#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July 1997
Deconstructing the Body Politic in Bernard
In 1952 there occurred in America the publication of one of the most unusual
and original novels of the early postwar period. Bernard Wolfe's Limbo
was the first novel of a Yale psychology graduate who had served for a time on
Trotsky's staff in Mexico and then held a series of posts as editor or
correspondent for a number of periodicals. Limbo has been routinely
mentioned in histories of dystopias and more recently within the context of
cybernetic fiction (Warrick 146-50; Gary K. Wolfe 211-24). True, a few lone
voices have spoken up on behalf of Wolfe. J.G. Ballard for one has recorded his
great respect for the author's "lucid intelligence," which so impressed him that
he began to write fiction himself (Ballard 1984, 119).1 And Carolyn
Geduld has written a volume on Wolfe for the Twayne US Authors series which does
an outstanding job of explaining his interest in Freudian psychology (Geduld
1972). Of recent years there have been some signs of a rise of interest in Wolfe
who is now being read as a precursor of cyberpunk, but to date there has been no
sustained attempt to explain the political dimension to the novel with the
ending of the Cold War it is easy to forget the period of unparalleled world
crisis out of which the novel grew. The Korean War was at its peak; the nuclear
arms race was accelerating; and the novel was published in the same year that
the USA detonated its first H-bomb in Eniwetok Atoll.
Not surprisingly, Wolfe took the arms race and human aggression in general as
his subject, but he chose an unusual and unfashionable method in his approach.
The dustwrapper to the U.S. first edition promised the reader that Limbo
was a "novel of action, suspense, adventure, science-fiction and sex." For once
this description did not overstate the case since the novel constantly
disconcerts the reader by moving from genre to genre. In fact it belongs within
the mode of encyclopedic narratives identified by Edward Mendelson and
exemplified in works such as Moby Dick and Ulysses. For Mendelson
this genre is itself multigeneric and inclusive: "encyclopedic narrative
identifies itself not by a single plot or structure, but by encompassing a broad
range of qualities" (Mendelson 1270). Limbo does exactly this. It
includes within itself among other genres the novel of espionage, journal,
dystopia and narrative of scientific experiment. It covers an extraordinary
range of texts from ribald jokes up to summaries of brainmapping and the origins
of game theory. In his notes at the end of the novel Wolfe describes his work
modestly as a "grab bag of ideas," but this totally understates the subtlety and
complexity with which he has given these ideas novelistic expression. For sheer
intellectual reach Limbo could be compared to William Gaddis's The
Recognitions or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and it is consistent
with its syncretic method that Wolfe should draw on such cultural commentators
as Arthur Koestler, Norbert Wiener, and probably Lewis Mumford.2
Limbo marshals its materials around a probing and bizarre analysis of Cold
War aggression, and it constantly foregrounds the human body as the site of this
1. Limbo is set in the year 1990 in the aftermath of the Third
World War which broke out in 1972. The enormous devastation which that war
brought has reduced the habitable land area of East and West. The USA has become
the Inland Strip since all seaboards have been laid waste and a confederation
loosely analogous to the Soviet Union, called the Eastern Union, has emerged.
The novel's protagonist is one Dr Martine, a medical officer who fled during the
war to an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean, where he has been performing
experimental lobotomies on aggressive locals. When a group of Americans with
prosthetic limbs visits the island, Martine decides to return to America, where
he finds to his amazement that facetious remarks he made in a wartime journal
have been taken seriously and developed, in the wake of the war, into an
international movement ("Immob," i.e. Immobilization) dedicated to the
eradication of human aggression by voluntary amputations ("vol-amp") and their
replacement by prosthesis. The novel traces out Martine's gradual discovery of
this movement and reaches its climax at the prosthetic Olympic Games when the
Eastern Union team guns down the judges and war breaks out again, this time on a
smaller containable scale. This war comes to an end with the death of the
Western premier and overthrow of the Eastern Union regime by its citizens, and
the novel concludes with Martine returning to his island.
Wolfe presents the Cold War implicitly as the particular historical
inflection of a general human predisposition towards aggression. The novel
follows a trajectory backwards as Martine returns to his home nation and to his
birthplace. Investigation of his own personal past is constantly linked to his
investigation into developments which have taken place in America since the
Third World War. As we shall see, the individual psychological dimensions to the
action can never be separated from the social and political.
Limbo, like Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952), identifies its
action as taking place in the years following World War III and both novels
emphasize the central role of computers in planning and conducting the war.
Vonnegut's EPICAC takes over these human functions as if it were itself human: "EPICAC
I had been intelligent enough, dispassionate enough, retentive enough to
convince men that he, rather than they, had better do the planning for the war
that was approaching with stupefying certainty" (§11:105). Wolfe similarly
foregrounds the computers of East and West which this time actually conduct the
war, but he also contextualizes the war as a culmination of a historical process
outlined in James Burnham's Managerial Revolution (1941), whereby smaller
nations give way to massive bureaucratic power blocs whose sheer size outstrips
the language of each culture. The latter degenerates as a result into a
"constant gush of slogans and catchwords."3 The war occurs absurdly
because their languages are deemed to be incompatible:
In 1970 Russia and America simultaneously came to a hallucinated
decision: they, and not merely their vocabularies, were such diametric
opposites that they could not exist side by side on the same planet. So the
Third, the global EMSIAC war, broke out. And this was the most grotesque
irony in human history, for the EMSIAC war proved only one thing: that the
cybernetic-managerial revolution had been carried to its logical end and now
Russia and America were absolutely and irrevocably alike. In fact, it was
precisely in preparation for the global showdown of the EMSIAC war a war
predicated on the assumption that the two had nothing in common that they
had come to be mirror images of each other. For each was now the monster
that Wiener had warned was coming: the totally bureaucratized war machine in
which man was turned into a lackey by his own machines. And each was
presided over by the super-bureaucrat of them all, the perfect electronic
brain sired by the imperfect human brain. §11:135-36.4
Behind the polarities of Cold War discourse Wolfe locates a crowning irony:
the homology between the two superstates. The World War therefore also occurs at
a particular phase in the process of mechanization where the national computers
(given identical names) displace the human brain and attempt to fulfill their
own agendas of rationalized expansion. Limbo clearly joins those
dystopias which show humanity to be the prisoner of its own technology. Where
Vonnegut's computer survives into the postwar period and extends its "nervous
system" into a series of ever larger models, in Wolfe's narrative the war comes
to an end because each side bombs its respective computer. Both novelists were
capitalizing on contemporary cultural commentary which diagnosed a mechanization
of the present. Lewis Mumford, for instance, an ardent supporter of disarmament,
described the Atomic Age as being "machine dominated" (Mumford 1946, 4) and in
his plea for humanistic renewal, The Conduct of Life (1951), wishfully
pushed this "domination of the machine" into the past: "Whereas the mark of the
machine age was the dehumanization of man, the new age will give primacy to the
person" (Mumford 1952, 223). Wolfe anticipates such later novels as Mordecai
Roshwald's Level 7 (1959) where a nuclear war breaks out because of
errors in the defence computers and D.F. Jones's Colossus (1966) where a
supercomputer takes over American foreign policy and then links up with its
Russian equivalent, totally excluding humans from the exercise of political
power. The destruction of the two computers in Limbo appears to signal
that humans have regained control over their own actions, but that turns out not
to be the case as is proved by the Immob movement.
The latter can be seen as an elaboration of an idea Wolfe sketched out in
preliminary narrative called "Self Portrait," published in Galaxy Science
Fiction, November 1951. This work consists of a journal set in 1959, kept by
a scientist named Parks, who secures a post at the Institute for Advanced
Cybernetics Studies. His immediate project is to design efficient prosthetic
legs for a Korean war casualty, which he finally manages by dividing up the
laboratory work on a more efficient basis. Parks is an utterly humourless
researcher and therefore in no way a prototype for Dr Martine. The only ironic
or facetious voices in his journal belong to others and they make two
suggestions which ridicule Cold War confrontations. The first is the proposal
that each country's computer should calculate when hostilities could begin. On
that day the following ceremony would take place:
In each capital the citizens gather around their strategy machine, the
officials turn out in high hats and cut-aways, there are speeches, pageants,
choral singing, mass dancing—the ritual can be worked out in advance. Then,
at an agreed time, the crowds retreat to a safe distance and a committee of
the top cyberneticists appears. They climb into planes, take off and—this is
beautiful—drop all their atom bombs and H-bombs on the machines (Wolfe 1951,
This would happen simultaneously in each capital. The event would be
commemorated as International Mushroom Day, and after it the scientists would go
back to their laboratories to devise new series of superweapons which would
result in future Mushroom Days. This description partly echoes James Agee's
satirical sketch "Dedication Day" (1946), which describes the unveiling in
Washington of an arch of fused uranium to signal the importance of the discovery
of atomic fission. What gives the event an ominous dimension is the smouldering
beneath the monument of the Eternal Fuse, as if the whole ceremony was being
performed over a bomb. Both this satire and the situation imagined in the quoted
passage look forward to the Olympic Games Peace Day in Limbo held,
ironically, at Los Alamos.
The second proposal in "Self Portrait" makes a facetious application of game
theory to the Cold War, once again involving computers. Now casualties for each
side would be calculated in advance and then volunteers would be called for to
undergo amputations in return for compensation. That way the conduct of a war
would be simulated without using any actual arms. The voluntary amputation
programme in Limbo is essentially an elaboration on this basic idea, but
one far richer in its self-contradictory symbolism. We could best think of it as
a movement aimed at controlling aggression since "cybernetics" literally denotes
the science of guidance or control. Both Player Piano and Limbo
estrange the reader from the historical moment of their publication by shifting
the notion of postwar one phase forward into the future. "Vol-amp" attempts to
regain control of the impulse which produces war and is articulated as reason
attempting to reimpose itself on human conduct. In his examination of the
psychological impact on America of the atomic bomb, Paul Boyer suggests it
induced fear of "death of a new kind, death without warning, death en masse."
This fear was particularly unsettling, he continues, because it introduced the
irrational into human destiny and also challenged American confidence in
progress, producing the "sense that the meaning of one's existence— at least in
social and historical terms—was being radically threatened" (Boyer 278). This
impotence was expressed by Lewis Mumford as an atrophy of humanity into
mechanical figures. For him humanity had become a "race of moral robots"
(Mumford 1946, 27); and he insisted: "the main task of our time is to turn man
himself, now a helpless mechanical puppet, into a wakeful and willing creator"
(Mumford 1952, 5).
Wolfe conflates such analogies with the concept of prosthesis. He probably
took the following passage from Civilization and Its Discontents as his
starting point. Reflecting on how the gods embody an "ideal conception of
omnipotence and omniscience," Freud concludes: "Man has, as it were, become a
kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly
magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him
much trouble at times." (Freud 28-29). The "queer-limbs" in Wolfe's novel act
out this dream of power by performing astonishing gymnastic feats which seem to
free the body from gravity. Prosthetics appear to liberate humanity from a
limitation identified by a speaker at the Immob academy: "the tragedy of the
human condition is precisely the entrapment by the vile engine of bone and
muscle" (§14:165). Paradoxically the amputation movement presents itself as a
flight from the "engine" of the body precisely by applying a mechanistic
conception of the body as consisting of replaceable parts.
In 1930 Freud saw an approximate realisation of qualities which had
traditionally been viewed up to that point as unattainable. By 1948 Norbert
Wiener in his study Cybernetics (an acknowledged source for Wolfe), saw
that the science of prosthetics was developing rapidly and immediately linked
these changes to the dystopian tradition: "it makes the metaphorical dominance
of the machines, as imagined by Samuel Butler, a most immediate and
non-metaphorical problem. It gives the human race a new and most effective
collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor" (Wiener 1962, 27). At the
beginning of the next decade Wiener's evident realisation that the
military-industrial complex was appropriating such sciences sharpened his
anxieties about the immediate political future of the USA which he saw as
sinking into a sinister machine age dominated by a "threatening new Fascism
dependent on the machine à gouverner" (Wiener 1950, 214).
Wiener's stance as the spokesman for an embattled humanism sits rather
uneasily with his application of servomechanisms, and Paul Galison has argued
that "Wiener's efforts were devoted to effacing the distinction between human
and machine" (Galison 245-6). For him Wiener totalized the feedback mechanism
into a whole principle of human behaviour. Purporting to protest against the
machine, he actually covertly assimilates the machine into his view of humanity.
One of Wiener's two published short stories, "The Brain" (1952), coincides
uncannily with the date and central subject of Limbo in discussing a
contemporary fad for curing depressive insanity. The narrator unconsciously
testifies to Wiener's internalization of technological brain models when he
reflects: "No, I shouldn't like to have anyone tamper with my inner wiring
diagrams" (Wiener 1962, 299). Although Limbo confines its examples of
prosthetics to arms and legs there is no intrinsic reason why these
substitutions should not extend to other parts of the body, even to the brain
itself. Raymond F. Jones's novel The Cybernetic Brains (published in
magazine form 1950 and book-form in 1962) borrows some of Wiener's ideas and
describes a future regime where the Cybernetics Institute has a worldwide remit
to use the brains of those who are dead in body. One such brain regains
consciousness and forms a telepathic link with the others to reveal the extent
of their exploitation by the Institute. Jones constructs a parable of power
reflecting his own hostility to the welfare state, where the promise of
cybernetics is betrayed into a kind of centralized nannyism within which
citizens are infantalized into a dependence on the state.5
Wolfe's incorporation of cybernetics into Limbo, then, was clearly
picking up on contemporary anxieties over the apparently unbridled growth of
technologies which risked displacing human figures from fields of action and
even from the decision-making process. One of the figures he refers to
positively as introducing a new way of thinking about this issue was Alfred
Korzybski, the founder of the General Semantics movement. And in turn Wolfe
cites A.E. van Vogt's novel The World of Ā (1948) as a pioneering attempt
to give narrative form to Korzybski's ideas. There are indeed some similarities
between this novel and Limbo. Van Vogt's protagonist Gilbert Gosseyn
(i.e. `go-sane') experiences a series of crises of identity, figured as deaths,
and so emerges in phases as Gosseyn I, II, III, and so on. He finds himself
embroiled in a conspiracy by the galactic empire to take over the Earth. And the
action of the novel is presided over by a massive column-like Games Machine, a
self-renewing electro-magnetic brain which is responsible for allocating jobs.
The action therefore focuses as a struggle against this symbol of power which is
destroyed towards the end of the novel. Even prosthetics make their appearance
in the person of "X," referred to as if under erasure: "He had been in an
accident. He was a patched monstrosity. He had a plastic arm and a plastic leg,
and his back was in a plastic cage. His head looked as if it were made of opaque
glass; it was earless...his resemblance to anything normal depended partly upon
the mental concessions of the observer" (Van Vogt §4:35). "X" is the most overt
war-monger of the novel, boasting: "We're geared for action on a scale not seen
since the third world war" (Van Vogt §14:108). Wolfe's density of historical
reference is completely missing in van Vogt's novel, which constantly presents
external events as part of the protagonist's monodrama, but the association
between prosthetic limbs and weaponry is nevertheless made clear.6
The Immob movement in Wolfe's novel can be seen as an absurdist extrapolation
of fears of uncontrolled technological development and perceptions of a
dissociation of the populace from political processes. The scheme itself is
subjected to ironic scrutiny by Martine, its unwitting inventor, who serves to
reveal its resemblances with earlier movements as well as its paradoxical
nature. The latter becomes more and more obvious as the novel progresses since
artificial limbs prove to be more efficient "arms" than their originals and the
movement professes a question contradicted by its own moral fervour. When
Martine hears a public speaker whipping up enthusiasm for amputations he sounds
like a cross between a salesman and a politician. The meeting which follows
contains two analogies, one American and the other Russian: it seems to be a
gathering of a religious cult on the one hand, and also the recruits "were about
to sign their own Moscow confessions and death warrants" (§14: 182). The
conflation of resemblances from both cultural poles of the Cold War takes an
added twist from the fact that a kind of conscription is taking place. Most
absurd of all is that society's self-mystifying abuse of language. The public
speaker impatiently brushes aside verbal difference as hair-splitting: "Pros are
such good Immobs that we refuse to make a fetish of any word at all" (§13:154).
Words, we saw, were largely responsible for World War III in Wolfe's future
history because cultural discourse had lagged behind technological and political
change. Now once again words become separated from actuality, and nowhere is
this more obvious than in the campaign slogans which vary from unrecognised puns
("WAR IS ON ITS LAST LEGS") to miniature revisionist texts like "ARMS OR THE
MAN" (§10:115). The new conjunction attempts to separate humanity from its own
extensions by altering the phrase from the opening of the Aeneid ("Arms
and the man I sing") which was further popularized by Bernard Shaw's 1894
anti-militaristic play about the Balkan Wars. Needless to say, the possibility
of epic combat is totally excluded from this narrative.
The novel situates itself within the dystopian tradition by combining
allusions to Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell. Wolfe reverses the usual utopian
pattern by having a member of the old world return to it as stranger from a
remote and uncharted island in the Indian Ocean. Martine, for Carolyn Geduld
primarily a "talkative spectator," returns to his world as a stranger to find an
apparent new world order (Geduld, 45). Immob society has established itself on a
basis of universal pacifism, but Wolfe exploits the traditional dystopian
ironies of the result not matching the intent and of the new system bearing many
similarities to the old regime supposedly superseded. The Inland Strip contains
a society with a very marked hierarchy, where prosthetic limbs are the most
conspicuous signs of status. It is riddled with party oppositions and has merely
internalized the language of political supremacy into attempts to "master" or
"control" the body through rigorous exercises. The outward and visible sign of
the new order is a Wellsian city named New Jamestown after William James, author
of the 1910 essay "The Moral Equivalent of War," in which he proposes diverting
military energies on to Nature.7 New Jamestown is a concentric
symmetrical paradise of cybernetic order (it is a machine à vivre) which
Wolfe, through Martine's eyes, represents in bodily terms: "it was all too
hygienic and prissy, a bit too meticulously scrubbed behind the ears, too
well-groomed, too goddamned aseptic" (§8:91). If this city represents the
apotheosis of a Puritanical resistance to disorder, the enormous industrial
complex beneath the capital Los Alamos represents the triumph of the Taylorian
industrial system. Wolfe, like Vonnegut in Player Piano and Frederik Pohl
in his stories of the 1950s, depicts a factory system whose sheer scale dwarfs
human figures—"whole cities run together and put under the surveillance of the
machina ratiocinatrix" (§22:334). The complex is implicitly linked to
military production and—again ironically—preserves a caste system in its reduced
workforce which consists mainly of negroes. There is a certain poetic
justice—albeit rather too easily achieved—in the disappearance of this city
towards the end of the novel in a cataclysm. Nature, it seems, gets its own
The main implication of these ironies and of the novel's black humour is that
humanity is denying its own nature in such schemes as the Immob movement. This
was recognized early by one of Wolfe's few commentators. Chad Walsh declares
that Limbo demonstrates the following moral: "Man is not dangerous
because he has teeth that can bite and hands that can hold a rifle or press a
guided-missile button. He is dangerous because of his mind and spirit" (Walsh
150). Carolyn Geduld puts more or less the same point more specifically: "modern
man is vetoing ambivalence in favor of consistency. In trying to force a
two-sided world into a one-sided pigeonhole, he is being more than just
damaging; he is being suicidal, for the ultimate consistency, in theory, is the
frozenness of death" (Geduld 47-48). This ultimate end-point is hinted at in the
self-contradiction of Immob, i.e. immobilization, being a movement, and in the
introjection of aggression as a violent impulse against the human body. It might
seem that the Freudian polarities of eros and thanatos merely essentialize the
stark oppositions of Cold War politics, but Wolfe steadily undermines this
possibility by revealing a similarity, even homology between East and West. Once
again Norbert Wiener offered him a way forward in The Human Use of Human
Beings when he disposed of the Russian bug-bear (pun intended since written
into the novel: "Russian bear never reigns but it paws": §17:247): "To a large
extent, this enemy is not Russia, but the reflection of ourselves in a mirage.
To defend ourselves against the phantom, we must look to new scientific
measures, each more terrible than the last. There is no end to this vast
apocalyptic spiral" (Wiener 1950, 141).
In order to move out of this vicious circle Wolfe tracks Cold War rhetoric
and social behaviour to their roots in the collective psyche and finds symptoms
of the deathwish in the "lure of the One" which is phrased with careful
political symmetry: "the communist yearning for the oblivion of the proletarian
herd or the American yearning for the oblivion of the Jonesian herd" (§24: 389).
As if wanting to distance himself from such balances and the finely tuned
ironies of the novel, Wolfe in his endnotes stresses that such a sarcastic
examination of political power would never have been permitted in the Eastern
bloc. And in his notes to his novel about the Trotsky assassination, The
Great Prince Died, Wolfe launched a whole attack on modish leftism:
"Left-bound intellectuals have arrived at such a nicety of discrimination that
they...will defend the masses only against blows from the right; all blows from
the left, however vicious, they will take and dress up as caresses" (Wolfe 1959,
395). Although this was written some years after Limbo, Wolfe stays
consistent with his earlier novel in making the body the site of political
2. The trope of the body politic has traditionally expressed a legal
fiction defined in the OED as "the nation in its corporate character"
("body" 14.c). The metaphor expresses a whole and entails a power structure
implied in routine expressions like "head of state," and Nietzsche's
appropriation of the figure in The Will to Power ("the body as an
empire") only makes explicit the connotations of power in its application
(Nietzsche 134). Limbo opens with a sequence which explores this metaphor
by depicting the surgeon-protagonist Dr Martine as a modifier of bodies and as
paternalistic ruler over his domain. Like Wells's Dr Moreau, Martine has found
refuge for himself on an uncharted island where he can pursue morally ambiguous
experiments. Where Moreau produces his Beast People, Martine solves the "behaviour
disorders" of the islanders by giving them lobotomies. Both his surgical
operations and his sexual acts with his native lover Ooda are encoded
politically; when he caresses the latter he is putting forward "propaganda" to
persuade her into submission. Martine has sought refuge in flight just as
travelling into space opens up the welcome possibility of escape from
McCarthyist paranoia in James Blish's They Shall Have Stars (1956—the
opening volume of the Cities in Flight sequence). In practice, however, he uses
the island as a social laboratory to cure "deviants" from prescribed social
norms. In other words, although Martine himself views his island as an innocent
refuge from corrupting Western society, he is implicated at every point in a
power structure deriving from the very society he has ostensibly left behind.8
Nowhere is this political involvement more clear than in the symbolism of
mapping which runs through the first sections of Limbo. The novel
establishes a series of analogies—jungle like individual consciousness, brain
like terrain, body as territorial expanse, and so on—where exploration becomes
an act of appropriation and therefore once again an exercise of power. Ooda's
body, for instance, falls "under the reconnaissance of his [Martine's]
hands" (emphasis added), and a clear distinction emerges between Martine's
self-image and the perspective of the novel as a whole. Martine sees himself as
a neurological pioneer, a second Brodmann who could pursue the science of
cytoarchitecture or brain mapping so far that he finally uncovers the
physiological bases of human behaviour. As a quester for knowledge Martine
engages in symbolic acts of penetration—of the island jungle, of his patients'
cranium. He oscillates between a conviction that he can break through to some
discovery and moments of a heightened consciousness of surfaces when, for
instance, skin is perceived to be as impenetrable as steel. In this context
mapping involves at once the unfolding of knowledge and a bringing under
control. Like most processes in the novel, this one is made the subject of
explicit commentary by a lecturer at the Immob academy who quotes with approval
Alfred Korzybski's warning that "the map is not the territory," i.e. that the
representation should not be confused with the thing itself. Korzybski's actual
words warn against language in general: "A language is like a map; it is not
the territory represented, but it may be a good map or a bad map" (Korzybski
While Martine prides himself on his linguistic expertise, this self-awareness
does not exempt him from the power structures of the novel, as we have seen.
Professing to mock the self-mystifying rituals of the new America under the
Immob movement, he has installed himself as a priestlike medicine man among the
Mandunji. This race was modelled on the Zuni tribe as described by Ruth
Benedict. She identified their culture as an Apollonian one based on a sense of
measure. This character type, she explains, "keeps the middle of the road, stays
within the known map" (Benedict 56). This statement bears with direct irony on
Limbo, since Martine has literally flown off the map to get to the island
and, as we shall see, a number of puns in the novel's text suggest that measure
itself (i.e. proportion or moderation) has fallen victim to Martine's
It is one of the main ironies of the novel that Martine the lobotomist should
be so horrified by a widespread programme of amputation since, as Gary K. Wolfe
has pointed out, there are repeated parallels between the two operations
throughout Limbo (Gary K. Wolfe 219). Another of Wolfe's source texts
reinforces this linkage and makes it more than an ironic analogy. Wolfe quotes
from and acknowledges a 1950 collection of essays entitled Perspectives in
Neuropsychiatry, specifically from an essay by Mary A.B. Brazier where she
discusses the appropriation of feedback mechanisms into neurology from
cybernetics. Not surprisingly the most prominent theorist she discusses is
Norbert Wiener, and a series of analogies emerges between human beings and
servomechanisms, brains and computers, and other pairs (Brazier 35-45). Brazier
and her colleagues examine ways in which cybernetics can shed light on the
relation between mind and body ("psychosomatic" is a key term in their volume),
just as Wolfe develops an elaborate symbolism around the hyphen as a linking
device. Wolfe therefore is writing out of a historical moment where the concepts
of cybernetics were extending outwards into such fields as neurology, in effect
a gradual expansion of mechanistic discourse.9
Analogies in Limbo can be read, then, as a series of intersections
between different intellectual and experiential fields. Prosthetic limbs depends
on the mineral columbium just as atomic arms depended on the availability of
uranium, and when the "queer-limbs" visiting Martine's island use naturalistic
research and gymnastics as a screen for prospecting for this mineral, Wolfe is
at once placing his novel within the history of economic colonialism and also
implicitly drawing the reader's attention to Cold War urgencies. Lobotomy and
prosthetics both involve an amputation, which was a trope used by Arthur
Koestler to describe the mass deportations taking place in Eastern Europe. For
him these represented amputations "from the national body" since "a nation thus
deprived of her backbone and nervous centres becomes a kind of amorphous jelly,
reduced to the degree of malleability necessary to adapt herself to the
conditions of Soviet Dictatorship" (Koestler 1945, 208).10 Such
politicized analogies bring out the problematic implications of control in
cybernetics whose very title derives from the Greek term for "governor."
3. Bernard Wolfe by his own account served on Trotsky's staff in Mexico
and, although this has never been corroborated, appears to have had a background
of Leftist activism.11 Limbo, however, severely limits or
complicates the very possibility of meaningful political action. The novel
foregrounds the image of the steamroller which represents the unchosen element
of experience, especially in a war. A character in "Self-Portrait" explains:
"Steamrollers are very undemocratic.... Never consult people on how they like to
be flattened before flattening them" (Wolfe 1951, 77). The steamroller therefore
represents any process so large that its momentum is irresistible by the
individual, like a mass movement, for instance. Secondly, Wolfe's use of the
Freudian concept of deathwish renders human motivation problematic at its very
source. Limbo in that respect situates itself close to that body of
postwar thought which held that the Cold War could best be understood by
internal self-scrutiny. Psychological analysis was used during World War II and
in the years that followed as a means of explaining political action.12
Lewis Mumford, for example, warned Americans: "we are no longer confronted by
external examiners: the most dangerous enemy we face lies within us," and he
located this danger in the infantile origins of a fantasy of omnipotence
(Mumford 1946, 28).13
When Martine travels back to a diminished post-holocaust America his action
can be read as a deliberate process of self-examination. The narrative is
punctuated by a whole series of recognitions, pivotal moments of recall or
realization stretching back into earliest childhood. But this action can never
be read as purely personal, since Martine is a child of the atomic age, his
birth coinciding with the first A-bomb blast at Alamagordo. Similarly he arrives
at the Inland Strip on Independence Day, and the climactic games occur on Peace
Day. Martine repeatedly finds himself participating in public events and—even
more unnervingly—finds that he has been transformed into the messianic founder
of the Immob movement. He has become institutionalized and explicitly identified
with the future destiny of his country. His notebook has become scripture; his
birthplace is a national shrine; and his own metaphor of the steamroller has
turned into a national icon. These details clearly imply that Martine's
investigation of himself involves at the same time a process of enquiry into his
In order to escape from the holocaust of World War III, the ultimate
robotized war, Martine has to cut the umbilical cables linking his roboplane
with the central computer. This gesture of disengagement goes into reverse
during his return to America, where an 18 years-absence estranges Martine from
almost every aspect of his culture. This prospective device is used from his
very first sight of a ruined and surreal Florida where escaped zoo animals stalk
the ruins. Lectures on cybernetics and philosophy in the university of New
Jamestown introduce Martine to the conceptual framework underpinning the Immob
movement, while a device named the "Hallucinator" gives an implicit warning that
perceptual gestalts might depend more on desires and expectations than on facts.
The American landscape offers Martine apparently endless instances of parable
and symbolism; even the shape of the Inland Strip is construed as a torso with
truncated limbs. Part Four of the novel ("Dodging the Steamroller") is one of
the densest in its intellectual references contextualizing Martine's sense of
Western culture within post-Nietzschean theory and diagnosing World War III as a
tragic result of the myth of the self as victim. Warfare, in anticipation of
Dr Strangelove, is identified as a substitute for sex, while the succeeding
section moves into the mode of espionage to dramatize sexuality as a means
of warfare. It is appropriate that Martine should drive to his birthplace in
Salt Lake City at this point in order to try to locate the primal scene of his
own supposed victimization by his mother. He dreams of the "one key that
would open all doors" (§19M:295) but simultaneously questions that desire
as virtual paranoia and a new and even more dangerous delusion of totalizing
Movement in time is represented in Limbo as a lateral traversing of
the novel's landscape. Wolfe also uses the traditional vertical hierarchy of
mental levels by having Martine descend into his subconscious figured as
a lake. This same hierarchy is used to depict the suppressions within the brave
new world of Immob. The utopian clinical order of New Jamestown noted earlier is
built over a massive underground substructure where the workers labour. Norman
O. Brown has argued that "a city reflects the new masculine aggressive
psychology of revolt against the female principles of dependence and nature"
(Brown 281-2), and certainly Martine encodes his own personal memories as
struggle with a feminized Nature.14 In cultural terms the new city
conceals and so suppresses the very labour which underpins it, and the fighting
which takes place at the end of the novel performs the function of countering
this suppression, and quite literally bringing labour to the surface before the
wondering gaze of Martine.
Once he has left the temporary security of Mandunji Island, Martine
oscillates between perceptions of himself as subject and object. The properties
of his self—name, notebook, home, etc.—are all taken from him for public use and
so, prior to his self-revelation, Martine uses the appropriate pseudonym of
Lazarus, since he is indeed back from the dead. The espionage episode already
discussed neatly captures the polarity of activity/passivity by showing Martine
having sex with an Eastern agent, then inducing paralysis in himself, and
finally making an escape. As the carrier of information he is temporarily
reified into a valuable commodity. The climactic penultimate section of the
novel ("Games") amasses a series of revelations where surfaces are stripped away
to reveal their opposites. Martine sees the vast robotized city underground and
discovers an anti-Immob movement (another "underground"). He then recognizes his
identity with the idealistic Theo and the sceptical Helder (the duo of opposites
who control the strip) and he kills his own son as the hated embodiment of his
own masochism. Martine's single act coincides with the larger event of an
attempted invasion by the Eastern Union. Once again his individual actions are
synchronized with developments in the political arena as if one were mirroring
4. One hall-mark of Martine's style is a compulsion to joke, to turn
every perception into a pun or wisecrack, and one measure of Wolfe's originality
is the way he uses humour as a means of political enquiry. The title of Limbo
is at once a pun on prosthetics ("limb-0") and an allusion to that region in
Christian mythology near to Hell described in Paradise Lost as the
"Paradise of Fools." Traditionally the term denotes a state of neglect or
transition between phases. As one figure points out in the novel, the current
technological situation has put human desire one further remove from the real so
that they engage in meta-gestures: "Now, in the cybernetic limbo, men grasp for
the instruments of grasp" (§14:164). We shall come back to the implications of
such statements. Suffice it for the moment to recognize that the title
anticipates the novel as a whole in playing on different areas of meaning and
that the perception of semantic difference occurs through low puns.
Freud clearly supplied Wolfe with the rationale for such word-play. In
Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious he identified three main
techniques which resemble those operative in the dream-work: condensation, the
multiple use of the same material (i.e. recurrence), and double meaning. The
last of these items was elaborated by Arthur Koestler into a whole theory of
jokes which, he argued, depended on "bisociation," in other words a recognition
of doubleness. He defines a joke therefore as the "intersection of two
independent and self-contained logical chains" (Koestler 1959, 25; his
emphasis). It depends on suddenness and on the listener's capacity to respond to
semantic alternatives. Different mental systems—what Koestler calls "operative
fields"— therefore meet at the moment of a joke which Koestler describes
metaphorically as a "junction." Most of his examples and discussion revolve
around double meaning ("a mental concept is simultaneously perceived under two
different angles": Koestler 1959, 36) but there is no intrinsic reason within
his theory why a joke should not include a perception of three or even more
dimensions of meaning.
Wolfe assimilated this post-Freudian interpretation of humour so thoroughly
that Limbo contains no single stable frame of semantic reference.
Propositions are always relative and provisional, subject to constant
modification; and this instability frequently clarifies the novel's political
themes. We can see this technique at work in one of the earliest episodes of the
novel, where Martine is performing a lobotomy on an African woman. Here as
everywhere else in the novel Wolfe is picking up on a subject that had become a
matter of controversy by the early fifties. Although lobotomies were more and
more widely carried out, there was considerable opposition to an operation
which, many felt, "converts patients into docile, inert, often useless drones"
(Wallace 24). The controversy revolved around the problem of medical risk and
the broader issue of whether a supposedly therapeutic operation was actually
being used for administrative convenience or even social coercion.15
This controversy manifests itself as a series of disruptions to Martine's
consciousness by apparent nonsense. But this "nonsense" turns out to be charged
with a meaning he has been suppressing because it is so unwelcome. The title
phrase from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure flits through his mind,
glancing at a work which depicts the masked operation of authority (Martine too
is literally masked for the operation) and then initiating a series which
deforms the line from the negro spiritual "massa's in the cold, cold ground":
(i) Measure's in the
cold, cold ground (§2:15)
(ii) Massa in the cold, cold groan (§2:15)
(iii) Masseur in the cold, cold groin (§2:16)
(iv) Messiah's in the cold, cold ground (§24:388)
The original line relates the embodiment of racist authority to death. The
first variation suppresses the power-term, suggesting instead the demise of
proportion. The second substitutes a sign of pain or grief for death, suggesting
this time the suffering which Martine is supposedly trying to cure. The third
revision changes both key terms when Martine realizes that the operation has
destroyed the woman's sex drive, metaphorically rendering her body as a place of
death. In other words, the distortions of the original line make manifest
Martine's latent doubts about the operation and render it as an exercise of
colonialist violence against the member of a subjugated race. This is confirmed
by Wolfe's reference to the islanders' ancestors as "X-men" and "X-women,"
former humans under erasure. The final occurrence of this line in the novel
comes at a point where Martine has finally confronted (and subdued?) a
megalomaniac impulse in himself.
The verbal substitutions just discussed represent the emergence of suppressed
opposite views of the lobotomy and of Martine's dealings with the African
islanders. As such, they exemplify a principle on which the discourse of
Limbo is based, namely that of ambivalence. Wolfe even makes it a principle
of Nature: "every cell contained a seething mixture of Eros and Thanatos;
ambivalence was its glue..." (§18:257). A tension between opposing impulses is
historicized by summaries of Nietzsche and Freud, and then written into the text
again and again as a series of dualities. For instance, Mandunji Island contains
two narcotic weeds, the one inducing tranquillity and the other stimulation. The
Immob leaders Theo and Helder represent opposite political polarities of
idealism and realism. And so the list could go on. Every instance in the novel
presumes its opposite which will appear sooner or later. That is why Wolfe
includes reversible paired terms like Dog-God; and why palindromic names like
Ubu appear. Vonnegut uses the same device in his title Player Piano,
which reverses a phrase away from human activity (piano player) to the purely
mechanical. But Wolfe extends this device into the whole rhetoric of Limbo
so that every proposition implies an opposite counter-proposition.
The novel demands a reader who is constantly on the alert to varieties of
verbal connotation and register. Since Martin returns to America after a long
absence, he is so estranged from the new culture he encounters that, like the
reader, he scrutinizes recurring terms and slogans for their meanings. This
process of decoding involves a recognition of the transferability of language
from one domain of experience to another: we are told at one point that "the
rhetoric of love is remarkably like the rhetoric of war" (§14:168). The same
proposition is implied in Martine's lobotomy operation, which is described as
"firing" "bullets" of strychnine into the brain. Words themselves therefore
become unstable signs. When Martine visits the Immob academy in America, a
lecturer warns against confusing words with referents. The solution, he
declares, is "to understand that the word is not the object, eloquence is not
photography, sound does not equate with substance" (§11:132). When the novel
shifts temporarily into the genre of spy fiction, that shift only makes explicit
a general tendency within the language of the novel. A Communist agent in
Wolfe's 1957 espionage thriller In Deep philosophizes this dimension to
language arguing that "communities are based on the common acceptance of words
and their meanings: they're cemented by language." Spying on the other hand
induces "moments of eerie doubt as to whether the cover words mean anything"
(Wolfe 1958, 254-5).
In Limbo political positions correspond to different linguistic usages
as much as action. The utopian hope expressed by Theo is that political
discourse has moved into a post-Cold War language of fraternity, but that hope
is dashed by Vishinu's opposition. Wolfe borrows Koestler's symbolic polarity of
political change, the yogi and the commissar, and embodies these extremes in two
speakers. A quadro-amp articulates the desire for a whole ("world no more in
fragments") through a series of identifications between opposites ("Eros is
Agape"), but his utterances flatten out into a Beckett-like flow of single words
which totally undermine his oracular intentions towards Martine. At the opposite
extreme stands Vishinu's familiar Stalinist rhetoric of triumphalism dressed up
as liberation: "we represent the fresh new spirit of the East which is blowing
up now a real cyber-cyto hurricane to sweep the world clean of the foul
imperialist odors of the old Western masters... Your imperialist crimes can no
longer go unpunished. You are traitors, saboteurs, terrorists, schemers, and you
will be dealt with as such... We have knocked you off your smug thrones
cybernetically" (§20:308-09). Vishinu claims the moral high ground to authorize
and naturalize his actions as a necessary cleaning of the corrupt West. He
exploits a few transparent tricks of rhetoric like the repetition of cue words
("imperialist") or the use of simple oppositions like old/new. Ironically it is
Vishinu who accuses the West of indulging in the "old crap" of imperialism, but
his very language demonstrates Wolfe's sceptical awareness of how persistent
words are. Korzybski is cited earlier in the novel to express this conviction
that humanity is surrounded by a "smoke screen" of "signs and symbols" which
obscure rather than reveal actuality.
This notion of verbal disguise is embodied particularly in Martine who, in an
analogy with the phases of cybernetic mechanisms, separates himself into a
series of selves in his notebook (Mark I, II, etc.) and who negotiates his way
through the novel by adopting different aliases like Lazarus (back from the
dead), Brigham Rimbaud, and so on. Martine's notebook represents the core of the
novel's text. Not only does it give us brief glimpses of World War III; it also
contains Martine's reflections on his own expressions. In other words, the
notebook sections are the most self-conscious section of the novel. Each entry
will be followed by Martine's retrospective examinations of his own words, the
implicit desire for a readership in posterity, and his own half-conscious
motives. The order of notebook entries is also crucially important. So we have
an excerpt from Mark II describing Martine's return to America; his discovery at
the end of Part 4 of his original wartime notebook (Mark I) published in book
form; a retrospective assessment of himself and the Immob movement (Mark II
again); and finally a brief conclusion. In Mark I Martine is confronted with his
own private journal made public as an Immob text and "canonized" by explanatory
footnotes from the Immob leader Helder. Martine devotes part of the text to an
imaginary dialogue between himself and Babyface (cf. "Babyface" Nelson), a war
casualty later to be renamed Theo. At the end of this dialogue Martine
facetiously proposes a way in which people can overcome their fear of
helplessness before the larger processes of war (the "steamroller") by
volunteering to be amputated. The programme could function as a recruitment
campaign, but directed now towards pacifism:
It would have to be suggested that the volunteers wouldn't be hurting
themselves but actually doing themselves and the world some good. You could
easily do that with a few well-chosen slogans, such as—oh, I don't know,
slogans to the effect that there's no demobilization without immobilization,
pacifism means passivity, arms or the man: anything that makes a wound into
some kind of boon. And then, of course, as you've suggested, you could offer
special inducements to the recruits: cash awards, bonuses, pensions, hero
status, medals and decorations, membership in exclusive clubs, leisure,
women, all in proportion to the degree of amputation or other forms of
crippling. How many men were actually clipped in World War II—25,000, 30,000
on our side alone? How many in World War III—many hundreds of thousands
around the world? Hell, you could round up millions of volunteers if you
just put a heavy enough stamp of social approval on it and offered enough
juicy come-ons. You'd get precisely the same results that you get from war
now, except that everybody would be happy and feel himself the dignified
master of his own fate. And, secretly, revel in the enormous amount of pain
he'd arranged for. (§14M:204)
To Martine's horror, he finds that a joke has become reality. His ironic
suggestion has become institutionalized in an international movement and he
himself has been mythologized as its founder. In short, Immob has been
established on the basis of a misreading of his text.
Wolfe peppers his text with references to Gide, Joyce, and Mann among others,
and reproduces squiggles from Tristram Shandy, all with the purpose of
inducing a self-consciousness into the reader's processing of the novel. This
self-consciousness reaches its peak in Martine's notebooks, which are modelled
on Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. The thematic link between the two
works would lie in Dostoevsky's narrator's thinly disguised masochism
rationalized as a diagnosis of the perversity in so-called civilized man.
Underground is a symbolic "hell of unsatisfied desires turned inward" just as
Martine engages in an oddly evasive process of self-diagnosis (Dostoevksy 57-8).
But the style of the two narrators is even more important in its similarity.
Martine constantly writes a second self into his notebook, a critical or
antagonistic reader who will ridicule his statements, just as Dostoesky's
narrator engages in an extended dialogue between self and other. Both narrators
claim to be writing for themselves but both inscribe external authorities into
their texts, and Mikhail Bakhtin has argued that Underground Man's relation to
that authority is ambivalent in the extreme: "extraordinary dependence upon it
and at the same time extreme hostility toward it and nonacceptance of its
judgements" (Bakhtin 230). Less starkly Martine repeatedly presents his
self-consciousness to himself as a means of avoiding slipping into a messianic
role, but at the same time writes his notebooks for posterity as the other. In
other words, he unconsciously falls victim to the duplicity woven into the
The centrality of jokes in a novel dealing with such a sobering subject as
warfare has been more than some critics could stomach. In his review of Limbo
Philip Wylie praised the satirical ideas and the solution but objected that
Wolfe "takes non-classical liberties with scientifiction, so that his story as a
story is almost childishly implausible" (Wylie 11). Paul Bryans argues that
Limbo "represents the farthest extreme of antipacifist muscular disarmament
fiction" and he rejects an ironic reading (Bryans 71). David N. Samuelson has
been one of the very few critics to date to admit the power of the novel's black
humour and argues that "this central absurdity [the voluntary amputation
programme] functions straightforwardly as an estranging device" (Samuelson 79).
In fact its functioning is quite complex since the whole emphasis on amputation
actualizes a metaphor embedded in such routine expressions as "disarmament" and
"lay down arms." The punning is as obvious as representing Immob fanatics as
refusing prosthesis and therefore needing to lie in baskets; i.e. they become
"basket cases." Such jokes drain off the solemnity of the pacifist movement and
render it absurd. However, Wolfe's central complex of metaphors skilfully
combines political and psychological analysis.
The human body functions throughout Limbo as a holistic image which
the very title of the novel tugs against by suggesting synecdoche. So the
central pun on "arms" bears directly on the historical moment when Wolfe was
writing. The phrase "arms race" was first used in the 1930s to describe the
competition between military powers. In the postwar period the phrase took on an
extra urgency when it was applied to weapons of mass destruction and was
accelerating in the early 1950s. The cause of disarmament is described by Wolfe
as growing from error (misunderstanding Martine's journal), confusing means with
origin (limbs with aggression), and pursuing self-contradiction in designing
prosthetic limbs even more powerful than the original. Scott Bukatman finds in
Limbo an anticipation of postmodern science fiction which treats the body
as the site of exploration and transformation, which helps to explain Martine's
spatialisation of his African lover's body as a colonialised terrain (Bukatman
293). The body as trope, however, goes through many more permutations. The
diminished American landscape is figured as a torso with two truncated arms. And
the whole concept of the body politic lies behind Wolfe's depiction of the
functioning of post-World War III society. Once again Norbert Wiener underpins
the analogy when he draws comparisons in Cybernetics: "It is certainly
true that the social system is an organization like the individual, that it is
bound together by a system of communication, and that it has a dynamics in which
circular processes of a feedback nature play as important part" (Wiener 1961,
24). The relation of body to society then can be read at various points as
synecdoche, metaphor or systems analogy.
The political climax of Limbo demonstrates the internal coherence of
Wolfe's application of the body trope. The prelude to the Olympic Games, which
in the postwar period had become a matter of political controversy over where
they might be held and which nations might participate, is an accusation made
over the television by Vishinu, the Eastern Union delegation leader, that an
ostensibly innocent visit by "Strippers" (members of the Inland Strip, i.e.
America) to Mandunji Island was in fact to prospect for colombium, the rare
metal needed for the manufacture of prosthetic limbs. As we have seen, this is a
valid charge. Vishinu tries to corroborate this charge by catching Martine in a
"honey trap," a sexually compromising situation with a nubile Eastern agent.
During the games themselves the Unionists win all the events and there follows a
ceremony where the Strip leader Helder praises the non-military value of the
games only to have his words thrown back in his face by Vishinu, who declares an
intention to knock his opponents off their "imperialist thrones" giving a signal
to his team who then gun down the Western judges.
A clear set of analogies emerge here. In order to construct "arms," the
superpowers need a rare metal: for columbium read uranium, one source of which
was the Congo. The games combine an attempted transposition of military rivalry
on to peaceful competition à la William James, but the ceremonies can also be
read as a parodic version of the United Nations where Vishinsky (cf. Vishinu)
made a name for his constant denunciations of Western imperialism. The games
represent a literal arms race whose competitiveness is evaded by the naive Theo.
The games themselves at once parody the jockeying for power (with a possible
glance back to the absurd games of Lilliput) and also enact the overturning of
American presumption of technological supremacy. Vishinu's team in its perfect
discipline resembles an "electrified centipede," i.e. cohere into a single body;
and their use of prosthetic weapons restores the concept of military extension
to "arm" while the biological limb has become elided. To compound the political
reference, this time to the 1936 Munich Olympics, the Union team hold out their
arms in unconscious imitation of the Nazi salute.
What we have been considering as a doubleness of language can now be seen as
a duplicity at work. The pacifist movement patently fails because war is going
on "behind the scenes." The last sections of the novel contain revelations which
confirm this perception, not least Helder's admission that he has secretly
retained weapons and placed agents in enemy territory. Within the series of
identifications Wolfe constructs, one emerges between Martine and both Helder
and Theo, as if the latter represent two sides (pragmatic realism versus
idealism) of one consciousness. Martine is thereby drawn into the internal
politics of the Strip just as his decision to grow a beard which makes him
resemble General Smuts implicates him in colonialism.
The grotesque analogy between the Union team and an "electrified centipede"
noted above exemplifies Koestler's proposition of humour occurring at an
intersection between semantic chains. Wolfe plays on the proximity between the
concepts of team and body (the latter in the sense of a collectivity) and
concretizes the metaphor through a creature that combines singularity and
multiplicity. It also specifically links these figures with war, since Martine
argues in his notebook that "each war brings the human race a little closer to
the insects, whose lives are all `it' and no `I'; at the end of the war people
feel less human and more insectlike..." (§14M:200).16 Insects
therefore offer one means of expressing the dehumanizing processes of war. This
instance, however, is not a self-perception, but rather a realization by Martine
of a sinister dimension of the team's discipline which is compounded by the
epithet "electrified," which suggests that they form a collective technological
simulacrum of life. The team now becomes linked with a mechanizing process cast
in a negative light throughout Limbo and one associated specifically with
the totalitarian centralism of Stalin. In Wolfe's The Great Prince Died,
the assassin's fanatical mother gives him a disingenuous lesson in believing in
his own acts: "if their will...moves you like a robot," she tells him
alluding to his directors in the politburo, "then you do your work out of
weakness, not strength!" (268). But it is exactly that kind of unquestioning
robotic obedience that she is trying to induce in her son. Similarly the members
(etymologically, the "limbs") of the Olympic team move in absolute obedience to
Vishinu's signal and their latent connection with warfare becomes overt and
explicit once they gun down the judges.
Limbo, then, draws on late Freud for its view of human behaviour as
contradictory and ambivalent to mount a sustained critique of Cold War
symbolism. Its exploitation of puns uses humour to expose to ridicule the
self-mystification of power bloc polarities, the arms race and the attendant
pacifist movement. Even Wolfe's most aware character, Dr Martine, finds himself
in the predicament common to the novel's characters as a whole in having to
negotiate tortuously through meanings which prove to be unstable and reversible.
The novel's treatment of its central subject of prosthetics ironically
undermines any confidence in scientific progress because the purpose of
artificial limbs keeps rebounding on their wearers. The complex humour of the
novel reflects Wolfe's sense of the need for a new aesthetic which will grant
comic relief from the darker side to human experience ("a form of laughter,
designed to take the sting out of ineradicable pain") and which will counter the
monotonous uniformity pursued by the cybernetic imperative of efficiency. The
absurdist humour of the novel insistently resituates incongruities within
rationalist schemes of human behaviour. Wolfe's pedigree of precedents includes
sceptical Modernists like Dostoevsky, Mann, and Gide. Although this humour
reveals itself through wordplay that play is never trivial but rather hints at
suppressed irrational impulses which a movement like Immob can never accept.
Martine's journey back to America thus could be read as a return of the
repressed joke on which Immob was based. Jokes in Limbo demystify
cultural positions and subvert the status of authority figures in the novel.
Every such figure is undermined, killed, or questioned in some way, and this
anarchic process even rebounds against Martine when he discovers that he has
been transformed into a messianic founder figure and must then revise his own
status. Despite not being better known, Limbo has had a discernible
influence on Thomas Pynchon's V. (1963) where the symbolism of
prosthetics is incorporated into a presentation of a gradual decline towards the
inanimate from the turn of the century; and it also has helped to shape the
definition of technological environments in the novels of Ballard and the
cyberpunk writers. Wolfe anticipates all these later instances by carefully
blurring the border between humanity and its own technological constructs.
1. Ballard also singles out Wolfe as one of the best science-fiction writers
in a review of 1971 (Ballard 1996, 207).
2. Koestler and Wiener are named several times in Limbo. Mumford's
general discussion of the mechanization of humanity and his references to Wells,
Toynbee, Adelbert Ames, and to William James's essay "The Moral Equivalent of
War," all of which appear in the novel, make it virtually certain he was one of
3. In identifying this process, Wolfe explicitly follows the argument of
industrial rationalization put forward in James Burnham's The Managerial
Revolution (1941) alluded to by name in the following quotation.
4. Chapter 11 of presumably any edition, pages 335-36 of 1987 Carroll and
Graff edition and of the undated Ace Books edition. In addition to its 25
chapters Limbo contains three intercalary sections "from dr. martine's
notebook," indicated herein as §6M, §14M, and §19M. The novel has also been
published in an abbreviated form in the UK under the title Limbo 90.
5. At one point in the novel a character reflects: "What the human race might
have accomplished if cybernetics had been utilized to reduce such feedback in
the mind of every man! Instead we chose to build the Welfare State. Instead of
reaching for maturity we chose a return to the womb" (Jones 102).
6. Van Vogt's novel concludes with a final meeting between Gosseyn and an old
man who is identified as the main apostle of the system of thought called Null-A
and the builder of the Games Machine. Gosseyn strips away the beard from the old
man's face to discover it is his own.
7. James proposed "instead of military conscription a conscription of the
whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the
army enlisted against nature" (James 171).
8. At this point Martine resembles a different prototype, but one equally
bound up in the processes of colonialism—Robinson Crusoe.
9. Cf. Galison 254 for details on the application of cybernetics to other
10. The Yogi and the Commissar is another of Wolfe's acknowledged
source texts. The two key terms in the title denote change from within and
change from without respectively. Koestler attacks the Left for clinging on to
the conviction that "man is an entirely rational being" (123), an attack
absolutely consistent with the ironies of Wolfe's novel.
11. "In the course of time I was invited to join Trosky's small secretarial
and household staff in Mexico" (Wolfe 1972 32). Wolfe served there for one year
only and apparently was invited as a result of his writings in the 1930s for
Trotskyite journals like The Militant and The New International.
12. Cf "The notion that the roots of war were to be found in the
psychological particulars of national character and the universal truth of
frustration and aggression did not evaporate at the end of World War II. In the
period between 1945 and 1960, psychological experts pursued questions about how
to derail the development of militaristic aggressiveness..." (Herman 64).
Maurice L. Farber questioned both the motivation and the methodology of
identifying a national character, arguing that it was based on unprovable
assertions and might make war less likely or actually fuel the Cold War.
13. Cf also Mumford's warning in The Conduct of Life: "Our very
will-to-survive is subject to destructive irrational turnings upon itself'
(Mumford 1952 13).
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industrial "time-sense." The latter operates like a chronometric super-ego
measuring out pleasure in fleeting moments where the male psyche attempts "hasty
soarings" (99/97). Brown's exploration of the implications of the deathwish for
history sheds constant light on the set of concepts appearing in Wolfe's novel.
15. The controversy is commented on by Wiener (Cybernetics, pp.148-9).
A similar anxiety emerges over the function of electrotherapy in novels such as
Invisible Man, The Bell Jar, and One Flew over The Cuckoo's Nest.
Wolfe knew Ellison well and would certainly have been familiar with the latter's
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ABSTRACT. Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952) remains an unjustifiably
neglected novel despite some signs of growing interest in recent years. It draws
on contemporary cultural criticism to burlesque the development of technology in
a number of important aspects: the use of supercomputers to wage an atomic war
particularly and also to depict a mass movement dedicated to the removal of
human aggression by amputating limbs. The latter movement explains the black
joke of the novel's title and emerges as an exercise in self-mystification since
the new prosthetic limbs turn out to be vastly more powerful than their
originals. Like Vonnegut in Player Piano, Wolfe shows cybernetics to
involve a dangerous series of substitutions for the human, dangerous because
they obscure the divided and ambivalent nature of humanity. In order to bring
out such ambivalence Wolfe implicates his surgeon-protagonist Dr. Martine in the
novel's power structures and also uses a series of puns and other word play to
alert the reader to a duplicity not just in Cold War political statements but in
expressions of human purpose more generally. Limbo anticipates later
fiction by Pynchon and the cyberpunk group in its ironic examination of
humanity's technological constructs. (DS)