Isn’t it nice to have a blogger who will *never* risk broaching the spoiler line because she’s at least a week behind?
Okay. Again I present you with random ramblings that don’t yet approach a theory or textual dissection of any sort. I’m just here with a reader’s really raw response (RRRR) for your late-week bemusement. By current progress I’ll finish the novel four months behind the rest of you.
Now, I’m not saying I need a parade in my honor or anything, but how about a muted nod to my early noting of Infantile Penis References (IPRs) before I even read the Kryptosam section in which invisible ink messages are only intelligible once covered in sperm.
This kind of goofball phallocentrism is what I meant when I casually stereotyped the typical male postmodern writers’ obsession with sex. And I don’t know why it so irritates me. This is not a feminist rant about objectification (excluding the galling fact that messages revealed only to those possessing sperm require a sperm-producing event by either self or other, the very demand of which means those in power need either a penis or access to a penis). There is just something methodical about the inclusion of penis observations that seems gratuitous. I know we need to talk about Slothrop’s “peculiar sensitivity to what is revealed in the sky” (31) and how Pirate felt physically in the presence of Scorpia (42) and Pointsman’s grotesque lusting after pretty children (58) and Slothrop’s subconscious fear of anal rape (75) and Captain Blicero’s sadistic staging (111). They are all important to the story and not gratuitous by themselves. But they add up to enough sexual input that we don’t need IPRs, too. Yet Pynchon gives us a masturbatory kryptosam sequence in which the human penis is so darned grandiose it holds the key to the Allied victory over the Nazis. Sperm saves the world in this novel, folks. I just can’t argue that penis references get any more juvenile or that sexual obsession gets any more exalted.
But wait…a few pages later, they do and it does. In the pinnacle of all IPRs, Slothrop is the adult legacy of actual infantile penis experimentation (99). And, his every psychological underpinning is said to, perhaps, stem from his early erections (100).
The problem, of course, is I set out to overlook the IPRs and the Gravity’s Rainbow obsequious reverence for ejaculation. And in two weeks of reading I’ve found an awfully good argument for the possibility that IPRs are the central point, not the marginalia. That this book is centered rather superciliously around rockets and penises and ejaculations as the Pillars of Civilization. That erections are the well written, funny, poignantly terrified of death end-all-be-all human existence.
[Eye roll; deep sigh; resignation to persevere through this as I did through Hemingway’s The Penis Also Penises, better known as The Sun Also Rises.]
Very few authors write compelling horrifying characters—villains who are so grotesque a readers should turn away, but who are also so human they elicit empathy. The captivating experience of reading Blicero is like taking an acting role as a sociopath. Pynchon’s writing allows us to see, at each turn, a human fear of mortality, a wounded childhood, a vulnerability that almost no other author I’ve read gives their beasts. Most successful evil characters are unredeemably disgusting, even when the author tries to reveal the wounds beneath their behavior and psychoses. Blicero seems an archetype I’ve never read before: the depraved monster who is clearly human. He is what happens when a slightly icky person has his soul mutilated by war. He is humanity—warty and flawed—turned inside out into a raunchy and nasty mound oozing bile.
Freaks me out that I don’t hate him. I mean, I don’t like him. I’m not rooting for Blicero, let me be clear. I’d shove him in the Oven myself. But Pynchon has created a cruel, sadistic, pedophilic Nazi whose point of view I can appreciate. [shudder] And I’ve read those sections twice because I was so intrigued at being co-opted into seeing Blicero’s recognizable humanity.
So now I’m off to finish last week and read this week and do some other stuff. Let me know if you’re creeped out that I’m not exceedingly creeped out by Blicero. Or if you’re quite enjoying the IPRs. Or if you want to defend Hemingway, for some twisted reason (other than the Nick Adams stories).
Do you suppose the prevalence of IPRs among postmoderns might be connected to a sort of freedom of expression that wasn’t as free until (I guess — I’m no expert and honestly haven’t read many early-mid-20th century novels) around the time of postmodernism? As I recall, even the fairly explicit Joyce was a little oblique about Bloom’s pulling one off (meaning, I guess, that I don’t think he used any naughty words about it, relying on things like smell, if memory serves). What I mean is that sort of the way you begin to swear a lot when you learn the words and are old enough that you’re occasionally out of your parents’ sight, maybe postmodernists deployed IPRs because they could. It’s not a theory I’d insist on — just sort of thinking aloud without much in the way of, um, familiarity with the relevant literature for context.
Absolutely, Daryl, I think that the post-1960s freedom of phallic reference is part of a 1970s novel’s glee at proclaiming the word cock over and over. And even though I understand why preschoolers *need* to say “poop” 1000 times a day, I don’t particularly learn much from them repeating it. Pynchon seems too good an author to beat us over the head with proverbial dicks, but he also opens the book with someone slipping on a banana peel. Maybe he had fun inserting as many juvenile penis jokes and references as he could.
Mazel tov, and enjoy your penises, I say.
It feels to me that talking about how and what penises in the novel *do* makes plenty of sense and moves either character or plot along. But just pointing and looking and pulling and snickering is so freaking juvenile.
Thankfully, unlike preschoolers shouting poop on the playground, if we pay attention to the genitalia in the novel, it doesn’t encourage or discourage Pynchon’s behaviors.
I plan to continue to look for places in which his IPRs actually do something for the novel.
After you last post, I decided to keep my eyes open for IPRs and they almost got poked out. Having read the book before, I knew that penises and erections played a central role, but it wasn’t until this type that I really noticed how omnipresent they are.
I think you are exactly right here and there is only one thing I want to add: When I think of penis-obsessed male authors, I think of them as worrying about their masculinity and vitality and in that, as presenting the penis as a good and great thing. In Gravity’s Rainbow, the penis is often a terrible, terrible thing. It is nearly always linked with death and destruction. From Blicero to the bomb’s following Slothrop to Jamf’s inhuman conditioning. Where in other novels Slothrop’s sexual exploits would make him a comic hero, here death always follows (and only Jessica worries about what happens to the women he sleeps with).
One other slightly related note: Katje is extremely intelligent and has a background in mathematics, yet the men just use her as bait because of her looks.
DCN I totally agree. The rocket-penis connection is both explicit and implicit, and it’s clear that many characters have truly insidious erections. I’m going to keep watching to see if anything positive comes of a penis in this book. There are so many possibilities, I’m guessing there’s at least one good banana in the bunch.
Beside this quote about Blicero’s thoughts on Katje:
“Perhaps there’s the only shadow of warning: her commitment is not emotional. She appears to have reasons for being in the Party. A woman with some background in mathematics, and with *reasons*…’Want the change,’ Rilke said, ‘O, be inspired by the Flame!’ To laurel, to nightingale, to wind…*wanting* it, to be taken, to embrace, to fall toward the flame growing to fill all the senses and…not to love because it was no longer possible to act…but to be helplessly in a condition of love…” (114)
I noted this in the margin: “yeah, these logical women are tiresome prisoners.” Pynchon seems, at least in his other novels and with Katje here, to be a fan of the trope wherein a smart woman is assumed by lesser minds to be a sexual object, and she somehow tricks or trumps them when they least expect it. It’s the age old “if you think I’m nothing but a pretty face I will surprise you with my mind and you will suffer” nod that is either feminist or reactionary in its purpose (depending on whether its driven by “women are people and shame on you for not noticing that” or “one woman in a million is worthwhile so be careful.”)
I think Daryl’s answer has a good deal of merit. We are talking about a time where the sexual revolution was about to peak. You can see similar things happening in Funk music (though they seemed to focus more on the attraction of the female) and comix such as S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Sheldon and, especially, Robert Crumb. It’s a little unfair to place Pynchon in the same category as Hemingway. No one can ever be as macho and I think Pynchon is well aware of that tradition all the way through to Mickey Spillane. But, yes, Mr T. Pynchon does seem to have a lot of penis on his mind.
Having said that i.e. I agree with you) I would disagree with your assessment of the kryptosam reference. Rather that a means to suggest that dicks win the war (although, there is one sense where that is true) I wold suggest that the scene is a painting of a paranoiac vision, part of the “Knotting into” that characterized the opening scene of the book. We have seen several places where patterns are show but conclusions based on those patterns are illusionary. V. p133 l 40 – 134 l 5 shows the process of reasoning for such paranoia. The fact that the Firm knows Pirate’s fantasies suggests an omniscience, even more so in light of Pirate’s own insight into the fantasies of others. Given his talents, how much more can the elite possess? The elite, in both Calvinist and Capitalist terms, can afford a certain smugness in knowledge and power. A common libertarian conceit is the idea that those in power are there because they deserve to be by virtue of their capabilities. I think that this idea is continually undercut and that dreams of total control, dreams where all of the causes and their subsequent effects are mapped out in a mechanical universe, are illusions.
Dennis, I can certainly see where Pirate’s brief confusion (whom did I tell about the stockings or not…no, they must just *know* about me) is a creepy, paranoid frame around the scene. But the science of the “Negro-brown” ink is still phallocentric.
I’m certainly not arguing that Pynchon wields his sword or his characters’ swords to the same ends as Hemingway. I’m not supposing that the men in GR have any of the same agendas or tedious insecurities as Papa’s characters. I’m saying the frequency of references is similarly heavyhanded.
And while the sexual revolution and the literary freedom of direct sexual reference are certainly a late-60s-to-late-70s phenomenon, what I’m not mocking is not sex. As I said, the details of Blicero, especially in drag, Pointsman, and Slothrop and their uses of genitalia are all certainly born of that era’s sexual freedom. But the constant, often silly penis references are not just due to a newfound linguistic and metaphorical freedom. They are ridiculous. I’m not arguing intention, for I have no earthly idea if Pynchon’s doing this for effect and if so which effect. I’m just saying if he were my kid I’d send him to the bathroom to say all the permutations of “Penis!” that he wants, hoping that once he emerged he could focus on some of his more amazing skills. Like writing.
Thank you very much for recalling the Calvinist and Capitalist presumptions of Elect, for aside from the quote about the true nature of war being a market, we haven’t seen enough of that stated explicitly yet for me to remember how important “deserving” is as a presumed absolute. I’ve been too caught up in the whirlwind to remember there is a concentrated funnel cloud around us.
I was just talking about the on scene. You are absolutely right in that Pynchon seems firmly stuck in the “pee pee- pooh pooh” stage of development. On the other hand, with puns like I-Ching feet and such… One of my frustrations with Pynchon is that some of his prose is strikingly beautiful and some of his comic scenes make me actually laugh out loud, but some of the stuff, like your ever growing list of IPRs, stand out poorly in the foreground.