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From: Adam Stephanides <adamsteph@earthlink.net>
Subject: Re: (urth) PEACE: is Weer's biography knowable? (long)
Date: Tue, 05 Dec 2000 13:30:19 

Thanks for the thoughtful response; I'll do my best to reply in kind.

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes wrote:

> I'm inclined to agree with & even to insist upon the following basic points:
> 1. That Gene Wolfe did in fact have a "real" and (more or less) coherent
>    biography of ADW in mind when he wrote PEACE;

I agree that Wolfe had something definite in mind; whether it was a
coherent biography of Weer, or a collection of deliberately fragmentary
or inconsistent biographical "facts" I don't know.

> 2. That PEACE does not give us the clues to accurately, reliably, and
>    consistently reconstruct that biography.
> On the cover of my (oldish, trade pb) copy of 5HC, there's a quote from
> Ursula K. Le Guin describing the contents as (quoted from memory and
> probably
> wrong except in gist) an example in writing of the uncertainty principle. I
> would say that PEACE far more deserves this.
> The question is, assuming that all this uncertainty is not arbitrary (which
> would by implication predicate of its author a kind of meanness vis-a-vis
> his readers that I simply do not see as likely in the case of GW)

When I talked about the "trap" of biography, I didn't mean to imply that
Wolfe was being  pointlessly sadistic (though I'm not as convinced as
you of his essential helpfulness; after all, he's written one novel and
a number of shorter works which nobody, AFAIK, has yet made any sense
of).  Wolfe's intent, under this hypothesis, would not be to make the
reader endlessly and fruitlessly hunt for clues, but to make a point
about the mutability of memory, or the indeterminacy of reading or

> Adam wrote, "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." While I
> agree with him at a certain level, I suggest that the level is one which
> uses an impoverished -- or, rather, insufficiently enriched -- meaning for
> the word "comprehensible."

I partially agree with what I think you're saying.  I agree that there
are aspects of the book which can be "comprehended" apart from Weer's
biography, and that we should look at the why and how, not just the
what, of Weer's narration much more closely than we've done so far. (I
would have said something about this in my earlier post if I hadn't
wanted to finally get it out, as I had said.)

But, to jump ahead in your post, I'm skeptical that reading the book as
"the story of Weer telling his story" will make it more determinate or
comprehensible.  On the contrary, it seems only to lead to "confusion
worse confounded," at least on the evidence of the discussion here.  At
least we can put together a basic outline of Weer's life, even if it's
missing information on crucial points.  But when it comes to Weer's
present situation, we can't even agree on the simplest facts: is he
alive or dead?  If alive, is he young or old?  If dead, is he on his way
to heaven, resurrection, or neither?  To add to the confusion, Weer's
description of his present contains far more, and more glaring,
anomalies than his account of his past.  It's true that (judging by what
I've read) less work, in the sense of close reading, has gone into
investigating these questions than into investigating Weer's biography,
so it's possible that with more work things might clear up.

> Second, I suggest that the book contains everything necessary for a useful
> reading. This is important; it is, I think, the difference between calling
> Wolfe a sadistic and manipulative writer and calling him a tricksy but
> skilled and fair writer.

There's a third possibility: that Wolfe misjudged what a reader could
reasonably be expected to infer.  (Some of his statements in interviews
suggest that this is sometimes the case.  He apparently thought--or at
least recalled having thought--that nobody would actually build a house
as strange as Weer's "museum house."  I don't agree (the Winchester
house is a lot stranger), so I didn't make the deductions from Weer's
description of his house that Wolfe expected.)

[Comparison with Catholic Biblical interpretation snipped]

> Wolfe, a very convinced Catholic convert, may reasonably be expected to take
> a similar view toward his writings. (Remember; "Scripture" literally means
> "that which is written." All written works are at root Scriptural; all
> writings read properly reveal or even betray truth about him or her who
> writes them.) Again, where we find uncertainty and/or contradiction, we are
> probably reading in a way that asks the text the wrong questions.

Of course, Wolfe is aware that he isn't God (he even wrote a story on
the topic), so he would presumably concede that he might have
occasionally contradicted himself, or failed to say what he meant to.

> Returning to Adam's original post, I find this nugget: "it is not even clear
> 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?"
> Three points.
> First, I think we may immediately conclude that we are not expected to
> discover a (single/consistent/reliable) status for "the 'past' sections."
> "What is the status of the 'past' sections" is not among the most useful
> questions to ask.

If you're saying that the "past" sections don't all have the same
status, I agree.  If you're saying that it's not useful to ask what the
status of any particular "past" section (or portion thereof) is, I
disagree (but I don't think you are).

> Second, Adam left out at least two other possibilities.
>      1. Recollecting the past.
>      2. Reliving the past.
>      3. Recreating the past.
>      4. Lying about the past.

Well, I had been illustrating a point, not offering an exhaustive list. 
But I like your typology.
> The idea that Den actively lies to us is probably the dullest choice.
> The idea of straightforward recollection is only slightly more interesting;
> if
> this were the general case, we would have very little in the way of mystery.

Actually, (setting aside the other two possibilities on your list for a
moment), Weer is almost certainly neither 100% lying nor 100%
"straightforwardly recollecting."  Instead, his narrative is a
combination of recollection, suppression, and (perhaps) lying that is
nearly impossible to disentangle.  So I don't agree that we have "very
little in the way of mystery."

> Indeed, if I could ignore all the ellipses, elisions, and contradictions in
> Den's story

I certainly wouldn't ignore these, but we don't need Weer's "reliving"
or "recreating" to account for them, although there are other reasons
why Weer has to be "recreating at least to some extent.

> I would have to conclude that PEACE consisted of the somewhat-
> incoherent ramblings of a not particularly interesting person.

Heh.  Except for the "not particularly interesting" bit, that's a pretty
good description.

> "Recreating" is by far the most interesting; it probably covers more mental
> "territory" than any of the other three, from Den mentally asking himself
> what
> would have happened if he had done something differently, to "Purgatory" as
> a
> sort of mental "holodeck" where he can actually experiment with such things,
> to actually travelling back in time and doing it over. In addition, it may
> be
> that the explicit facts, events, and details do not change, but Den's
> understanding of them changes -- he does the same things but for different
> reasons, or simply is allowed to observe himself doing them and understand
> if
> he can the meaning of what he did and what happened afterward and why.


> In summary, then: I think we cannot build a usefully coherent and consistent
> chronology of Weer's life. I think the book actively forbids it. On the
> other
> hand, I think we can build a usefully coherent and consistent model of the
> book which accounts for the incoherency and inconsistency of Weer's account.

I'll have to think more about this idea of "recreating," and I want to
get this out while it's fresh.  It's clear that it's going on, at least
to some extent; there are the occasional intrusions of the present into
the "past," and the anomalies that have been pointed out in the doctor's
visit and in chapter five.  But I'm skeptical that "recreating" can be
the master key to building "a coherent and consistent model," as you
seem to be suggesting, at least one which is grounded in the text.


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

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