Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon 0816183201

self-explanatory title

530 56 21MB

English Pages [188] Year 1982

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

Citation preview

Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon Richard Pearce

G. K. Hall & Co. • Boston, Massachusetts

Cop}'righr s 1961


Richllrd Pellret!

Lihrary nf Congres.... Cataloging in Puhlkatinn Data Main l'ntr)' under Util': Critil-al t"ssay~ on ·1110ma.~ Pynchon. (Critical ~Sa)'5 un .'\nwriC311 literatun·) Bihliowaph), : Include" index, I. PrTlchnn. Thomn~-Critici~m and intl'rl)fetationAddresses. ~ssa)'s. lechlres, I. Pearce, Richard. 1932, II. Series. PS.'1I)66 ...,SSZ62 813'.54 81-6814 ISB~ O.IU61·1s.120·1 AACR2

TIIi.Y ,JUI,licat;ofl is I,rirated on


acid·/re(f paprr


CRITICAL ESSAYS ON AMERICAN LITERATURE This series seeks to collect the most important previously published criticism on writers and topics in American literature along with, in various volumes, original essays, interviews, bibliographies, letters, manuscript sections, and other materials brought to public attention for the first time. Richard Pearce's volume on Thomas Pynchon offers fifteen essays on this major contemporary writer, including articles by Josephine Hendin, Alan J. Friedman and Manfred Puetz, and Maureen Quilligan. In addition, it contains an important original essay on Gravity Rainbow


by Marcus Smith and Khaehig Tololyan and a useful annotated bibliography of Pynchon criticism by Beverly Lyon Clark and Caryn Fuoroli. We are confident that this collection will make a permanent and significant contribution to American literary study. JAMES NACEL, GENERAL EDITOR

Northeastern University

CONTENTS INTRODUCTION Richard Pearce ESSAYS Richard Wasson, UNotes on a New Sensibility" Richard Patteson, "What Stencil Knew: Structure and Certitude in Pynchon's V. .. J2..,~W,..BUDt·, uComic Escape and Anti-Vision: V. and Tlae Crying of Lot 49" Josephine Hendin, "What is Thomas Pynchon Telling Us? V. and Gravity'S Rainbow" TJ!2mas Schaub, 'A Gentle Chill, An Ambiguity': The Crying of Lot Alan J. Friedman and Manfred Puetz, "Science as Metaphor: Thomas Pynchon and Gravity; Rainbow" Speer Morgan, "Gravity's Rainbow: What's The Big Idea?" Lawrence Wolfley, "Repression's Rainbow: The Presence of Norman O. Brown in Pynchon's Big Nover'


1 13


32 42


51 69 82


Scott Simmon, ··Beyond the Theater of War: Graoity's Rainbow as Film"


Steven WeLenburger, "The End of History? Thomas Pynchon and the Uses of the Past" Elaine B. Safer, "The Allusive Mode and Black Humor in Pynchon's Graoityi Rainbow" Marcus Smith ah~ lChachig Tololyan, "The New Jeremiad: Gravity, Rainbow'" Maureen Quilligan, ["Thomas Pynchon and the Language of Allegory"] , Richard Pearce, "Where're They At, Where're They Going? Thomas p)PJlchon and the American Novel in ~fotion" Beverly Lyon Clark and Caryn Fuoroli, "A Re,iew of Major Pynchon Criticism"




140 157 169 187 213

INTRODUCTION For Henry Adams at the turn of the century, history "'as like a cannon ball coming directly towards him, and he could trace its fivethousand year curve. Its momentum increased just before Constantine set up the Cross; it swerved as Gutenberg printed the Bible and Columbus discovered a new world; it was given a new curve by Galileo and Bacon. But in 1900 ..the continuity snapped." And Adams con\reyed the dislocation not only in his metaphors but by picturing himself in the third person: Power leaped from every atom, and enough of it to supply the steUar universe showed itself running to waste at every pore of matter. Man could no longer hold it off. Forces grasped his wrists and Oung him about as though he had hold of a live wire or a runaway automobile; which \\'as very nearly the exact truth for the purposes of an elderly and timid si!1gle gentleman in Paris, who never drove down the Champs EI)'s~ without expecting an accident, and commonly witnessing one; or found himself In the neighborhood of an official without calculating the chances of a bomb. So long as the rates of progress held good, these bombs ,,'ould double in force and number every ten years. l Thomas Pynchon opens Craoity i Rainbow ",ith the experience of a rocket-bomb that goes beyond Adams's prediction. "A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now." For. Pirate Prentice uit is too late . . . . No light anywhere . . . . He's of the way the glass will fall-soan-it "ill be a spectacle: the f&\w( a crystal palace ..•: But Pirate Prentice Is only dreaming, and when he wakes up we e~ter a nightmare that makes his dream and Adams' vision nostalgic interludes. For the V-2 rocket that appears as a brilliant point of light in the pink morning sky does not scream. ult travels faster than the speed of sound. The first news you get of it is the blast. Then, if you're still around, you hear the sound of it coming in . . . . You couldn't adjust to the bastards. No ,vay.":' Wfir~.! than the nightmare experience of an ordinary air raid is anticipating the ne,,' rocket-which travels with unprecedented speed, confuses direction through time and space, and denies the logic of common sense. It not only snaps continuity t it explodes virtually before it arrives. It indeed signals that fall of a crystal palace-the rational, orderl)· world that had been the dream of nineteenth-century science and that, Henry Adams notwithstanding, had continued as an Ideal of progress in America into the middle of the twentieth century.



Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon .

The experience culminating in Pynchon's third novel is of more than the terror that pervaded England toward the end of World War II. It is of the acceleration of unprecedented events that followed, especially as they affected the American psyche: the explosion of an atomic bomb that threatened a holocaust, a "cold war" that created worldwide tension and paranoia, a Korean War few people could understand, and then the Vietnam War-which showed us that what Whitman once heralded as "Nature without check," America's "original energy,"4 had been channeled into forms of exploitation and imperialism t giving rise to riots in the ghettos, factionalism in our major institutions, and a revolution in taste and manners. The acceleration also gathered its impetus from new forms of electronic communication, computerization, space exploration, and growth of multinational industries; it would continue to gain momentum in the experience of Watergate and the energy crisis.

On the one hand, we are living with the results of unchecked energy-and Whitman's metaphor has become frighteningly literal. On the other hand, we are living with the results of a gathering rationalism that has sped up communications and made more information available as it has overloaded our circuits and subjected us to the possibility of total if undefinable control. And this paradox Henry Adams had also foreseen: The child born in 1900 would ... be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple. Adams tried to imagine it. and an education that would fit it. He found himself in a land where no one had ever penetrated before; where order was an accidental relation obnoxious to nature; artificial compulsion imposed on motion; against which every free energy of the universe revolted; and which, being merely occasional, resolved itself back into anarchy at last. He could not deny that the law of the new multiverse explained much that had been most obscure, especially the persistently fiendish treatment of man by man; the perpetual effort of society to establish law, and the perpetual revolt of society against the law it had established; the perpetual building up of authority by force, and the perpetual appeal to force to overthrow it; the perpetual symbolism of a higher law, and the perpetual relapse to a lower one; the perpetual victory of the principles of freedom, and the perpetual conversion into principles of power; but the staggering problem wa... the outlook ahead into the despotism of artificial order which nature abhorred. 5 Pynchon gives palpable shape to the "new world" Adams tried to imagine-in his fictional landscapes and the very form of his novels, which are at once multiple and monolithic, anarchic and ominously patterned. The landscape of V. is vast and inanimate. Called by William Plater "Baedeker Land, "e it is populated by tourists (explorers, agents, hedonists, pursuers, sailors, wanderers, refugees, outcasts) and governed



by an inescapable illusion of reality. If we find it difficult to keep track of the novers characters (of Benny Profane as he aimlessly yo-yos, Herbert Stencil as he ceaselessly searches for V., V. as she continually transforms herself into new guises, and a host of cartoon characters who are always on the move) we also intimate that they are moving in obedience to some universal but unnatural law . In The Crying of Lot 49 the "new world" is a megalopolis, sprawling incoherently but likened to a printed circuit. It is either an accidental conglomeration or a network of freeways, motels, used car lots, suburban lounges, television stations, corporate industries, and communications systems. And the novel develops through a series of similar and intricate plots that may be real or imagined, connected or disconnected, actually or apparently related to a series of events originating in the early days of modem history and involving the official mail service and its revolutionary counterpart. In Grav'ty's Rainbow the "new world" becomes "the Zone" through which Tyrone Slothrop travels trying to escapepursuers of both the allies and axis, who may all be knowing or unknowing agents of the multinational synthetics industry that burgeoned on World War II. Now the very life force of the universe is also the force of death, manifesting itself in the shape of both Slothrop's erection and the V-2 rocket. But, though Slothrop draws us into "the Zone," he disappears two-thirds the way through a formless novel that is populated by hundreds of major and minor characters, that shifts its locus from one country to another, leaps from scientific formulas to the comics, from myth to tin pan alley, from terror to slapstick-and yet ends where it began, with the nightmare of an approaching rocket. In the dark Orpheus moviehouse we are addressed in the second person-it is our senseless nightmare and inescapable reality. And we are enjoined to sing along as the rocket ·'reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof. . . . Now,everybody-(.]"7 History, for both Adams and Pynchon, is accelerating out of control and yet govem~by an impersonal force. And both are obsessed with history at least partly due to their personal stake in it. Like Adams's, Pynchon's ancestors played a distinguished if not central role in American history. William Pynchon, who becomes William Slothrop in Gravity" Rainbow, was a patent holder and treasurer of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, helped found both Roxbury and Springfield, and served as a magistrate at the witchcraft trials of Hugh and Mary Parsons. But he also wrote a heretic tract correcting the "common Errors" of the New England Puritans, who condemned the book to be burned in the Boston marketplace. His descendents included Joseph Pynchon, who was in line for the governorship of Connecticut until he supported the British in the Revolution. a judge and physician who corresponded with Hawthorne to protest his characterization of the Pynchon family in The HOlUe of ,he Seven GtJbles, a surgeon who invented the kind of instruments that Dr. Schoenmaker would use in the nose job of V., and a stockbroker who con-


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

tributed to the military-industrial complex prior to the Second World War. But while Pynchon has a personal stake in American history, he does not view the past from a personal, let alone official, perspective-indeed, in "Entropy" and V .• he parodies Adams's speaking of himself in the third person. Quite the contrary, Pynchon strives for anonymity, as if he were trying to become one of the dropouts of The Crying oj Lot 49 or the preterite of Gravity's Rainbow; and searching for clues to his life is like entering one of his novels. Mathew Winston (to whose "Quest for Pynchon"· I am indebted for the biographical information I have found) discovered that there is no picture of him on his book jackets or on the freshman register at Cornell, that his transcript mysteriously vanished from the University and that his service record was burned after an ext

plosion at the Naval office in St. Louis. Like Adams, Pynchon also studied science. But Adams only grasped the outlines of what he read-admitting that he "greedily devoured" Poincaire "without understanding a single consecutive page, and insisting that a student of history has no need to understand the scientific ideas of great men. It Moreover t if he was stirred by the revolutionary impact of modem science, he could not fully accept the loss of unity or break the hold of mechanistic explanation. The law of acceleration, by which he explained the dynamic of history, is classically mechanistic: it allows for neither discontinuity nor a change in the material properties of the moving object. In contrast, Pynchon studied engineering science at Cornell before becoming an English major and worked at Boeing aircraft for two years after college. Moreover, he was born in 1937, well into the century that astonished Adams, and seems to see nothing but discontinuity. That is, he not only understands but has fully assimilated the concepts of modern science-where unity gives way to multiplicity, order to disorder, progress to entropy, continuity to discontinuity, the law of cause-effect to the rule of probabUity, the ideal of certainty to the necessity of uncertainty. And Pynchon confronts the paradox which Adams only began to glimpse: of a "new world" that is absolutely anarchic and yet totally governed by an impersonal order. But first let me outline some fundamental concepts that underlie Pynchon's imaginative construction of the "new land." According to the classical Newtonian view, the physical universe was like a machine; its movement was continuous, and it could be completely explained in terms of matter and force. That is, through systematic investigation, it would be possible to know all of its parts, formulate its laws with certainty, and harness Its power for the benefit of man. At the end of the 18th century Laplace postulated the ideal: "an intellect which at a given instant knew all the forces acting in nature, and the position of aU things of which the world consists . . . would embrace in the same formula the motions of the greatest bodies in the universe and those of the It



sUghtest atoms; nothing would be uncertain for it, and the future, like the past, would be present to its eyes. "10 And the novel developed toward the same end-as the omniscient narrator, knowing the situation of all his characters and the laws of human motivation, embraced his world in a formula called the plot. By the end of the nineteenth century, developments in thermodynamics were beginning to undermine the classical view. Adams was no more ambivalent about the challenge than some of the scientists who contributed to it. The first challenge arose from changing the model for the physical universe from a machine to a cylinder of gas. Alan J. Friedman, who is both a physicist and an illuminating reader of Pynchon, elucidates the consequences of this change in his useful "Science and Technology in Gravity B Rainbow. "II He points out that a cylinder no bigger than a can of bair spray contains a trillion atoms bouncing off one another trillions of trillions of times a second. And since it would be impossible to apply Newton·s laws directly to all of them, the scientist applies statistical law , computes the typical path of an atom, and predicts the total pressure with extreme accuracy. Sacrificed in this approach, though, is the ability and even the attempt to predict the behavior of any particular atom. Indeed, a particular atom may behave unpredictably-subject only to chance or accident. As a result, the scientist no longer thinks in terms of certainty but only probability, which, however high, can never reach 100%. And wbUe statistics are appUed within the framework of Newton·s laws, the framework is threatened by the shift in strategy and the acceptance of chance even as a practical convenience. Pyncbon plays with the image of the unpredictable atom in The Crying of Lot 49 when Oedipa, preparing for a game of Strip BotticelU, accidentally knocks over a can of spray deodorant and cowers on the bathroom Ooor as it caroms off the walls. Still thinking i~ conventional terms, though, she imagines that God or a computer could predict its path. Indeed, her search for order throughout the novel ref1~r refusal to accept the law of the "new world." In CraoltysRafnbow, Pynchon works with the image more seriously: Roger Mexico can predict the striking pattern of the V-2 rockets with extreme accuracy, but never where a single rocket wUlland; and in this novel the antagonist Dr. Pointsman, rather than the protagonist, refuses to accept the limits of probability. Moreover, as Pynchon develops his singular form-or formlessness-from V. to The Crying oj Lot 49 to Gravity's Rainbow, the paths of his characters become less easy to plot. Alan J. Friedman also points out that the model of thermodynamics does not in itself challenge classical physics; it only leads to the application of statistics and probability. In fact, the first law of thermodynamics is a statement of classical unity, for it asserts the conservation of energy-that energy cannot be created or lost but only transformed. But the second law, as Adams recognized, threatened the ideal of a perfect machine whose power could be harnessed for the benefit of man. It states


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

that systems tend to run down in time, for processes tend toward disorder. "Entropy," the measure of disorder, is the title of an early Pynchon story which schematizes a theme developed imaginatively in aU of his novels. Indeed, he recognizes that entropy is a measure not only of energy but information. According to Norbert Weiner, whose ideas were still being hotly discussed when Pynchon was in college, information is order; but, like energy, it is subject to disorganization in transit. II Moreover. the very gathering of information (which, it was thought, enabled Maxwell's hypothetical Demon to maintain order and counter entropy) takes energy out of the system and contributes to the disorder. Anne Mangel argues that this is the ironic consequence of Oedipa's heroic quest: the more meanings and connections she finds, the more she contributes to the disorder of her world. 13 But Pynchon also seems to have recognized that information may be defined as disorder rather than order. In information theory, the more uncertain a message the more information it can convey. And entropy, being a measure of increasing information, becomes a positive tendency. In this light, as Thomas Schaub points out, Oedipa's search offers the possibility of hope-although the more she, and the reader, learn about the Tristero, the more we are overwhelmed by the amount of information and its uncertainty.14 Indeed, in each of his novels, Pynchon draws us into a search for order, where the information and uncertainty become overwhelming, and where the search itself, while necessary and even ennobling, tends toward disorder. But a key word in the second law of thermodynamics is "tends." A system tends to run down. We are back to probability. There is always a small chance of a system not running down-or of a force that counteracts thermodynamic entropy. The possibility of such a force is embodied in p)rnchon's characters who search for order-Herbert Stencil in V., Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, Slothrop in Gravity, Rainbow-as well as in the reader, whom Pynchon compels to join in the search. As I have pointed out, the search may contribute to the disorder. Moreover, the very intimation of order may be a form of paranoia-and in each of his novels Pynchon taps the power of this pervasive modern phenomenon. But he may be discovering a positive as well as a negative source in paranoia, for it leads not only to solipsism but to genuine community. And if it becomes a form of modem religion, it is also shown to be a fundamental religious impulse throughout Western history. While thermodynamiCS threatened the classical view scientists share with historians and artists, quantum mechanics demolished it. The science of elementary particles was just being formulated as Henry Adams wrote The Education; in fact the breakthrough was made by a man who anticipated Adams' mentor, Josiah Gibbs, in recognizing the importance of thermodynamics. In 1900 Max Planck solved what had been an unsolvable problem by upsetting a fundamental assumption of classical physics: the continuity of nature. Although he struggled against having to



accept it, he finally proved that light energy does not flow in a continuous stream but in bursts, jumps, discontinuous portions, or quanta. And in 1913 Niels Bohr used Planck's formula to show that electrons-then considered one of nature's elementary particles-jumped discontinuously from one orbit or level of energy to another. Werner Heisenberg went even farther than Planck, to establish the principle of indeterminacy. Since elementary particles are extremely small and travel at extremely high speeds, to observe one with accuracy would be to disturb it. Moreover, the more certain one becomes of its location, the less certain the velocity; and the more certain the velocity, the less certain the location. And the indeterminacy can be measured by Planck's minute but absolutely constant proportion. The very act of observation causes uncertainty-as Pynchon shows in the failures of Herbert Stenc" and Oedipa Maas. But Heisenberg-and Pynchon-go further, and show that indeterminacy inheres in nature itself. (Heisenberg's theory is borne out by. a pheomenon well known to physicists and described by MUec Capec. When radioactive alpha particles with sufficient velocity are directed at an electrical barrier, they should mount it; with insufficient velocity they should be deflected. But if we are almost certain of their velOCity, their position becomes uncertain. And there is a small probability-determined by Planck's constant-that some fast particles will be deflected and some slow particles will mount the wall. Which is exactly what happens. IS.) If V. and The Crying oj Lot 49 dramatize the uncertainty produced by a central character in the act of observation and investigation, Gravity's Rainbow shows that indeterminacy is inherent In Pynchon·s world for it lacks a central or unified observer even in the role of narrator. That is, the narrative voice and vantage shift so often, so discontinuously, and so discon~rtingly that the narrator is never more than another indeterminate element in the novel's field. The "new wQr~" that Adams tried to imagine and that Pynchon Invokes is Uke the world of modem physics. It is discontinuous and uncertain, acting not like a machine but a cylinder of gas, and governed not by the laws of callie-effect but the rule of probability. Since it consists of elements in continual motion and individually unpredictable, and since the motion tends toward disorder-the "new world" appears anarchic. But since probability rules, it is also governed by an impersonal and despotic order that may result from either accident or design. Still, uncertainty is both a threat and a promise. Indeed an unofficial axiom-known paradoxically as "the totalitarian law of physics" -states that "anything not forbidden is compulsory. "lilt is just this principle that led imaginative scientists to predict the existence of such improbable objects as quarks and neutrinoS. And it can also· explain the imaginative possibilities Thomas Pynchon discovers even as he pictures the modern condition in its darkest light.


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

I have attempted to explain the conceptual basis of what Pynchon turns into the landscape and form of his fiction-which is not to say that Pynchon's fiction is abstract. For it is loaded, indeed overloaded, with precisely rendered physical detail and accurate facts. As a result, his most fantastic scenes are palpably credible. If they do not mirror, they magnify social, psychological, and historical reality. As Esther submits to a nose job in V., Pynchon not only provides a clinical account of the entire procedure; he reveals the psycho-sexual needs of a young Jewish woman brought up on movies and advertisements, the affluence of American society in the fifties, the deftness and power of a surgeon, the technological terror barely suppressed by ordinary appearances, the Faustian drive culminating in the displacement of nature by plastics, and the alignment of the human with the inanimate.

In The Crying oj Lot 49, Pynchon draws us into the plastic megalopolis of the West Coast. When Oedipa prepares for a game of Strip Botticelli with Pierce Inverarity's agent in the Echo Courts Motel she puts on enough of a wardrobe to satisfy a latter day anthropologist-"six pairs of panties in assorted colors, girdle, three pairs of nylons, three brassieres, two pairs stretch slacks, four half-slips, one black sheath, two summer dresses, half dozen A-line skirts, three sweaters, two blouses, quilted wrapper, baby blue peignoir and an old Orlan muu-muu. Bracelets then, scatter pins, earrings, a pendant." 1T When Oedipa thinks about how Metzger discovered her in the motel she chose at random, when Metzger appears as Baby Igor on the TV show they are watching, and when the commercials advertise the products of Inverarity's interlocking corporations, she begins to wonder "if it's all part of a plot. "18 Thus Pynchon infects us with the paranoia of the sixties. And in Gravity 8 Rainbow, we are made to feel the cloying at-

mosphere of an English rooming house and the desperation of a hard-up American GI as Slothrop enters the sitting room of Darlene's landlady and is compelled not only to stifle his desire but sample her pre-war wine jellies: the safe-looking ribbed licorice drop that tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels, the stylized raspberry fUled with what must be pure nitric acid, the miniature handgrenade with its tamarind glaze and center of cubeb berries and camphor gum, the sour gooseberry shell yielding to glutinous chunks saturated with powdered cloves. But, with the V-2 rocket on its way, this episode also reveals the ambiguous fortitude of the English middle-class. Moreover, it parodically reflects the sensuous taste of death that General Pudding developed in the World War I trenches and relishes in his masochistic rituals, and it foreshadows the dark playfulness of Captain Blieero's fairy-tale sadism as he oversees the development of the ultimate rocket. Indeed, Pynchon overwhelms us with concrete details, which critics continue to verify, not only of London during the rocket raids, but of the English intelligence operation, a general's memories of The Great Wart the events leading to the development of the



V-2, the Herero wars in Southwest Africa, the revolution of the Turkish alphabet, American popular culture, the Cerman film industry, the discovery of synthetics, and the multinational corporations that thrived and burgeoned on World War II. The physicality of Pynchon's world and the concrete facts, which as Edward Mendelson says places him in the tradition of encyclopedic novelists, make his improbable stories frighteningly credible and magnify social and psychological reality. But presented with such incongruity, they are also the source of his comedy and, hence, of his affirmation. Pynchon may reveal the modem world as a wasteland, but unlike Eliot he revels in the waste and disorder. In an early story called "Low-Lands," Dennis F1ange leaves his home overlooking Long Island Sound for a garbage dump-where he can drink muscatel with his buddies and follow a

beautiful gypsy through an old refrigerator into a grotto of delight. This becomes the sewer of V. where Benny Profane hunts bUnd albino alligators, the Dightworld of Lot 49 where Oedlpa discovers hundreds of people who have dropped out of the Republic and communicate by depositing letters in containers marked W.A.S.T.E., and the underground of the Zone where Tyrone Slothrop escapes by disappearing from Gravity; Rainbow. Which is to say that, while Pynchon more than any other modern novelist makes us feel the tanJdble threat of disorder, disorder also excites his imagination. In another short story, "The Secret Integration," written after V. and before The Crying oj Lot 49, he focuses on a gang of children led by a boy genius. Grover Snodd's inventions did not always work, and his plans always went awry, creating problems that required new plans, but "it tickled Crover any time he could interfere with the scheming of grownups." The elaborate though continually unsuccessful schemes of the boys shed ligh~ on the Tristero of Lot 49 and the preterite of Gravity i Rainbow. Pyncho~ like Grover Snodd (who must be the nascent novelist unless it was Gio.r8J' Snodd who invented him) sees that the only way to fight the adult world-or the forces of waste, disorder, and death-is through a more" creative mode of disordering. Pynchon's creativity, then, has its own demonic dimension. His impulse, like that of the devils in the medieval sottie plays, is to excite us-or bring us to life-through acts of sheer annihilation. And, if dangerous, this impulse is also moral. While still an undergraduate at Cornell, PynChOD wrote "Morality and Mercy in Vienna." The story centers on Cleanth Siegel, who finds himself becoming a confessor to the wild crew he meets at a party in Washington, D.C. He is exhilarated by the "still small Jesuit voice" inside him, which had inspired him once to set five hundred freshmen in motion, advancing on the women's dorms. Now it inspired him to make use" of what he had learned in an anthropology course about Ojibwa lore-and goad a lonely Indian into massacring the guests. It would be a "moment of truth," a "miracle." And then the other,


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

"gentle part of him" would sing kaddishes for the dead and mourn "over the Jesuifs happiness, realizing however that this kind of penance was as good as any other." Pynchon has come a long way hom his early short story. StUI, Josephine Hendin concludes that he "is the genius of his generation ... the Antichrist who offered up his own destructiveness to illuminate yours ... the one man who realized that the moralist of our time would have to be the devil. nl8 Thomas Pynchon has inteUectually accepted and imaginatively CODfronted the multiplicity of the "new world" and the acceleration of modern history. He leads us through the darkest moments of what might have happened and keeps us on the frightening, though exhUarating, edge of what might become. Indeed, he is among the most intellectually, imaginatively, and morally challenging of modem writers. This collection of essays is designed to reflect the developing critical reaction and, even more, the breadth of critical approaches to his challenge. Therefore, except for the first two essays which expUcitly confront this challenge, I have arranged them chronologically as they treat each succeeding novel. Since I have been limited in my selection not only by space but the prior publication of two excellent anthologies, a detailed review of major criticism concludes this volume. I would like to thank Beverly Clark and Caryn Fuoroli for both their work on the review and their advice and assistance. I would also like to E\'press my appreciation to Alan J. Friedman for his thoughtful criticism of this introduction and my regrets that his own essay on "Science and Technology in Gravity's Rainbow" was already committed to another publication. RICHARD PEARCE

Wheaton College Notes 1. The Education oj Henry Adam.t (New York: Random House. 1931). p. 494.

2. Gravity. Rainbow (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 3. 3. Cromty. Rainbow, pp. 6 and 21. 4. "Song of Myself." 1:13. 5. Education, pp. 457-58. 6. TM Grim Phomabc: R«on.dructlng Pynchon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1978). pp. 65-134. 7. Crauityi Rainbow. p. 760. 8. Twentleth-Cenlury Literature, 21 (1975). 278-87. Reprinted in Mindful Pktuura: E.rso!l' on Thoma Pynchon. ed. Ceorge Levine and David Leverenz (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976). pp. 251-63. 9. Education. p. 454. 10. Introduction d hJ GnGIyti~ da probGbUlt., DelIO,. Complila (paris, 1886). p. vi. translated and quoted in Milec Capek. Pld/o.sophlcallmpact oj Contemporary Physb (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981), p. 122. 11. In Charles Clerc, ed., CrfticGl APPI'OGCIaa 10 Cravity's Rainbow. to be published by Ohio University Press. 1982. 12. TM Human Ule oj Human Befnp (New York: Avon Books, 1967).




13. "Muwell"s Demon. Entropy. Information: T~ Crying oj Lot 49. TriQtu:rrterly 20 (1971), 194-208. Reprinted in MlndJuI PleG6Uf'a, pp. 87-100. 14. " 'A Centle ChUl. An Ambiguity': TM Crying oj Lot 49," see pp. 5J-RP 15. PhllOlOphkGllmpGCt oj Contemporary Plupfa (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold,

1961), pp. 3OPr-10. 16. Jeremiah P. Ostrlker, "The Nature of Pulsars:' Scientific American 224 Oanuary 1971):49. 17. The Crying oj Lol49 (PhU.delphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1966). p. 36. 18. p. 31. 19. "What Is Thomas Pynchon Telling Us?" see pp. 42-50


"Notes on a New Sensibility" Richard Wasson· • One task for our generation of critics is to define the sensibility which manifested itself during the late fifties and early sixties. We all recognize something new, but in the peculiar language game of literary criticism, our definitions become vague and even conflicting. At the moment it is difficult to coPlprehend precisely the meaning of terms like "new realism,·· "new novel,'· uantinovel," "death of the novel," IIfabulators,·· "black humor,·· "counterfeiters," ·'the literature of silence," "of selfparody,'· "of law and order," etc.; yet we are on the right track. The writers of the last decade, Robbe-Grillet, Iris Murdoch, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, to mention only those of direct concern here, have, among other things, provided literary critics with new perspectives on the old problem of what literature is and might be. By delineating the differences between moderns and contemporaries I hope to contribute to our developing sense of those perspectives. Contemporary literature reacts against the literature we call modern, the literature represented in English by Yeats, Eliot and Joyce, in French by Proust, in German by Hesse. Contemporary writers are skeptical of modernist notions of metaphor as a species of 5uprarational truth that unifies paradoxical.opposltes and modernist conceptions of myth which make it a principiI ~f order for art and of discipline for the subjective self. My task here is the old one of discriminating between historical eras, an enterprise unfortunately requiring a discomforting degree of simplification and leduction. Distinctions between individual authors and continuities between periods, all the discriminations one likes to keep in mind, must be sacrificed to the job of making distinctions between one group and another. Hopefully the distinctions wUI prove illuminating enough to justify the procedure. I begin my historical task with a description of the modernist consensus on the nature of myth and metaphor, starting with T. S. Eliors enunciation of the mythic principle in "Ulysses, Order and Myth. "In using myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is' pursuing a method which others must pursue after him . . . . It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving It

-Reprinted &om PGrlUan Rft>few. 36 (1969). 48)-77. Copyright © 1969 by PGrtI.ttJn Rmew.



Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. It is a method first adumbrated by Mr. Yeats." In Yeats's adumbration, myth structured poems, but it was also a form of spiritual discipline indispensable to the understanding of the self, of history, of the selfs place in history. With Eliot and Joyce, Yeats was suspicious of the flux of the subjective self and its ability to cope with the chaos of the contemporary world. If self-mastery were to be achieved and with it the mastery of history, the self had to determine which phase of the historical moon it was in, the phase of the psychological moon to which it properly belonged, and then find its true mask in the proper antithetical phase. ulf we cannot imagine ourselves as different hom what we are and assume the second self," Yeats wrote in his autobiography, "we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves, though we may accept one from others. Active virtue as distinguished from passive acceptance of the present historical code is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask." Myth then turns the problems of self and history into a cosmic drama in which the self finds its way through role playing. Eliot resolved the problem in simUar fashion, but with a different myth. As man and poet he struggled to extinguish the personality so that he might become the assured spokesman, not of idiosyncratic perceptions but of an ever present salvational order. As craftsman he struggled to displace his own voice, first with those of various personae, then with voices representing the tradition and the "Mind of Europe, ,. and finally with the voices of imaginary characters speaking to each other. The discipline of the poet was paralleled by the discipline of the personality; through spiritual ascesis the worldly self dies and the new self, aware of God's redemptive power, is born. "In becoming no one, I begin to live," says Lord ClavertoD in The Elder Sflltesman. In losing the temporal self, Eliot as man and poet tames the anarchy and futility of the contemporary and lives in the recurrent

Christian drama. Joyce too distrusted the chaotic uncertainties of self and history. Though the theory that the artist must remove himself from his creation and stand back coolly paring his nails is Stephen's, not his, Joyce nevertheless tried to become the spokesman of the universal unconscious, the voice of Everybody as it went through the cycle of all human days and nights. Stephen is Telemachus and Bloom, Ulysses, and though the literary mode and genre of such stories has changed, the central human experience has not. History repeats on both the personal and cosmic levels. Myth, then, in modern theory works two ways. On one level it provides "plot" structures. On another it becomes a mode of perception, even of vision, which provides the unstable subjective self with a world order that transcends individuality. Though the myths of Eliot, Joyce and Yeats are different, each functions to get the writer beyond himself, by turning history into a drama which is incorporated into the self. Myth expands

Richard Wasson


consciousness allowing it to include the drama of the world. In this sense myth is a perceptual device for including the other within the self; but for the process to work the individual personality must discipline itself by playing roles, by becoming other than self. This dramatic mythologizing of self and history was obviously antirational and involved new notions of the nature and role of metaphor. According to the modernist consensus, the world could not be interpreted from the empirical and rationalist bias of nlive realism which denied the validity of the dramatic and mythic. For Eliot and his critical followers, metaphor was modeled on the Incarnation, on the notion of the presence of the eternal man in the concrete object and the present moment. Similarly Yeats saw metaphor as a way of getting at the spiritual world of "moods" and "essences. To most moderns, the world was a vast buzzing confusion, an array of disconnected particulars, "an extraneous object, full of other extraneous objects'· (as Wallace Stevens put it). and only the poetic imagination using metaphor could supply the world with order and meaning. For example, both Cleanth Brooks and I. A. Richards, for aU their disagreements, saw metaphor as a way of reconciling opposites. Experience ,,·as full of paradoxes and contingencies which the great poet ordered through metaphor. In most versions of these theories, metaphor created a truth different from that of rational and empirical methodology and language. As Hart Crane wrote to Harriet Monroe, "the ratioRIIle of metaphor belongs to another order of experience than science." This rationale was, in R. P. Blackmur's phrase, a kind of "reason in madness," a way of revealing situations which neither common sense nor science could even perceive. Metaphor revealed a kind of truth which was beyond the bounds of ordinary language and experience. Consequently, the language of poetry was, as Herbert Read never tired of arguing, essentially different from both.ordinary language and prose. Prose was for explanation, for delineation, for didactic purposes, while metaphOrical poetry was the language of unified•. truth. In Ransom's language, prose gave us the world's skeleton, poetry the world's body. This rough slcetch of modernist theory is less than complete, but it defines the aspect of modernism rejected by our contemporaries. WI

Pynchon shares in the contemporary critique of modernism but it is difficult to abstract a theory from his loose and shaggy novel. He works through an ironic thematics, an ironic juxtaposition of fools and foolish theories, a technique which makes it difficult to collect the kind of unambiguous quotes one needs to state a theory. Only through a kind of accumulation and repetition of ideas do we come to see the novel's dlano",. Uke all ironic works, the total structure reveals more than any part. & in many modem satiric novels; all the characters are fools; but some fools, because they face in a slightly different direction than others, seem a little less foolish. One such character. Fausto Maijstral. a Maltese poet and man of let-


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

1ers, writes his memoirs and comes as close as anyone to revealing the aesthetic theory of the novel. He is specifically concerned with the problem of metaphor. "Living as he does, much of the time in a world of metaphor, the poet is always acutely conscious that metaphor ha... no value apart from its function; that it is a device, an artifice. So that "..hile others may look on the laws of physics as legislation and God as a human form . . . ," poets are alone with the task of living in a universe of things which simply are, and cloaking that innate mindlessness with comfortable and pious metaphor so that the 'practical' half of humanity may continue in the Great Lie, confident that their machines, dwellings, streets and weather share the same human motives, personal traits and fits of contrariness as they." According to another character. metaphor, instead of humanizing an "innate mindlessness, n translates the human into the inanimate, "foisting off the humanity that we have lost on inanimate objects and abstract theories." Where Robbe-Grillet sees in metaphor a tragic distortion of reality, Pynchon sees it transforming the human into the inaninlate, and in V. "alignment "'ith the inanimate is the mark of a Bad Guy.·' The metaphor-making poet is always in danger of becoming one of the supreme bad guys. Pynchon, presumably in his own narrative voice, gives us a graphic denlonstration of the process by ,,'hich metaphor dehumanizes, by extending to a logical reduction the metaphor "that the act of love and the act of death are the same." "That single melody, banal and exasperating, of all romanticism since the Middle Ages," leads to the grotesque fetishism of both the affair between V. and the dancer MBanie, and the ballet, The Rape of the Chinese Maidens, in which Melanie performs. Summarizing the consequence of the death-love metaphor Pynchon writes: "Dead at last~ the)" would become one with the inanimate universe and each other. lI

Love play until then becomes an inlpersonation of the inanimate, a transvestism not between the sexes, but between quick and dead: human and fetish." We ,,'atch V. in her love affair, and Porcepic and Satin in their ballet, transform Melanie into an object. V. acts out love-making roles ,vith the ornately costumed Melanie, ""hile Por~ic, through the same costumes, mechanizes her dancing. First of all she shares the ~1age ,vith automata-"They're lovely creatures. . . . They move so gracefully. Not like machines at all." Melanie's hair is cut off and she wears a wig; she is garbed in a long sequined dress that restricts her movement: she wears, in roles "'ith V. and in the ballet, innumerable combs, bracelets and beads. In short she'iurns more and more into an object; but the transformation has a grotesquely ironic conclusion. As Su Feng, she is supposed to be impaled on a pole at the end of the second act. To protect herself, she is to "'ear "a protective metal device, a species of chlL\1ity belt, into which the point of the pole fit [sic]. But, uadorned ,vuh so many combs, bracelets and sequins," she becomes confused ·'in this felish world and neglected to add to herself the one inanimate object that would have II

Richard Wasson


saved her." The old metaphor of love and death leads first to the grotesquerie of modern love and modem art and then to the destruction of the human body. Art, according to Fausto, should have precisely the opposite effect. Art is not a communication with either angels or the unconscious but "with the guts, genitals and five portals of seme." Real art, real metaphor is Dot a mechanization of the body but an understanding of it. As examples of good and bad metaphor-making Fausto cites the behavior of adults and children on Malta during World War II. The adults construct an elaborate series of metaphors which turn the war into a struggle between the laws of God and man, between the defenders of the rock of motherhood and its demonic attackers. The children on the other hand "knew what was happening: knew that bombs killed." "But whafs a human after all? No different from a church, obelisk, statue. Only one thing that matters: it is the bomb that wins. Their view of death was nonhuman. One wonders if our grown-up attitudes, hopelessly tangled as they were with love, social forms and metaphysics, worked any better. Certainly there was more common sense about the children's way." The children reject any notion that bomb deaths are part of some heroic struggle; they know simply that before the blast of a bomb, the human body, like other bodies, disintegrates. Bombs destroy and that, like Rennie's death, is a fact not to be mythologized. For Fausto the children's nonhuman view of death is closer to reality; the "nonhuman ... was the most real state of affairs." The nonhuman in Pynchon differs from the inhuman and the inanimate. "The inhuman means bestiality (though beasts have at least the advantage of being arumate)." Fausto here is close to Lawrence's Birkin, who never tired of pointing out the difference between the mechanical, the humanistic and

the nonhuman . Yet neither Fausto nor Pynchon carries the argument as far as Lawren~ or Birkin. Where Lawrence's preoccupations were emotive, sexual AntJ·.biological, theirs are political and aesthetic. These two themes co~esce in Stencil's quest, which pointedly satirizes the mythic journeys in The Wale LtJnd and Ulyssa. Stencil is one of the classic fools in literature; like Don Quixote and Dostoevsky'S man from the underground, he models his life on the literary forms of the previous generation, turning the mythic and symbolic quest into a life-style. This ·'child of the twentieth century" tries to learn what happened to his father, what happened between his father and V. and the real identity of V. He adopts from the modern conventions of the mythic quest, the device of using different masks, which leads to what Pynchon calls "forcible dislocation of personality," an obvious thrust at Eliofs extinction of the personality. . . . Pynch~n demonstrates the violence this dramatic metaphor does to the self. For example, in his various roles Stencil wears "clothes that Stencil would not be caught dead in" and eats "foods that would have made Stencd gag." Such antics gain him nothing, for playing


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

roles, Pynchon archly points out, is not the same thing "as seeing the other fellow's 'point of view' n; rather it is a device for trying to get what one wants. The Yeatsian dare to become the other theatrically leads only to self-violation without an expansion of sympathy Eor and insight into other human beings. But even worse, around each of these identities Stencil weaves "a nacreous mass of inferences, poetic license and forcible dislocation of personality into a past he didn't remember and had no right in, save the right of imaginative anxiety or historical care, which is recognized by no one." .. And all of this role-playing served to keep Stencil in his place: that is, in the third person." He cannot even say 6&1" and so becomes an object even to himself. The techniques of masks and dramatic voice lead not to greater awareness, but to a sharply divided self acting out a fantasy that makes the self more inanimate. Of course Pynchon is aware that a writer must use something like a dislocation of personality if he is to write at all, but he has Fausto explain eloquently and forcibly the proper use of such devices, the proper a,,·areness of their limitations. Like Horner in The End oj The Road, Fausto requires a precise use of fictional devices, accompanied by a sense of their consequences and limitations. The convention of different selves is only a convenient artifice for describing changes in personality that take place in linear time; instead of postulating continuity of self, one simply gives different proper names to different configurations of self in time. But even with this device "we do sell our souls: paying them away to history in little installments." But as long as we recognize the price of this fiction, it is worth it. "It isn't so much to pay for eyes clear enough to see past the fiction of continuity, the fiction of cause and effect, the fiction of a humanized history endowed with 'reason.' ,t In short, fiction for Fausto is a mythoplastic razor which reveals the nature of other fictions, of other

metaphors. With his contemporaries Pynchon endorses a skeptical use of fiction. But more specifically than any of the writers of his generation, Pynchon rejects the notion that myth can be used to order the chaos of history. Stencil is not alone in his attempt to force himself into a past "he didn't remember and had no right in." The book abounds with fools who want to read pattern into history. But, as we might surmise from Fausto's list of historical fictions, the point of the book is to reveal the inadequacy of all metaphors of history, whether they be cycles, waves, spirals or still points. Pynchon makes this point best in those sections of the novel which deal directly with the espionage activities of Stencil's father, Porpentine, Bongo-Shaftesbury and countless others. His immediate targets are of course the conspiracy theories of bistory which dominated the cold-war mentality, particularly during the McCarthyite fifties. Richard Poirier aptly says, .. 'plots' are an expression in Pynchon of the mad bellef that some plot can ultimately take over the world. can ultimately control life to the point where it is manageably inanimate. However, finding plots It

Richard Wasson


for history is an aesthetic as well as a political activity and the Yeats-Joyce use of myth as Eliot articulated it was designed specifically as "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." According to Pynchon such mythic procedure involves unacreous inference, poetic license and forcible dislocation of personality" into a past where we don't belong and have "no right in." Such mythologizing forces the contingent into a pattern and the fiction of cyclical history, versions of which appear in Yeats, Joyce and Eliot, is no better than the fictions of continuity, progress or the Hegelian fiction of history endowed with reason or spirit. Cyclical history, so often embodied in the structure of the quest, literally Ustencilizes" everything; that is, if the Waste Land experience recurs in Dante, the Jacobeans and Baudelaire, then the present is a repetition of the past. If Stephen is Telemachus and Bloom, Ulysses, and both are Hamlet and Shakespeare, then the past is a stencil for the present and the future, and history is mechanical repetition. Mythic forms like conspiracy theories of history make the world "manageably inanimate." Pynchon makes this point in the novel's epilogue, devoted primarily to Stencil's father. At the end of a long life of espionage activities in the British foreign service, the old Victorian realizes that history's plot can never be known. "Short of examining the entire history of each individual participating, ... short of anatomizing each soul, what hope has anyone of understanding" a historical situation; unless we know "all the accidents-a variation in the weather, the availability of a ship," our interpretations of history are only fictions. Finally the elder Stencil comes to understand that history, like inanimate objects, has no human meaning. "Any Situation takes shape from events much lower than the merely human. It has, like God, its own logic and Its own justification for being and the best you can do is cope" with events, with accidents, with contingencies. Ther9 is no unity of paradoxes, no Brooksian drama, in history. ' J, '. Pynchon's e~phasis on myths of history nicely rounds out the contemporary critique of modernist notions of myth and metaphor. We have in these contempdraries a sense that modernist literary conceptions violate the indifferent nature of things, the unique otherness of Individuals, the unity of self, the values of prose, the accidental nature of events, the partial and artificial nature of literary forms. Pynchon share[s] the feeling that the modernist consensus over the nature of myth and metaphor and the centrality of both to literature led to false and disastrous views of the world, to exaggerated claims for poetry and to erroneous systems of val ue judgement. [He] desire[s] to get back to particulars, to restore literary language to its proper role. which for them means revealing "the raggedness, the Incompleteness of it all." [He] want[s] a literature finally which accurately presents man's place in a world of contingency a world in which man is free to cope spontaneously with experience. t

"What is Thomas Pynchon Telling Us? V. and Gravity', Rainbow" Josephine HendinThomas Pynchon knows the high cost of living better than anybody

except the devil. Pynchon is the evil genius of our time, the man with the quickest eye for what makes this an age of rapacity and sexual hate. He is the American Goya whose dazzling canvases are lit from hell, whose message is: Death Rules. The dream of this age is the dream of vulnerability conquered. Pynchon's first novel put life together as a diabolic pact in which you could trade your soul for insurance against hell on earth. At twenty-five he dared to say that what his generation required was salvation from death and life. His novel V. showed the way to eternal experience without anger t pain, or fear. Published in 1963, it was set in 1955 because the Cold War was an unbeatable image for the standoff between Eros and Thanatos in suburban marriages, in New York games of musical blankets, for the deadlock whose linear representation was the symmetrical letter V. Pynchon saw the freeze as an emotional necessity. He wrote about people who knew that love could not diminish suffering because it was love that produced half the anguish there was. He knew what the world wanted was not another Christ but an end to the daily passion play. Pynchon's symbol for human salvation was not the cross but the partridge in the pear tree: the bird lives off the pears; his droppings fertilize the tree so it can make more pears; the bird makes more droppings. Nature is a Newtonian motion machine powered by crap. Among people, too, salvation is symbiosis. The prime mover shows you how to keep it going without upsetting the birdl Pynchoo's Christmas present to his generation was the God who was a birdbrain machine. Technology is commonly blamed as the source of all our woes, our short-circuited relations, our IBM-ized lives. But many people envy machines. Pynchon loves and hates his messiah machine in V., Benny Profane, a man whose nightmare is that his "clock-heart" and "sponge" -Reprinted (rom Harpm'; MGgtmne, 250 (Mum 1915),82-92. Josepbine Hendin developed this essay into the chapter 1110mas Pynchon and Western Man," in her VWRfmlbk People: A ViftD oj American FlctUJn Since 1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 191-209.


Josephine Hendfn


brain will be disassembled on the rubble-strewn streets, but whose grace Is his ability to be a perpetual-motion man who rolls on too fast to lose his heart or let anyone touch the controls of his mind. The profane Christ is the one who won It get crucified. Profane's world is no vale of tears. His nativfty Is one Christmas Eve in the Sailor-s Grave Bar, the hip world where every man's a drunken sailor. and women are interchangeable quick lays. Everyone's waiting Eor Suck Hour the moment when Chow Down calls the sailors to custom beer taps made of foam rubber in the shape of large brea.m. There were seven taps and an average of 250 sailors diving to be given suck by a beer-breast. There-s very little nourishment in Pynchon's world. His wise man controls his thirsts. Profane does not really want to tum on anything, even a beer tap. He wants a woman who will not love hfm but be a really selfcontained machine: "Any problefl15 with her you could look up in a maintenance manual. Remove and replace was all." He gets an erection thinking about the sex money can buy while reading the want ads, and notices his erection traces a line in the Times. But he waits until it subsides 50 he can choose the agency where it comes to rest. He wants the least exciting job. He has the peace that passeth understanding . History produced this human Yo. . yo. The profane Ught began with the Victorians' penetration of darkness. Pynchon's favorite explorer, Godolphin, went to Africa to civilize the natives and discovered the cannibal in himself, the need to murder the beauty whose sexual pull made him want to mutilate her. In a spectacular scene he flees to the South Pole and finds, while digging a hole to plant the British flag and reassert his arctic respectability. an African spider monkey all tail, clutch, and cling. The heat of sex is connected with the ice of death. Does one lead to the other because intimacy kills? ReaUzing he will never escape the destructiveness in himself, the explorer embodies civilization's crucial question: how to keep the monkey off your back? 'llIe history~of inale striving for control can be written In excrement, as Norman O. B;o~~ implied. Pynchon wrote it in his wacky sewer scenes where evil Is the devil you can't flush any further away. Three of V:s characters descend into the urban colon. A Victorian priest preaches in I the sewers of New York because he sees people as rats trying to become sanctified. He and his generation could still believe rats had souls. A middle-aged man goes through the sewer looking for cl ues to his mother, V., because life is possible for him only as the endless romantic quest that keeps him too busy to notice the stench. Young Profane is on the sewer patrol just to earn the money for women and food. He embraces his meaninglessness as a value. He makes the dfrectionless flow of crap his Ufe. V. herself is female serenity, the clean, eternal balance of emotional control. She absorbs the force of war, of all male thrusts, as erotic curios, and returns them when as mother she abandons. as protectress she corrupts, as lover she murders, as transvestite priest she damns. She is the destructive, indestructible objet d'art who mutilates her body to adorn It I


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

with golden feet and a glass eye. She is always young, always fascinatingly beautiful. One man dreams of her ecstatically as a young machine: "At age 76, skin radiant with the bloom of some new plastic, both eyes glass, but now containing photoelectric cells connected by snver electrodes to optic nerves .... Perhaps even a complex system of pressure transducers located in a marvelous vagina of polyethylene, all leading to a single silver cable which fed pleasure voltages direct to the correct register of the digital machine in her skull." She is Profane's woman, the girl who has lost her virginity to the gear shift of her MG, whose great love is her car or its human equivalent, Profane. V. is a self-contained autoerotic machine. V. is the crucial pivot, the profane fulcrum on which you can survive forever. V. is vulnerability conquered. Life is best as a machinel The degree to which men and women want each other to be every-ready erotic tools, needing neither tenderness nor love, is one sign of sexual hate. Pynchon is saying that men control their destructiveness through Profane-like passivity and disengagement; that women conquer their vulnerability to men, life, and death by becoming virtual automatons who cannot feel a thing. "Keep cOol, but care," someone advises. The only way to contain your destructiveness is to deadlock the two, to be the partridge and pear tree locked in endless, profane life, forever content. "0 trees of life, when will your winter come?" asked Rilke. For Pynchon winter came somewhere between V. and Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon stopped playing the V. game, stopped telling us how to survive. He broke the balance of V., released the deadlock between destructiveness and control, melted the Cold War into an open battle in which the rats surfaced, and violence broke free for a war between life and death. Death won. Pynchon became the devil, the fantasist whose rainbow has its origin in gravity, the spirit of the down. Gravity s Rainbow is death's fantasy that life exists. World War II is an irresistible image for death's primrose path of heroes and villains who kill each other off. p)rnchon's psychopolitical fantasy of war, for all its stunning historical detail, is an apolitical circus in which national differences do not matter, and allies and enemies are more dangerous to themselves than to each other. The combat unit for Pynchon is the whole Age of Aquarius encapsulated in the microcosm PISCES, the PsycholOgical Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender. In that psychological warfare unit, it is never clear whose surrender is being plotted because everyone is busy devouring each other. Why is the world so full of hate? How did death beat out life? Pynchon embeds his question in a Western in which the fastest gun in London is Tyrone Slothrop, an American officer who is the ultimate ladykiller. The places where he has gone to bed with his pickups are exactly the spots where the V-2 rockets fall. The psychological warfare unit knows this because Slothrop, who is a member of it, keeps a map, chart-

Josephine Hendin


ing with gold stars the places where he has scored. Yes, he is exactly the sort of man who would do this. Roger Mexico, a statistician, charts the bomb sites. His map and Slothrop's are congruent. Is it the bomb that excites Slothrop or sex that draws destructh'eness on the girls? Which came first, the bloodsurge or the bloodbath? Will anyone stop the deadliest gun in London? America's good guys are the engineers who claim to have all the answers. Pynchon makes his points about the quality of emotional life in this culture through their "practical" expertise. Pointsman, a Pavlovian, believes there is a point, a particular switch in the brain, that turns on sex or death. If only he could find the mystery stimulus that controls the switch, he could tum off death and win the Nobel Prizel He could end the war between the sexesl Pointsman salivates as he devises ways of checking out Slothrop's erections through a system of spies, seductresses, and voyeurs, longing like the creep he is to kill Slothrop's one enthusiasm and eventually to castrate him. Slothrop begins to suspect his penis is no longer his own. Paranoia rules as Pointsman's mmuli leave Slothrop less and less able to teU pleasure from pain, dominance from submission. "Paranoia, even Go-ya couldn't draw yal" sings Pynchon. But Pynchon drew it in this fantasy: we are all dead and have been for years. The devil is tricking us into believing we are alive. Pointsman's intelligence creates models of human reality as off/on switches that emit the gases of the grave. Pynchon's harshness toward Pointsman is the mark of his total rejection of his own belief in the right tactic, the balance point he explores in V. which can prevent human relations from toppling into death. What Pynchon now hates is his own will to find the point outside in space-in spaciness-from which you can move the earth, or keep the life cycle going. Mathematics increasingly allows for pointlessness, contingency, probability. Pynchon's anti-Pointsman is Roger Mexico, who tells the Pavlovian DO explanation for the identical graphs for Slothrop·s pickups and the 'bemb sites. ··Bombs are not dogs. No link. No memory. No conditioning." Mexico seems to be happy with the discrete, chancy droppings of the bomb. Godel's theorem showed the existence of unprovable assumptions in mathematic systems, in effect incorporating chance by institutionalizing it. Mexico is Chance, Inc. He is desperately clinging to meaninglessness to avoid the obvious fact in his life: his intense sexual passion for an unloving woman will be the death of him. Contingency, probability are ways of clouding what Pynchon sees as a fact: sex and death are the same; slaughter is a certainty. As Rilke wrote to a mend, '·The future is stationary, dear Herr. Kappus, but we are moving in infinite space." Points and pointlessneSs, meaning and meaninglessness are opposite sides of the same delusion, diversions into the traps of control or chance




on Thomas Pynchon

and away from the fact that life is uncontrollable. For Pynchon, only physicists give clear unequivocal statements that death has his undisputed hegemony in the universe, that life moves from order to disintegration, from structures to dispersed, undifferentiated matter, according to the second law of thermodynamics. Pynchon'slaw of human entropy orchestrates the life of the nation, the couple, the family, the individual into a symphony of death centuriE$ in the unrolling, its pattern inaudible to anyone listener because a lifetime unfolds only the most minlL~ule movement tricked out by the devil as the song of life. What could look more like life than sex with an irresistible blonde who makes you feel like a leading man? Katje, sent by Pointsman to check out Slothrop's performance, makes him feel like a hero. fIe suspects she·s out for more than she lets on, but he is, too. He hopes she knows the secret that will unlock his humanity and make him feel some emotion. uHis face above her unmoved, full of careful technique-is it for her? His desperate hope .... She will move him, she will not be mounted by a plastic shell .... Her breathing has grown more hoarse, over a threshold into sound .... Thinking she might be close to coming he reaches a hand into her hair, tries to still her head, needing to see her face; there is suddenly a struggle, vicious and real-she will not surrender her face-and out of nowhere she d~ begin to come and so d~ Slothrop." The hope for a woman who will connect, who will be your connection to life is betrayed by the recognition that the woman is as plastic as you are. What look.~ like the movements of love is really the dance of death. Detached sex is depres..~ing, but involved sex is death. Pynchon sees women who are in touch with their feelings as only in touch with evil. Greta Erdmann, an actress whose life is an Expres.~ioni...t s-m movie, is Pynchon's vision of woman as lover, mother, a Utotal" woman who demanded to be gangbanged by the entire ca.~ dressed in monster costumes after a filming, whose daughter i~ fathered by one of these beasts, who commits a series of child-murders, who raises her daughter for s-m incest with her and eventually murders her. Siothrop only dimly realizes in his affair with her that he craves cruelty, too, and is not the good guy he thought he was. She looks into a mirror one day and ecstatically sees the face of the devil. But Slothrop dreams of her as the Earth Mother, the genetrix at the bottom of an industry-poisoned river, her womb breeding all manners of monsters. Who fathered the mutants? The devil of male industriousness, the polluted orgasms of industry, the male mind that creates structures, forms, controls that kill Ufe, Pynchon·s devil is a formalist; his evil is his ability to rape nature with elegance, with all the clwmness of ThomL~ Pynchon's symmetrical alignments. Impersonal, scientific intelligence did Slothrop in; one of its devil geniuses was Kekul~, the pioneer of synthetic chemistry who dreamed ()f llis baby, the benzene ring with an X-ray vision that revealed all the hidden structures of life. He dreamed of it as the great serpent that

Josephine Hendin


surrounds the world, its tail in its mouth, symbolizing the world as a closed thing, cyclical, eternally returning, inviolate. But he was only looking for the weak link, the vulnerable point where he could strike. His vision began the system that produced the plastic man Slothrop, the system that substituted for the eternal return the movement from death to death transfigured, the development of synthetic polymers whose origin and structure reflect gravity. In human terms this vision is expressed in Nazi "love," the homosexual sadism of BHeero, the German rocket man, toward young Gottfried, who, looking innocently at his "master," hears, "Can you feel in your body how strongly I have infected you with my dying? Fathers are the carriers of the virus of Death, and sons are the Infected." The history of death is the history of parental love. Slothrop is granted a buffoon's revelation of creation when he throws up in a barroom toOet and drops his harmonica into his slop. He dives in after it, only to get heaped with the excrement of others and flushed into a wasteland where he sees the souls of babies waiting to be born. They look like the remains of basket cases from the Great War. You are your parents' droppings, the remains of their discontent I Slothrop emerges from the wasteland without realizing the extent to which he is made of excrement. But Pynchon knows, he knows it all. He tells you how this culture turns life Into plastic shit. In 1925 Rilke wrote that "Dummy life from America" is replacing "the cared-for animate houses, wines, apples" of Europe. Pynchon goes further, claiming that what America was manufacturing best were plastic people. Imipolex G, the polymer whose every fiber is capable of erection, is the sexiest cloth there is, the mystery stimulus that conditioned Infant Tyrone's erections. Were they measured against the foolproof factorytested polymer's? Slothrop's real father sold out his baby boy to a stimulus-response experiment in return for the money to send him to college. Pynchon is •telling you that you are geared to excitement by synthetics, cast into your programming too soon to know what is happening, too ignorant to realize that your father's love for your human possibilities was so meager helWas wiDing to plasticize you so that, alive or dead, you would get through Harvard. Slothrop's love-hate affair with the V-2 rocket is the paradigm of his conditioning, of your conditioning. The rocket outstrips sound: the noise of its coming rises only after it has already exploded. Before you know what has hit you, you are dead. This is Pynchon's most powerful symbol for the subliminal takeover of your mind. Every Infant Tyrone gets blasted by the violence of his parents' war with each other, by their rage toward him, by the anger of the Greta-Mother and the Blicero-Father who divide your physical and mental pain between them. The American Oedipal situation is the place where you lose your


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

valence, your attraction to everything, your enthusiasm for life. This is the game where the mother who would like to kill, and the father who controls, team up against the son who has to outwit them both. Pynchon believes "Perilous Pop" is the antagonist of every Western, every comic strip. He is "every typical American teen-ager's own father, trying episode after episode to kUI his son. And the Idd knows it. Imagine that. So far he's managed to escape his father's daily little death plots-but nobody has said he has to keep escaping ... Pop and his gang may not kill you, but they kill everything that makes life worth living. They steal the Radiant Hour from the day, steal life itself. Can anyone get it back? Pynchon's rescue team is a catalogue of the kinds of people he feels this culture is prodUCing, people bent on contemporary bliss: Myrtle the Miraculous is a wonder woman who hates people but adores the perfection of efficient machines. Marcel, the mechanical chess player, is the ideal male, a robot tactician. Maximilian forsakes these fake humans, gets beyond male and female by allying himself with rhythms, all rhythms up to and including the cosmic. He's a fragmentation freak. Slothrop is the "glozing neuter" who cannot recognize himself as a man or a machine and whose fate is simply to run down ignorantly in the dimness of his vision. None of them finds the Radiant Hour. The American street is full of people looking for the Great Glow in the gold-star night with a pickup. Pynchon's Platz is full of antigravity forces-people popping pills, morning-glory seeds, the "winerush that rockets upward, making "the woman screaming, the knife in your hand, your head down a tonet all unreal." The sensory trip is the new dope. If you take it you see the profane light. True radiance begins with Byron the Bulb, the bright boy light bulb whose Immortal beam screams "You're dead" in neon. His real name is Thomas Pynchon, the writer who staked his immortaility on being the lt

man who illuminated the death at the heart of all experience. What hapa pened to Pynchon between V., the wildly sophisticated survival manual, and Grav.ty $ Rainbow J the brilliant analysis of how you died? What happened to a writer who was Dot profane enough to take his own advice: "Keep cool, but care?" What challenged Pynchon's balanced gravity? Pynchon does not say. As his publisher put it with terrific rightness, he keeps a "low profile. ,. But Pynchon offered a cautionary tale in V., in the saga of Fausto Majistral, who started out to be a priest and a poet. He married a woman he loved and had a daughter. He lost his faith, his work, his mind in an intimacy so disastrous it could only be described as world war. He wrote to his daughter, born, like Pynchon, in 1938: "The bombs arrived with you, child." The birth of a child, like the profane nativity in V., is death, the baby twisting out of the antarctic birth canal like a devil of need who shows up your love as a sham, your UmitatioDS as awesOme. At the bottom of Fausto's mind is the memory of hfs father who was wrecked by war, of

Josephine Hendin


his mother who wanted to jump with her baby Fausto into the sea. Is death the willingness to breed life? For Pynchon had the clarity, the guts to see that what makes people kill and hate is not a lover's rejection but a beloved's responsiveness. Given a choice betw~n exaltation or sensory amusement, people prefer the limited kick. What they cannot transcend is their gravity, the depression that has an umbilical force binding them back to the stern down of Father Death and pained Mother Greta. Pynchon goes still further. He makes the most radical possible statement of the refusal to give up depression in Blicero's hatred of the lover whose youth and devotion are a challenge to his own. "0 Gottfried, of course ... you are beautiful to me but I'm dying . . . . I want to get through it as honestly as I can, and your immortality rips at my heart-can't you see why I might want to destroy that, oh, that stupid clarity in your eyes . . . . When I see you so open, so ready to take my sickness in and shelter it, shelter it inside your own little ignorant love." Love is a gJeat reminder of limitations, of what you are not. The man who needs to dominate, control, and crush spends his life hating his finite powers and trying to limit love. BHeero ties Gottfried up, puts him in a dog collar, forces on him a cycle of contempt and humiliation to bind up Gottfried's feeling. Pynchon boxes in love to the s-m connection, where Blicero is your will to power and Gottfried your ability to love, each tying the other in knots. Through the novel Blicero is constructing the ultimate death-box, the V -2 rocket fitted out for Gottfried, who will enter its nose cone wrapped in an Imlpolex G shroud. Gottfried soaring on his love for Blicero goes arching toward his death, while Blieero dives straight into the flames of the rocket launch. Blicero is faithful to his gravity! Pynchon affirms the loneliness unto death, forces this Llebestod into a statement that there is no union even in death. Blicero does not die with

Gottfried, but rather makes sure each of them dies alone. The Radiant Hour for Pynchon is.the hour of death, the fires of the V-2 that liberate Gottfried and Blfcorq from the box of their own personalities, the shut trap of dominance and submission, into the molecular flow. What radiance Blicero and Gottfried achieve in their flaming deaths is the sparkle of illuminating fl1th, dirt gleaming in the streaked glow of the rainbow that is not the sign of God's covenant with Noah, but the mark of Pynchon's covenant with death. Pynchon sold his soul to the devil for his own inviolability, his irrefutable alignment of all human endeavor on the axis of death. He is the artist of man's limitations, the best voice of a generation whose great discovery was exactly the finite nature of all human reality. Pynchon did his bit to limit life further by boxing experience into one either/or: the mechanJca1 symbiosis of V. or no life at all. But Pynchon went still further in affirming limitation as the' sole purpose of existence. Given our destructiveness, our need to Idll, to sully life, our mission on earth, Pynchon con-


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

eludes, must be to celebrate the devil. "Our mission is to promote death." Kepler conceptualized gravity as the Holy Ghost for "physical and metaphysical reasons." It was Cod's love. he thought, that swept the planets around the sun and kept them in place and in harmony. Pynchon conceptualized gravity as a parabolic rainbow also for physical and metaphysical reasons. The rainbow is Death's hate, Death's grimace, the tragic mask of the heavens pulled down forever in one inviolable affirmation of depression. And in his myth of himself as death incarnate, Pynchon transcends his limitations, puts himself beyond the pale of human pain and cruelty. He allies himself with the ultimate aggressor, the impersonal force of the entropy god. In the throes of his pessimism, by force of his pessimism, Pynchon still pursues his own invulnerability. The dream of vulnerability conquered is the dream of the age. Pynchon has an unbeatable sensitivity to the evil the dream contains, an analytic brilliance at extracting the villainy behind every smile, a stunning accuracy about everything wrong with emoUonallife in this culture now. He got caught between the dream and his hatred for it. His pain, his vulnerability, his great and ruined expectations keep breaking through his fierce intellectual hardness. Pynchon's own refusal to stop demanding that life be perfect caring or perfect emotionlessness, his inability to stop making conditions that life cannot fulfill, his own bottomless pain, weld into a pessimism so unassailable it becomes an argument against pessimism. Pynchon's indictment of every human impulse is his crucifixion on the modern dream. It is so intense it has a cautionary force against gravity. Pynchon's most eloquent moral is himself. Pynchon is the devil who went beyond the grave to anatomize the remains of the modern soul. Like Death himself he is the ultimate collector putting together the emotional, cultural, and historical life of his generation with a brilliance and depth that outstrips in scope what Thomas Mann did for the prewar world in The Magic Mountain, that equals James Joyce's compendium of his time in Ulysses. He plays Beethoven to Rilke's Schubert, developing from Rilke's encapsulated emotional statements operative definitions about the nature of science, thought, and civilization. Pynchon is quite simply the genius of his generation. He is the Antichrist who offered up his own destructiveness to illuminate yours. Pynchon is the one man who realized that the moralist of our time would have to be the devil. t

" 'A Gentle Chill, An Ambiguity': The Crying of Lot 49" Thomas Schaub-

The C"Ying oj Lot 49 may be understood as the education of its central figure, Oedipa Maas; but it is an education which Pynchon complicates considerably by the uncertainty he introduces into every perception allowed to Oedipa and the reader. The major source of the ambiguity is Pynchon·s figurative use of the concept of "entropy"; for he exploits the diametrically opposite meanings which the term has in thermodynamics and in information theory. I MetaphOrically, one compensates the other. In both, entropy is a measurement of disorganization; but disorganization in information theory increases the potential information which a message may convey, while in thermodynamics entropy is a measure of the disorganization of molecules within closed systems and possesses no positive connotation. Pynchon uses the concept of entropy In this latter sense as a figure of speech to describe the running down Oedipa discovers of the American Dream; at the same time he uses the entropy of information theory to suggest that Oedipa's sorting activities may counter the forces of disorganization and death. Heat results from the motion of molecules. As Koteles explains to Oedipa, "Fast m91ecules have more energy than slow ones. Concentrate enough of them in one place and you have a region of high temperature. You can then use 'he difference In temperature between this hot region of the box and any cooler region, to drive a heat engine" (62). The "difference in temperature" is crucial, for without it there is no capacity for work. It is this diflerence which represents the organization of molecules. Entropy enters at this point: as the engine works, the two regions become mixed. The molecules collide with each other until they are all moving at the same rate, which means that eventually there is a cessation of difference, the creation of a static equilibrium and an incapacity for work. Entropy is the measure of this declining activity, codified in the Second Law of Thermodynamics and summarized by Wiener in The Human Use oj Humtln Beings: "energy spontaneously runs downhill in temperature.


-Reprinted from PyncIaon: Tlut Vo{ce oj Ambiguity (Urbana: University of mlnols Press, 1980). PP' 21-42.



Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

The apparent implication of this law is that everything is running down. Wiener formulates this in the most extreme terms: "As entropy increases, the universe, and all closed systems in the universe, tend naturally to deteriorate and lose their distinctiveness, to move from the least to the most probable state, from a state of organization and differentiation in which distinctions and forms exist, to a state of chaos and sameness. ":I This thesis was first put forward by Willard Gibbs, who used probability statistics to apply the Second Law to the universe at large. Henry Adams was quick to appropriate the thesis and apply it to his study of history in The Degradation oj the Democratic Dogma: ·'to the vulgar and ignorant historian it meant only that the ash-heap was constantly increasing in sfze. ". Wiener also notes that "while the universe as a whole, if indeed there is a whole universe, tends to run down, there are local enclaves whose direction seems opposed to that of the universe at large and in which there is a limited and temporary tendency for organization to increase. Ufe finds its home in some of these enclaves." s He adds that there is disagreement among writers as to the possible application of the law of disorganization to biological and socIological systems. Following Adams. Pynchon borrows the concept and applies it to political and social situations in his short story "Entrop),. "0 This story trades on the certainty of decline and Its exceptions as discussed by Wiener above, which is visible in its binary composition. The activity of "Entropy" occurs within two distinct apartments, one above the other. In the lower apartment a character named Meatball is holding a lease-breaking party, while above him the character Callisto fean that a cold-snap in Washington will not end. Call1sto's apartment is described in words which echo Wiener: ··Hermetically sealed, it was a tiny enclave of regularity in the city·s chaos, alien to the vagaries of the weather, of oaUonal politics, of any civil disorder" (279). The metaphoric connection between the heat-death of an isolated system and cultural decline is made by Callisto himself as he dictates his thoughts-Pynchon's parody of Adams' Education-to bis companion Aubade: UHe was aware of the dangers of the reductive fallacy .... Nevertheless, . . . he found In entropy or the measure of disorganization for a closed system an adequate metaphor to apply to certain phenomena in his own world. He saw, for example, the younger generation responding to Madison Avenue with the same spleen his own had once reserved for Wall Street: and in American 'consumerism' discovered a similar tendency from the least to the most probable, from dJfferentiation to sameness, from ordered individuality to a kind of chaos. He found himself, in short, restating Gibbs' prediction in social terms, and envisioned a heat-death for his culture in which ideas, like heat-energ)" would no longer be transferred." (283-84)

Thomas Schaub


Even though Callisto is aware of the fallacy of his own metaphor. he cannot escape it. Eventually, Aubade breaks a window, destroying the hermetic seal of their apartment; and the two of them wait for the "moment of equilibrium . . . when 37 degrees Fahrenheit should prevail both outside and inside. and forever, and the hovering, curious dominant of their separate lives should resolve into a tonic of darkness and the final absence of all motion" (292). This suicide, however, is more characteristic of Callisto's respon.~ to the Second Law than anything immediately apocalyptic about our culture. His neighbor. below, is faced with another social analogue of entropic disorganization, for Meatball's party is quickly disintegrating. But his response is the reverse of Callisto's: Meatball stood and watched, scratching his stomach lazily. The wa)· he figured, there were only about two ways he could cope: (a> lock himself in the closet and maybe eventually they would all go a,,'ay, or (b) try to calm evef)'body dO"lrrl, one by one. (8) was certainl)' the more attractive alternative.'. . . But he decided to try and keep his leasebreaking party from deteriorating into total chaos: he gave wine to the sailors and separated the mura players; he introduced the fat government girl to Sandor Rajas, who would keep her out of trouble; he helped the girl In the shower to dry off and get into bed; he had another talk with Saul; he called a repairman for the refrigerator which someone had discovered was on the blink. (291) Callisto Is abstract, a thinker; he sees into the thermo-dynamic future and despairs. He lives in ideas and absolute values; and when those are not supported by the cultural and physical world around him. he gives up. Meatball, on the other hand, is one of the schlemihls of Pynchon '5 fiction who represe~t the obstinacy of plump vitality. CalUsto·s apocalyptic temperament prefers .the "sense of an ending" to the difficulties of living in the middle. ~ ~ · StUI, as intelligent readers, we know Callisto is correct. even while smiling at his premature resolution. The interplay between the two characters is exemplary of Pynchoo's complexity: he dissociates thought from action, Idea hom feeling, allocating each to binary or opposing characters and plot lines. He pursues this technique In V., and makes it more convoluted in The Crying oj Lot 49, which winds around a single character. His purpose is to frustrate the sentimental identification with either character or action; by doing so, he dramatizes within our response to his fidion-in our effort to join idea and feeling-the moral and psychic difficulty of Uvlng humanely with what we know to be true. The binary dissociation of "Entropy" becomes the convoluted alienation of a single character in The Crying oj Lot 49. Pynchon achieves this by writing in a conditional mode, so that the text Itself oscillates like a


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

standing wave between nodes of meaniDg. and by locating the paralyzing difficulties of those poles within the perceptions of Oedipa Mus. As discussed in the introduction, her percepUODS necessarily establish a middle ground between her culture and what she learns about ft. Uke the identity between Herbert Stencil's search for V. and the growth of the DOvel itself. Oedipa's Instruction in American culture occurs UDder a McLuhanesque pedagogy that is also the method-almost the device of The Crying oj Lo, 49." Oedipa's task as executrill of Pierce IDvermty·. estate forces her to examine her cultural medium whose message Is alleaallon, loss and death, "congruent with the cheered land" (135). Oedipa Is first "sensitized" to the teclmlque of her education by the arrival of a letter from her husband Mucho, while she is staying in San Narclso: NIt may have been an intuition that the letter would be newsless inside that made Oedipa look more closely at Its outside, when it arrived. At ftnt she didn't see . It was an ordinary Muchoesque envelope, swiped &om the station, ordinary airmail stamp. to the left of the cancellation a blurb put on by the government, REPORT ALL OBSCENE MAIL TO YOUR POTSMASTER" (30). This is the beginning of her discovery of an alternative message service; once she acquires the McLuhanesque knack. she is quick to read the messages encoded in the medium of America, CODgruent with the ostensible signs it proffers. By naming the town Pierce founded "San Narciso," PynchOD engages the reader in the habit of reading messages in the medium of the book at the same time we are punuing Oedipa in her search. Pynchon's direct evocation of the Narcissus myth Is a clear statement that Pierce's estate and what it represents is a culture in love with a dream-Image of itJelf. In the myth, Nareissus spumed the love of Echo. who was doomed to repeat only the lut words of other voices. Pierce, Uke Narcissus, prefers the "deep vtstu of space and time ••• allegorical faces that never were'·-tbe colored wiDdows of mute stamps-to Oedipa's spoken love. The Echo Courts where she stays become the scene of her 8rst adultery, and-it is suggested-the beglnniDg of her escape from the image of the tower which defiDes her at the end of chapter one (10-11). She wiD DO 10nger be an Echo, but will try to say fint things about real facts. The origin of Pynchon's use of the Narcissus myth Is Manhall McLllban's UntlnnGntlIfil M«lIG: 1M ~ oj Mtm. The world of TIae crymg of Lot 4915 built around those ··extensions": word of mouth. letters and postal systems, telephones, television. information encoded ID can and mattresiDI, the writteD work in plays and bathrooms, evea the configurations of cities. and towns. In McLuban's view. all these are the nardssistic extensiODl of man whose mecI1um is the message of his culture. McLuhan's Interpretation of the- Narcissus myth -is readily available for Pynchon·. appropriation, for it estabUshes the identity between systems and narcissism:

Thomas Schaub "Narcissus" Is from the Greek word ntlrcoda, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another permD. This extension of himself' by mirror numbed his perceptions until be became the servomechanism oE his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with &aaments of his own speech, but in vain. He wu Dumb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had bemme a clOlEJd system.' Pyucbon incorporates this interpretation of the myth as social metaphor mto The Cryfnl oj Lo, 49. When Oedipa drives into San Narciso, sbe feels she is on the other side of the soundproof glass in a radio studio; and the businesses are silent and paralyzed. The road along which San Narciso Ibetches Oedipa faacles II • ~ypodermic needle, inserted somewhere ahead Into the velD of a freeway, a vein nourishing the mainliner L.A., keeping it happy, coherent, protected from pain and whatever passes, with a city, for palo.-- In the Echo Courts themselves, "nothing mOVed-· (13-15). American culture, in short, Is numb, and addicted to what protects It from paiD (and, ultimately. death). In MeLuhan·5 terms, our culture has bemme addicted to the material forms which the American Dream has assumed. Of course, the dream and the culture, like Narcissus and his Image, are bueparable; and it is in this convolution that Oedipa finds benelf. In the spray can caroming off the walls oE the motel bathroom we have both an Image of entropy-a region of East molecules within the can ahausting itself withJn the confines of the bathroom-and an Image of human life threatened, albeit comically, by the systems it hu created. Oedipa "muld imagine DO end to it; yet presently the can did give up in mtdfUght and fall to the noor" (23). By the end of the book, Oedipa realizes that San Narciso Is a microcosm of the ~lle, an MlDcldent among our climatic records of dreams aDd what Wms became among our accumulated daylight·· (133). She understaads that Pierce" the founder of this microcosm, had been .zed by Msome headloug expansion of hlmselr' and remembers him te1liDg her once: ··IC~ It bouncing, that's aU the secret, keep It bouncing." This Is her meditation amidst the transcontinental railroad tracks ftnt laid by hero, Jay Could; the Second Law of Thermodynamics lurks in her language _ Oedipa wonders that Pierce "must have known . . . how the boUDCiDI would stop". (134).



Eabopy ad laformatloa

The dI8cusslOD thus far has cxJDcentrated on PyDchoo'. use of thermodyDamic entropy; in this discussion TIa. Crying oj Lot 49 is • view of America as a closed system running down. The bouncing will stop. But


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

there is a convoluting wrinkle to all this, a hope of sorts which animates Oedipa's search for Tristero; and this hope depends upon the concept of "information" and informational entropy. Both the Second Law and McLuhan's narcissism obtain within closed systems, for It is only within systems cut off from other sources of energy that the loss of the capacity for work is inevitable. Information. on the other hand, concerns what passes among systems. Wiener defines Information as "the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it.'" Inverarfty's advice, "Keep It bouncint' is linked to the Second Law; "echoed" by Oedlpa at the end of the book, this advice recalls Nefastis' dogmatism, which has its origins in information theory: "Communication is the key . . . to keep it all cycling" (77). The Nefastis Machine represents a revision of Maxwell's hypothetical closed system with a sorting demon Inside. Stanley Koteles' explanation of this to Oedipa (62) is correct, and so is her objection, "sorting Isn't work?" Koteles· description and Oedipa's response are a fictionalized version of the distinction Wiener dra\\'s between contemporary physics and the physics of Clerk Maxwell's age: In nineteenth-century physics, it seemed to cost nothing to get information. The result is that there is nothing in MaxweU·s physics to prevent one of his demons from furnishing its own po~·er source. Modern physics, however, recognizes that the demon can only gain the information with which it [sorts the molecules] from something like a sense organ which for these purposes is an eye. The light that strikes the demon's eyes is not an energy-less component of mechanical motion, but shares in the main properties of mechanical motion itself. . . . In such a system, however, it will tum out that the constant coUision

between light and gas particles tends to bring the light and particles to an equilibrium. Thus while the demon may temporarily reverse the usual direction of entropy, ultimately It too will wear down. 10

The temporary reversal is the result of "feedback." All our "modern automatic machines . . . possess sense organs; that ls, receptors for messages coming from the outslde ... •l Wiener stresses that in this capacity there is little difference between man and machine; both receive and transmit messages, and both survive in their environments through this feedback process, defined by Wiener as "the control of a machine on the basis of its actual performance rather than Its expected performance. ,. (The doors of an elevator are not only programmed to open at a designated floor, the elevator also "knows" whether or not it is actually at that floor.) And it is this self-correcting abUity of the machine which delays its running down." Oedipa's function, sitting beside the Nefastis Machine. Is to '·feed back something like the same quantity of information. To keep it all cy-

Thomas Schaub


cling" (77). The Machine, of course, is a comic distortion of the feedback systems Wiener is talking about. Nonetheless, it is a crucial interior metaphor of the book's operation as a whole. When Oedipa objects that "sorting is work," she ties the thermodynamic model to the book's postal courier themes. and to her own role as executrix. The first sentence of the book informs us that Pierce had "assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary" (1). Because Pierce's estate is a microcosm of America, the four parts to the metaphor are these: what MaxweU's Demon is to the Nefastls Machine, Oedipa is to America. Pynchon's preoccupation with communications reUes not only on McLuhan's "extensions of man" but upon the central thesis of Wiener·s book as weU: "society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it: and that in

the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between"man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine are destined to pia)· an ever-increasing part. "IS Typically, this has a political importance for Pynchon. Emory Bortz imagines a member of Tristero in the seventeenth century declaring "whoever could control the lines of communication, among all the princes, would control them" (123). Oedipa's efforts to disentangle Inverarity·s estate involve her in a study of her society: she comes to realize that her world is a ,'ast com~l1unjcations system feeding her information which may engulf before it enlightens. Like the Demon she tries to order the signs and symbols around her into some kind of operational meaning. But sorting is work, and she requires for this task some infusion of energy from the outside to counter the entropic movement inside toward disorganization, sameness

and death. Her role is bequeathed to her by Pierce, whose last name "Inverarity" is cognat., with the name of the town in Scotland where Clerk Maxwell-inverntor of the Demon-was born. This is another of the messages coded in the text's medium: and it suggests that Pierce was the demon of his own system, which Oedipa, like all of us born into a system we did not create, 1lears the burden of keeping alive. The Nefastis Machine not only connects the worlds of thermodynamics and information; it casts a shadow on Oedipa's entire enterprise. Even Nefastis knows that his belief in his invention's workability rests on a visual metaphor: the identity of the equations for ·'entropy·· in thermodynamics and the average unit In information theory. I. The fact that they look the same, but mean different things is a characteristic of clues in Pynchon·s writing. This particular metaphor has added strength because in information theory ··entropy" represents a measurement of possibility. J.R. Pierce (author of Symbou. SlgntJ"and Noue: The Nalureand Procea oj Communication) tells us that "the amount of information conveyed by the message increases as the amount of uncertainty as to what message


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

actually will be produced becomes greater. . . . The entropy of communication theory is a measure of this uncertainty. "15 Nefastis thinks the entropy of information theory is "positive" and can counter the "negative" entrop), of thermodynamics. What makes the entropy metaphor "verbally graceful" and "objectively true" is his belief in the actual existence of Maxwell's Demon, sitting inside his machine. We must give Nefastis his due; he is as "bothered" by the word "entropy'" as Oedipa is disturbed by "Trystero" (77), and the connection which he asserts Is one with which theorists have been toying for as long as the similarity has been noticed. Pierce discusses this matter in his chapter "Information Theory and Physics," and agrees with Wiener: "One pays a price for information which leads to a reduction of the statistical mechanical entropy of a system. This price is proportional to the communication-theory entropy of the message source which produces the information. It is always just high enough so that a perpetual motion machine of the second kind is impossible. "II Such extra-textual evidence undermines Nefastis' machine, and implies that insofar as Oedipa is the sorting demon of her society she is fighting a losing battle. But in Oedipa, Pynchon has created a character with a knack for pointed questions. Her response to Koteks revealed the flaw in Mu\\'ell·s physics; and her answer to Nefastis is equally incisive: "But what ... if the Demon exists only because the t\\'O equations look alike? Because of the metaphor?" Nefastis merely smiles; he is a'-believer" (78). The contrast between Oedipa's worried questioning and Nefastis' belieE is a distInguishing characteristic of Oedipa's intelligence; but the distance she keeps from her own metaphors costs her dearly. They tease ber \\1th the

possibility of meaning, without providing the comfort Nefastis, and later her husband t.iucho, enjoy. On the freeway leading to San Francisco. she compares her own search with the method of Nefastis, her thoughts interpolated through the narrative voice: For John NeEastis (to take a recent example) two kinds of entrop>', thermodynamic and informational. happened, say by coincidence, to look alike. when you wrote them down as equations. Yet he had made his mere coincidence respectable. with the help oE Maxwell's Demon. Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts; more than two, anyway. With coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked. she had nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero, to hold them together. (SO) That doubt is never expunged. At the end of the book the questions remain: is the Tristero pattern of Oedipa's own weaving, imposed on the \\'orld outside? or is Tristero a pattern which inheres in the world outside,

Thomas Schaub


imposing itself upon her? Neither she nor the reader is allowed by Pynchon to ascertain the stable meaning of the blossoming pattern; and without this certainty her usefulness in preserving order against a declining culture remains painfully ambiguous. The early image of the tower (which closes chapter one) is a symbol of the uncertainty surrounding Oedipa's perceptions and our understanding of her condition. The tower qUickly establishes an ambiguity which never resolves, for we are never sure whether it 15 an Image of 50Upsism or one of imprisonment by forces outside Oedlpa. Initially, the tower represents Oedlpa·s "buffered" and Uinsulated" existence at KinneretAmong-the-Pines. Later, \\ith Pierce in Mexico, the tower becomes an image of self-entrapment for her when she sees a painting by Remedios titled "Bordando el Manto Terrestre," which pictures prisoners in a circular to\\·er, "embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windo\\'s and Into a void. seeking hopelessly to fill the void" (10).11 By the end of the chapter, the image has shifted again. OedJpa realizes that "her tower. its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic. anonymous and malignant. visited on her from outside and for no reason at aU" (11). Oedipa does manage to escape the tower. but only increases her isolation.' 1 She could join the community a\'ailable to her only by violating her integrity and accepting as literal truth the metaphorical linkages comprising Tristero (the repUcation of muted post horns, W.A.S.T.E. symbols, variations on the word ·lristero,e). The people in the novel who do this-Nefastis, Mucho, Hilarius-are severely undercut by the narrator. ~fhey are facile believers in their own metaphors, while Oedipa rides a fence between a "hothouse" dogmatism on the one hand, and engulfment by the \'oid "outside" on the other. Indeed. The Crying of Lot 49 may be read as a tragic account of the difficulty of human acUon in a worlcJ whose meanings are always either our own. or just beyond our reachi. ~arcissism, In short, may be a condition of our participation in the world. I


Information and Revelation

Pynchon plays on the religious implications of that ambiguity, for Oedipa's clues may be sacred signs, as well as secular information. "GI If ••• there were revelation in progress all around her" (itallcs mine. 28). Information is a species of "revelation" just as Nefastis' version of feedback is a species of California spiritualism. Both he and Wiener trade on the (act that Information can provide a temporary and local reversal of entropy. To reiterate: "the Maxwell demon can work indefinitel)' ... if additional light comes (rom outside the system and does not correspond in temperature to the mechanical temperature of the particles themselves. '·'1


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

There are two requirements, then, for regenerating a system: the energy must come from an Outside. and it must be different from the energy present Inside. This is the importance of Tristero; for it represents the possible infusion from the outside of an organized "difference" reinstating opposition. The success of Oedipa's sorting rests directly on the uncertainty over the source of the information she accumulates and organizes into the Tristero; for if these clues do not originate in a system or culture outside the one Oedipa seeks to redeem, then they are only a part of the inside system which is running down. There are specific problems in her way. Pynchon's drama of contemporary society involves an historical as well as spatial dimension. Oedipa's attempt to verify Tristero takes her into history. where she is confronted by various editions, pirated (..'Opies, questionable sources, and death. Oedipa can never get beyond herself, her language, or outside of time, but remains "parked at the centre of an odd, religious instanf' (13). In some ways this book is about being trapped within the present, at an Intersection of time and space. Talking with ninety-one-year-old Mr. Thoth-named for the Eg)rptian god of letters-she will feel "as if she bad been trapped at the centre of some intricate crystal" (67). The story of Oedipa is the story of waiting for revelation, seeking it in the historical, secular and time-bound world around her, but finding no God beyond the words she hopes will tell her the truth. Because she is trapped, "motion is relative" -which is the reason Pynchon includes the discussion at The Scope Bar about the Commodore Pinguid: Off the coast of either what is now Carmel-by-the-sea, or what is now Pismo Beach, around noon or possibly toward dusk, the two ships sighted each other. One of them rna)' have fired; if it did then the other responded; but both were out of range so neither showed a scar afterward to prove anything. Night fell. In the morning the Russian ship was gone. But motion is relative. If you believe an excerpt from the "Bogatir" or "Caidamak" 's log, forwarded in April to the GeneralAdjutant in 5t Petersburg and now somewhere in the Krasnyi Arkhiv, it was the "Disgruntled" that had vanished during the night. (32)

The Pinguid records are a comic parody of the unreliability (the relativity) of historical records, mimicked by the either/or prose of the narrator. The agility of metaphor balances on that ridge, as later, in a more somber scene, Oedipa realizes, "the act of metaphor ... was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost" (95). The sacred language which Informs The Crying oj Lot 49 Is a foil to the inverted, profane culture it describes: smog obscuring the feminine moon, waste, debris, the "emptiest' Bortz tosses at seagulls looking for the true sea, freeways built over graveyards, spray cans, rusting cars, shan-

Thomas Schaub


ties. All this Is the iconography of isolation In a culture of throwaways. The ironic use of language has a fitting origin in Pierce's name, which derives from '·petrus'· or rock. AI founder of San Narciso, Pierce Is an Inverse Peter, on whom is built the profane church of America. Pynchon en· forces this frony immediately, for Oedipa-on reading that she has been named executrix-"stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God. tried to feel as drunk as possible" (1). Pierce occasions the association of the TV with God, and this association persists throughout the book, for the TV's "greenish eye" becomes the green bubble shades nearly everyone wears, and which, like the TV. permit the wearer to be in someone else's living space without making contact. Pynchon chooses Varo's painting. in part, because It serves for him as an inverse parable of creation. The world is created (in this painting) from the inside out; and the rhythm of Pynchon's prose is an intentional echo of the open(ng verses of I John: "all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry. and the tapestry was the world" (10). Randy Driblette tells Oedipa, "That's what I'm for. To give the spirit Oesh. The words, who cares? ... I'm the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes. sometimes other orifices also" (56). Driblette insists the play means nothing, yet Oedipa (and we) do not believe him fully because of his reluctance to speak about Tristero, and because of the accumulating coincidences. Varo's painting and Driblette threaten Oedipa with the possibility that there is no meaning beyond the one she herself weaves; but this possibility, while never denied, is never confirmed either. Varo's painting is the initiation of a tapestry image which recurs three times late in the book. After interviewing Tremaine, Oedipa tells herself, "This is America, you live in it. you let it happen. Let it unfurl" (112). Here the p-'il}ting, like the Narcissus m)1h. has been assumed into the fabric of the novel and is part of the social vision of a culture weaving itself in time, each generation responsible for the ongoing expansion. At the same time, ~ is no given pattern to follow. When she learns of Driblette·s suicide, Oedipa mutters "subvocally-feeling like a fluttering curtain In a very high window. moving up to then out over the abyss" (114); and she asks Bortz about Tristero "with the light. vertiginous sense of fluttering out over an abyss" (117). Earlier she worried that she was fuhloning the tapestry; but now her paranoia has begun to blossom. She Is not sure whether she is weaver or woven. To resolve this uncertainty. Oedipa needs information not subject to time, ..the direct, epileptic Word. the cry that might abolish the night" (87). This need underlies her desire to find out "something about the historical Wharfinger. Not so much the verbal one." Bortz tells her words


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

are all we have. "Pick some words •... Them. we can talk about" (113). All that is available from the pa.u is the medium in which Wharfinger lived; and the gambit of reaching the real message by tracing his words is blocked by the transformations of time: variant texts, pirated copies, faulty memory and questionable interpretation. Her interest in \Vbarfioger. of course, arises from ber determination to verify the literal existence of Tristero; because if Tristero is not part of some "grandiose practical joke" traceable to the Inverarity estate. then she may have found in Tristero u a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you mo,,"- (128). III

Revelation and Tristero

When the Tristero alternative is examined, we find it linked with exile and death. Promises of "re,,'elation'· and uhierophany" are matched, symmetrically, by an opposing set of references to the "Book of the Dead" (18).The old man Oedipa interviews at Vesperhaven is Mr. Thoth, "scribe of the gods" in Budge"s compilation of The Egyptilln Book of the Dead. to Moreover, ,,'e read in C. G. Jung's "Psychological Commentary" to the Tibetan Book of the Dead: "Like The Egyptian Book of the Dead, it is meant to be a guide for the dead man during the period of his Bardo existence, symbolically described as an intermediate state of Jorly-njne dQys' duration between death and rebirth" (italics mine.)·' I! the ending of The Crying oj Lot 49 is the point before revelation, then this revelation-at least in one sense-is death. Both 8ook.4i of the Dead are about the necessary relation between the art of dying and the art of living. This relation is the fulcrum of one of p)"Ilchon's fundamental themes: our culture is dying because it is predicated on a denial of death-as Tony Jaguar knew, for he had heard "stories about Forest Lawn and the American cult of the dead" (42). The attributes of the Tristero alternative-exile, alienation. silence, waiting, disinheritance, darkness and death-are all "congruent ""ith the cheered land" (135). Oedipa's discovery of these attributes is concentrated in the "nighttown" section of the novel (chapter 5), but this chapter has been prefigured twice by prose that anticipates her passage through the night and establishes resonances \\·hich convolute \\'hat she learns there. The passage-through-thc-nlght theme is initiated in her motel room "'lth Metzger. As the Strip 80tticelli game unwinds to\\'ard climax. Oedipa suspects "that If .the sun ever came up Metzger would disappear. She \\'asn"t sure if she wanted him to" (26). Despite the humor of this scene, the chapter can be read (as the narrator points out in chapter 3) a.~ the beginning of Oedipa's escape from the tower. That means an increase in "intensity," "focus" and a removal of the "insulation" she experienced at Kinneret. With Metzger she strips herself naked, and this venturesome adultery is only the first of many examples In the novel in ",hich her efforts to "communicate" result in increased Isolation (see 114).

Thomas Schaub


Her night \\·ith Metzger is recalled and expanded by a passage ten pages later:

So began, for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of The Tristero. Or rather, her attendance at some unique performance prolonged as if it were the last of the night. something a little extra for whoever'd stayed this late. As if the breakaway gown. net bras, jeweled garters and G-strings of historical figuration that would fall away were layered den.c;e as Oedlpa's own streetclothes in that game with Metzger in front of the Baby Igor movie; as if a plunge toward dawn indefinite black hours long would indeed be necessary before The Tric;tero could be revealed In its terrible nakedness. Would its smile, then. be coy, and would it flirt away harmlessly backstage, say good night with a Bourbon Street bow and leave her in peace? Or would it instead, the dance ended, come back do\\'n the runway, its luminous stare locked to Oedipa's, smUe gone malign and pitiless: bend to her alone among the desolate rows of seats and begin to speak word~ she never wanted to hear? (36) The structure of the pas.~age is the same as that in chapter 2: passage through the night, the stripping a\\'ay of clothes(figurations, and the promise of revelation toward dawn. This simile complicates the relationship of Oedipa to the Tristero, for the historical strip tease is likened to Oedipa's own in the previous chapter. and this prompts the inescapable suspicion that Oedipa and Tristero are somehow involved in one another, and that Oedipa herself-as her name suggests-may be at the heart of the declining society. With this finesse, Pynchon convolutes outside and inside; the comfortable distinction between Oedipa and Tristero is now complicated. At her hotel in Berkeley, Oedipa "kept waking from a nightmare about ,something in the mirror . . . . When she woke in the morning. she was sitting bolt upright, staring into the mirror at her own exhausted face'· (14),. Back in southern California she dreams "of disembodied voices from whose malignance there was no appeal. the soft dusk of mirrors out of which something was about to \valk . . . . " (131). The two passages just discussed prefigure Oedipa·s descent into the San Francisco night and become the structure of that chapter. The preparation for our view of her experience is echoed in the language: At some indefinite passage in night's sonorous score, it also came to her that she would be safe, that something. perhaps only her Unearly fading drunkenness, \vould protect her. The city was hers. as, made up and sleeked so with the customary words and images (cosmopolitan, culture. cable cars) it had not been before: she had safe-pa..~age tonight to its far blood·s branchings. (86-87) . During the night. the metaphors (like "historical fjgurations'·) will fall away. The city, "made up and sleeked," does a strip tease. which is an ex-


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

ternalized version of the cliches that are falling away from Oedipa's understanding. The children she meets are unafraid because .. they had inside their circle an imaginary fire, and needed nothing but their own unpenetrated sense of community" (87); but Oedipa's own protection begins to dissolve because she is not a believer and because her world has been pierced. The only community she discovers is an anti-community, like the Inamoratl Anonymous who have nothing to share but a mutual isolation from one another, "dedicated not to continuity but to some kind of interregnum" (91). Oedipa's passage through the night is fulfilled at dawn when she comes upon the drunken sailor and confronts (or the first time the "irreversible process" o( death. This Is the revelation which greets her at dawn, and accompanying It is a realjzation which helps explain the book's slippery ambiguity. Oedipa's thoughts pun on the DT's she feels in the sallor's body, and she remembers that In calculus "dt meant "abo a time U

differential, a vanishingly small instant in which change bad to be confronted at last for what It was, where It could no longer disguise itself as something innocuous like an average rate; where velocity dwelled in the projectile though the projectile be frozen In midfligbt, where death d,,'elled in the cell though the cell be looked in on at its most quick" (95-96). The 'Adelta-t" is a mathematical expedient for assuming continuous motion where none can be shown; and the shorthand "dt" establishes the continuit)' In Oedipa·s understanding between the sailor's delirium tremens and the irreversible process. Oedipa realizes suddenly that language is a kind of linguistic mem· brane between literal experience and what that experience may mean: The saint "'hose water can Ught lamps, the clairvoyant whose lapse in recall is the breath of God, the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself, the dreamer whose puns probe aDclent fetid shafts and tunnels of truth all act in the same special rele\'ance to the word, or whatever it is the word is there, buffering, to protect us from. The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: Inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was. (95) From the outside, metaphor is only a '·buffer,·· while from the "inside, safe," metaphor provides access to that very realization, and is therefore a "thrust at the truth." The text of The Crying oj Lot 49 is fully metaphoric in that sense, existing in the middle between inside and outside, betweeD a reductive literalism in which words are mere tools standing for things, and a speculative symbolism in which words are signs capable of pointing toward realities which transcend those signs. This Is the same Unguistic space as that occupied by OedJpa and the reader. If we look again at the formulation in the book, we see that metaphor is both a "thrust at truth and a lie"; it becomes disjunctive, or relative, only as it is employed from

Thomas Schaub


one side or the other. With this in mind, the next sentence is crucial: "Oedipa did not know where she "·85." At the end of the book she is stili between tithe zeroes and ones." Uke Oedtpa, the reader too Is left In the middle, because TM Crying oj Lot 49 stubbornly refuses to allow its own linguistic symmetries to resolve In ways that Oedlpa·s do not. When Oedipa returns to , ..Islt Mike Fallopian at The Scope. he proposes that the entire Tristero network is a hoax. Her reaction is conveyed in a telling simile: "Uke the thought that someday she would have to die, Oedlpa had been steadfastly refusing to look at the possibility directly" (126). If the hoax is real, then death is "only death·· (137). The Tristero alternative is a release from her "deckful of days" but It is a release Into a reality that recognizes death. Oedipa's search thus involves an unwitting discovery of her own mortality, a fact deadened by her daytime suburban culture, but "congruent" with it. As the world about her takes on more and more the character of In-

formation, Oedipa·s evidence seems less Uke truth than clue to something beyond it; but this is because her medium and its message are Identical. Oedipa Is caught in the midst: of this identity. Her medium-housing., tracts, the media, people, roads, graveyards, Cohen's dandelion wine-is all message; and messages, she realizes, are subject to time and decay,) Oedipa knows the sailor will die and with him all the messages encoded i"l his life, In her private vision of conflagration, she prophesies that his mat) tress will bum: !

She remembered John Nelastis, talking about his Machine, and / massive destructions of information, So when this mattress \ flared up around the sailor, in hb Viking's funeral: the stored,) coded years of uselessness. earl)' death, self-harrowing, thJ .. sure decay of hope, the set of all men who had slept on it,,·' whatever their lives had been, would truly cease to be, forever, when the mattress burned, She stared at it in wonder. It was as if she had just discovered the irreversible process. (95)



Her memory of NefaStfs reminds us that the price of work done is entropy, Tbis bodily image of the burning sailor is the fulfillment of Oedipa's earlier suspicion t~at she might be "left with only complied memories of clues, announcements. intimations, but never the central truth itself. which must somehow each time be too bright for memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly" (69). As message, allUfe is the transmutation of waste. Like the lost Faggio Guard, all Ufe is transformed into the medium of the present. This process is described by Wiener in his chapter "Organization as the Message." Organisms are viewed by him as messages, since they are "opposed to chaos. to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise," Organisms then, Wiener points out, do not exist as substantial entities. but as patterns whose content is Ould. The pattern resists disorganization, not the substance: "We are but whirlpools In a river of e\'er-Dowing water. We


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

are not stuff that abides. but patterns that perpetuate themselves. "II On this point. Wiener and McLuhan dovetail for Pynchon; Oedipa comes to view the universe as a message. & her talent for sensing meaning behind pattern ripens, the patterns proliferate and haunt her, "as if (as she'd guessed that first minute in San Narciso) there were revelation In progress all around her" (28). Oedipa's revelation, such as it is, is secular and real, and is the realization of loss and death. The Crying of Lot 49 is a book about loss, about the tragedy of what happens to the moment in the stream of time. The truth existing In the present recedes into the past. and is never present to our knowledge. Still, she is surrounded b)' transmutations of the past: she drinks it in Cohen's dandelion \\ine. just as the evil Duke writes with the ink of the Lost Guard. M ucho understood this when he \\yorked as a used car salesman, watching people bring in "motorized, metal extensions of themselves" full of the --actual residue" of their lives "Uke a salad of despair" (4-5). Pynchon has created in the \V.A.S.T.E. postal system an inverse acronym. for We Await Silent Tristero's Empire stands for ·'waste." Waste is a communications svstem; as the medium of our soci. ety, its message is plain. Oedipa is educated to this message, and learns about the subterranean congruence of povert)' and disease which lies beneath the shine of America·s countenance. Therefore she is not a static character, but one who changes and moves to\\'ard something new (12). Near the end of the book, she experiences a secular epiphany: She stood bet\\'een the public booth and the rented car, in the night, her isolation complete, and tried to face toward the sea. But she'd lost her bearings . . . . Sao Narciso at that moment lost (the loss pure, instant, spherical, the sound of a stainless orchestral chime held among the stars and struck lightly), gave up its residue of uniqueness for her: became a name again, was assumed back into the American continuity of crust and mantle. (133) This instant parallels the insight occasioned by Varo's painting that the land she stood on "\\'as onl), by accident known as Mexico" (11). Oedipa now understands that her ego, like Narciso, is only "incidental" - ··a name; an incident among our climatic records of dreams and "'hat dreams became among our accumulated daylight, ... There was the true continuity" (133-34). Paradoxically, the word "continuity" has come to mean in the course of the novel its exact opposite. For all Oedipa's admirable courage and persistence. she still possesses-like Herbert StencU's pursuit of V.-a naive hope that Tristero will be a tangible and Uteral person (137). Yet it is clear that Tristero's reality is metaphoric; and while it is an alternative, it is one indissolubl)' knit to the culture that alienates it. The pattern Oedipa finds or weaves has-the reality of all metaphors; just as the community she discovers is real, though the word "community" here is a metaphor for the lack of community we all share.

Thomas Schaub


At the beginning of The Crying oj Lot 49, the reader encourages Oedipa in her escape from the tower; but by the end of the book she is outside lost. and paralyzed by the "matrices of a great digital computer. This is Pynchon's image of a culture whose terms-as Sidney Stencil predicted-have been reduced to polar extremes, Oedipa is caught between the suburban culture she has outgrown and the communion of withdrawal. She is happ)' with neither option; Oedipa "had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided: and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversityP" If there is no Tristero Mbe)'ond the appearance of the legacy of America'" then there is "Just America" and the "only \vay she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unf urrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia" (136-37). The image of the computer, while inherently apt. may have its ironic source in the optimism of II

UndeJ"ftGnding Media: ··The computer .. , promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. "13 By contrast, Pynchon demonstrates the "secular miracle of communication": tremendous connectedness, but no community. If hope exists at all. It is In the ability to \\ithstand the terrible ambiguity threatenIng Oedipa. The fictions Pynchon writes have no happy endin~; they hardly seem to Mend" at all, for there is no end to the ambiguities his "Titing provokes. Oedipa does achieve an awareness of her culture, and that awareness is never held in doubt . Yet the doubts which her culture propagates are never resolved. To her credit she maintains her ground instead of sUpping into a hermetic dogmatism or an apocal)'Ptic suicide. Her position is isolated and filled with a paranoia more protective than neurotic. Yet with Oedipa we experience a broadening of CODsciousness, and a sense of the possibility for meanings which inhere in the world and in language. Those meanings, most skillfully in The Crying oj Lot 49, depend for their vitality OD the suspension in which they are caught. And this ~ one of the extra-literary aspects of the book, for in.~far as The Cry'ng oj LoI49 stakes out the necessary ambiguity in \vhich moral actions must take place. the narrator's binary nip-flopping not only makes our reading experience commensurate with Oedlpa's trials, it echoes the experience beyond our reading. Notes 1. p)'nChon'l OR! of the varioUilenws of Mcntrop)·M has been wldel)' dlK.-ussed. but with "U')ing conclusions. See Joteph Slade. Thoma Pynchon (New York: Warner Paperback Ubrar),. 197.)~ Edward Mendehon's"The s.cred, the Profane and TM CrylnR oj Lot 49," Prptdwn: A CoIl«Hon oj CritlcGI E&wnp, edited by Edward Mendelson (Englewood CUf&: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1918). pp. 112-146; and Anne ~fanFI, uMuwe1I's Demon. Entrop)', Informatkm: The Crybag oj Lo' 49." In MlndJul Plftl6U,~, «I. by Levin and Leverenz (!bton: Littlr, Brown.nd Company, 1978)"pp. 87-100. 2. Norbert Wiener, TIw Humon U~ oj HU7lllJn Beln" (New York: A\"On Books. 1967), p.42. 3. Ibid., p.


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon


4. Henf)' Adams. TM D~tion oj tM DemocratK- Dogma (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919). p. 142. 5. Human Use, pp. m-21. 6. See Robert Redfield and Peter L. Hays, "Fugue as Struc.1ure In Pynchoo's ·Entropy· ... Pacific COtJIt Plaj/ology, 12: 50-55. 7. 10 alrtt~r from 1nomu Pynchon to Thomas F. Hinch, Pynchon I1!fen to McLuhan Jle'wal times. Sec·s "Escaping Rationalization: Options for the Self In Grrmilyi Rainbow," CriHqw. Vol. 18, nn. 3, n. 2. 8. Marshall McLuhan. UndersllJnd~nl M«iUJ: 'lui E%lenfton.t oj Man, teCOnd edition (Nt'w York: New American Libr_I)·. Inc .• 1964), p. 51. 9. HUrnlln U~, pp. 26-27.

10. lind., pp. 43-44. 11. lind., p. 33. 12. lind., pp. 35-36. 13. Ibid., p. 25. 14. For. pictorial vte.. of this identity. see Mangel's articJe (above, n. 1). IS. (New York: Harper & Row Publbhen, 1961), p. 23. 18. Ilntl., p. me. 17. See David Cowart's "Pynchon"s TIw Crying oj Lot 49 and the Paintinp of Remedios Varo," CrUlqur, 18, no. 3, pp. 19-26. 18. ~Iy thinking hete was influenced by Edward Mendelson's fine piece on thJs book (see abo\'e. n. 1). In his \~. T~ Crying oJ Lo, 49 is a good deal more invigorating than I take it to be. Mendelson is more saUsfled with the metaphoric way of comprehending the world than Oedipals; she wants the mdaphor incarnate, the \Vord direct. 19. Humtln U~. p. 44. 20. Sir E. A. Budge. 3 wis. in 1 (Barnes and Noble, 1989), p. 25. 21. Compiled and edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Oxford Vnlvenlty Paperback, 1960),

xuv. 22. Human U~. p. 130. 23. McLuhan. p. 84.


Rainbow: What's The Big Idea?" Speer Morgan· When volumes three and four of TrI8tram ShtJndy were published In 1i61, it was no surprise that \irtually all the London reviewers CODdemned the book for Its willful disorder, eccentricity, and confusion-the same qualities ","hich at the end of 1i59 had given the obscure minister from York such trouble publishing the first two volumes. The pedants had cause for condemnation since the book made joyous nonsense of their ",·ork and because it was, in fact, with its misplaced preface, nonexistent chapter, and bawdy ··noses," willful and eccentric, certainly for a clergyman to have written. It is perhaps not surprising either that certain men of letters had alread)' condemned volumes one and two of the topsyturvy book: "Walpole, as insipid and tedious: Goldsmith, as bawdy and pert and \·ain; Richardson, as wild, incoherent, and Indecent:'· Sterne's pixilated Tristram was a sort of attack on well-made fiction before it had time to become well-made, and men ,,'ho took their letters more gravel)" were understandably hostile toward its strange, fractured, daydreaming continuum of associated idea... and moods. Two centuries later the novel had taken conscious form, grown to maturity, and acquired a formal aesthetic that not only fet...:Jgllizetl but seemed to prescribe complexity and irony as deep as that of expanded metaphysical poetry, and somehow at the same time, unexpectedly and somewhat elusively, seemed to prescribe unity and self-containment as absolute as that of a game of monopoly. Schools of thought seldom get established, however, before they begin to lose vitality and crumble. It is apparent by now that the high mass of formalist aesthetics does not address some of the best fiction being written or recognize that it is the novelist's prerogative, like Laurence Sterne, to come out of the cathedral and speak freely, even to rave a bit. Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon's massive third novel,· was reviewed with desen:ed commendation by the less pious critics.' It is the nature of reviews, however, to leave a single impression, and although Pynchon's reviewers were given more space than usual, they \vere scarcely -Reprinted (rom ,.,odem Fiction S,udUs. 23 (Summ« 1977), 199-216. Modem Flc&n StuJJes. CoP)Tight (9 19i7. Purdue Rsearch Foundation. West Lafayette. Indiana. U.S.A.


Speer Morgan


more than able to demonstrate their wonder and explain a fe\\' things. Gravity i Rainbow offers problems. many of which are Uke those of Trilfram SlaGndy. A few hundred pages into the bulky thing, we may admire its mood passages, its energetic, sometimes abandoned historical impressionism, its speculative interludes, especially those dealing with the meaning and influence of technology. and its vigorous, intricate. heady prose. Yet the reader may also grow vexed to the point of giving up on the some four hundred characters, the total volatUity of mood (from utter slapstick to the darkest meditation in a single line). and the repeated explosion of verisimilitude and tone with the most outrageous anachronisms and crass, seemingly chUdish indecorums. The point of \iew offers no anchoring frame since it is free to the point of switching from scenes rendered as drama to others done through an omniscient voice that is fairly reserved, and still others in an omniscient voice so urgent that it drops all pretense of artifice, grabs the reader by the collar, and speaks head on. Most oE all. we might grow weary of trying to wade through a plot that emplo)'S so few tran.~tions or explanations. which drops us into this or that scene as into strange parties to figure out by our own wits where and among whom we are. In short, we may simply give up in confusion. preferring anything-the crumbling cathedral of formal aesthetics-to this chaos. It helps. at some point. to realize that Gravity' Rainbow is not precisely a novel. "It Is a fiction but not a Dovel." as Northrop Frye says about Gulliver; Travels. In his attempt to understand literature by genre, Frye deems Gullioer; TrtJvel&, along "ith The Satyrlcon, Gorgon'"o and Pantagruel, Candide, The Anatomy oj MelDncholy. and most successfully of all, TrUlram ShGndy, types of Menippean satire (named after a Greele Cynic, whose works. properly enough, are lost) or ··anatomy," a kind of fiction which "deals less with people as such than mental attitudes." The anatomy, accordtpl ~o Frye, resembles the confession in its abUUy to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which/is ~lized rather than naturalistic. and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent. . . . The novelist sees evil and foUy as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect, as a kind of maddened pedantry \\'hich the phllosophtu g/oriosus at once symbolizes and defines. 4 The anatomy employs a "Ioose-jointed narrative," the free play of intellectual fancy and the kind of humorous observation that produCes caricature. . . . At its most concentrated the Menfppean satire presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern. The intellectual structure built up from the story makes for violent dislocations


Critical Essa)'S on Thomas Pynchon

in the customary logic of narrative, though the appearance of carelessness that results reflects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a oovel-centered conception of fiction. (Frye, pp. 309-310) Frye goes on to note that satire in general is a combination of fantasy and morality, and the Menippean satire in particular may display a very pure form of fantasy, as in the Alice books. Complementing his taste for fantasy, ··The Menippean satirist, dealing with abstract themes and attitudes, shows his exuberance in intellectual ways, by plUng up an enormous mass of erudition about this theme or in overwhelming his pedantic targets with an avalanche of their own jargon·· (Frye, pp. 310-311). Except in its emphasis on the characters of Menippean satire as strictly Intellectual fools, Frye·s definition seems to suit Gravity; Rainbow better than a number of the books given as examples of the type, and, taken from the dilapidated cathedral of formal aesthetics to the ample graveyard of genre criticism, placed alongside its relatives, Pynchon's crazy book seems Eor the moment less out of place. Not worrying about CrtJullyi Rainbow fulfilling the requirements of a novel, the reader may be less disturbed, for example. when among (our hundred characters he can find only a very few who are convincing or interesting on a human level. Franz Polder, the German student and later guidance expert who gives up his family for the vague promise of the rocket, is among the extraordinarily few true '·characters." Most of them are involved in such weird ob.~ions or jerking about in such frequent scenes of slapstick in what seem like speedy old film sequences that they have little capacity for dimension or pathos or the other usual requirements of full-blooded novelistic characters. With the expectations of '·the nover· put aside, it becomes evident that the real energy and accomplishment of the book lie in its Intellectual abundance and more precisely its visionary anatomy of the forces controUing twentieth-century history. It is necessary to add the word "visionary, since although Frye·s definition of the anatomy allows for "a very pure form of fantasy" and although a great deal of Pynchoo·s 000realism is strictly facetious, the overall breadth and gravity of the book is that of a vision concerning the destin)' of man In this era. ·'The Age of Plastics" is broken down and anatomized according to psychological, historical. and technological currents; then too, as the perfect paranoid, aware that ·'everyth'ng u connecte4· (p. 703), the author is able to put it all back together in a unified vision. Henry Adams' frustrated, haunted search for order amid increasing signs of chaos in human and natural history is a kind of thematic model for "Entropy:· Pynchon·s first published story, and (or V. and The Crying oj Lot 49, his former two novels. In the novels particularly, the plot revolves around a quest for meaning to various bizarre events, which unlike the meaning Adams searches for, may be sinister. In The EducQ,jon, Adams· pursuit of order looked forward to Interpretable and therefore controllable structure in history and It

Speer Morgan


nature, as opposed to what he grew to fear at the onset of the twentieth century, entire meaninglessness and randomness. Pynchon's characters search for malign plots in the same way that Henry Adams searched hopefully Eor structure-to avoid the greater fear of randomness, absurdity, or simple entropy. It might be said that the Virgin. which Adams saw as the dynamism of medieval Europe, a symbol that sparked and directed massive outpourings of human energy, is closely related to V .• an elusive and Increasingl)' Inanimate object "'hlch performs miraculous feats by technological control. This is very close to Henry Adams' view: humanit)' gives itself up to a source of energy that Is no longer alive-the Virgin becomes the dynamo-and thereby the devotion of humanity becomes an expenditure towards chaos, the fear of entropy triggered by fetishism into outright destructiveness. Gravily; Rainbow extends and perfects this Idea as the symbol of devotion becomes the most dramatic and characteristic product of twenUeth-century technology, the supersonic rocket. In this third Dovel. Pynchon's anatomy occurs more definably within the parameters of modem history than in V. or TM Crying oj Lot 49. The central symbol is more literal, less simply allegorical, and therefore more effective. Which is to say the idea In Gravity; Rainbow is not new; its conception is more perfect. The hero, as in the former novels, is a paranoid. but the object of Tyrone Slothrop's quest is no delusion. Both the figure V. and the Tristero system, the earlier quest objects, may have been Uttle more than psychological necessities, but the rocket of Gravity i Rainbow, which begins as the German V -2 and ends as a visionary apocalyptic missile, is one of the most significant projects of modem history, and if there is delusion and Insanity in the quest. It is a state of consciousness which has direct reference outside the padded walls of the book. The main characters aU respond In some significant ","ay to the apparent meaning of the proJect; Slothrop's erections just before V-2's fallon blitzed London ~ ~haracteristlc reactions in that they are seemingly Don-willed and instinctual. The two scientists seeking to interpret Slothrop's peculiar affinity for rockets are members of the British Intelligence commdnily and typical in a broad way of divergent trends In modem science: Pointsman is a behaviorist. a believer In cause and effect, who seeks to prove Pavlov's theory of stimulus-response through his research on Slothrop. As a chUd, Slothrop was used in behavioristic research by one Professor Jamf, a Pavlovian, and Polntsman suspects that in those experiments lies the key to Slothrop's gift and conclusive proof to behavioristic psychology. Roger Mexico, working for the same intelligence wing, is a statisticlan who believes in prediction through observation of random events. Pointsman believes that situations can best be analyzed as stlmulusresponse, either zero or one, whereas Mexico's science resides forever between the zero and one, in the area of statistical percentages. Slothrop's




on Thoma...


erections are typical because all of the characters are excited or stimulated in some primal \\'ay by the rockets. Mexic..-o and Pointsman want to use Slothrop's reactions to prove their scientific approaches, and although Mexico eventually abandons the project for love and later for a kind of existential anarchy. Pointsman continues his ruthless machinations, hoping for a profe5Sional eclat that he never pulls off. At the end he is left wandering insane in "the Zone,·' a visionary postwar Germany that stands metaphorically for the postwar Western world. By definition Pointsman cannot succeed in the Zone, since, like the twentieth century for Henry Adams, it is not a place where cause and effect can be traced. Other characters involved in building or pursuing the rocket are even more directly "excited" by it: Oberst Enzian is the leader of the Schwartzkommando, a group of Southwest Africans who had originally been trained by England and France as Indigenous guerillas but are now two generations removed from Africa and living in Germany. In Africa. Enzian had been the homosexual lover 151 ave of Weissmann, later kno\\rr1 as Captain BHeero of the SS, coordinator of the final rocket project. The relationship bet\veen Enzian, Weissmann. and the rocket echoes Siothrop's peculiar ability and intimates the central speculative significance of the project: It began when Weissmann brought him [Enzian] to Europe: a discovery that love, among these men, once past the simple feel and orgasming of it, had to do with masculine technologies, with contracts, with winning and losing. Demanded. in his own case, that he enter the service of the Rocket .... Beyond simple steel erection, the Rocket was an entire system won, away from the feminine darkness, held against the entropies of lovable but scatterbrained Mother Nature: that was the first thing he was obliged by Weissmann to learn, his first step toward citizenship in the Zone. He \vas led to believe that by understanding the Rocket, he would come to understand truly his manhood .... (p. 324) What kind of victory the rocket, the crown of war and postwar technology, represents over .. the entropies of lovable but scatterbrained Mother Nature" points to the center of Pynchon's anatomy. It is evident~ of course, that the "victory" of the final apocalyptic rocket is a hollow one and not surprising that the main faction of exiled Africans involved in the project, "The Empty Ones," are In quest of the flnal Zero, Uin love with the glamour of a \\'hole people's suicide" (p. 318). Like most of the population of the book. Enzian's people fetishlze the rocket as the fulfillment of certain cultural and countercultural myths. It is most significant that the rocket represents a fruition of ideas which have to do with the "entropies" of nature, m)1hs which to the Germans and Africans both oppose and accomplish the final Zero. As the book develops it becomes ap-

Speer Morgan


parent that the principal intellectual theme is represented by this paradox and furthermore that the good guys are, basically, those who learn to accept nature's entropies and the bad those who oppose them. A great deal of attention has been given to Pynchon's interest in the Second Law of Thermodynamics-the concept that any given system tends to run out of energy, flowing toward greater disorganization and final entroplc death. 5 EntTopy Is more elaborate than the concept of simple death. since it Implies not just the dead end of mortality but a wearing away and increasing disorganization through loss of heat. Entropy may be more fearful than death in certain ways, since it applies to all that we know, from the suns do\\~ to the living creatures, the molecules, and very atoms. It is a universal sentence to extended death which through its very absoluteness carries greater horror than the Biblical curse of mortality. The Second Law of Thermodynamics may be read as a blanket Impersonal rule of Increasing confusion and meaninglessness and thlL~ more thorough and painful than the concept of simple death. There is a problem involved in applying a law of physics to biology or history, since although entropy may reign universal among suns and other vast energy systems. it refers to the immediate circumstances of humanity only in limited ways-principally u a psychological hangup (the fear of "extended" death, or of chaos) or a metaphor of certain forces in history. As Croofty$lfalnbow unfolds, it becomes apparent that ill his third and best novel Pynchon remains fascinated by the force of entropy. perhaps to the point of confusion. Partial evidence of its meaning can be seen in the picture of Franz POkIer, the movie freak and Bohemian who becomes a rocket engineer. POkier is one of the very few old-fashioned fictional characters with pathos, depth. and a consistently realistic life. It sometimes happens that • true character sneaks into the flood of maddened pedants, intellectual eccentrics, and caricatures that populate an anatomy. A character can emerge despite his"'homour:' like Tristram's Uncle Toby. \\,ho although perfectly obsessed by military maneuvers and history is a kind-hearted naive man who wouldn't hurt a Oy, Indeed a "natural" man to the point of stupidity. capar,le of arousing our heart as well as our condescending chuckles. Franz P6kler is simUar to Uncle Toby in his naivete and selfinduced myopia but different in that his military games ha\'e very great public significance. We first meet POkier in the easygoing Bohemian climate of Berlin during the twenties, a setting premonitory of the American sixties: Old Gymnasium friends have been showing up in recent days, bringing exotic food and wine, Dew drugs, much ease and honesty In sexual matters. No one bothers to dress . . . . It is all beautifully relaxing for everyone . . . . Field es, the soon-tobe-lmmortal phrase. riogs in the sky, rings over the land. la,


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

fiekt esl ... Incredible joy at the baths, among the friends. True joy: events in a dialectical process cannot bring this explosion of the heart. Everyone is in love . . . . (pp. 157-158) The German youth scene in the twenties was similar to that in America forty years later , but frequently In Gravity .. Rainbow parallels pass eastl)' into anachronisms, especlall)· in the realm of Bohemian habits, diction, and theorizing, with characters presumably in pre- or postwar Germany acting and talking entirely like American hippies. Anachronism is one of the very techniques which contributes to the sense of vision-the unified, non-sequential sighting of forces at work in the century, the whole hodgepodge seen almost as if In a dream. Franz POkIer is himself a dreamer who prefers a good movie to reality. He conceives his daughter lise on an evening just after he's seen the movie Alpdrlicken, imagining his wife Leni as the actress Margherita Erdmann, submitting to his sadistic urges. The tendency to sadomasochism in POkier is further developed and revealed as he goes to work on the rocket project as a plastics expert. Uke a number of the rocket's devotees, Franz has a vague Faustian urge for transcendence, and when Lenl confronts him with the fact that he's being used " 'to kill people,' " he counters with a half-understood, .. 'We'll all use it, someday, to leave the earth. To transcend ... Someday, honestly trying, they won't have to kiD. Borders \\"on't mean anything. We'll have all outer space ... .' n (p. 4(0). But like the other rocket freaks, Franz does not work so much for a purpose as out of a need: ..... no one was using him. Pokier was an extension of the rocket long before it was built" (p. 402). By continuing with the work, Franz complies with the destruction of his wife and daughter, who are kept in a concentration camp near the project center under the

Hart! Mountains: Blicero/\Veissmann keeps POkier on the hook by holding out the promise of visits by his daughter. Yet ••... If he must curse Weissmann, then he must also curse himself. Weissmann's cruelty was no less resourceful than POlder's own engineering sltill, the gift of Daedalus that allo\\'ed him to put as much labyrinth as required between himself and the inconveniences of caring" (p. 428). Franz's tendency to submit himself to the "greater" project as a mode of avoidance fantasy Is related to his addiction to movies. This is made clear when BHeero/Weissmann sends Use, a seductive Lolita-figure, on infrequent but regular visits to Franz. Together they visit ZwOlfldnder, a kind of Nazi DiSDeyland, and commit ··hours of amazing incest" (p. 420), but Franz soon begins to wonder whether the lise being sent is really his daughter at all or whether she Is a substitute designed to bind him In even more helplessl)' confused guilt. The daughter whom he conceived in an orgy of movie fantasies thus becoms yet more fantastic, bound to him by his narcissism. He finally decides to quit the project, but at that point Blicero/Weissmann informs him that he is to work on the final project, Rocket 00000, and he again submits. He is to design u a plastic faring, of a

Speer Morgan


certain size. with certain insulating properties, for the propulsion section of the rockef' (p. 431). Franz works on the device. "nicknamed the Schwarzgerlt. because of the high secrecy surrounding it" (p. 432). and is given another pass to ZwolfJdnder to meet the fant8S)'-I1se. Instead. he meaks into the prison camp near the place where he has worked all these months and in the darkest hole finds "a random woman" whose "bone hand" he holds for a half hour .••All his vacuums, his labyrinths. had been the other side of this. While he lived. and drew marks on paper. this Invisible kingdom had kept on. in the darkness outside. . . all this time ... POkier vomited. He cried some" (pp. 431-432). The Schwarzgerlt becomes a kind of grail object for which the hero Slothrop and a number of others wander in quest. The precise nature of the device is never made clear (just as the identity of V. is never made clear. nor the meaning of the Tristero system). but it is apparent when Slothrop finally meets Pokier that the designer himself has become disillusioned and even disinterested in the crown of his labor. Slothrop has undergone all sorts of high adventure in his search for the Schwarzgerlt including near castration by the now thoroughly villainous Pointsman, and it seems somewhat odd at first when the besotted POkier shakes him off with so little explanation. His only piece of rea11nformation is that the device is an "aromatic polymide [sic (p. 576), which Slothrop already knew. But elsewhere there are repeated similar intimations that the quest is anticlimactic, the plastic grail in this anatomy of the Age of Plastics is indeed no more mysterious than its now disinterested maker indicates. There have been frequent discussions of the plastic devices on the rocket and several speculative passages on the general importance and meaning of plastic. Characteristically, those discussions are neither objective nor mysterious, but quite specific and sententious in their elucidation of what Frye calls the intellectual disease of the age. For the characten involved in the project, there ~m5 to be some great inexplicable potential at the heart of the rocket; ~4t for the reader and indeed for Franz. Slothrop, and Roger Mexico, after they have burned themselves out in the quest. the mystery is revealed as mystification, a set of expectations administered by the technological ~artel and its Captain BUceros that appeals to the denial of mortality and an urge for transcendence of "the lovable but scatterbrained entropies of Mother Nature," which humankind so fears that it hurries up the process: "death in the service of the one species cursed with the knowledge that it will die·' (p. 230). The Imipolex G device is a kind of plastic shroud enwrapping Gottfried, the masochistic Aryan whore to BUcero/\Velssmann who rides the final rocket. Pynchon is specific about Imipolex G and the significance of plastics.


The origins of Imipolex G are traceable back to early research done at du Pont. Plasticity has its grand tradition and maln stream, which happens to flow by way of du Pont and


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon their famous employee Carouthers, known as The Great Synthesist. His classic study of large molecules spanned the decade of the twenties and brought us directly to nylon, which not only is a delight to the fetishist and a convenience to the armed insurgent, but was also. at the time and well within the System. an announcement of Plasticity's central canon: that chemists were no longer to be at the mercy of Nature. They could decide now what properties they wanted a molecule to have. then go ahead and build it. At du Pont, the next step after nylon was to introduce aromatic rings into the polyamide chain. Pretty soon a whole family of ··aromatic polymen" had arisen: aromatic polyamides, polycarbonates, polyethers, polysulfanes. The target property most often seemed to be strength-first among Plasticity's virtuous triad of Strength Stability and Whiteness (Kroft, StondJestigkell, Weisse: how often these were taken for Nazi graffiti ... ). (pp. 249-250)

The age of synthetics began in 1885 with

Kekul~'s dream of the ser-

pent swallowing its tail, the image that solved the puzzling structure ·of the benzene ring and thereby led to the development of aromatic chemistry. In what amounts to a straightforward essay on Kekul~'s dream and its meaning for history, Pynchon defines the principal significance in the fact that the age of synthetics finds man no longer dependent on the molecules gi\ten by nature: " . . . . we used what we found in Nature, unquestioning, shamefully perhaps-but the Serpent whispered, ·They can be changed. and new molecules assembled from the debris of the given ... : Can anyone tell me what else he whispered to us? Comewho knOYls? You. Tell me, PDkler" (p. 413.) Pynchon describes the resulting system as a suicidal energy addict: "Uving inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide" (p. 412). The Age of Plastics is based on a self-destructive Ulusion and "sooner or later must crash to its death. This is the central illusion that motivates the destiny of the Age of Plastics: man feeds the insatiable hunger of a system that in some vague way promises to overcome the •• 'Once, only once' ... no return, no salvation, no cycle" (p. 413) of a nature "doomed" to entropy. The epigraph to Part One is ironic, a quote appropriately enough by Wemher von Braun, the German scientist who directed the V -2 project and later took America to the moon: ·'Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Eve!')'thing science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death." The delusion that the system can carry man "beyond the zero" is the central theme of P)~nchon's \'isionary replica of the twentieth century. Mechanized anti-utopias and the control of mankind by insane systems are the most common themes of science fiction, and in this respect and others Gravity Rainbow shares as much with science fiction as the U






anatomy. Vast secret technological projects, an apocalyptic finallnvention, the control of humanity by insidious, all-powerful authorities are classic science flcUon material-themes which remain alive a.~ they become more and more frightfully relevant In the history of this century. P}'D ch on '5 purpose, howe\'er. is to explore the motivc.~ behind these conventional themes through the forces which drhlC characters like Franz Pokier. POkier is an inveterate movie freak, with a particular ra.~ination for German Expressionist fUms dealing with the control and mechanization of man by outside forces. Robert Weine's The Cab'nel oj Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang's Met,opo/u, Dest'n!l. and Dr. Mabuse films are examples of the t)-pe, and Polder idolizes their inventors and mad scientists because Nall their yearninp aimed the same way. toward a form of death that could be demonstrated to hold joy and defianc..-e" (p. 579). Remembering MetropolLt. Lang's movie In which workers ruled by a mad scientist operate like the parts of a machine In an underground factory behind a facade that looks. like the face of a devouring god, Franz PokIer found delight not unlike a razor sweeping his skin and nerves, scalp to soles, in ritual submissions to the Master of this night space and of himself, the male embodiment of a technologlque that embraced power not for its social uses but for just those chances of surrender, to the Void, to delicious and screaming collapse . . . . (p. 578) Captain BHeero, the leader of the final project. and his t\\ro subjects Gottfried and Katje are likewise willing sado-masochistlc actors in a formalized nihilistic myth, a ··preservlng routine. their shelter, against what

outside none of them could bear-the war. the absolute rule of chance . . . " (p. 96). Their myth is a "Northern and ancient form, one they all know and are comfortable with-the strayed children, the woodwife in the edible house, the captivity, the fattening, the oven ... " , ,j • (p. 96). As with Franz POlder, Enzian, and others Involved in the construction or study of the rocket, their greatest fear is "the rule of chance, and they are not pnl)' willing but apparently instinctivel)' committed to some mythic and, at the same time, "scientific" denial of that rule. Fritz Lang's factory facade in the futuristJc underground world of Mel,opoli.J is precisely the idea: they call It a "scientific" world, imagining that It represents the end of the rule of myth and religion, but on the contrary, Its extremes arise out of the same unexamined fears and fetishisms.' The pattern that emerges among the various devotees to the rocket is best exemplified by Slothrop's erections: they are all involved in a seemingly libidinal way. They are all "excited" or "stimulated" by the rocket. But Slothrop's hard-on Eor the V-2 is itself a product of modern science, of Professor JamE, the behaviorist/chemist who trained Slothrop as an infant (somewhat like Pavlov trained Infant Albert) to have an erers are suspended. Rare moments of "special dispensation" are possible, but neither. guaranteed nor permanent. The Rocket operates by a dynamic of predestination-one which does not function on a scale of heavenly time outside human history, but moves in an arc of gravitational as well as historical inevitability, and which carries it from BHeero's launching of a specific rocket, the 00000, in the spring of 1945, directly to the moment when the Rocket ··reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t" (p. 760). These matters tie GR to the Puritan tradition of the jeremiad, but the depth and importance of the connections-and the implications they have for contemporary theories of narrative-must be considered further, in light of several major scholarly texts. Perry Miller's work, especially The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, is the starting point. Miller is almost exclusively concerned with the theme of declension in the seventeenth-century jeremiad, the long and intensifying lament over the failure of the Puritaos to achieve the New Jerusalem. He describes the different forms of tb~j~remiad and their appeal to different generations of Puritans. For the first generation, the jeremiad consisted of "a recital of afflictions" followed by a "prescription" which maintained a "scrupulous distinction betw~D physical afflictions ... and sins." Here, the prescription is based on the "implicit recognition of a causal sequence: the sins exist, the disease breaks out; the sins are reformed, the disease is cured . "I Although GR resembles this first phase of the jeremiad in that it, too, can be read as a catalogue of the afflictions of the western world just before, during and after World War II, It remains much closer to the later type of the jeremiad, which Miller ascribes to the middle of the seventeenth century. A second, less optimistic generation of Puritans saw sin as an affliction, not a cause. This fundamental shift had profound psychological consequences:


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon The subjective preempted the objective: a universal anxiety and insecurity had become no longer something ,,'hich, being cause, could be allayed by appropriate action, but rather something so chronic that the society could do nothing except suffer-and perpetually condemn itself. g

Miller emphasizes that such a major shift in formal convention is accepted, indeed embraced '-by a generation [only when] it makes sense of experience which previously has been ignored. "10 Some serious contemporary scholars claim to find the popularity of a grim catalogue of afflictions like GR incomprehensible. Much of that popularity is due to the fact that this contemporary jeremiad takes into account unacknowledged anxieties, temptations and fears which are primarily collective in nature. The two hundred and twenty characters and innumerable sub-plots of GR serve as a vehicle for articulating collective fears, the like of which a single prophetic voice had the authority to articulate in the Puritan jeremiad. Despite structural differences, GR remains, like the soc'Ond form of the jeremiad, a form for ··conceiving the inconceivable."ll Furthermore, whereas the Puritans· jeremiad-; were also used to make "intelligible order out of the transition from Eun)pean to American experience,"11 GR addresses itself to anxieties and afflictions that become global rather than local when the American retunlS to Europe at the end of World War II. Pynchon views the jeremiad-narrative as a form that has the capacity to deal with the condition of apocalyptic dread in the contemporary world, which is a place in which violence is no longer linked to the human will, but rather to a set of technocratic systems that have gained ascendancy and autonomy. 13 This dread is a new avatar of the spiritual anxIeties which haunted the Puritans on a religious level: it is rendered palpable in the technological forms that threaten us, but it would be a serious mistake to see the technological side of Pynchon's work as its only, or even as its most important aspect. He knows that even our collective responses to fear tend to be technocratic, to involve both science and bureaucracy; to counter a general dread, we tend to generate precisely the kind of structure which feeds our fears. Pynchon1s adaptation of the jeremiad uses the vocabularies of scientific and bureaucratic organizations, but these remain embedded in a larger fiction which envisions its central task as the Puritan authors of the jeremiad saw theirs: to bespeak doubts and apprehensions about the American dream, to question the fraying but still powerful sentiment that America-and the technology of Western culture-have a favored place and mission in history. 14 The prolonged incantation-catalogues of GR, which list and lament the details of American technological might, spring as the purging incantations of the jeremiad~ sprang, ufrom something deeper than pious fraud, more profound than cant: they were [and are] the voice of a eommunit)· bespeaking its apprehension about itself. ·'.5

Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan


Though useful. Miller's analysis-and ours-must be modified by more recent studies, especially the work of Sacvan Bercovitch, who has convincingly demonstrated that the early jeremiads not only stressed the declension from the millenial dream but just as persistently and continuously projected a vision of redemption and fulfillment. His elegant and massively documented study, I10rologfcais to Chronometricals: The Rhetoric oj the Jeremlad,·1 achieves a "paradigm shift'· in our understanding of the jeremiad and the Puritan imagination. Basically, Bercovitch shows that from the very beginning the jeremiad operated within a complicated and sophisticated double time scale. On one level (and Miller's study is focused primarily on this level) the jeremiads articulated the imperfect and prOvisional world of events in historical time, which impeded the New Jerusalem. Bercovitch (drawing on a passage from Melville's Pierre) labels this the "horological'· dimension. The various disasters and setbacks which occurred on this mundane temporal level, however, were always coordinated and synchronized with a second level of perfected ti~e, the "chronometric." For Bercovitch the jeremiads, throughout the seventeenth century and beyond, use a double time perspective that alternated "between the prOvisional and the predetermined ... between the horological, the Imperfect time of mankind, and the chronometrical, the 'original Heaven's time' unaffected 'by all terrestrial jarrlngs.'" This effort Uto impose chronometrical upon horological ... motivates the rhetoric" of the jeremiads and "implicitly affords a synthesis of the human and the divine,·' even as it articulates "a vital and enduring aspect of the coloniallmagination."n In Bercovitch's study the jeremiad emerges not only as an incessant lamentation but also as a visionary form "peculiar and essential to the New England

orthodoxy" characterized by "its unshakable optimism." Despite the deepening sense of declension, the increasing disparity between ideal and fact in the Puritan society, the jeremiads continue to "restructure experience In terms of ~e one reality where horological and chronometrical can be made to ~~ronize, the realm of the imagination:'·· Such synchronlz8tion, achieved in the realm of the imagination, has been labeled "consonance"·" by Frank Kermode in his major theoretical Serue oj an End'ng. He borrows the term from an study of fiction, American sociologist who studied religious groups that prophesied apocalypse and, when it did not arrive, restored the prophecy by recalculation rather than abandoning it. Starting with this, Kermode goes on to claim that the need for consonance is psychological and fundamental, and fictions about ends-like the Biblical Revelations-are ways of maintaining our sense of our lives as potentially meaningful, even when they seem overwhelmed by the provisional and the contingent:


To maintain the experience of organization we. . . need many . . . fictional devices.... [The orders of fiction become] our way of bundling together perception of the pre-


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon sent, memory of the past, and expectation of the future in a common organization. Within thi.. organization that which was conceived of as simply successive becomes charged with past and future: what was chrono8 becomes kairos . ... chronos is 'passing time' or 'waIting time' - that which, according to revelation,. 'shall be no more' - and ktdr08 is . . . a point in time filled with significance .. charged with a meaning derived from its relation to the end. to

Being itsell the End, Apocal)-pse l .. the most special of such biro" While Bercovitch's concept of horological/chronometrlc is rooted In a specific historical moment, Kermode's chronoslkalros though derived from a study of the Bible as fiction, is made into a more abstract pattern applicable to all sorts of narratives. Both patterns contrast the provisional with the predetermined, the imperfect moments of daily life and historical time with privileged moments-especially endings which promi.~ to transcend the merely temporal. (It is a terminological accident that Kermode's chronos is comparable to the horological dimension of Bercovitch, and not to his chronometrical.) These accounts of the double time-schemes of the imagination are directly relevant to GR, despite the fact that upon an initial reading one is struck by the vehemence \vith which il~ author appears to reject all but the horological dimensions of history, which he chronicles in such proliferating and accurate detail. Pynchon does suggest that the Puritan obsession with some other-worldly chronometric dimension as the locus of perfection has constituted a fatal denial of the here-and-now. Furthermore, he ~..erts that the German (and by extension, Western) obses.~ion with rocketry is a catastrophic secular attempt at transcending our earthbound condition. By using this analogy, Pynchon locates at the root of our own century's malaise the ruthles....l)' expan... i\,e European energies that brought the Puritans (and the death of the Indian) to America. and then gave the death-dealing, space-traveling V-2 Rocket and its descendants to the West. These are large themes, sharing one common thread: the rejection of the horological dimension of history whose evils are seen, paradoxically. as being the result of a cruelly energetic and ceaseless attempt to transcend the horological, to achieve an ideal chronometric dimension. Pynchon contemplates this rejection in a very literal-minded fantasy in "'hich the original sin of Puritanisnl is redeemed b)' a dream of history-asfilm, one that can be run backwards: Ghosts of fishermen, glassworkers, fur traders, renegade preachers, hilltop patriarchs and valle)' politiCians go avalanching back from Slothrop here back to 1630 when Governor Winthrop came o\'er to America on the ArbellG, flagship of a great Puritan flotilla that year. o~ which the first American Slothrop had been a mess cook or something-there

Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan


go that Arbella and its whole fleet, sailing backward in formation, the wind sucking them east again . . . back across an Atlantic whose currents and swells go flowing and heaving in reverse . . . a redemption of every mess cook who ever slipped and fell when the deck made an unexpected move, the night's stew collecting itself up out of the planks and off the indignant shoes of the more elect, slithering in a fountain back into the pewter kettle as the servant himself staggers upright again and the vomit he slipped on goes gushing back into the mouth that spilled it . . . . (pp. 203-4) But this image of history-as-vomit, as powerful as it is ugly, can not be reversed in the real, horological time of CR, which finds analogies to the deadly colonization of America by the Puritans in the extinction of the harmless dodo birds on the Dutch-colonized island of Mauritius, and in the German genocide of the Hereros in Southwest Africa, as well as in the crushing of the Indians of the Pampas and the destruction of the oral culture of the Kirghiz in Central Asia; the catalogue of such sins and the resulting afflictions fills the pages of GR, which, like much of Whitman's work, proceeds by enumeration. There can be no doubt as to Pynchon's judgment of these events. Europe, powered by the dream of transcending earthly limits and the horological dimension itself, has wreaked havoc on the rest of the world, and, incidentally, on its own citizens, since the seventeenth century: "Christian Europe was always death, Karl, death and repression" (p. 317). Despite the general appUcability of the term "Christian Europe," it Virtually never means Catholic Europe in GR; rather, it almost always refers to Protestant Europe and its expansion since the seventeenth century. Rejection of the horological does not suffice, either in the jeremiads described by Bercovitch, or in CR. In addition to rejection by fantasy reversal and by angry enumeration, Pynchon seeks to bring us to an awareness of a dimension of time which, while it is unlike the Puritan notion of "heaven's time," nevertheless retains an analogical relationship to the chronometric~~ension of the old jeremiads. In the grim world which CR creates with such scrupulous care, the kind of hope embodied in any alternative" can only be tentative. GR is a fierceJy polemical but honest narrative, which is to say that it presents with full force the powerful horological reality which it will attempt to deny, qualify, or at least bypass. History is no mere straw-figure here; it is irreversible and one-directional. Those who submit to it by accepting its end-oriented momentum develop a particular kind of self, as Mondaugen, a V -2 engineer and icy cynic, suggests when he states his horological view of human persona-lity: personal density. . . is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth . . . the mQre you dwell in the past and the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your per-

. 176

Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

sona. But the narro\ver your sense of Now. the more tenuous you are. (p. 509) The basic terms of GR's discussion of the pos.c;ibiUty of freedom from history's curse are established here: past and future (the horological) vs. the chronometric Now. "No\v" is the most insistent word in GR (closely followed by "here"). Around it Pvnchon weaves his sense of the chronometric as it is or can be • possible for contemporary man. What is at stake in GR is nothing less than the question of what hope is possible. and \vhere, in a ,vorld where the alternatives seem to be the crushing weight of history or the corrupting attempts to achieve transcendence by clinging to a belief in a postApocalyptic time or to a transglobal ··elsewhere," a place to \vhich the Rocket and its accompan)'ing technology will take us. Pynchon's massive work erodes the possibilities offered by history, Puritan religion or technological achievement, but as these are undercut, the idea of \vhat we shall call the "chronometric Now'· is offered as a fragile possibility that is ever-recurring and usually ignored. Such an idea becomes possible only \vhen Pynchon displaces categories from the religious-transcendental plane into the mundane, and finds plausible equivalents for them. The "chronometric Now" is a re-imagining of the possibilities open to uc; in a secular age. Like most alternatives and solutions offered in literature, this one is elusive. Its beginnings are to be found in V. (1963), Pynchon's most purely horological fiction, which is obsessed with history and historiography. There, V. is not only a Cipher for various entities-Virgin, Valletta, Venus, Virtu-but also a graphic representation of the choice of fates (the arms of the V) made pos...ible in a particular historical moment (represented by the apex of the V). The record of the pw.1, which \vas a succession of such moments of choice, is distorted. Official history offers us, in both V. and GR, a vectoral, one-directional, deterministic version of past reality; it ignores the Umight-have-beens"sl which \vere available to individuals or to the colonial Puritans, and by obscuring the alternatives offered by the past also obscures the possibilities that the present may still be offering Now, under the shadow of the Rocket. Pynchon seeks to return us to those possibilities by eliminating the ··normal" tension in nlost openly moralizing fiction, bet\veen \\'hat is and what ought to be, and replaces it with the double tension bet\veen \vhat is and might have been, on the one hand, and "'hat is and can be, on the other. Inevitably, this burdens his fiction with the dominant mood.. of loss and fear, since he continues to see the imminent apocalypse of a rocket-borne atomic dawn as the likeliest conclusion of the hornlogical predicament. Given this \pision. Pynchon hesitates as he returns us to his alternative, the chronometric Now that is pregnant with possibility; yet it has been a persistent hesitation, one that began to manifest itself in V. There, Rachel goes to visit the plastic surgeon Schoenmaker \\'ho is about to

Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan


operate on her friend Esther. For Rachel, such an operation represents false hope and false possibility. In depicting Rachers anger at what she perceives as deception, Pynchon offers us his vision of hope and the rhetoric proper to it by presenting us with a denial of one and a parody of the other; like most post-modern authors, he is embarrassed by warmth, optimism, or the naivet~ of intense feeling even as he endows an occasional character with them, and so he works by negatives and eschews the lyrical (except for a few extraordinary passages in GR). Rachel and the narrator consider time and reverse-time, world and mirror-world (the young Pynchon tends to borrow authority from the discourse of physics), and conclude that the plastic surgeon's waitingroom is appropriately equipped \\'fth mirror and clock: Were there many such reference points, scattered through the world~ perhaps only at nodes like this room which housed a transient pqpulation of the dissatisfied; did real time plus virtual or mirror-time equal zero and thus serve some ball understood moral purpose? Or was it ... only a promise of a kind that the inward bow of a nose-bridge or a promontory of extra cartilage at the chin [would alter?]U Rachel's anger at the plastic surgeon stems from her feeling that what is offered here is the false promise of escape by reversal: the offer to replace a hook-nose with the "inward bow of a nose-bridge" is only an emblem of all the other false promises to reverse the temporal (clock) and spatial (mirror) realities in which the characters of V. (and of GR) are enmeshed. Uke his fictional character, Pynchon is not simply "puritanical"; he does not so much reject the pleasure Esther may derive from her changed appearance as he rages at the fact that such "change" comes to be perceived as the only possible and effective way of shaping one's Hfe. Later, Esther deals with a pregnaqcy by resorting to the "reversal" that abortion can provide. Again, Ba.f~ers anger-and Pynchon's-is directed not at the choice of abortion, but at the choice which Esther earlier refuses to make: passive about sex and birth-control, she becomes pregnant. Responsibility she leaves to the p)astic surgeon who has become her lover, and who does not care about her pregnancy either, since there are medical techniques for dealing with it. This whole set of episodes is perhaps chosen naively and with an eye to the main chance for a criticism of society, but the young Pynchon hammers at the point which is directly relevant to GR: there are "nodes" (in time and space) in which technology offers the possibUity of a freedom that is false because it makes us all the more dependent on itself. Analogically, we are seduced by our visions of a total and predetermined historical design into yielding our control of the separate moments of life. In PynChOD'S narratives, characters are constantly lured away hom the fleeting possibilities of shaping a fragment of Self or a minute part of History. All this inevitably sounds rather grandiose in the critic's paraphrase.


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon goes to great lengths to avoid the embarrassment of preaching and prophecy, which perhaps the Puritan practitioners of the jeremiad had less need to fear, in a less ironic society. Indeed, he has been so successful in masking the rhetoric of hope that most criticism has failed to see the maddeningly complex structure of GR as a working out of the promises and betrayals of nodal points as they occur within a pre-apocalyptic horological history. No other modern author, to our knowledge, has created a work so thoroughly infused with this sense of recurring but fragile pos.~ibUity, made more poignant by the fact that it is all enclosed in a narrative shaped by the darker vision of the jeremiad. The fate of Tyrone Slothrop is at one level an illustration of such possibility. Near the end of GR, one of Pynchon's several nameless narrators evokes "the story of Tyrone Slothrop, who was sent into the Zone to be present at his own assembly-perhaps, heavily paranoid voices have whispered, his time:, Q8Sembly .. :' (p. 738, author's emphasis). The sentence creates an analogy bet\\'een the making of a self and of historyin-the-making, "time's assembly"; what motivates such an assertion is Pynchon's desire to force us to think analogically, to insist that no matter how powerful and impersonal the forces that shape history may be, our only participation in that shaping will come in the form of personal choices made at the "'nodes, at the forking of the "V," at the instances the horological offers us, and which instances we can transform into the "chronomt'tric Now" by perceiving them as offering rich possibilities. Slothrop's failure, as Pynchon makes quite clear, lies in part in his refusal of the moment. He accepts some adventures when they are offered to him in the ruins of post-war Germany, but none that demand from him the vulnerability of love and understanding. Though all of Pynchon's several narrators tend to be elusive in assessing behavior and judging characters, one of them is quite clear in condemning Slothrop at the point in which he accepts Bianca's playful sexuality, but rejects the rest: "Right here, right now, under the make-up and fancy underwear, she exists, love ... But her arms about his neck are shifting no\\', apprehensive. For good reason. Sure he'll stay for a while, but eventually he'll go. and for this he is to be counted, after all, among the Zone's lost" (p. 470). "Here," "now," "lost": these words are of more than local significance in GR; unlikely as it seems to many scholars accustomed to the more exalted strains of Puritan literature, Pynchon sees a direct path that connects the refusal of sexually expressive love, offered "here" and u now," to the sense of loss and damnation which informs both the Puritan jeremiad and his own modem version of it. Thomas Schaub is the one critic known to us who has seen that "Pynchon reserves some of his bitterest reproach (or those who acquiesce to the formalism that obscures the terror with which each moment presents us. "23 The terror, Schaub makes clear, is the result of that mixture of fear hope and uncertainty with which we face major choices, whereas the It


Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan


"formalism" (not a word we would have used) is the tendency to avoid choice by pleading that the pregnant moment is really a small part of a larger design, too great for us to alter. The failure of Slothrop·s "assembly" of self and history, already mentioned, is ascribed on the same page to just such a fatalistic formalism: "His cards had been laid down, laid out and read ... but they point only to a long and scuffling future, to mediocrity ... to no clear happiness or redeeming cataclysm (p. 738, our emphasis). We underline the secular vocabulary of happiness and the phrase "redeeming cataclysm, with its overtones of the religious, because they are characteristic of Pynchon's language and emblematic of his commitments. He rejects end-oriented fictions (to use Kermode's descriptive phrase) and their designs of coherence, whether purely horological or chronometric, because neither leaves room and courage to choose the uncertain possibilities offered by the moment, even though they might lead to nothing more than the too-easily-dismissed "mediocrity. We have lingered over Pynchon's preoccupation with moments of choice because it is in the pages where he considers the issue that he comes closest to revealing his many links with the Puritan vision and with the jeremiad. Of course he uses the form of the latter in order to reject the ghost that haunted the former, and haunts us still, but he needs 760 pages of encyclopedic narrative to exorcise this particular demon, to earn his right to insist on the wealth of promise in "here" and "now" without seeming facile. He not only enumerates the temptations of designs and end-oriented forms, including the Apocalyptic, but also catalogues other, more mystical temptations so eloquently that many readers, undergraduates in particular, locate Pynchon's vision in these prophetic musings about a way of living that It



will have nO,history. It will never need a design change. Time, as time is known to the other nations, will wither away inside this new one! ~ Erdschweinh6hle will not be bound, like the Rocket, to time.' The people will find the Center again, the Center without time, the journey without hysteresis, where every departure is a return to the same place, the only I place. . . . (pp. 318-9) These lines are spoken by Enzian, a leader of exiled Hereros from German Southwest Africa who have survived the Second World War. In this passage, rich in echoes of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, Enzian dreams of the Eternal Center as an alternative to the proposal made by Josef Ombindi, a competing chief of the exiles. The latter wants his tormented people to escape the horological by committing a form of mass suicide, by refusing to reproduce. Enzian. formulates his vision of escape from history and into timelessness, yet recognizes that this is perhaps an impossible and certainly a dangerous dream: "The Eternal Center can easily be seen as the Final Zero," he muses, "names and methods vary, but the movement


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

toward stillness is the same" (p. 319). What makes GR a rich but perplexing book is Pynchon·5 insistence upon making his modem jeremiad an encyclopedia of all the "names and methods" by which modern man seeks to surrender to history, to absolute fictions, to any design that promises to shield us from the vulnerability of living with the moments of choice, the so-called "nodes" of and the "cusps'· (p. 236) of GR. When T)'rone Siothrop speculates about his Puritan past and "the fork in the road America never took, the singular point she jumped the \vrong way from" (p. 556), he link.~ personal history to national histor)·, and the land~ape of post-\var Germany to that of the jeremiads. As Schaub has written, ·'ill the vernacular of GrlJvltys Rainbow all lives are a succession of such points, \\'here the cun'es of history, place and heritage form the terrible intersection from which ,,·e must choose a direction."" Pynchon directs our attention to the "terrible intersections" inherent in certain moments in a number of other \vays. His relentless commitment to the present tense is perhaps the major rhetorical strategy, employed in shifting "now" Crom a simple adverb to the primary key of a new chronometric level in GR. "Now;' of course, is the ultimate term of the book's opening paragraph: ··A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now" (p. 3). p)rnchon has se\'eral paradigmatic options here-Ubut never like this," "but this Is different:' "but this l~ it,"-yet avoids them all, which forces us to CODclude that hL., selection of "no\v" to close this opening paragraph is deliberate and meaningful. ~foreover, this first sentence prefigures quite deliberately the line at the book's end, ··No,,' everybody-." Later, p)rnchon closes one of hl~ mocking songs about ninety pages from the end with the lines, "Skies'll be bright-er some dayI/No\\' ev'rybody-" (p. 677). Other instances, too numerous to deserve mention, abound. The final uNo\v everybody-" is uttered on the last page of the fiction, when a fictional Rocket bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a ballistic missile is poised to descend on the people gathered in a motion picture theatre (Pynchon's modem version of the theatre-stage, the "gran teatro del mundo"). This ··No\\' ° • • " compels a double reading, which, if we are right. clearly establishes a synchronized time perspective for GR, analogous to that which Bercovitch locates in the old jeremiads. The most immediate meaning of "Now everybody-" is horological: the cataclysm is here. The end, so long predicted. so richly deserved, is here, the Rocket is about to arrive. The horological dimension Is about to be rulfilled and the con.~quence will be the end of history, and perhaps human life. But "Now everybody-" is also injunctive. imperath'e, a command that we shift our time sense from the horological, where \\'e dwell in the past and the future, in the hopelessness of the "one-\\Oay flow of European time," to the chronometric Now. It directs us away 'from a preoccupation with false polarities of choice such as that offered by the horological/chronometric. In this sense, GR carries on the traditions of V., in


Marcus Smith and lOtachig Tololyan


which the letter V symbolizes, among other things already cited, the forking horns of a false dilemma. Similarly, Pynchon rejects the either/or situation in which Oedipa finds herself trapped in The Crying oj Lot 49, in which the minimum of hope allowed to her is that, Uat the very least ... [she can wait] for a symmetry of choices to break down, to go skew. . . . How had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity?"15 As we have said before, "Here, like "Now," is an insistent, recurring word in all of Pynchon's work. In this particular case, it refers directly to America, whose paralysis in the face of false dilemmas Oedipa is lamenting. This interpretation, we have tried to show, bears directly on the major critical question of GR, its apparently deep pessimism. On the horologicallevel, the charge is fully warranted. Pynchon offers no easy escape from the threatening nuclear apocalypse. Yet he does not utterly abandon us, the new Preterite, to the inevitable thunderclap. Instead he II

insists that we acquire a meta-historical perspective of the Now as a recurring and in this sense Eternal Center. This will perhaps restore us to our selves and to others, but it gives us no assurances on the horologicallevel of ··society," "history," and the "future," those dead tokens of exhausted positivism. Instead, GR imposes on us a relentless meta-historical sensibility. It catches us and throws us beyond the cataclysm. So that while we live near the End, perhaps because we do, we can free ourselves, paradoxically, of the systems which propel us and themselves to certain destruction. It is the extraordinary ambition of GR to help its readers toward such freedom, and to the degree that it is fulfilled for some readers, this is a measure of its achievement as well. As Sacvan Bercovitch reminds us, such has been the ambition of great visionary authors working with other

modes. Just as in "Book XI of the Confessions . .. Augustine directs man away from the horolQgical towards a vision of the 'permanent and stable unity' of creation,!~~ceptible through an indivi8fble present that engulfs past and future,"· sO Pynchon bids us attend, while waiting for the onrushing catastrophe, to the eternal Now-ness of the Earth and the cosmos. It is this ipsistence that justifies the presence of echoes of Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnels to Orpheus throughout the text, a presence acknowledged explicitly in a citation: And though Earthliness forget you, To the stilled Earth say: I flow. To the rushing water speak: I am. (p. 622) These lines, and others like it, written in the injunctive present tense and scattered throughout the second half of GR, return us to a new version of Augustine's upermanent and stable unity of creation," to a "here" which complements the u now" upon whose importance we have been so insistent. They are the locus of an escape, not from the horological dimension


Critical Essays on Thoma.~ p}nchon

of history and to a transcendence located in some version of the chronometric, but one that is pos.\ible within the secular moment, is anchored to Earth and embraces the recurring present of the "chronometric No\\'." It can be argued that P)nchon's vision of the social world is impoverished, and that the appeal to Here and No\\' invoh'es the Earth and Love to an over\\'helming degree, "'hile ignoring Society, the relation of more than two people, the community ,,"hich was Ecclesias to Augustine. At least one of us thinks there i.~ truth to the charge, ,,·hich invites further study; slich study can begin \vith the consideration of a sentence from GR: ··in each of these streets, some vestige of humanity, of Earth, has to remain. No matter \\'hat has been done to it, no matter what it's been used for . . ." (p. 693) , Though the sentence is placed in a section which reports to the reader the bombing of Hiroshima, the word "humanity" receives less attention than "Earth," which quickly becomes the focus of the next sentence, ,,·lth its ecological overtones. It is all too often thus in Pynchon's work, especially in GR. As a ~{arxist critic would be eager to point out, this jeremiad laments the damage social ideologies have done, but the solutions are private, in\'ohing Self, Love and Nature. This reflects, for good or ill, much of Pynchon's debt to Emerson's America and to the latter's mediation of the Puritan heritage. We have not exhausted other features of the earl)· jeremiad tradition that bear upon GR. Of these, the nlost important calls for a comparison of Pynchon and Cotton Mather, whose Magnolia Christi A,nerlcana Bereo\Pitch regards as .. the 1IUJgnum opus of the seventeenth-century jerenliad." Despite its greatness, what stands out starkly is ··the total isolation of the author from his audience. "Ii' McConnell has rightl)" observed that Pynchon·s notorious in\°isibility is ··one essential context of the books,"21 but 8er(x)\!'itch·s discussion of the ··sharpening alienation of the ministers" in the late seventeenth century offers a tantalizing clue to the olystery of Pynchon·s isolation and, more importantly, its purpose. The sense of declension in the colony was matched by a shift in the wily the preachers regarded themselves: To the first generation, the word [watchmen] denoted the society's architect-guardians, men by whose "watch ... you may be made conquerors." During the sixties the concept takes on the sterner implications of a "watch!ull shf,7Jherdn ,,'aming his flock against temptations. Through the seventies the orthodoxy comes to see itself as a beleaguered watchman for God, a "gap-man" holding back the floodwaters of a post as)' and berated b)' those he sought to protect. Thereafter, they retreat further and further from tbe world around them. Like the prophets ",ho foretold their errand" they raise the \'oice of one crying In the \\'ilderness. P In other words, the jeremiad "Titers retreated further into themselves, ··back into the ·monument' of the Individual mind and will. ":10 From the

Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan


isolated self Cotton Mather (like Pynchon a polymath, linguist, scientist and lover of puns) created his Magnalia, drawing the seventeenth century's "most pronounced success out of de facto failure, through the individual's capacity at once to say No in thunder to reality and to internalize the mission of his society. ":u Pynchon may appear to have utterly repudiated the notion of mission (except in its negative dimensions), but his isolation, too, is a feature of the old jeremiad tradition. In the final part of his study, Bercovitch traces the jeremiad rhetoric through the works of various writers, religious and secular, from the eIghteenth century through the 1960s. He finds the jeremiad developing both a positive and a negative legacy in American civilization. The positive stream runs through Jonathan Edwards, David Austin and others. Edwards is seen as '·a radically innovative historical theorist: the first New World spokesman for a non-Augustinian ·optimistic view' of progress . . . ":It who" replaces the imminentism of the older tradition with a Ugradualistic apocalypticism"J3 and .. the God of National Salvation" who would "in due time restore" his people. 34 Pynchon reflects this transition to a secular ideal and damns the form it has taken in Slothrop's furious recapitulation of his ancestors' economic history: They began as fur traders, cordwainers, salters and smokers of bacoD, went on into g1assmaking, became selectmen, builders of tanneries, quarriers of marble . . . . The money seeping its way out through stock portfolios more intricate than any genealogy. . . . They carried on their enterprise in silence. assimilated in life to the dynamic that surrounded them thoroughly as in death they would be to churchyard earth. Shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country's fate. (pp. 27-28) A darker side~'the jeremiad tradition, according to Bercovitch, runs through Thoreau, Whitman and especially Henry Adams. Thoreau and Whitman "resolve the dichotomy between 'meaning' and fact [in American experience] through the visionary optimism that marks theocracy's last solitary watchmen." In other words, they internalize America and, like Mather, remove the chronometric Ideal into their creations. The Education of Henry Adams "is the darkest outgrowth, the Jleur du mal, of the jeremiad tradition,":I' and Pynchon. of course, has brought Adams' vision of disaster forward into our own times, especially in V., where this is openly acknowledged. a but also in GR. Bercovitch argues that Adams, despite his caustic view of his times, "preserves the Utopia" glimpsed by the founding fathers Uby placing all emphasis on an America rushing toward self~destruction in what might be called an entropic inversion of the work of redemption.":I' Adams evokes the ideal of his grandfather, lithe remote, majestic symbol of the 'moral principle' of an earlier age. ":18 Pynchon does the same in GR, but with a difference.


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

tiThe remote. majestic symbol" in GR is William Slothrop, the first of the line, ,,'ho challenged the Puritan Dream, \vas rejected and threatened, and who sailed east again. thereby repudiating the Saints' errand into the wilderness. For Adams, America \\'as right in the beginning (or at least "'hen the Republic was founded). For Pynchon even this view of a Golden Age in the beginning Is an Ulusion: the historical enterprise of colonial conquest is the intolerant, demonic reality behind the vision of Eden. In the t,,'entieth century, the jeremiad has "spiraled past ambivalence to something like a state of conscious, self-denunciatory schizophrenia. "3U Bercovitch closes his discussion of the Jeremiad tradition \yith a discussion of Mailer's The Armies oj the Nlg/d and finds that uMailer explicitly revolts against the 'need of Mission' \\'ith its 'demand that the American Dream be realized' and 'the City of God . . . be constructed on this unhapp)' planet.' repudiates the aesthetic shelter of the 'quintessentially American' self for the real if crazy house of history. "to In other words, Mailer repudiates the chronometric dimeludon, while Pynchon's attempt to find a place for it in secular reality makes his GR the most important (as well a.. most self-conSCious) re\\'orking of the jeremiad tradition in twentieth-century American literature. \Vhile it repudiates utterly the Puritan \'enture into the New World, in its recasting of the chronometric-horological nexus it demonstrates the incredibly tenacious hold which Puritanism maintains on the American imagination. Notes J. Scott Sanders. "Pynchon's Paranoid History," Twentleth-Cftllury L.terature. 21 (1974), 177-192. 2. Harry Shaw, DlctlonlJry oj Litera") Temu (New York: McCraw-Hill, 1972), I" 211. 3. Peny Miller, TIw N~ Englllnd ~Iind: From Colony 10 Pr,Mnr.e (Cambridge, t.fa.~.: H8I'\'ard University Press, 1953). p. 29. 4. Thomas p)llchon, GratJityi Ralnhoul (New York: Viking, 1973). p. 3. Furth~r references will appear in parentheses in the test and are keyed to thls ~itton. 5. This image' actuaU)' appears on Puritan tombstones. Allan I. Ludwig's Graven Images: Nell' Englafld Storaet:Grtilng and Its SymboLt, 1650-1815 contains sewral acoounts and plctU1'e5 of Cod's hand striking hom the heavens, reaching out of th~ cloud.~, etc. See pp. 100, 121, 202 and plates 21b, 24, 25, 26. & b 278, 410 & b. 187a. 6. See Mathew \"'inston, "The Quest for p}-nchon." C. Le\inc and D. Leverenz, eds., Mlnd}ul PkMures: EaDY' on- ThomIU Pynchon (!bion: Uttle, Brown, (976), pp, 254-55. The Judge p)'OCheoa, of Hawthorne's The lIome o} tl.e SLeur. CGbks L. also based on one of n.umas p)~hon's anca1ors. 7. ("rank D, McConnell. Four Podwar Amerlcan Novel.,,.: BeUow, ."aU~, 8lJrth and Pyracho" (Chicago: Unl\'ersity of Chicago Press, 197;), p. 18i. 8. Aliller, p. ~. 9. ~filler p. 28. 10. ~tjller, p. 31. 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid. l


Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan


13. Pynchon Is aware that the shift to new and more violent sources of social energy began earlier in the twentieth century, and has been concerned with It since his first work, V. (1963). That text makes clear his enormous debt to Henry Adams perceptions of the rise of the ··dynamo." of the mechanical divorced from human will. Despite his encyclopaedic range of references to world litenlture and thought, Pynchon·s work remains deeply anchored In the worles of the Puritans. Whitman, and Henn· Adams . 14. Some writen on Pynchon give their critical allegiance to the notion that he is a profoundly "American·' writer. while others insist on the international origins of his thought. pointing out the range of his references and concerns, and the importance of Cerman technology in CR. where the V-2s and the chemical combine of IG Farben loom very large. It Is an unnecessary division. Pynchon sees and represents post-war America as the lOgical. prepared heir for German death-technology; he insists on the multi-national origins of technocracy and its financial we1l-sprinp, and disturbs many Americans by seeing these global, multinational technocracies as the central ract or World War II. Even the Nazis and the Holocaust remain by-products. They are afflictions whose deeper causes Pynchon·s jenm1iad seeks to identify.


15. Miller. p. 47. 16. Sacvan 8en.'ovitch, NHorologicals to Chronometrtcals: The Rhetoric of the Jeremiad." Lftnary Monograplu 3 (Madlson: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970). pp. 3-106. We wish to thank Professors Bercovitch and David L. Minter for discussing their work on the Jeremiad tradition with one of au (Smith). Whatever we have correctly understood about the long and complex legacy of the jeremiad Is due largely to their work and remarks; the blunders are entird)· our own. 17. Bel't'OYitch, pp. 4-5. 18. Berrovitch. p. 6. 19. Frank Kermode. T~ Sene oj an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966),

p. 17. 20. Kennode. pp. 46-7. 21. WUUam Faulkner, whose Ab.lom, AblDloml and Co Down, MO'el are In part laments for the South and the American Eden that were never n.'8Ilz.ed, is Insistent on this same point: the "might-have-been" is not only Rosa Coldfield·s private obsession, but also the motivating factor In the re-imaginlng of American hL~ry which shapes much of Faulkner's fiction. 22. Thomas ~on. ,V. (New York: Bantam, 1963). p. 38. 23. Thomas Schaub. t.utmfng to Pynchon. to be published by the Universtly of Illinois



Press. 1980. 2-f. Schaub, p. 106. 25. Thomas Pync~on, TM Crying oj Lot 49 (New York: Bantam, 1967 [1968D. p. 136 (emphasis oun). 26. Beroovitch. pp. 15-16 (our emphasis). 27. Bercovitch, p. 71. 28. McConnell. p. 159. 29. Bercovitch. p. 71. 30. BercovUch, p. 72.

31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 38.

Ibid. Bercovitch, p. 82. 8eroovitch, p. 83. Bercovitch, p. 86. Bercovitch, p. 94. For further details of Pynchon's indebtedness to H. Adams. see Joseph Slade,





on Thomas Pvnchon .

Tlwmaf Pynr.hon (New York: Warner Paperhack.~. 1974). I'P, 48-54. 37. 8ercovitch, p. 92.

38. Bcrcovltch, p. 00. 3U. &rcovltch. p. 101. 40. 8cn.'O\·itch, p. 104.

["Thomas Pynchon and the Language of Allegory"] Maureen Quilligan· Wordplay is the generic basis of narrative allegory. The linguistic disposition of personification, one of the most trustworthy signals of allegory, indicates one reason why. Relying on the process of making inanimate nouns animate, it requires a curious treatment of language as language. I The violation of grammatical categories necessary for personification emphasizes the very operation of language and, with such self-consciousness about the grammar, it is only logical for author (and reader) to become sensitive to other surface verbal structures. When the structure of personification is extended and becomes more than a mere figure of speech, verbal matter provides the most accessible resource for further exfoliations of plot. Mimicking not life but the life of the psyche, the author has less recourse to models of action in verisimilar reflections of the phenomenal world; he will therefore need that system of signs which retrieves for us the process of intellection itself. When language itself becomes the focus of his attention rather than the action language describes, the author may be said to write allegory. More than any other creator of narrative. the allegorist begins with language purely; he also ends there. Take, for exa~e, Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon initiates the action of The Crying of Lot 49 with a pun. At the outset of the narrative, Oedipa Maas receives a notice that she has been named executor of a former lover·s will. The 8arrator explains, "She had never executed a will in her life, didn't know where to begin, and didn't know how to tell the law firm in L.A. that she didn't know where to begin. us Oedipa would prefer not to take on the responsibility until her lawyer manages to convince her with speculations about "what you might find out." Pynchon explains that "as things developed, she was to have all manner of revelations," and that furthermore, her decision to "execute a wilr' ends what is described as Oedipa's previously ··Rapunzel-like role of a pensive girl, somehow, magically, prisoner among the pines and salt fogs of Kinneret, looking for •

• Reprinted, with slight adaptation, from The LangutJg~ oj AUt'gory: Defining tM Genre (Ithaca: ComelJ University Press, 1979), pp. 42-46. 204-23, 261-63. 265-78. 289-90. Used by permission of the publisher. Cornell UnJversity Press.



Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

somebody to say hey, let down your hair" (p. 10). Previously Imprisoned in passivity or will-Iessncss. Oedipa, by accepting executorship of Pierce lnverarity's will, stumbles upon the possibility that the will might be in an important sense a testament, a text of words \\,hich might explain part, if not all, of the meaning of her world. One of her first actions Is, significantly, to read the \vill more carefully, assuming that "if it really Pierce's attempt to leave an organized something behind after his own annihilation then it was part of her duty . . . to bring the estate into pulsing, stelliferous Meaning" (p. 58). When on the last page we discover that Oedipa arrives at a stamp auction improbably taking place on a Sunday, to hear the auctioneer's "crying" of lot 49, we are asked to remember that the forty-ninth day after Easter, or the seventh Sunday, is Pentecost, or the celebration of the day Christ reappeared to his disciples to endow them with the special linguistic abilities necessary for bringing his estate into stelliferous Meaning.' Then they learned how to execute his last will and testament, by writing and disseminating the New Testament, or his Word. By becoming the executor of Pierce Inverarity's last will and testament, Oedipa comes close to a kind of sacred discipleship. ~chon signals this (perhaps only parodic) meaning in the same way Spenser does, by the tension he put~ on the word "will." This word, peculiarly poised in its consistent association "ith "legacy, Ilestate," "testament," '·text,1t "Word," points to the slippery verbal process at work in the narrative which is perhaps more obvious in Pynchon's names-Oedipa Mass, Pierce Inverarity, or Benny Profane (this last from V.)-all of which sound like the labels of personifications with often humorous, if not also obscene, connotations. Thus Oedipa is a female Oedipus who must solve Pierce's sphinxlike riddle (though not kill off her parents) and Pierce Inverarity·s will appears to offer some way of piercing the verities of life. While Edmund Spenser's typical punning is silent, almost subliminal, p)'1lchon brings the question of wordplay into the narrative itself, no doubt because he must work more obviously to educate the reader into taking seriously the methods necessary for reading his work. At one point In her quest, Oedipa meets a derelict who suffers from delirium tremens, "'hlch makes Oedipa speculate on the coincidence between the term for this disease, the .IOIS," and the function of these letters in an equation for time djfferentiation. It

Behind the initials was a metaphor, a delirium tremens, a trembling unfurrowing of the mind's plowshare. The saint whose water can light lamps, the clairvoyant whose lapse in recall is the breath of god, the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself, the dreamer whose puns probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth all act in the same special relevance to the word, or whatever It is the word Is there, buffering, to protect us from. The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth

Maureen Quilligan


and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was. Trembling, unfurrowed, she slipped sidewise, screeching back across the grooves of years, to hear again the earnest, high voice of her second or third collegiate love Ray Glozing bitching among "ubs" and the syncopated tonguing of a cavity, about his freshman calculus; Udt:' God help this old tattooed man, meant also a time differential, a vanishingly small instant In which change had to be confronted at last for what it was, where It could no longer disguise itself as something innocuous Uke an average rate; where velocity dwelled in the projectile though the projectUe be frozen in midDight, where death dwelled in the cell though the ceU be looked in on at Its most qUick. She Jmew that the sailor had seen worlds no other man had seen If only because there was that high magic to low puns, because DTs must give access to dt's of spectra beyond the known sun, music made purely. of Antarctic loneliness and frigbt.[pp. 95-6] .

Probing shafts of truth, puns underpin the parallel systems of metaphors with which Pynchon structures the book, and as the lyric density of this passage suggests (predicting as well the basic metaphor of Gravity i Rainbow in the frozen projectile), wordplay may by Its swiftness point to the mystery of quickness. being poised at the threshold between life and death. Aside from making his heroine ask the fundamental question about aU fiction-about all language-In her remark on the truth of metaphor, Pynchon signals his readers to read The Crying oj Lot 49 as a verbal structure which unfolds by bringing into prominence the very medium in which the action is being described. He asks his reader to pay attention to the book as a text, not primarily as a story involving characters who move through a realistically organized plot. Pynchon continually presents the possibility that Oedip.·s increasing verbal consciousness is mere paranoia, a silly, meaningieas.came. As foil for the serious possibUlties Inherent in the shared initials, he provides the name of Mucho Mus' radio sfation: KCUF. Yet, although be hedges the seriousness of his method by constant undercutting jokes and ironies, he continually reinforces the notion that there is "high magic" to puns, and his testing of the possibility provides the mechanism at work generating the action. GrGvlty; Rainbow makes its foundation in a matrix of language seen from a more generaUzed perspective than Pynchon's earlier focus on the simple pun could allow. All allegory is rooted in a cultural context which grants to language a significance beyond that belonging to a merely arbitrary system of signs and it presupposes at least a potential sacral1zing power in language. Out of Its magic phenomenality-out of language sensed in terms of a nearly physical presence-the allegorist's narrative comes, peopled by words moving about an intricately reechOing landscape of language. Offering a carefully global vie\y of the state of humanity in mld-


Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon

t,,'entieth century (characters from all continents are represented). Gravity~t Rainbow searches In \\'ords for a means of salvation. Part of the quest is 8 search for the cau.~(s) of damnation "'hleh. at his most spt.acificprinting an old-fashioned pointing hand in the margin-p)~chon calls a "rocket cartel;' where the operath'e ,,'ord Is not so much rocket as "cartel,'" That is. our damnation derives from the operation of a businesslike multinational corporation of the "e1ecf- \\'hose purpose is to keep the preterite imprisoned in a dehumaniZing lack of communication. This summary. to be sure, unfairly sinlplifies "'hat is a vastly complex exfoliation of patterns, plots. counterplots, paranoias, and pos5lble leaps of faith, through an interlacing \\'eb of connections bet,,'cen characters (hundreds of them), none of "'hom. e\'en those fe\\' \vhom Pynchon hints are members of the ··elect;· kno\\' \\'hat is going ODe Pynchon, like allegorists before him, is concerned with process, Dot with "finalization" (Pynchon puts the ugl)' word In quot~), and the process he makes his reader go through is immense, dense, and confusing. Using a favorite de\ice of allegorists before him inherited from the grail rOlnance5. Pynchon interlaces the narrative, switching hack and forth bet\\!'een at first ,,;dely disparate characters, a process \vhich, as he suggests on the first page. "is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into." If not all the relationships arc clear at the end of the book, then they are at least less blurry. and ,,·e are made to sense that there is, inescapably, a connection among them all.· If th~re is one central character in Gravity i RlJinbou'. it is T)TOne Slothrop whose Puritan heritage links him \\'ith the Bible-toting American past, and hence (though unintentionall)') "'jth the origins of allegory in Anlerican culture. It is not only in this context, ho\\'ever. that Pynchon re\'ea1s his concerns for languagt-. although Siothrop is the character around \\'hom ho\'cr a number of obsessh'ely persistent metaphors about the --text:- \\'hen, for instance. Siothrop's Russian counterpart, Tchitcherine. find~ himself sent to the first plenary ses."ion of a committee on the Turkish alphabet, P)-nehon focuses on a basic theory of languabre in mid-t\\'enticth century, and re\'cals the central linguistic concerns underlying the narrative, Ed\\'ard ~fendclson has remarked that this episode S(.-ems at first ··disproportionate and anomalous,-- yet upon consideration it appears as the book"s "ideological and thematic l'enter." S Just as p)-nchon reveals the underlying mecllanism of \\'ordplay pervading The Crying oj Lot 49 in Oedipa's disCt)\Oery about that "high magic to 10\\' pun". ,so, in Gravit!l~t Raillbow he also alerts the reader to the usually hidden springs of the narrative, nle conference is supposed to decide \\'hat shape a Ne,,· Turldc alphabet should take to translate a pre\iously oral language into literacy. Tchitcherine has been 8S.4iigned to the °1 committee. where. Pynchon teUs us, °1 seems to be "some k~nd of G, a \'oiced u\'ular plosi,·e." The problem is that "there is a crisis of \\'hich kind of g to use in the ,,·ord 'stenography.· .. Pynchon explains:

Maureen Quilligan


There is a lot of emotional attachment to the word around here. Tchitcherine one morning finds all the pencils in his conference room have m)'steriously vanished. In revenge, he and Radnlchy sneak in Blobadjlan's conference room next night with hacksaws, files and torches, and reform the alphabet on his typewriter.· As this comic sabotage of writing Implements hints, Pynchon is concerned with what happens to language when it gets written down; through alphabetization, the means of human communication get bureaucratized and language loses