I’ve now had the opportunity to read Peter Wright’s “Confounding the Skin and the Mask” several times and it continues to generate much thought. Congratulations and thanks to Ultan’s Library for publishing this erudite piece on its e-site, and I hope Dr. Wright will be encouraged to submit further material as he sees fit. I also now look forward even more eagerly to his Attending Daedalus, which I hope will be published early in 2002 rather than late.
The political approach to Fifth Head of Cerberus, with its analysis of the Sainte Anne-Sainte Croix colonial and post-colonial milieus, has always been something that’s intrigued me, and Wright brings to the subject considerably more insight than I could ever bring to bear. Most of the points he makes, especially about the lack of discourse between colonizer and colonized, and the destabilizing effects such omissions have on reality, are well argued and apposite; indeed, they seem, as John Clute has argued about Wolfean ideaspace elsewhere, somewhat obvious in hindsight. But where Wright really steps outside the box is in his bold elevation of abo savant Victor Trenchard to heroically tragic status–it’s a conclusion that’s perfectly realized within the context of his arguments, mind you, but as it also draws upon what I feel are several spurious conclusions and takes place outside certain validating frames of reference (mimetic in quite another sense, ironically), I must take issue. I’d therefore like to offer a slightly alternate take on Wright’s semi-sanctified Victor Trenchard, although I will at times have to step outside the colonial/political context Wright employs to make his case, so it’s hardly the most scholarly or defensible of refutations. Rather, think of it perhaps, to use an engineering phrase of Maitre’s, as another attempt at relaxation–part of a successive set of interpretations. (Given the general dismissal of my work, the wag in me is tempted to call it Wright vs Wrong, but that’s for other people to decide.)
Much of Wright’s argument about V.R.T.’s passage from base scavenger to enlightened, detached, scholar is based on his assertion that Marsch-Trenchard has grown full-blown into his role of anthropologist, being much more sensitive to the nuances, ambiguities, and realpolitik of the culture he finds himself trapped in than is his counterpart, Earthborn John Marsch, with the native Annese. Given, however, V.R.T.’s biological roots (his father being human and his mother alien), this seems to me a far more natural consequence of his upbringing than of any personal effort that he’s exerted; we might just as well marvel at a child’s double fluency in French and English where each parent only speaks one or the other language, but not both. Wright also accuses John Marsch of Great White Hunter syndrome, but despite the trajectory tables in his Field Guide to the Animals of Sainte Anne, far from exhibiting any Francis-Macomber-gone-mad tendencies, he kills only to eat, in self-defence, or to put a gravely injured pack mule out of its misery (cf. Marsch’s remark to Victor, “Do you think the Free People are frightened of us just because I shoot game to eat?”). Now, granted, he does seem intrigued by the trophy-like nature of the carabao he kills, and takes a shot or two at a following farmcat, but in the latter case he desists when he sees how much this upsets Victor and tells the boy that if he can get the animal into camp he can keep it as a pet. Contrast this compassion and sensibility with the far more murderous tendencies of Victor, who kills not only human John Marsch, but the abo girl he has rendezvoused with in the back of beyond– who respectively represent each of the two worlds which he should be trying to understand and assimilate as tyro anthropologist, not reduce through violence. Victor, in addition, seems unusually hostile to women, at one point seeking in his prison diary to justify why men find well-endowed women more desirable than their scrawnier sisters, at another imagining Celeste Etienne masturbating with a candle. He also believes he was abandoned by his mother after she witnessed him having intercourse, and expresses no regret at having left his destitute father behind to fend for himself. Surely, with biases like this–no compulsions about murder, issues with female sexuality, toxic familial relationships–Victor Trenchard falls far short of the idealized observer Wright posits*, and actually deserves punishment for his more serious crimes, even if the authorities on Sainte Croix are imprisoning him for all the wrong reasons. At least–unlike another fictional intellectualized monster, Hannibal Lector–Victor is where he belongs.
Then there’s also the signally high level of mimesis between Number Five and Victor Trenchard. Wright, of course, fails to mention this, and perhaps rightly so, given the operative paradigms and central thrust of his arguments. But the plain truth of the matter is that there are so many correspondences between the two men that it’s hard to believe Wolfe wants us to see them as different, being in fact, if not each other’s shadow, then nearly the same character. The following list is probably not exhaustive, but I think it clearly delineates this critical point–that Victor Trenchard and Number Five are symbolic twins, with life circumstances and ultimate fates irrevocably linked:
1) Victor is born to Three Faces, a sometimes prostitute, who later abandons him; Number Five, according to Aunt Jeannine, has probably been carried in utero by one of the house girls at 666 Saltimbanque, and also grows up motherless.
2) Both Number Five and V.R.T. have the number five connected with them. (V = 5 in Roman Numerals).
3) Both bear names that must be decrypted. Number Five’s real name is Gene Wolfe, and V.R.T. is Victor R. Trenchard. If the ‘R’ of his middle name is Rodman, as some people have suggested, this is an additional correspondence, being author Gene Wolfe’s middle name, furthering the autobiographical conjunction between the two.
4) Number Five is the physical clone of his father; Victor is the nominal clone of his, both père and fils bearing the aforesaid ‘R’.
5) Both Number Five and Victor declaim about the importance of fishing nets to the Free People.
6) Atop the pleasure garden of Cave Canem, Number Five spies on a patron** frolicking with a “nymphe du bois” in a private grotto; in the back of beyond John Marsch imagines Victor frolicking in secret with his own nymphe du bois.
7) Both men have scholarly, scientific minds.
8) Both men kill alternate versions of themselves–Number Five, his father, with whom, as a clonal son, he’s isogenetic; Victor, his mentor John Marsch.
9) Number Five plans on impersonating Maitre after he kills him (although we do not hear if he carries this out); Victor successfully assumes the identity of murdered John Marsch.
10) Number Five has a dream about confining Corinthian pillars in a paved court, the Annese equivalent of which (“woodhenge”) Victor sees in the back of beyond.
11) Number Five, in a detention camp, sees robot guards go berserk, firing upon prisoners; Victor dreams about the same incident, with berserk robots firing upon him in “a vast deserted courtyard surrounded by colonnades.”
12) Both Number Five and Victor Trenchard are initially arrested as suspects in the same foul deed–the murder of Maitre.
13) Victor Trenchard is being held by the authorities on the possibility that he may be a spy for Sainte Anne; Maitre (Number Five’s alter ego) is a spy.
14) Both men are served barley soup while imprisoned.
15) Number Five and Victor Trenchard’s lives are linked by the recurring image of the trumpet vine, mentioned at the beginning of the titular novella which recounts Number Five’s story, and referenced again at the conclusion of “V.R.T.”, which tells Victor Trenchard’s, in essence making of them a single tale.
Now, given how Number Five’s life turns out–tragically, he repeats his father’s excesses, from patricide to imminent abuse of his own son (if this were a Greek tragedy, surely his name would be Teutamides (Greek:”Son of he who repeats himself”))–and how sympathetically resonant it has been with that of his shadow twin, Victor Trenchard–it seems very hard to find anything triumphal in V.R.T.’s demise. Perhaps even more tellingly, unlike Number Five, he cannot blame his own fall on a lack of free; to put it another way, Gene Wolfe might argue, hell has more addresses than 666 Saltimbanque. This may also help to explain why Victor Trenchard does not affect a final transformation while in prison, taking on the guise of, say, an off-duty guard, or a fellow prisoner, and then seeking to make his escape in the confusion. Like Number Five, he can only recapitulate what was happened before, having stalled in his personal evolution. All he can do forever, it seems, is become more like himself.
– December 2001
* In fact, he even fails to notice that the deranged woman incarcerated next to him is almost certainly his own mother, being as shortsighted in perceiving blood relationships as one Severian the Lame.
** Is it possible this patron is actually the original John Marsch of Earth? He’s described as “someone of importance,” heavy, and with a square face (as opposed to the planetary-wide, generic “sharply pointed” face of the Sainte Croix natives). Wolfe also uses, although in a different context, the adjectives “heavy” and “square” in later describing the visit of Marsch’s impersonator, VRT. Moreover, when Aunt Jeannine questions Number Five about his education shortly after she catches him in his voyeuristic enterprise (actually their first encounter), she asks him about Veil’s Hypothesis, as if it’s fresh on her mind.
Editorial Note: This piece was originally solicited as a response to Peter Wright’s article by Robert Borski, author of the superb website dedicated to The Fifth Head of Cerberus: Cave Canem. Since writing that website Robert has written two books on Gene Wolfe.