The Aristocrats

At the end of 3.14, we are presented with Margherita and Bianca, “playing stage mother and reluctant child.” Tween (or tween-looking) Bianca is made to dance and not sing but grunt her way through a couple of Shirley Temple songs before Greta takes the girl across her lap and begins whipping her with a metal ruler. Naturally this makes everybody horny, and a sort of conga line of an orgy ensues.

My initial reaction was one of something like horror. I mean, I’m not especially prudish, but just as I recoiled a few chapters back at the prospect of Pökler violently bedding his daughter (a contemporary of Bianca’s) and felt great relief that he didn’t go through with it, I was very uncomfortable with the sexualization of Bianca.

Its degeneration into an orgy seems in keeping with the company aboard the hellish Anubis, but it finally occurred to me that our ham of an author is basically riffing on that old dirty joke originating on Vaudeville commonly called “The Aristocrats.” If you don’t know the joke, the premise is that a family is appearing before a talent agency to show off their act, which quickly degenerates into whatever incestuous, coprophilic, sadistic, or otherwise very-far-from-vanilla scene the teller wishes to ad lib. At the end of the joke, the talent agent asks what the number is called, to which the leader of the bunch replies “The Aristocrats.” Pynchon even sets up the gag with the stage mothering and the performance of another Vaudeville-era staple in the Shirley Temple bit. The real joke here is that the people on board the Anubis are in fact mostly aristocratic types, which deflates the satiric punch of the original joke.

You can google the joke and find videos of various comedians giving their renditions. Penn Jillette also produced a documentary about the joke in 2005.

Switching gears just slightly, it’s hard to read sections 3.11, 3.14, and 3.15 without thinking of Nabokov’s Lolita. Pynchon took a course with Nabokov while an undergraduate at Cornell, and there are various articles on the web about possible connections between the two authors, but in a quick scan, I haven’t yet found anything among the resources I have ready access to that goes into much detail on the conversation between Nabokov’s novel and Pynchon’s scenes (but here’s an interesting side note). (Another side note: Humbert seems himself a bit of an, um, aristocrat.) I’m not really equipped to say much about the relationship here and will wait with bated breath for the Modernists among us to weigh in.

7 thoughts on “The Aristocrats

  1. Paul Debraski April 11, 2012 / 9:32 am

    There’s so many times while reading this book where I thought–I wish I knew a little bit more about Pynchon, because I don’t really know what he;s doing here. On the surface these sex scenes just seem prurient and masturbatory. But is he trying to do something more with them? Posterity has me believe that he is, and yet I’m ill equipped to address it. I like the connection to The Aristocrats (the documentary is very funny indeed). I was actually thinking of posting here about sex and the novel, but I didn’t have any coherent thoughts.

    Obviously there is a connection between the rocket and sex (made explicit and suggested on many different occasions). But I also wondered about the juxtapoition of sex and death ro even sex and war, And now you’ve given the option of sex and class.

    It makes me like the book more if nothing else.

    • Christine April 13, 2012 / 2:54 am

      There is definitely way more going on than just titillation and immaturity. I’m working this out for a post in a few weeks (once I have a better sense of the novels’ structure and narrative), but there is definitely something about the poison of sexuality within the metaphor of rocket and destruction; something to the power relations of sexual relations; something in the creating/stifling/ending life triad of sexual possibilities.

      I am sure none of the sexual scenes are accidental, nor are they throwaways (none of which you implied but which I have, in jest in earlier posts). But I just don’t know yet how they fit. The rape, incest, fecophilia, and pedophilia have all creeped me out beyond words, but there’s a reason they have gotten increasingly deviant as we read. I’m just not sure yet where this particular taboo parabola is arcing and where it will fall.

  2. Dennis April 11, 2012 / 9:12 pm

    Much of Pynchon’s writing seems to me to be grounded in Vaudeville. The quick segues into song, the zaniness, pie fights. Usually, for me, these are the least interesting parts of his story. But, who knows, like the Masthead chapter in Moby Dick, maybe those parts are more important than I can initally give credit.

  3. Christine April 13, 2012 / 3:10 am

    I wish I could be one such Modernist so you could breathe easily, Daryl, but I am finding as I read that I can’t do any kind of useful analysis mid-book. In the weeks that follow the end of our reading, I might have a lot to say. But right now, I’m going to file the Aristocrats idea, cleave to my original reading that this orgy (the second, right? if we consider the fantasy Slothrop has underground earlier in section 3) this is another step of a descent, another in-your-face look at taboo and so-called deviance.
    As tempting as it would be for me to make an initial “well, they both deal in taboo and deviance” Lolita/GR analysis, and a subsequent “however, Lolita humanized dark impulses while GR cariactatures them and seems to further demonize what society considers deviant,” I’m just not prepared to go there yet.
    I really wish I was doing this as a second read…

    • Dennis April 13, 2012 / 7:24 pm

      I think I’ve found that repeated readings tend to make me aware of the inconsistencies in the narrative and only help to further confuse reality and fantasy. Maybe the dream at the beginning is the surrogate for the reader. Pirate Prentice is channeling our dreams as we continue through the book. I’ve already suggested that the drug Oneriene didn’t affect the crewmen of the USS John E. Badass, and that that scene was a narrator’s misdirection. Maybe the drug affects the reader and we’ll only awaken after page 761.

      • Christine April 14, 2012 / 7:45 pm

        Noooooooooooooooooooooo! To all of that! 😉 (Actually, the drugged reader possibility is freaking genius and I want to bask in the glow of the possibilities and brilliance of such a move.)

        Right now I’m researching articles that analyze Gravity’s Rainbow through comic book/visual text theory. I think my grasp of the thought-bubble-versus-speach-bubble/action-versus-dream-sequence would benefit from a critical theory reading. And if it doesn’t exit, I’m writing it. After Iv’e read the text another seventeen times.

        I would *love* for the publisher to make GR an actual comic book or cartoon feature film.

        I’m parsing the book in terms of which narrator is telling each piece of the story, and hoping to find some buttressing structure, if not understanding, through that process.

        Of course, that means I won’t post until 2014, but still…

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