture were destroyed themselves, with their culture, by the settlers who followed. Those settlers lost their farms to the banks, and the banks sold them to companies who have brought the advantages of corporate existence—immortality and amorality—to agriculture.

“In the cities, the same thing occurred. The early city of independent shops and restaurants is properly being displaced by one of the chain outlets, so that progressively greater control is exercised. Perhaps none of you have ever understood before why they are called that—chain outlets….

“You see the progress? The old stores had to sell things their customers wanted. As they’re eliminated, the need for their type of slavery is eliminated, too, and the chains can sell whatever they want. Their customers have to buy it because there is nothing else to buy. I ask you, all of you—how often have you gone into W. T. Grant’s and found there was nothing at all you wanted?”

And:

“The Indians used to be Americans—that’s what an American was. Then the trappers were Americans, the Americans of their day. Then the farmers, with their buggies and plow horses and white clapboard houses. Even today when you look at a picture of Uncle Sam, you’re seeing what those farmers were like dressed up to go to the county fair. Only farmers aren’t real Americans any more. Neither are Indians. Poor bastards of Indians aren’t even foreigners, and we like foreigners more than Americans, because foreigners are the Americans of the future. The trappers are gone, and pretty soon you’ll be gone too.”

After further provocation, one of his audience responds:

“… I am a gypsy and a princess. And a dupe, because you have made me one. But I will speak for the Indians too, because they were nomads when they were shaped by their own thoughts and not by yours, and we are nomads now, who will remain so though you will slay us….

“You have overcome us, but you have not conquered us. To conquer us you must beat us fairly, and you have not beaten us fairly, and so you have struck us to the ground, but you have not won. To conquer us, you must have dignity too, and for that reason you have not conquered us. A man may flee from a wasp and be stung by the wasp, but he has not been conquered by the wasp; it remains an insect and he is still a man. You deck yourselves like fools and chatter and hop like apes, and your princes marry whores. That is why even those you have crushed to dust will not call you master, and none will ever call you master until you meet a nation more foolish than yourselves.”

Earlier in the book the gypsy does some “catoptromancy.” She explains, “… what I have done is the verso of necromancy; I summoned the spirits of the unborn to reveal the future.” According to her,

“The greatest event of the coming decade will be the quadrumvirate. Four leaders, unknown today, shall unite to take political, financial, artistic, and judicial power. They shall create a revolution in thought. Many who are now rulers shall be imprisoned or exiled. Many who are now powerless shall rise to places of great authority. The rich shall be made poor, and the poor rich. Old crimes, now concealed, shall be made public, and their perpetrators given to the people as to a pride of lions. The four shall be hated and idolized, but their rule will not end within the period specified by my prediction.”

It’s time for the quadrumvirate to reveal itself.

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