book reviews by Althea

* Limbo – Bernard Wolfe

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Limbo by Bernard Wolfe

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This month’s post-apocalyptic book club selection.

What a morass of sludge!!!

Wolfe wrote this book after undergoing psychoanalysis with Dr. Edmund Bergler, a follower of Freud. Full and immediate disclosure: I do not have a high opinion of the theories of Freud, and Bergler’s theories, as interpreted in this book, seem like they might be even further off-the-mark concerning sexuality.

When undergoing Freudian analysis, the subject is encouraged to focus in on himself at length to try to obtain better self-understanding, in what might seem to an outside observer to be a rather navel-gazing, self-absorbed endeavor. This book reads like Wolfe’s attempt to make sense of himself and the philosophies he absorbed (and wholeheartedly embraced) from Bergler. I interpreted the main character, a Dr. Martine, to be a stand-in for the author. I felt that first, Worlfe set up a straw-man philosophy (definitely an absurd and wrong-headed one), and then set about tediously and lengthily demolishing it with another flavor of wrong-headedness.

As the book begins, we meet Dr. Martine, who has been living for years, Gauguin-style, on a remote island populated by an isolated tribe. His ethical dilemma: when he met the tribe, they were giving each other primitive lobotomies in an attempt to remove aggression and negative behavior. In an attempt to mitigate harm, Martine started doing the lobotomies for them, using modern medical techniques, hoping to reduce death by infection. But he is still causing harm. He has noted, through exhaustive research, that the urge to aggression is linked to the urges to creativity and sexuality. Is his course of action justifiable?

This was the most interesting part of the book to me. It was written at the peak of medicine’s craze for the lobotomy (the most unfortunate victims were operated on in 1950) and there was beginning to be a backlash against the practice, as it became clear that the subjects of the operation were not being helped.

But the focus of the story shifts a bit when foreigners arrive on the island. These strangers utilize amazingly advanced prosthetic limbs. They spark Martine’s curiosity as to what’s going on in the “civilised” world he left – a world ravaged by a terrible war between East and West dictated by rival super-computers. He goes back to find out. As it turns out, “civilization” has been aiming for the same goal as the island tribe – the elimination of aggression and war. Martine is horrified and dismayed to discover that a new philosophy has sprung up based on, of all things, a notebook journal left behind by him when he fled the war. In a terrible pun on “disarmament,” society has decided that the best thing to do is for men to literally cut off their limbs, the instruments of aggression. Of course, the fad doesn’t work – as all human research efforts are shifted toward developing prosthetics, sparking an “arms race” between the US and Russian to create ever-more powerful limbs, and a social divide between men who use artificial limbs, and those who believe that the right thing to do is to be a quadriplegic in a basket, cared for by women. (Women aren’t allowed to opt for the amputations.)

There are some undeniably original, interesting and disturbing ideas in this book. It’s bizarre, and historically interesting. (Especially for the perspective it gives on post-WWII & pre-Cold War attitudes toward US relations with Russia). But all of that gets lost in the welter of peculiar theorizing.

This would’ve been a much better book if it were: #1. much shorter (there was an abridged version published, but that is not the one I read.) #2. Left out the Freudian stuff, especially the wacko theorizing about female sexuality (well, and male sexuality too). #2a. Definitely left out the rapey stuff, especially the bit about women enjoying rape, and. #3. If it went further with its tendency toward the absurd and the grotesque, puns and all, and just went for the gonzo, rather than trying to be a Serious Philosophical Work (as it is, it just feels overserious and self-important).
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