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Loyal to the Group of Seventeen's Story - The Just Man

Short story on the limits of propaganda and "Newspeak" using a constructed language; from Chapter 11 of Gene Wolfe's _The Book of the New Sun_, volume 4, _The Citadel of the Autarch_. (fiction, philosophy, politics, Gene Wolfe, SF)
created: 20 Jan 2018; modified: 17 Aug 2018; status: finished; confidence: log; importance: 1

Short story extracted from Chapter 11 of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, volume 4, The Citadel of the Autarch, on the topic of the Ascian language.

Context

The in-universe context in The Citadel of the Autarch of the story of The Just Man is that the wandering protagonist Severian, recuperating in a military hospital camp during a war with the foreign invaders of Ascia, is made judge of a story-telling contest between several fellow soldiers & an Ascian prisoner-of-war:

…For perhaps a watch I lay on my cot with my hands behind my head, thinking of many things. Hallvard, Melito, and Foila were talking among themselves, but I did not attend to what they said. When one of the Pelerines brought the noon meal, Melito got my ear by rapping his platter with a fork and announced, Severian, we have a favor to ask of you.

I was eager to put my speculations behind me, and told him I would help them in any way I could.

Foila, who had one of those radiant smiles Nature grants to some women, smiled at me now. It’s like this. These two have been bickering over me all morning. If they were well they could fight it out, but it will be a long time before they are, and I don’t think I could stand it so long. Today I was thinking of my mother and father, and how they used to sit before the fire on long winter nights. If Hallvard and I marry, or Melito and I, someday we’ll be doing that too. So I have decided to marry the best storyteller. Don’t look at me as if I were mad - it’s the only sensible thing I’ve done in my life. Both of them want me, both are very handsome, neither has any property, and if we don’t settle this they’ll kill each other or I’ll kill them both. You’re an educated man - we can tell by the way you talk. You listen and judge. Hallvard first, and the stories have to be original, not out of books.

Hallvard, who could walk a little, got up from his cot and came to sit on the foot of Melito’s…

During the storytelling contest over several chapters of Citadel, Hallvard, Melito, Ascian, and Foila, will all tell a story (in the genres of realism, fable, The Just Man, and medieval romance respectively); the winner remains unknown as Severian leaves on an errand before judging and the hospital camp is destroyed by Ascian artillery during his absence.

Chapter XI. Loyal to the Group of Seventeen’s Story - The Just Man

–by Gene Wolfe

…The next morning, when we had eaten and everyone was awake, I ventured to ask Foila if it was now time for me to judge between Melito and Hallvard. She shook her head, but before she could speak, the Ascian announced, All must do their share in the service of the populace. The bullock draws the plow and the dog herds the sheep, but the cat catches mice in the granary. Thus men, women, and even children can serve the populace.

Foila flashed that dazzling smile. Our friend wants to tell a story too.

What! For a moment I thought Melito was actually going to sit up. Are you going to let him - let one of them - consider - She gestured, and he sputtered to silence. Why yes. Something tugged at the corners of her lips. Yes, I think I shall. I’ll have to interpret for the rest of you, of course. Will that be all right, Severian?

If you wish it, I said.

Hallvard rumbled, This was not in the original agreement. I recall each word.

So do I, Foila said. It isn’t against it either, and in fact it’s in accordance with the spirit of the agreement, which was that the rivals for my hand - neither very soft nor very fair now, I’m afraid, though it’s becoming more so since I’ve been confined in this place - would compete. The Ascian would be my suitor if he thought he could; haven’t you seen the way he looks at me?

The Ascian recited, United, men and women are stronger; but a brave woman desires children, and not husbands.

He means that he would like to marry me, but he doesn’t think his attentions would be acceptable. He’s wrong. Foila looked from Melito to Hallvard, and her smile had become a grin. Are you two really so frightened of him in a storytelling contest? You must have run like rabbits when you saw an Ascian on the battlefield. Neither of them answered, and after a time, the Ascian began to speak: In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.

Foila interpreted: Once upon a time …

Let no one be idle. If one is idle, let him band together with others who are idle too, and let them look for idle land. Let everyone they meet direct them. It is better to walk a thousand leagues than to sit in the House of Starvation.

There was a remote farm worked in partnership by people who were not related.

One is strong, another beautiful, a third a cunning artificer. Which is best? He who serves the populace.

On this farm lived a good man.

Let the work be divided by a wise divider of work. Let the food be divided by a just divider of food. Let the pigs grow fat. Let rats starve.

The others cheated him of his share.

The people meeting in counsel may judge, but no one is to receive more than a hundred blows.

He complained, and they beat him.

How are the hands nourished? By the blood. How does the blood reach the hands? By the veins. If the veins are closed, the hands will rot away.

He left that farm and took to the roads.

Where the Group of Seventeen sit, there final justice is done.

He went to the capital and complained of the way he had been treated.

Let there be clean water for those who toil. Let there be hot food for them and a clean bed.

He came back to the farm, tired and hungry after his journey.

No one is to receive more than a hundred blows.

They beat him again.

Behind everything some further thing is found, forever; thus the tree behind the bird, stone beneath soil, the sun behind Urth. Behind our efforts, let there be found our efforts.

The just man did not give up. He left the farm again to walk to the capital.

Can all petitioners be heard? No, for all cry together. Who, then, shall be heard - is it those who cry loudest? No, for all cry loudly. Those who cry longest shall be heard, and justice shall be done to them.

Arriving at the capital, he camped upon the very doorstep of the Group of Seventeen and begged all who passed to listen to him. After a long time he was admitted to the palace, where those in authority heard his complaints with sympathy.

So say the Group of Seventeen: From those who steal, take all they have, for nothing that they have is their own.

They told him to go back to the farm and tell the bad men - in their name - that they must leave.

As a good child to its mother, so is the citizen to the Group of Seventeen.

He did just as they had said.

What is foolish speech? It is wind. It has come in at the ears and goes out of the mouth. No one is to receive more than a hundred blows.

They mocked him and beat him.

Behind our efforts, let there be found our efforts.

The just man did not give up. He returned to the capital once more.

The citizen renders to the populace what is due to the populace. What is due to the populace? Everything.

He was very tired. His clothes were in rags and his shoes worn out. He had no food and nothing to trade.

It is better to be just than to be kind, but only good judges can be just; let those who cannot be just be kind.

In the capital he lived by begging.

At this point I could not help but interrupt. I told Foila that I thought it was wonderful that she understood so well what each of the stock phrases the Ascian used meant in the context of his story, but that I could not understand how she did it - how she knew, for example, that the phrase about kindness and justice meant that the hero had become a beggar.

Well, suppose that someone else - Melito, perhaps - were telling a story, and at some point in it he thrust out his hand and began to ask for alms. You’d know what that meant, wouldn’t you?

I agreed that I would.

It’s just the same here. Sometimes we find Ascian soldiers who are too hungry or too sick to keep up with the rest, and after they understand we aren’t going to kill them, that business about kindness and justice is what they say. In Ascian, of course. It’s what beggars say in Ascia.

Those who cry longest shall be heard, and justice shall be done to them.

This time he had to wait a long while before he was admitted to the palace, but at last they let him in and heard what he had to say.

Those who will not serve the populace shall serve the populace.

They said they would put the bad men in prison.

Let there be clean water for those who toil. Let there be hot food for them, and a clean bed.

He went back home.

No one is to receive more than a hundred blows.

He was beaten again.

Behind our efforts, let there be found our efforts.

But he did not give up. Once more he set off for the capital to complain.

Those who fight for the populace fight with a thousand hearts. Those who fight against them with none.

Now the bad men were afraid.

Let no one oppose the decisions of the Group of Seventeen.

They said to themselves, He has gone to the palace again and again, and each time he must have told the rulers there that we did not obey their earlier commands. Surely, this time they will send soldiers to kill us.

If their wounds are in their backs, who shall stanch their blood?

The bad men ran away.

Where are those who in times past have opposed the decisions of the Group of Seventeen?

They were never seen again.

Let there be clean water for those who toil. Let there be hot food for them, and a clean bed. Then they will sing at their work, and their work will be light to them. Then they will sing at the harvest, and the harvest will be heavy.

The just man returned home and lived happily ever after.

Everyone applauded this story, moved by the story itself, by the ingenuity of the Ascian prisoner, by the glimpse it had afforded us of life in Ascia, and most of all, I think, by the graciousness and wit Foila had brought to her translation.

I have no way of knowing whether you, who eventually will read this record, like stories or not. If you do not, no doubt you have turned these pages without attention. I confess that I love them. Indeed, it often seems to me that of all the good things in the world, the only ones humanity can claim for itself are stories and music; the rest, mercy, beauty, sleep, clean water and hot food (as the Ascian would have said) are all the work of the Increate. Thus, stories are small things indeed in the scheme of the universe, but it is hard not to love best what is our own - hard for me, at least.

From this story, though it was the shortest and the most simple too of all those I have recorded in this book, I feel that I learned several things of some importance. First of all, how much of our speech, which we think freshly minted in our own mouths, consists of set locutions. The Ascian seemed to speak only in sentences he had learned by rote, though until he used each for the first time we had never heard them. Foila seemed to speak as women commonly do, and if I had been asked whether she employed such tags, I would have said that she did not - but how often one might have predicted the ends of her sentences from their beginnings.

Second, I learned how difficult it is to eliminate the urge for expression. The people of Ascia were reduced to speaking only with their masters’ voice; but they had made of it a new tongue, and I had no doubt, after hearing the Ascian, that by it he could express whatever thought he wished.

And third, I learned once again what a many-sided thing is the telling of any tale. None, surely, could be plainer than the Ascian’s, yet what did it mean? Was it intended to praise the Group of Seventeen? The mere terror of their name had routed the evildoers. Was it intended to condemn them?

They had heard the complaints of the just man, and yet they had done nothing for him beyond giving him their verbal support. There had been no indication they would ever do more.

But I had not learned those things I had most wished to learn as I listened to the Ascian and to Foila. What had been her motive in agreeing to allow the Ascian to compete? Mere mischief? From her laughing eyes I could easily believe it. Was she perhaps in truth attracted to him? I found that more difficult to credit, but it was surely not impossible. Who has not seen women attracted to men lacking every attractive quality? She had clearly had much to do with Ascians, and he was clearly no ordinary soldier, since he had been taught our language. Did she hope to wring some secret from him?

And what of him? Melito and Hallvard had accused each other of telling tales with an ulterior purpose. Had he done so as well? If he had, it had surely been to tell Foila - and the rest of us too - that he would never give up.

Background

The story is often brought up in discussions of philosophy and linguistics as a counterpoint to Sapir-Whorf/Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, for (apparently?) demonstrating that even in the totalitarian Ascian regime which has banned any speech but that of quotations from political propaganda (a parody of Maoist China’s political rhetoric & Little Red Book, and to a lesser extent, classical Chinese education12), it remains possible for humans to communicate & think for themselves.

While the Ascians may reference Chinese politics and the conservative Gene Wolfe served in the Korean War, they are not actually intended to be Asian, as The Book of the New Sun is set in a far-future South America and the Ascians are Central/North American invaders; from an interview with Larry McCaffery (reprinted in Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing, Writers on Wolfe, pg95):

LM: What kind of research was involved in The Book of the New Sun?

GW: The main research was on Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire, which was a stagnant political entity that had outlived its time in much the same way that the Urth of the Commonwealth had. One of the things that bothered me about the reviews I got on The Book of the New Sun was how often they compared my world with that of Medieval Europe. Insofar as I was trying to create any kind of parallels with an actual historical period here on Earth - and obviously I wasn’t aiming at developing an exact analogy - I was thinking of Byzantium. Incidentally, I also got into trouble with some reviewers over my presentation of the Ascians, who were my equivalent of the Turks. If you read the book carefully, it’s clear that the action is taking place in South America and that the invading Ascians are actually North Americans. What I didn’t anticipate was that nine-tenths of my readers and reviewers would look at the word Ascian and say, Oh, these guys are Asians! This confusion got me accused of being an anti-Asian racist - which I’m not. Actually, the word ascian literally means people without shadows. It was a word used in the Classical world for people who lived near the equator, where the sun is dead overhead at noon and thus produces no shadow. I felt it would be an interesting touch to show that the ordinary man-in-the-street in the southern hemisphere wasn’t even conscious that their attackers are coming down from the northern hemisphere (they aren’t even aware that there is another hemisphere).

In the same interview Wolfe compares with 1984:

LM: You exhibit not only a near-encyclopedic knowledge of words and their origins but you obviously have a great feel for language and for inventing contexts in which different lingoes can be presented. And yet one theme which recurs in many of your works (and throughout The Book of the New Sun) is the limitations of words, the way language distorts perception and is used to manipulate others. Is this a paradox - or an occupational hazard?

GW: Any writer who tries to press against the limits of prose, who’s trying to write something genuinely different from what’s come before, is constantly aware of these paradoxes about language’s power and its limitations. Because language is your medium, you become aware of the extent to which language controls and directs our thinking, the extent that we’re manipulated by words - and yet the extent to which words necessarily limit our attention and hence misrepresent the world around us. Orwell dealt with all this in Nineteen Eighty-four much better than I’ve been able to when he said, in effect: Let me control the language and I will control peoples’ thoughts. Back in the 1930s the Japanese used to have actual Thought Police, who would come around and say to people, What do you think about our expedition to China? or something like that. And if they didn’t like what you replied, they’d put you under arrest. What Orwell was driving at, though, goes beyond that kind of obvious control mechanism; he was implying that if he could control the language, then he could make it so that you couldn’t even think about anything he didn’t want you to think about. My view is that this isn’t wholly true. One of the dumber things you see in the comic books occasionally is where, say, Spider-Man falls off a building, looks down and sees a flag pole, and thinks to himself, If I can just grab that flagpole, I’ll be okay. Now nobody in those circumstances would actually be doing that - if you’re falling off a building, you don’t put that kind of thought into words, even though you’re somehow consciously aware of needing to grab that flagpole. You are thinking below the threshold of language, which suggests there is a pre-verbal, sub-level of thinking taking place without words. Orwell didn’t deal with this sub-level of thinking, but the accuracy of his insights about the way authorities can manipulate people through words is evident in the world around us.

Ascian quotations

Lexicon Urthus: Second Edition, by Michael Andre-Driussi, catalogues & categorizes Ascian sayings from The Book of the New Sun (and appears to include all Ascian from the story); from pg72:

Authorized Texts: the Ascian ideology is Correct Thought which is based on Authorized Texts. Ascian language is made up of tag lines from Authorized Text. Following is a collection of Ascian utterances, arranged into broad categories.

  • BRAVERY

    • If their wounds are in their backs, who shall stanch their blood? (IV, chap. 11, 88).
    • United, men and women are stronger; but a brave woman desires children, and not husbands (IV, chap. 5, 40; IV, chap. 11, 85).
  • CAUSALITY/DETERMINATION

    • Behind everything some further thing is found, forever; thus the tree behind the bird, stone beneath soil, the sun behind Urth. Behind our efforts, let there be found our efforts (IV, chap. 11, 86).
    • For the Armies of the Populace, defeat is the springboard of victory, and victory the ladder to further victory (IV, chap. 5, 39).
    • No failure is permanent failure. But inevitable success may require new plans and greater strength (IV, chap. 20, 161). Meaning: We might try something different.
  • CHARITY

    • It is better to be just than to be kind, but only good judges can be just; let those who cannot be just be kind (IV, chap. 11, 87). This phrase is used by Ascian beggars.
  • CITIZENSHIP

    • One is strong, another beautiful, a third a cunning artificer. Which is best? He who serves the populace (IV, chap. 11, 85).
    • As a good child to its mother, so is the citizen to the Group of Seventeen (IV, chap. 11, 86).
    • The citizen renders to the populace what is due to the populace. What is due to the populace? Everything (IV, chap. 11, 87).
  • CORRECT THOUGHT

    • The light of Correct Thought penetrates every darkness (IV, chap. 20, 161).
    • Correct Thought is the thought of the populace. The populace cannot betray the populace or the Group of Seventeen (IV, chap. 5, 42).
    • All endeavors are conducted well or ill precisely in so far as they conform to Correct Thought (IV, chap. 5, 39).
    • External battles are already won when internal struggles are conducted with Correct Thought (IV, chap. 5, 39).
  • EDUCATION

    • All who speak Correct Thought speak well. Where then is the superiority of some students to others? It is in the speaking. Intelligent students speak Correct Thought intelligently. The hearer knows by the intonation of their voices that they understand. By this superior speaking of intelligent students, Correct Thought is passed, like fire, from one to another (IV, chap. 9, 73).
    • Study of Correct Thought eventually reveals the path of success (IV, chap. 20, 161). Meaning: We approve of your plan.
  • ENEMIES

    • Those who do the will of the populace are friends, though we have never spoken to them. Those who do not do the will of the populace are enemies, though we learned together as children (IV, chap. 5, 39).
    • Those who fight for the populace fight with a thousand hearts. Those who fight against them with none (IV, chap. 11, 88).
  • INTERROGATION

    • Only he who acts against the populace need hide his face (iv, chap. 29, 232). Meaning: Tell us who you are, stranger.
    • Who is the friend of the populace? He who aids the populace. Who is the enemy of the populace? (IV, chap. 29, 233). Meaning: Are you friend or foe?
  • JUSTICE

    • Where the Group of Seventeen sit, there final justice is done (IV, chap. 11, 86).
    • Can all petitioners be heard? No, for all cry together. Who, then, shall be heard - is it those who cry loudest? No, for all cry loudly. Those who cry longest shall be heard, and justice shall be done to them (IV, chap. 11, 86).
    • Let no one oppose the decisions of the Group of Seventeen (IV, chap. 11, 88).
  • LOYALTY

    • In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone (IV, chap. 11, 85).
    • I am Loyal to the Group of Seventeen (IV, chap. 6, 46).
  • MEN AND WOMEN

    • United, men and women are stronger; but a brave woman desires children, and not husbands (IV, chap. 5, 40; IV, chap. 11, 85).
    • The roots of the tree are the populace. The leaves fall, but the tree remains (IV, chap. 5, 40).
  • PRISON

    • Those who will not serve the populace shall serve the populace (IV, chap. 11, 88).
  • PRUDENCE

    • The servants of the Group of Seventeen must not be expended without purpose (IV, chap. 20, 160).
  • PUNISHMENT

    • The people meeting in counsel may judge, but no one is to receive more than a hundred blows (IV, chap. 11, 85).
    • So say the Group of Seventeen: From those who steal, take all they have, for nothing they have is their own (IV, chap. 11, 69).
    • Those who will not serve the populace shall serve the populace (IV, chap. 11, 88).
    • If their wounds are in their backs, who shall stanch their blood? (IV, chap. 11, 88).
    • Where are those who in times past have opposed the decisions of the Group of Seventeen? (IV, chap. 11, 88).
  • ROADS

    • How are the hands nourished? By the blood. How does the blood reach the hands? By the veins. If the veins are closed, the hands will rot away (IV, chap. 11, 85-86).
  • SACRIFICE

    • The merit of sacrifice falls on him who without thought of his own convenience offers what he has toward the service of the populace (IV, chap. 29, 233). Meaning: You will give us everything for nothing in return.
  • SALUTATION

    • Glory to the Group of Seventeen (IV, chap. 5, 38).
    • All persons belong to the populace (IV, chap. 20, 233). Meaning: Over and out (a radio signing off phrase).
  • SENSE AND NONSENSE

    • What is foolish speech? It is wind. It has come in at the ears and goes out of the mouth (IV, chap. 11, 87).
    • The cries of the children are the cries of victory. Still, victory must learn wisdom (IV, chap. 5, 41).
  • THE STATE

    • How shall the state be most vigorous? It shall be most vigorous when it is without conflict. How shall it be without conflict? When it is without disagreement. How shall disagreement be banished? By banishing the four causes of disagreement: lies, foolish talk, boastful talk, and talk which serves only to incite quarrels. How shall the four causes be banished? By speaking only Correct Thought. Then shall the state be without disagreement. Being without disagreement it shall be without conflict. Being without conflict it shall be vigorous, strong, and secure (IV, chap. 5, 43-44).
  • WORK

    • All must do their share in the service of the populace. The bullock draws the plow and the dog herds the sheep, but the cat catches mice in the granary. Thus men, women, and even children can serve the populace (IV, chap. 11, 84).
    • Let no one be idle. If one is idle, let him band together with others who are idle too, and let them look for idle land. Let everyone they meet direct them. It is better to walk a thousand leagues than to sit in the House of Starvation (IV, chap. 11, 85).
    • Let the work be divided by a wise divider of work. Let the food be divided by a just divider of food. Let the pigs grow fat. Let rats starve (IV, chap. 11, 85).
    • Let there be clean water for those who toil. Let there be hot food for them and a clean bed. Then they will sing at their work, and their work will be light to them. Then they will sing at the harvest, and the harvest will be heavy (IV, chap. 11, 86; twice on page 88).

See also


  1. Given Wolfe’s overall attempt to model after the Byzantine Empire, sometimes the Chinese allusions are denied & considered over-reading. But the use of Byzantium vs Turks doesn’t forbid including elements from elsewhere or elsewhen, and there are many elements of Ascia which are distinctly Chinese Communism rather than Byzantium or the USSR etc.

    The style of the story is focused on an agriculture society on what appear to be collectivized farms (China’s usual mindset, and especially that of Mao who swam in the sea of peasants), the Group of Seventeen is appealed to like the peasants appealed to distant mandarins and Party officials for justice even into the modern day, the Group of Seventeen is named like various Chinese political entities such as the Gang of Four, and the use of numeric epithets is characteristically Chinese. Not to mention the central term Correct Thought is indelibly associated with Maoism.

  2. Nicholas Gevers notes another possible reference to the Dutch East India Company, which had a board of directors numbering 17, the Heren XVII, sometimes referred to as the Lords Seventeen, Seventeen Gentlemen, The Seventeen, or the Group of Seventeen.