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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" <ddanehy@siebel.com>
Subject: (urth) What's so funny about PEACE, love, and understanding?
Date: Thu, 19 Oct 2000 12:01:40 

The Subject: line refers to the fact that I love PEACE, think it is in
places a 
very funny book, and would very much like to understand it. 8*) 

Mantis, Doug Eigsti and I have been involved in an off-line trialogue over
which seems to have achieved a sort of critical (no pun intended) mass.

The rest of this contains -- obligatory warning -- Spoilers For PEACE. In 
particular, it involves a struggle toward understanding the frame-tale of

I take as a given (though I guess Doug doesn't) that, yes, dammit, Weer is
dead, and was "awakened" by the blowing-over of the elm tree planted by 
Eleanor Bold on his grave. In at least on interview available on line (the
one with James Jordan, at http://world.std.com/~pduggan/wolfejbj.html),
makes it clear that this is his intent. Further, he's going over his life,
in some way, in some form, attempting to make sense of it -- seeking peace.
He apparently did not think of "Purgatory" as the model for this (but 
accepts it as a reasonable interpretation).

Okay, then. How to view this frame story?

Simply:  It isn't just the frame; it's the real story. PEACE is _not_ the 
story of Weer's life. It is the story of Weer telling (or retelling or 
rehashing) the story of Weer's life. 

When? Well, one reference I found, www.elmcare.com informs us that "Fully 
mature elm trees can live as long as 300 years." So we can take the late
twenty-first century as a very conservative date. Weer isn't exaggerating
when he says "everyone" is dead -- this may or may not refer to some "fall
of America," but it's certainly true at the surface level. Everyone Weer
knew, everyone he perceives in the imaginary(?) Doctor Van Ness's office, 
is dead.

Also, "The American Elm grows to over 115 feet tall and can have a 
diameter in excess of ten feet." This gives some feeling for the 
opening sequence, I think.


To understand PEACE we have to understand _why_ Weer is telling his 
story; to understand that, we need to understand when, and to whom, 
he believes he is writing.

Weer is clearly a classic Lupine unreliable narrator. I'm not sure I'm 
ready to go so far as to say he lies; but his elisions, evasions, 
circumlocutions, and omissions may amount to lies. We, of course, can 
base our understandings only on his words; thus we don't have the 
advantage classic irony offers of "what we readers know that the 
narrator doesn't."

I'll make a further assertion: I posit that Wolfe had a definite order 
of events, and a definite time of narration, in mind when he sat down 
to write PEACE. 

This does not mean that we can definitely know them -- he _may_ have 
deliberately effaced evidence, planted false clues, etc., to create 
a narrative which allows multiple, contradictory readings. But I don't 
think so; my sense is that Wolfe plays fair. Not everything has an 
answer, but everything set as a challenge does: and the nature of 
PEACE is clearly a challenge.

Okay, about that elm tree. If it's Weer's grave tree, then why doesn't 
he say so? Does he not know? Is he not _permitted_ to know? or is he 
in deep denial about being dead? 

The book is oddly full of evasions about death. Weer almost never 
mentions the deaths of anyone in the book -- the only deaths I recall 
being stated openly are Bobby Black's and Sherry Gold's: and both of 
these are characters for whose deaths he feels or may feel responsible/
guilty; and both of them are characters for whose death he rather 
elaborately evades taking any responsibility. (Weer doesn't say he 
pushed Bobby down the stairs, but that Bobby "fell;" and he goes out 
of his way to make Sherry the instigator of everything between them, 
and of her death, he says only that she killed herself.)

As for the last page -- there is the odd detail about the appointment 
note nailed to the desk (see the beginning of part 5 to see why this 
is odd); but the real point is the voice of Aunt Olivia, coming over 
the intercom -- "Den, darling, are you awake in there?" As it 
interrupted the never-to-be-completed story of Princess Elaia and 
her suitors (and see Mantis' recent posting about that), so too it
interrupts our story of Den Weer, and if it ever "comes out," we 
shan't know about it. 

One thing the line signifies clearly: it is time to stop reading.

But why is her voice coming over the intercom? And is it to wake 
him or to send him (back) to sleep? Or is it just a last bit of 
random memory as his mind finally disintegrates?


Some onomastics:

From www.baby-names-meanings.com:
	ALDEN: Defender
	DENNIS: Worshipper

("4babynames.com" gives Dennis as "wild, frenzied" and derives
it from Dionysius.)

John Alden, of course, was one of the signatories of the Mayflower 
Compact, whom we mostly know from the "Courtship of Miles Standish." 

I don't find any Saint Alden; the nearest I can spot is an Aldo, 
visionary and giver-to-the-poor (feastday 4/26). St. Denis, on the 
other hand, is quite important -- missionary to Gaul, first bishop 
of Paris, who was martyred (along with SSs Rusticus and Eleutherius) 
by beheading and is thus the patron of France. His remains rest at 
the abbey of St-Denis in Paris (mention of which I seem to recall 
in Proust: and PEACE is in its way a very Proust-influenced novel). 
Making matters more confused, his story got munged in with those of 
Dionysius the Areopagite and the patristic writer pseudo-Dionysius.

Since the last name is Dutch, I checked an on-line Dutch-English 
dictionary (http://dictionaries.travlang.com/DutchEnglish/), which 
gives this:

  1. defence, defense
  2. again, all over again, anew
  3. again, once more
  4. weather

... while the only English meaning I find for "weer" is "wee-er," 
very small, or very early in the morning. Going to the nearest 
homonym, "weir," I get 

    1 : a fence or enclosure set in a waterway for 
        taking fish
    2 : a dam in a stream or river to raise the water 
        level or divert its flow

What's particularly interesting to me is the etymology:

      Etymology: Middle English were, from Old English wer; 
      akin to Old Norse ver fishing place, Old High German 
      werien, werren to defend. Date: before 12th century

H'mmm. There's the concept of defense again. 

And then there's "Den":

      1 : the lair of a wild usually predatory animal
      2 a (1) : a hollow or cavern used especially as
          a hideout (2) : a center of secret activity 
          b : a small usually squalid dwelling
      3 : a comfortable usually secluded room
      4 : a subdivision of a Cub Scout pack made up of two 
          or more boys 

The name then is: Defender - Worshipper/Wild one -- Defense, 
with a nickname meaning safe place. Is it too much to suggest 
that Weer is defensive about his life?


Who are the doctors that "can be consulted though dead" (a nice 
bit of ambiguity there -- it can be "though they are dead," but 
also "though I am dead"). My feeling is that they are in some 
sense more than just memories; that they in fact instigate W's 
reexamination of his life and crimes. Note for example that the 
very first remniscence -- the birthday party -- is a very slippery 
transition in response to a question of Van Ness's:

		"How old are you, Mr. Weer?"
		I tell him. (My best guess.)
		His mouth makes a tiny noise, and he opens the file
	folder he carries and tells me my birthday. It is in May, 
	and there is a party, ostensibly for me, in the garden. I am

The doctors seem to be more than Weer's memory-reconstructions for
"consultating." They actively guide him into remembering -- through 
the TAT among other things. 

All right, then: suppose they are active agents seeking to bring him
to "peace"? Psychopomps? Angels, sent by or through the prayers of 
(say) his aunts and parents? This is still a bit vague, but it seems
to give the whole a kind of shape. And consider Weer's non-vision --
his feeling that if he goes out of the house, he'll see faces looking
down at him (but he doesn't).


Speaking of the house.

Weer definitely built a house in life. He probably even built some 
"memory rooms" (which explains the "architect" comment). 

But what he's wandering in is not the physical house but, coming back 
to it yet again, that egregious memory mansion -- or, "his life." 
It's his memory, conceived of as a house. 

None of which is to say that he isn't _also_ haunting his actual 
house. So we get Wolfe doing his typical foxy, or even Wolfey, tricks 
-- the house is both real and metaphorical, the memory mansion and 
the real mansion, overlaid upon each other but not identical, and 
Weer getting lost in one becomes disoriented in the other.

(And another side note, because these things just keep popping into 
my head: a NYRSF article Mantis brought to my attention makes a 
great deal about the "e" from "Werwolf" winding its way to "Weer," 
and since Wolfe has said that there's more of himself in Weer than 
any other of his characters, I guess "Weer-Wolfe" becomes a Wolfey 
pun, modulo this is a ghost story rather than a werewolf story...)

Weer is not a memory expert, does not have a very well organized 
memory; so he gets lost in his "house," which we experience as the 
digressive and wandering style in which he "tells" his "story."

Further, much that doubtless seemed important to Weer during life 
doesn't get covered in the novel: for example, he's an engineer, 
so he presumably went to college at some point; but I don't think 
we even know what college he went to ... in fact, I don't recall 
much mention of Weer's formal education at _all_. So either his 
education doesn't matter at all to ghost-Weer, or it's so important 
that he evades it; but there are none of the usual signs of 
evasiveness, so I conclude that it's just not important to him in 
his search for peace. On the other hand, the fact that he killed 
Bobby Black is, but he can't bring himself to say it.

Basic principle of interpretation:

Things not mentioned at all simply aren't important; things hinted
at but not stated outright are (the most) important (of all).


What does it mean that he seems to be (or to believe that he is) 

From early times, memory has been conceived of as a process of writing 
or "inscribing"; I believe Aristotle used this metaphor. In "writing" 
is he in fact re-inscribing his memories -- trying, as Wolfe has said 
in that interview, to make sense of his life -- by revising his memory 
into a "preferred" version? One, say, in which he doesn't need to 
explicitly think about pushing Bobby Black down the stairs, in which 
he doesn't need to explicitly think about who locked whom in the 
freezer room that day in 19(38?): the "good parts" version of his own 
life, so to speak. 

Shades of Freud's magic writing tablet...

-- but to Wolfe, I should think, this would _not_ allow him to achieve 
peace; he can do so only by coming to terms with his "sins" and 
accepting them _as_ sins so he can be forgiven them. (At least so I 
understand the doctrines regarding repentance and forgiveness.) I'm 
not intending here to harp on the "purgatorial" aspect, but trying 
rather to understand what Wolfe would expect "peace" to involve.


So after all this, oddly enough, we begin to see that PEACE actually
has a very "linear" aspect: it begins with the freeing of the spirit
or ghost of Alden Dennis Weer, and ends... Where? "Den, darling, are 
you awake in there?" 

(And why _is_ Olivia's voice coming over an intercom she almost 
certainly never used in life?)

Wild-assed guess: if we conclude that Den _does_ actually achieve 
"peace," then Aunt Vi is inviting him to Move On to the Next Stage 
-- in RC terms, to "graduate" from Purgatory to Heaven. 

Alternatively, she is informing him that it's time to stop "reading"
and "writing" and get on with the business at hand, to actually come
to terms with the "stuff" he has avoided/evaded/elided. 

A depressing alternate interpretation: He _can't_ deal with these 
things, and will not achieve peace at all (the "stagnation" model 
-- not at all beyond the man who chose the "do-nothing future" for
his masterwork).

This matters a great deal to me -- if we've got the meaning of the 
opening line "settled," I want to feel equally confident that we 
have some idea about the close. I still think that the appointment 
note nailed to the desk, the intercom, and the other details of 
the last para all add up to *something*. But I'm not at all clear on


Mantis expressed this concern:
> ... a straight-line, non-ambiguous reading disposes of most of
> the novel: it reduces it to a single reading, which, while I
> agree that the reading is supported by text and interviews, is
> still ... stunted, truncated, over-simplified ...

I don't see that giving the frame story a clear (even linear) 
reading reduces the whole novel to that. This is "the story of 
Weer telling Weer's story," which by its very nature is going to 
be twisted and convoluted, and probably ambiguous and possibly 

But the puzzles -- the real puzzles; I get the impression from 
these various interviews that Wolfe is himself a bit puzzled 
that anyone would consider the time of narration a puzzle -- 
are in the story Weer tells, not the story of Weer telling it. 

Clarifying the time-and-place of his telling may help wrap them 
in a context, making the puzzles and (hypothetical) solutions 
more "meaningful" (i.e., why are _these_ the incidents he 
chooses to narrate, out of a long life?), but I don't think it 
simplifies them any.


Okay, I guess I have to pick a Vironese name now, right? Call me

-- Blattid

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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