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From: "Robert Borski" 
Subject: (urth) The Coldhouse Prank
Date: Wed, 21 Aug 2002 01:33:35 -0500

One of the bigger mysteries in PEACE involves the coldhouse prank. Who is
its perpetrator and who is victim? Most people seem to believe that Den is
the perpetrator, but in the 27 years since PEACE first came out, I've read
only one attempt at identifying the victim (mantis, hypothesizing a son of
Professor Peacock; see http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0030/0549.shtml).
If for nothing other than at least doubling the alternatives, I'd like now
to offer my own theory about who it is that's locked up in the coldhouse
prank and why he ends up there.

I'll be the first to admit there are several different ways of looking at
PEACE (in fact, I use the Purgatory model in the essay I wrote for
Scribner's), but one of the virtues of the Faust reading that I outline in
my "The Devil His Due" essay is that it allows me to resolve several of
PEACE's more enduring mysteries--at least within the terms I establish. Why,
for example, the relationship between Den and Margaret Lorn never works out,
or why Julius Smart is, by Den's definition, the book's central character.
It wasn't, however, until I discovered how integral alchemy is to the book's
overall organization that I was able to glean an answer about the coldhouse
prank's victim. In essence, as a good model should, it allowed me to predict
an answer I never expected to find.

As you may or may not recall, I postulate that each chapter in PEACE
represents a step in the alchemical process of transforming a base material
into gold. Each chapter has a representative character, color, and animal
associated with the process--all derived from, or based on, classical
alchemy. Each of the characters, in turn, is met in the opening scene, when
Den finds himself in Dr. Van Ness's waiting room. The lone character,
however, that seems hardest to fit into the scheme is Ted Singer,
representing the chapter "The President." That is, until you investigate the
animal associated with red, the fifth and final color in the alchemical
sequence: the pelican. Symbolically, the bird has an incredibly rich history
associating it with Christ, mainly due to the medieval belief that it fed
its young with blood torn from its own breast (what it really does is dip
its beak into its pouch to retrieve fish).

Let us therefore consider a little more deeply the implications of a
pelican-Singer connection, which if you'll accept the above scheme as
possibly legitimate, associates Ted Singer with God (el presidente grande de
cielo, no? just as Weer is later president of the juice factory). The name
Ted is the Anglicized version of Theo--Greek for God. And what is the
livelihood of Ted's grandfather? He's a building contractor, which makes
Ted's father Joshua ben Joseph--the likeliest victim of the coldhouse prank.
(Remember, all through PEACE, whether we're talking about the Weers, the
Lorns, or the Singers, we're talking about families, and just as the Devil's
name is legion, so too might we expect God to be pluripresent and
multi-generational.) One further connection exists, but before I end with
that, I'd like to recast the Singer-Weer polarity, this time looking at Den
and Ted as another mythic dyad, Dionysius and Orpheus.

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang

I've already mentioned the Dionysius/Dennis link in the main body of "The
Devil His Due." But is it possible that "Singer" also represents
Orpheus--like Jesus, another harrower of hell, who's seeking to undo the
damage caused by a serpent--and that this classically-based allusion
accounts for Den killing a member of the Singer clan? Dionysius, after all,
does sic the Maenads upon Orpheus when he doesn't pay him the proper
respects, whereupon the Maenads tear Orpheus limb from limb. It's also
possible that Singer has been involved with Sherry Gold. Not only is there
an argument between Ted and Sherry's brother Aaron at one point (Den says it
is of a religious nature, and what is probably the prime area of contention
between a Christian and a Jew? Whether Jesus Christ was the Messiah,
right?); but Sherry admits to Weer that she's had sex with several high
school boys, one of whom might be Ted. Onomasts will note that the last
syllable of Theodore and the first syllable of Doris derive from the same
Greek word--doros, meaning gift. Could Doris therefore be the possible
daughter of Ted and Sherry Gold? This might subsequently play to the notion
of Sherry-as-Eurydice, where Ted/Orpheus attempts to prevent her from
becoming further involved with Den Weer or possibly having his child. But
Ted, like his Greek exemplar fails, and Eurydice-Sherry is unable to avoid
or leave symbolic hell. (Eurydice, of course, has died from a snakebite.)

As for Ted's grandmother, Sophie, she bears the faux Indian name Princess
Singing Bird. But observe what Den's grandfather Elliot has in his
museum-like front parlor: a stuffed "large bird beneath a glass bell jar on
the center table." Think Christic pelican here, or cockeral--another bird
associated with the reddening process. In addition, when Den has the Chinese
garden dream that is so enticing to him, "that to wake would be a horror,"
and therefore "that it was best to remain twenty-five and happy, walking the
wandering little sanded path under the cypresses and cedars for as long as I
could," he finds two objects of significance: "an earthenware troll with a
fierce, sad face and stumpy limbs, fallen from his little pedestal" and a
dead bird whose breast feathers blow across the path, are caught, and turn
out to be the remnants of a paper lantern. The garden, I'm going to suggest,
is therefore Eden, site of the Adversary's greatest victory--the successful
temptation of Adam (note that adam means "earth, clay" in Hebrew and that
the troll is "fallen"), and this is why Den does not want to leave--imagine
Robert E. Lee revisiting Fredericksburg. Both birds also symbolize the
status of the doomed Singer/Orpheus clan-member in PEACE, and in the garden
case show that fire will win over--as does perhaps an earlier comment from
Den, who compares an Indian artifact given to him by Peacock to "a feather
from a bird petrified," suggesting it is not the prehistoric saurians that
have died out, but the Orpheid birds.

For the love of God, Montressor!

As can be seen by a careful reading of the novel, Ted Singer, his family,
and their symbolic equivalents, crop up in some rather unusual places, but
by far the strangest of them occurs in PEACE's second chapter. In what is
quite possibly Gene Wolfe's oddest sentence ever, Den is going on and on
about people having sex, and finally gets around to Ted, who's apparently
bumping uglies with a fellow high school student named Melissa. Or as Wolfe,
already in mid-parenthesis, convolutedly puts it:

"Melissa whom I used to see waiting with her textbooks and notebook propped
on one hip when I drove my cold-natured, reluctant old Plymouth to the plant
in the mornings, waiting for the school bus that never seemed to come early
or even on time) and Ted (who never got into the game unless Consolidated
was fourteen points ahead; Ted ran the four-forty but who cares about the
four-forty?) leave Melissa's father's brick ranch-style and Ted's mother's
Apt. 14 and become four-legged, two-backed, four-armed (oh, be forewarned!)
two-headed Ted and Lisa into which each less-than-half has vanished more or
less utterly, and (though the monster is not completely indissoluble still)
never to reappear."

Beside the Othello-like nature of Weer's rant (he is, after all, Black
Dutch--a descendant of Phillip II's Spanish soldiery), which might play to
the green-eyed-monster-jealousy-revenge angle, there are a number of things
noteworthy here. One is the conjoined polarities of Lisa-Ted copulating--an
image perhaps of the Androgyne, a potent alchemical symbol. Another is Den's
rather in-depth knowledge about what sports Ted participates in and the fact
that Ted lives not with two parents, but his mother. What has happened to
Mr. Singer, and is Den's obsessive detailing of Ted's sporting and sexual
activities due to the fact that he's trying, either nobly or out of guilt,
to act as surrogate father? Then there's also the hard-to-ignore repetition
of the variant "four" nine times. Does this perhaps refer to the Sacred
Tetragrammaton--Ted-Theo-YHWH? And is there any connection between this, and
the passage where Sally Gold says of her daughter, Sherry: "Very forward for
a girl of her age." Which is then echoed twice, once by Sherry, "Forward,
for God's sake" (the italicization is Wolfe's), then by her mother, "Yes,
forward for God's sake. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Like an old
battle cry. I don't believe soldiers talk that way anymore, but it might be
interesting to find out when they stopped, and why."

Then again, perhaps long ago, in the coldhouse of Julius Smart's factory,
this refrain from the oldest battle of all was said by a young man freezing
to death, and echoes there still.

Robert Borski


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