One of the things I’m increasingly noticing about Wolfe is how he seems a novelist focussed on exploring what makes for true self-esteem. His characters seem to at some times succumb to soothing false narratives that allow them to dispense dealing with painful self-failings, but also resist them.
Some examples include Skip from “Home Fires,” who though describing himself as a massively successful criminal lawyer, at the end of the text throws himself into a military career because all that he did as a lawyer never did seem to cancel out that it was his wife, not himself, who applied herself more adventurously in their youth. Wolfe makes it so that despite not having any experience, he will enter military service as I think a colonel, which however lends one a sense that Skip in his new-born mature ability to be honest with himself even if it risk making himself seem foolish/reckless to others, is not immune to regression: like how staying home was comfortable for him, entering his war service as someone who won’t be subjected to anyone but who rather will command and subject others, entering it as an old man as an officer rather than as a private, feels like it allows not much chance for vulnerability. One step forward, one step backward.
The hero in “Borrowed Man,” Ern, had a long and successful career as a mystery novelist. He could feather himself with all he done in his life, if he wished. But he knows deep down that he himself never did any of them. He is a clone of the real person, the original person, who did them all. In truth, he has never known himself to venture… even into sex. Someone else had sex, actualized himself through choosing sex, not him, even if others wouldn’t understand how this could be. People are coming to him for his expertise but he insists, in service of a true self rather than a false one, that who he remains is someone who has to demonstrate to himself that he could do all of the things his original did in his life. The risk is that he could become like the exultants are in “New Sun,” those who are acclaimed for their noble properties but who themselves feel the shame of really doing nothing, of being useless. The risk is becoming someone who, for no longer providing himself the service, would have no one else mirror back to him his smarter understanding of himself.
“Sorcerer’s House” features a bit of the opposite case. Baxter tells us at the beginning that he has spent his life as a perpetual student. He has studied everything, switching from one PhD program into another, but has never really left that status — it’s his brother, whom he gaslights into violence, who did stuff. But the town wants to crown him as a learned professor and he doesn’t question what is being lent to him, the lie that is being lent to sustain a sense of false acclaim, but readily accepts it. The town functions as the AI in the mirrors do in Blood’s palace: they flatter, don’t confront, the narcissistic self you’ve formulated in an attempt to cover over a true felt sense of worthlessness. It’s also a novel where the pleasure coming from doing nothing but for being someone others deem special is not, as it was in New Sun, combatted, but lent support. He is special for being the son who actually has grand wizard powers built into him. He didn’t do anything to get these, only accident of birth.
Severian, as Peter Wright briefly argues in “Attending Daedalus,” may have been chosen for being vulnerable to the narcissistic inflation being a sun god would offer him, that he needs for being a discarded boy. It would make him similar to why Green in “There are Doors” was chosen for special attention by a goddess. But in “there are Doors” Green learns the shame of realizing, not only was there not something about why he got attention that suggested something substantive about him, but rather that there was something damaged about him, but doesn’t shrink from this self-understanding. “Ok. I got picked because I’m in need of a mother and “you” predatorily took advantage of this fact. I accept this knowledge, but still be true to the fact that I need you in my life.”
These are just early observations about how Wolfe often posits as a threat others who offering soothing assessments for someone to co-opt as a truth about themselves, but which if accepted would screen from view disquieting facts about oneself you know you need to confront, straight, if you are to live life with a higher sense of self-worth.