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From: "Robert Borski" 
Subject: (urth) Black Easter
Date: Tue, 7 May 2002 23:41:04 -0500

Last of my posts on Wolfe's superlative "Seven American Nights."

Both Joan Gordon and Kathryn Locey, in their analyses of "Seven American
Nights," are able to find elements of hope and resurrection in the story,
but I think this is a total misread. More to the point, although it takes
place in the week preceding Easter, I believe "Seven American Nights" is
about as far from a prelude to the spiritual or physical revitalization of
America as it is possible to get, being rather a symbolic descent into Hell
(a trope that is inordinately common in Wolfe's work, both long and short),
if not the Anti-Parousia itself.

Let us begin with what is always a good place to start when attempting to
render sense of Wolfe: onomastics.

While seeming a plausible Arab name, "Nadan," in fact, is something you
would be ill-mannered in calling anyone. In Farsi it means "stupid, idiot;"
therefore, by extension, the same thing that 'cretin' does. (I speak here,
of course, less of the medical condition than its use as a pejorative,
though both are related.) "Cretin" itself is an interesting word, deriving
from the Franco-Provenšal, "creitin, crestin: human being, lit. Christian,
hence one who is human despite deformities." And throughout "Seven American
Nights" we see a veritable horde of deformed creitins. But given that
another prominent character is named Kreton--in actuality, he's the actor
Bobby O' Keene, who plays Gore Vidal's "morally retarded" alien in the stage
production of "Visit to a Small Planet"; Nadan, however, is unable to think
of him as anything but Kreton)--it's almost certain we're meant to see him
as Nadan's alter ego. Kreton, like so many lupine characters, limps, the
result of a recent stage injury; plus in the theater company's next
production he will play Mephistopheles, so it's very difficult not to see
him as a devil figure. (A limp is frequently associated with the devil.)

Then there's the hallucinogen that Nadan doses his candy eggs with. Though
it's never actually named, it is almost certainly LSD--a synthetic
derivative of the psychoactive chemical found in ergot, a fungus of rye and
other cereal grains. This plays off the potent grain imagery found
throughout "Seven American Nights." There's Golan Gassem, the grain merchant
who may be a known dealer in stolen artifacts (and hence this is why Nadan
must avoid him--out of fear he too may be thought a dealer. It's also
possible there's class rivalry here. Gassem is a merchant, while Nadan may
be a member of royalty--Mirza, the name of Nadan's uncle, means "prince");
Nadan's dream of "bread that retained the fragrance of the oven...though it
was smeared with gray mold"; and the wheat penny, which is now a necklace
gewgaw. Writes Locey about the bread loaf, and with which I wholeheartedly
agree, "This contaminated bread, symbolic of an America which has prized
effect over substance, is the antithesis of communion bread, in which
Catholics 'see' the presence of Christ." The LSD thus becomes a substitute
host, a black Eucharist taken by devilish Nadan.

Further evidence that the devil is about to rise transcendent over Christ
can be found in the scene where Nadan witnesses a Good Friday procession
involving the Stations of the Cross. (Gordon posits this is actually Easter
Day, but Locey gets the chronology right). Yet its followers are
"inattentive" and "bickering," and watch the ceremony "as uncomprehendingly
as they might if they themselves were only travelers abroad." Hardly the
attitude you would expect from Catholics on this most solemn day of the
Christian calendar, and once more indicative of America's fall from grace.

Nor do I buy Gordon's argument that the rebirth of the theater signifies an
incipient renaissance. Both plays being produced are neither of a religious
or patriotic nature. "Visit to a Smart Planet" features an extraterrestrial
"cretin," while the title character in "Mary Rose" disappears for 25 years,
but when she reappears has not aged--associating her with the
preservative-laden bread that still smells fresh, but is moldy.

So, to recapitulate: Nadan, having taken the black host on Good Friday, the
day of Christ's death, sees both fallen angel (peri Ardis) and demon
(werwolf Ardis) even as Mephistophelean Kreton, in his twisted black shoes,
causes an earthquake, and thunder sounds.

The Devil has risen.

Robert Borski


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