Too Old By Now for Fairy Tales

I remember, when I read 3.11 of Gravity’s Rainbow several years ago, feeling sort of lost. This far into the book, I had absorbed a lot of information and failed to absorb a lot more, and I guess it wasn’t altogether clear to me why Pynchon was laying on me this big section about a so far pretty minor character. I remember being a little puzzled by the bleak children’s theme park and by the shocking and sudden leap to incest for no real reason I could discern. I probably sort of phoned in my reading of it at the time, feeling too fatigued by this time to go off in this direction.

On a second, closer reading, I’ve found 3.11 to be masterful and horrible and gorgeous. Weisenburger and others tell us that this episode is pretty much the heart of the book. It’s probably worth some careful attention and a reread if, like me on my first reading of it, you weren’t dazzled.

One of the things that pops up again and again in this chapter is chess. A few references:

He thought of himself as a practical man. At the rocket field they talked continents, encirclements — seeing years before the General Staff the need for a weapon to break ententes, to leap like a chess knight over Panzers, infantry, even the Luftwaffe.


She’d eaten in the canteen. Major Weissmann had brought her up on the train from Stettin, and they had played chess. Major Weissmann was a slow player, and they hadn’t finished the game. Major Weissman [sic] had bought her sweets…


Hardly any news of Leni. They had been separated, Ilse said, during the winter. She’d heard a rumor that her mother had been moved to a different camp. So, so. Present a pawn, withdraw the queen… Pökler laced up his shoes and calmly enough went out looking for the SS man, cornered him in his office, denounced him… the speech eloquently climaxing as he threw chessboard and pieces all into Weissmann’s arrogantly blinking face….


As the years passed, as they grew more nubile, would Pökler even come to fall in love with one — would she reach the king’s row that way and become a queen-substitute for lost, for forgotten Leni?


Board and pieces and patterns at least all did come clear for him, and Pökler knew that while he played, this would have to be Ilse — truly his child, truly as he could make her.


He has smiled, and drunk toasts, and traded barracks humor with Major Weissmann, while all the time, behind the music and the giggling, he could hear the flesh of pieces moved in darkness and winter across the marshes and mountain chains of the board…

As the years wear on and Pökler cycles through different incarnations of Ilse, he begins to find himself wondering why Weissmann is toying with him, why he’s so important as to merit both the torture and the gift of the time with his “daughter.” It begins to seem very much as if Weissmann is setting up moves far in advance of an end game he’s anticipating, just as an able chess player might do. And of course that does in fact turn out to be what Weissmann is doing.

Interestingly, we’ve learned in a previous chapter about a contact named “Der Springer” who in 3.12 leaves for Slothrop a message with a token in the shape of a chess knight. Slothrop too has from the beginning been the center of an elaborate, game-like setup whose most tortuous machinations unfolded at a casino. So games generally seem to be at play (so to speak) in Gravity’s Rainbow, and even Weissmann’s job is characterized in 3.11 as “coming up with new game-variations, building toward a maximum cruelty.”

A bit earlier, we see (with relief) Pökler resisting the urge to bed Ilse, choosing to allow that she is his daughter — basically for his own sanity and humanity and against his real sense of matters — and he does so in spite of “Their game.” Earlier yet:

Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical place, such as Zwölfkinder.

This to me is an extremely important sentence, for it brings together games and fairy tales, which converge in this chapter on Weissmann. Weissmann is Blicero, recall, and Blicero is Death. It’s Weissmann who fantasizes about tempting children with candy so that he can degrade and rape them, all while gambling that he won’t — not today — be pushed into the oven. It’s Weissmann who creates for Pökler a daughter fantasy that over time veers as if planned toward the incestuous, who sends them to a child’s theme park that stands in stark (but, over time, increasingly less stark) contrast to the labor camp from which some Ilse figure or another is being exported for two weeks a year. And it’s Weissmann who seems to be spearheading the top-secret project to build a rocket that will become the focus of a certain Tyrone Slothrop, also manipulated and used under game-like circumstances and tempted by candy and nubile women.

There it is again — that notion I keep coming back to of temptation. In this week’s reading, Pökler gets the feeling that a dossier has been assembled about his particular sexual temptations (much as Pirate felt early in the novel as he decoded a message with a racy photo and the ensuing ejaculate). Even in a brief digression on Kekulé and the Ouroborean dream origin of the benzene ring structure, we see temptation:

Who sent this new serpent to our ruinous garden, already too fouled, too crowded to qualify as any locus of innocence — unless innocence be our age’s neutral, our silent passing into the machineries of indifference

The Biblical garden comes up late in the chapter as well, with a reprise of an earlier mention of von Göll’s  (aka knightly Der Springer’s) lighting trick in Alpdrücken, with the double-shadowing that he intended to symbolize Cain and Abel in the film that precipitated the conception of Ilse.

Games themselves flirt with temptation, for they come with things like victory, which for various reasons (glory, money) serves as temptation enough for many. The dossier-driven moves Pökler imagines to have led him to temptation to have sex with his daughter is described as an evil game, and as I noted above, his resistance to it comes to us in terms of essentially transcending the game.

Perhaps the greater temptation for Pökler is the temptation to indulge in the fantasy that he has a relationship (asexual) with his daughter. For years he has indulged in this fantasy, pretended that the differences in hair color, size, set of the eyes, the impermanence of Ilse’s memory of things from years past — that these things did not add up to the truth that he’s allowed himself to cling to different avatars of a daughter he was never much attached to to begin with until he missed his wife. Ultimately, he resigns himself to accepting the facts of the matter, and when he does so, he does so in terms, again, of a game:

He could not bear indifference from her. Close to losing control, Pökler committed then his act of courage. He quit the game.

And in a lovely but devastating turn, she puts aside her indifference and anger, reaches to this broken man, and shares a moment of humanity.

It strikes me that in the lead-up to this scene, Pökler, suspicous as to why he had been given furlough privileges suddenly, questions whether a girl of Ilse’s age would really even have any interest in a place like Zwölfkinder:

And what was “Ilse” doing here, wasn’t she supposed to be too old by now for fairy tales?

The much older Pökler, of course, has been indulging in a fairy tale of his own.

5 thoughts on “Too Old By Now for Fairy Tales

  1. Paul Debraski April 9, 2012 / 10:04 am

    This is wonderful, Daryl. I had the same kind of reaction as you. I half-read the section and was thinking it was about incest (the sex in the book is practically numbing). When I re-read it I was really blown away but everything going on–although you mention a lot more than I was able to piece together.
    But yes, for a minor character, it’s amazing how important this section is–and not just because he put the Imipolex in the 00000.

    The thing that really blew me away was the juxtaposition of the “innocence” and death. Those few lines of Pokler with the dying woman from Dora were so powerful. Juxtaposed both against the Zwolfkinder and against the orgy on the Anubis.

    But thanks for crystallizing what was bouncing around in my head.

  2. clerner1 April 10, 2012 / 7:10 pm

    I love the chess references, especially this one in 3.19 from der Springer: “Queen, Bishop, and King are only splendid cripples, and pawns, even those that reach the final row, are condemned to creep in two dimensions, and no Tower will ever rise or descend”

  3. Dennis April 11, 2012 / 12:59 am

    Once again, nicely done. Some thoughts of my own:

    I think that the incest theme may have come from Poekler himself. There is certainly plenty of reason to believe that Weissman chose Poekler and that Ilse may not have been his child, but the ramblings that suggest incest come from Poekler’s paranoia and his attempts to understand and even game the system. It was a good catch linking Prentice and his paranoia to Poekler’s. The question is how much of their respective paranoia is warranted? Much of what Poekler reveals seems to be a product of his psyche rather than reality.

    There is a strange connection that I noticed was between the description of the Rocket’s seduction of Poekler and a description of KevIn Spectro’s patients. Compare

    “…afraid to let go [of their stress related psychosis] because letting go is so final _how_do_I_know_Doctor_that_I’ll_ever_come_back?_…. Spectro feels like a fraud but carries on… only because the pain continues to be real.” (Part I sec. 8 50/8-12)

    “…out of the past your side-vision, bobing and balancing almost – he would become aware of a drifting away…. The fear of extinction named Poekler knew it was the Focket, beckoning him in. If he also knew that in something like this extinction he could be free of his loneliness and failure, still he wasn’t quite convinced” (Part III sec 11, 405/31-406/4)

    I don’t knw what to make of it, but there seems to be a bit of “loss for the lowly (preterite) from the crushing machine” type of aura about both.

    In the section about Kekule’s dream of the benzine molecule (410/36-411/4) there is a quick turn from the Jungian concept of archetype to conspiracy. I tend to think that this is one of Pynchon’s red herrings wherein he tries to convince us that the ruling system is all ecompassing and omniscient. He certainly has plenty of places where he undermines the omniscience of the elite, and, in this case, the example of omniscience is a fallacy. The narrator’s reasoning is equivalent to the watchmaker’s argument for god (seen today with argumanets for Intelligent Design)

    And, finally, I think that much of the imagery of the chapter revolves around a critique of Capitalism as a social force. After Poekler is given notice of his first leave with Ilse we are told:

    “In a corporate State, a place must be made for innocence, and it many uses. In developing an official version of innocence, the culture of childhood has proven invaluable. Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical place, such as as Zwoelfkinder”

    What we have is an aparatus that can co-op anything in its attempts to influence and control. Similarly, in the real world and about the same time Pynchon was writing, PG&E could take the Black Panther’s anthem against corporate America, “Power to the People”, and make it their own slogan.

    The definitive screed against Capitolism in this chapter is, again, told with respect to Kekule’s dream (412/16-413/37). Here the Great Serpent (a symbol of Alchemy and indicative of spirituality, holism, understanding) is the focus of Keluke’s dream, but the western tradition of science and technology attempts to take

    “_violate_ the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity — most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process… [The System] must sooner or late must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. (412/26-31)”

    The narrator goes on to compare life in these circumstances to a bus ride with a crazy driver who will surely kill you and who will give you glimpses of a serene life throwing tarot with old men in, what I can only see as a contemplative lilfe, but insists that you rejoin the bus ride that leads to death.

    And finally, the rhetorical (or not) questions of Jamf is telling of the world in which we live:
    “Who sent this new serpent to out ruinous garden, already too fouled, too crowded to qulaify as any locus of innocences — unless innocence be our ages’s neutral, our slient passing int othe machineries of indifference–sonething that Kelule’s Serpent had come to — not destroy, but to devine to us the loss of…. we used what we found in Nature, unquestioning, shamefully perhaps — but the Serpent whispered, `_The_can_be_changed_, and new molecules assempled from the debris of the given…” (143/28-36)
    What we see is a fall from innocence to a “not so fortunate” fall. Innocence is not absolute, so the sins of Katje, Gelli or any number of innocents might be objectively seen as jaded, but by that measure, the, possibly many, Ilses, Poekler and even Slothrop share the sins.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston April 11, 2012 / 8:19 am

      I think I can agree that Pökler’s incest urge may be driven from within, though his speculation that there’s a dossier suggests that he at least thinks it’s something he’s being externally tempted with. Pondering how much of the paranoia is warranted is definitely a legitimate undertaking.

      You’re of course right that there’s lots of critique of Capitalism in the book, and especially the intermingling of industry and the military and even science in ways that render all three at times perverse.

      The sort of temptation that Kekule’s serpent brings up is something I keep coming back to, and in a couple of weeks, I’ll have a wee bit more on the serpent. I’m glad somebody else is homing in on it too.

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