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From: Adam Stephanides <adamsteph@earthlink.net>
Subject: (urth) PEACE: is Weer's biography knowable? (long)
Date: Sun, 03 Dec 2000 12:35:42 

This is something I've been meaning to post for a couple of weeks; i.e.,
it was conceived before the recent valuable posts by mantis and Roy
taking a broader view, so it doesn't respond directly to them.  Also,
forgive any rough edges; due to my own procrastination, this has taken a
lot longer to finish than I'd expected, so I want to get it out before
everyone forgets the discussion.

I'll be taking a skeptical view of PEACE interpretation (I originally
planned to
call this "more nihilism to bring everybody down" <g>), so I want to
start by again thanking everyone who has participated in the PEACE
thread  so far.  I've learned an enormous amount about the book, both
from others' posts and from the close reading of the book that the
discussion inspired me to undertake.  And I hope that others have
learned something from my posts as well.

That said, PEACE has not become more comprehensible to me as a result of
this discussion.  On the contrary, it has made me realize that
understanding the book is far more difficult than I had thought.  In
particular, I've become quite pessimistic about the possiblity of
producing a "biography" of Weer grounded in the text.  There
are are two basic roadblocks in the way of all such
efforts.  First, the explicit information we are given about Weer's
life, or the information that can be deduced with certainty, leaves
many crucial questions about Weer's life.  Again and again Wolfe teases
us by making clear that some aspect of Weer's past, such as his
with his father or his breakup with Margaret, is important to him, but
giving no
further information about this aspect.  Compounding this problem,
despite Weer's articulateness, it is very difficult to get from his
narration a sense of his personality, as someone pointed out here once
(apologies to whoever it is).

The second obstacle is that, unlike in 5HC, we have no independent
source of information  aside from Weer's narrative, so once we accept
the probability that Weer is
unreliable about past events as well as his present situation we have no
way of comparing Weer's account with any more reliable data.
when reading fiction we assume that the narrator is truthful and
far more so than any real-life narrator could be about long-ago events.
plays with this convention in several works.
In PEACE, he throws it out entirely; but he doesn't replace it with
any other source of guidance.  To make matters worse, it is not even
what status Weer is claiming for the "past" sections of the text.  To
what extent is
he recollecting the past and to what extent is he reliving it?  In one
post, mantis remarked that a proposed interpretation violated "the rules
of the game," or words to that effect.  But there are no rules governing
the relationship of Weer's account to the truth, at least none that we
can know of.

Due to these obstacles, all interpretations of the book (including mine)
which see Weer as unreliable reject certain of his statements while
placing great emphasis on others, based on completely subjective
criteria.  To take an example, which will hopefully not offend anyone
since it's a thesis that I've endorsed, consider the proposition that
Weer was responsible for the death of the worker in the coldhouse
prank.  There are three possible arguments for this view that I'm aware
1.  Why does Weer include the story if it only happened to a coworker of
2.  The vividness of Weer's account of the culprit's emotions suggests
firsthand experience.
3.  Having Weer be the culprit fits in with various broader hypotheses
about Weer's life.

These arguments are not conclusive, either singly or together.  As to
the first argument, there are other stories whose inclusion is, on the
surface, equally inexplicable, and we don't explain these by saying that
they really happened to Weer.  It would be easy to give a thematic or
metaphoric interpretation of the coldhouse prank story, similar to the
interpretations we give for these other stories.  As to the second
argument, we know Weer is both imaginative and a gifted storyteller; and
his description of the terror of being alone in the factory at night
could be based on his own experience without his being the culprit of
the story.  And as to the third point, the broader hypotheses into which
Weer's being the culprit fit are, with no disrespect meant, even more

Furthermore, there are cogent arguments against Weer's being the culprit
(which I won't go into now, because that's not my point).  If, despite
all this, I favor the hypothesis that Weer is the culprit, it's because
I feel that PEACE is a more coherent book when read that way.  But this
is a matter of taste; if someone were to say that to them PEACE was more
coherent if Weer's narrative were taken as truthful in this case, I
would not be able to argue them out of it.

Not only are all attempts to go beyond the snippets of biography that
Weer himself gives us subjective; there are certain assumptions which
almost everyone takes for granted in these attempts, but which cannot be
shown to be true from the text.  Take Weer's "astral visit" to Van
Ness.  While one is tempted to take the non-anachronistic parts of this
visit to reflect a real visit, mantis has shown that there are
difficulties in such a reading, which leads him to posit that Weer is
conflating two real visits.  But even this may be assuming too much. 
Weer's narration of the start of the visit has, to me, a dreamlike
quality, and it seems to me that the entire visit, not just the
interview with Van Ness, may be a fabrication of Weer's: he undoubtedly
did see Van Ness when alive, but there may never have been a visit in
which he sat in the waiting room while Margaret read Life and Sherry
whispered to Ted, or where Weer seartched in his pants pockets for his
jackknife before remembering he no longer carried it.  In any case, we
cannot prove from the text that these events ever took place; as stated
above, the relationship between Weer's narrative and his actual past is
undetermined by the text.

Similarly, I once argued that the "day in the life of the president" in
chapter five was not a real day in Weer's past, but a fabrication by
Weer of the same type as his visit to Van Ness, conflating events that
happened on various days or never happened.  There were no responses to
my post, either positive or negative, but again you can't prove from the
text that my hypothesis is false.

Finally, there is the question of Weer's memory, which Roy recently
raised.  Weer tells us more than once that his memory is fallible, as,
course, everyone's is.  But we tend to discount these statements and
that when Weer is inaccurate it's because he is consciously or
suppressing something.  Again, this assumption cannot be justified by
the text (only by the reading convention I mentioned above, which Wolfe
implicitly rejects).  To take a concrete example, Blaine's account of
the "Chinese
egg" affair is quite different from Weer's and we assume that this
demonstrates the inaccuracy of Blaine's memory.  But as Roy has pointed
out, there are no grounds for this assumption.  Blaine may be right and
Weer wrong, or both may be
equally wrong.

These assumptions can be justified on the basis that without them, it is
impossible to reconstruct Weer's biography.  But did Wolfe intend us to
be able to reconstruct Weer's biography?  Much of the interpretation of
PEACE (including mine) seems to proceed on the assumption that Wolfe hid
clues within the text which, if dug up and interpreted properly, will
yield Weer's true biography.  But a great deal of intepretive effort and
ingenuity has been expended on PEACE and, while several plausible
"biographies" have been produced, I don't find any of them to be
sufficiently grounded in the text, or to yield a convincing enough
reading of the book as a whole, for me to accept as Weer's true
biography, or as what Wolfe intended.  Of course, it's still early days;
it may be that somebody will find convincing evidence in the text that
has been overlooked or misinterpreted up to now.  But it seems just as
possible to me that Wolfe intended the book as a trap for the reader who
would be lured into trying to construct Weer's biography, hunting for
answers that aren't there and seeking definitiveness where there is only
ambiguity.  The quote I cited earlier, about Weer trying to arrange the
_Life_s in chronological order and failing, seems to suggest this.  It
may also be the case that Wolfe did have a "true" biography in mind, but
failed to provide unambiguous indications of this, for whatever reason.

I could say more, but I think I'd better stop and post this already.  As
usual, comments are appreciated.


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

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