Baldanders: A Symbolic Character Study
"The brain," the giant rumbled. "The brain is the worst of all, and the best.”
In the previous installment of this here blog I discussed the monstrous character Baldanders in Gene Wolfe’s truly magnificent tale The Book of the New Sun, including its “coda” or sequel or conclusion The Urth of the New Sun. I really consider this epic story to be one of the greatest works of American literature that I have read, worthy of being named in the same sentence with Moby-Dick, and its philosophical scope, if not its spiritual depth, may be even greater than that of The Brothers Karamazov. But I digress. If you haven’t already read the story I suggest that you do so, or at least read the previous essay, which describes the basic facts about our particular hero, or antihero, or villain, Baldanders.
I concluded the introductory essay to this discussion with the observation that Wolfe compares Baldanders and his artificial servant/master Dr. Talos to the tale of Dr. Frankenstein, a scientist who creates a monster. In this installment, now that the introduction has been presented, I will discuss the symbolic and philosophical significance of the huge genius, or at least my best guess as to what Wolfe had in mind. And to hell with postmodern criticism that dismisses as irrelevant the intentions of the creator of a work of art. One might as well dismiss the intentions of a speaker when he speaks to you. It’s silly.
So, in my opinion, the giant Baldanders symbolizes the scientific endeavor in particular, and some of the most important shortcomings of science and the scientific mind. The original Baldanders, a creation of the 16th century German Meistersinger Hans Sachs, was symbolic of Protean change, which is appropriate, I suppose, considering that science, as a living process, is always changing. In fact the corpus of scientific theory and knowledge is always growing and changing, much as the giant Baldanders is always growing, in size as well as in knowledge.
In fact Baldanders appears to live mainly for the purpose of increasing his knowledge, perhaps representing an abstract scientific ideal of knowledge for its own sake, for sheer intellectual fulfillment, or for the building of an intellectual Tower of Babel meant someday to reach the heavens of omniscience. His desire is ultimately selfish though, not intended for the benefit of humanity or any such touchy feely nonsense; at one point in the story he exclaims, “No, I am my own great work. And I am my only great work!” He would certainly defy God in order to eat the fruit of knowledge, or would defy God if he were not a materialistic atheist.
Because Baldanders’s scientific knowledge as well as his size is constantly growing, and because knowledge is power, he is steadily becoming more formidable and dangerous, even as he strives for knowledge potentially beneficial to the human race and the world. This is obviously also true of modern science.
He is ruthless and amoral, and very “impersonal”: he admits in his final meeting with Severian, “I do not remember many faces.” People are not important to him, which of course helps to explain his lack of compassion as he performs the most grisly experiments on suffering victims.
Baldanders appearing at first to be the slave of his own creation, the homunculus Dr. Talos, is perhaps symbolic of the scientist ostensibly being the master and driver of technological progress, but at the same time appearing as a slave or servant of his own creation. Hence, perhaps, the doctor’s evident comparison of his situation with the story of Dr. Frankenstein at the castle. There may also be some application here of the science progressing beyond control motif.
Assuming, ex hypothesi, that Baldanders really does symbolize the scientific mentality, especially when developed to the extreme, it is clear that science is portrayed by Wolfe as more sinister than some other notable personifications of science, like the benign Piggy in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the amoral artisans aboard the Pequod in Moby-Dick, the Professor in Tarkovsky’s great film Stalker, and of course the idealistic yet rather spineless Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel. Wolfe, as a religious person, was evidently attempting to illustrate the shortcomings of science, and of atheistic materialism in general, in his character Baldanders; and one of the themes he presented along these lines is the dangers of a hyperdeveloped intellect accompanied by a sorely undeveloped heart. In this respect he comes close to the Professor in Stalker, who was willing to nuke a mysteriously wonder-working room largely because of pent-up anger at a colleague who had seduced his wife many years before.
Baldanders, though an intellectual as well as physical giant, has a severe lack of emotional development, which also is one of the greatest dangers of the stereotypical scientist, and of science in general. It is a Baldanders-like lack of compassion and a willingness to ignore moral law that results in technological weapons of mass destruction like nuclear bombs and genetically modified pathogens, for example, let alone countless unnecessary experiments on live animals. The giant not only is amoral and devoid of feeling for others, but, as has already been observed in the first part of this essay, he is prone to bouts of insane rage, and keeps a giant obese catamite as a kind of sex slave. His strange, unnatural desires may also account for the legion of howling mutants he keeps in his castle’s dungeon and which he unleashes on his enemies (though in their torment they would attack Baldanders as readily as anyone else). This is all beyond mere emotional immaturity; it indicates a lack of development of heart anywhere near to commensurate with his development of brain. He is in a state of extreme spiritual imbalance, as is, arguably, materialistic science in general.
(Baldanders my have experienced some change of heart, however, some inclination towards virtue or honor, towards the very end of the tale, as he comes to the Autarch’s throne to warn that the old Urth is near to death and is giving way to the new world of Ushas. At this point, interestingly, he confuses the cause of the ringing bells he hears, confusing the personification of the New Sun—Severian—with the white hole itself. Thereby he shows a kind of intellectual weakness or fallibility, and even some humility, in his final scene. So Wolfe may have held out some hope for the spiritually destitute scientific mind, even though he was intent on showing its weaknesses and dangers.)
But I think the greatest danger and shortcoming of materialistic, mechanistic science, as viewed by the author anyway, is deeper than this, and more philosophical. A good example would be Baldanders’s behavior towards the Claw of the Conciliator, a kind of blessed and consecrated thorn encased in a huge sapphire, with which Severian had been working miracles, and which glows, sometimes brightly and sometimes dimly, with an inner light. At one point in the story Severian is made a prisoner by vassals of the giant, and the Claw is confiscated and sent to Baldanders in his castle. Later, Severian goes to the castle to retrieve the gem and finds three Hierodules, or aliens, or angels, visiting Baldanders; and eventually one of the superhumans brings up the matter of the Claw:
When I had finished, Ossipago said, "And now we must see the wonder itself. Bring it out, please," and Baldanders rose and stalked across the wide room, making all his machines appear mere toys by his size, and at last pulled out the drawer of a little, white-topped table and took out the gem. It was more dull in his hand than I had ever seen it; it might have been a bit of blue glass.
Severian claims the gem for himself, which the giant ignores. Then the Hierodule asks him,
“But out of curiosity, which torments even such strange creatures as you believe us to be—Baldanders, will you keep it?" The giant shook his head. "I would not have such a monument to superstition in my laboratory.”
Shortly after this Baldanders walks to his window and flings the gem out towards a nearby lake, destroying it. He destroys the Claw probably because he is a total materialist who despises “superstitious” belief in miraculous relics and powers, or possibly even because he is a devout, almost total materialist who feels threatened by the very possibility of miraculous relics and powers. The first explanation may come closer to illustrating the philosophical point I am now working towards.
He throws the Claw and destroys it, then destroys Severian’s sword also, a masterwork of metallurgy beyond the abilities of the degenerate Urth’s current technological capabilities, because he is a force of destruction, but also because he is a force of desecration, refusing to accept divinity, or the very possibility of anything at all existing above a humanistic, mundane level. Science in general, of course, tends to be this way as well.
In another scene in the castle, the homunculus Dr. Talos is discussing the wonders of Baldanders to Severian:
“Others experiment upon themselves in order to derive some rule they can apply to the world. Baldanders experimented on the world and spent the proceeds, if I can put it so bluntly, upon his person. They say—" here he looked about nervously to make sure no one but myself was in earshot "—they say I'm a monster, and so I am. But Baldanders was more monster than I. In some sense he was my father, but he had built himself. It's the law of nature, and of what is higher than nature, that each creature must have a creator. But Baldanders was his own creation; he stood behind himself, and cut himself off from the line linking the rest of us with the Increate [i.e. God]. However, I stray from my subject.”
That one line about Baldanders creating himself (also reminiscent of “I am my own great work. And I am my only great work!”), thereby cutting himself off from God, is key to the point Wolfe is trying to make. I am reminded that Dostoevsky, an even greater writer than Wolfe, defined hell as a state of being completely cut off from God. Though as I say, Baldanders did appear to experience at least the beginning pangs of a change of heart towards the very end of the world. But he may have survived the final deluge, as he was already living under the ocean and breathing water before then.
Wolfe’s idea appears to be that science explains things in a valid way, certainly a useful way, but it explains holy things in a mundane and unholy way, thereby desecrating them, or at least depriving them of their sacredness. It’s like digitizing a painter’s masterwork, or reducing a moment of inspired rapture, or the expansive feeling of being deeply in love, with mere neurophysiology and hormonal secretions. It’s still valid in a sense, but truncated, spiritually beheaded, made shallower, by being reduced to mechanistic concepts. Science robs the human race of holiness, and although God or true superhuman divinity cannot be really killed, at least the human race is robbed of a conscious awareness of its presence. Baldanders willfully robbed himself of it.
For Gene Wolfe, an intelligent religious person, spirit ultimately wins over matter, and spirituality over materialism. The standard scientific temperament deprives the human mind and spirit of any awareness of anything above the human level, anything ultimately incomprehensible because so far above us in a psychic or spiritual sense. The message is rather like that in the movie The Matrix (the first one, considered independently of the money-maker sequels), in which love and faith ensure the superiority of mere humans over the most advanced technology combined with the most profound spiritual bankruptcy.
Even so, the author, who was an engineer in “real life” when he wasn’t writing fiction, acknowledged that science is valid in its own sphere, even though not capable of accounting for all the mysteries of this universe, or even all the mysteries of the human heart. Science is mundane and sometimes spiritually blinding, yet is still basically valid. He allows that the two individuals who come to the Autarch’s throne, within minutes of the final deluge arriving there also, the intellectual giant Baldanders and the more traditional female prophet inspired by faith and intuition, are both legitimate prophets, even though Baldanders bases his prophecies on scientific observation and calculations. And science is ultimately based on the same spiritual reality as any other system; in one scene of the story there is this exchange between Severian and a kind of hermit sage:
“At last I said, "I have always found that men of religion tell comforting things that are not true, while men of science recount hideous truths. The Chatelaine Mannea said you were a holy man, but you appear to be a man of science, and you said your people had sent you to our dead Urth to study the ice."
"The distinction you mention no longer holds. Religion and science have always been matters of faith in something. It is the same something. You are yourself what you call a man of science, so I talk of science to you. If Mannea were here with her priestesses, I would talk differently.”
In conclusion I would like to remark, yet again, that Gene Wolfe’s great epic, or saga, The Book of the New Sun, including its sequel/conclusion The Urth of the New Sun, is one of the greatest stories I’ve read that was written in the English language, due to the quality of the writing, its astonishing imagination, and its mind-bogglingly vast scope, philosophical and otherwise. If you haven’t read it I strenuously recommend it—although if you haven’t read it I don’t know why you’ve read this to the end.