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.

and:

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…

and:

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….

and:

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?

and:

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.

and:

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.

The Act of Naming

A couple of things in this week’s reading made me think of the book of Genesis. For starters, Adam was tasked with naming the animals, and we read much this week about naming things. In 3.6, as Slothrop/Scuffing is given the latest in his own progression of names, we see this:

“Raketemensch!” screams Säure, grabbing the helmet and unscrewing the horns off of it. Names by themselves may be empty, but the act of naming. . . .

A bit later in 3.9, Tchitcherine is musing on some things Slothrop said while under the influence of sodium amytal again with a particular fascination for blackness in Slothrop’s thoughts, and specifically some compound words he made up. To Tchitcherine, who is himself consumed with a hatred for his black half-brother Enzian, this line of drug-induced thinking is very interesting, and even though Slothrop hadn’t “mentioned Enzian by name,” Tchitcherine can’t help thinking a convergence was at hand. He goes on to wonder whether Slothrop hasn’t “caught the German mania for name-giving, dividing the Creation finer and finer, analyzing, setting namer more hopelessly apart from named.”

These black/schwarz- compound words reach back to 3.6 as well, in a passage in which a gastrointestinally-distressed Slothrop is fantasizing a meeting with Enzian (who is speaking here):

“Schwarzgerät, Schwarzkommando. Scuffing: suppose somewhere there were an alphabetical list, someone’s list, an input to some intelligence arm, say. Some country, doesn’t matter. But suppose that on this list, the two names, Blackinstrument, Blackcommand, just happened to be there, juxtaposed. That’s all, an alphabetical coincidence. We wouldn’t have to be real, and neither would it, correct?”

Enzian here is speaking of the Schwarzkommando, whom, recall, von Göll had shot some disinformation films about earlier in the book and who seem somehow to have become a real thing. The megalomaniacal filmmaker takes credit, naturally:

He is convinced that his film has somehow brought them into being.

Maybe it’s convenient to suggest that committing an image to film is not altogether unlike the act of naming; it does seem, in any case, to breathe a similar sort of life into a subject in a way that echoes the reverence with which Säure speaks of naming things. But if this is too convenient, let’s at least consider that von Göll is also the subject of slippery naming:

“Max Schlepzig,” repeats Slothrop, goggling, “quit fooling. Max Schlepzig?”

“It wasn’t his real name. Erdmann wasn’t mine. But anything with Earth in it was politically safe — Earth, Soil, Folk . . . a code. Which they, staring, knew how to decipher. . . . Max had a very Jewish name, Something-sky, and Gerhardt thought it more prudent to give him a new one.”

“Greta, somebody also thought it prudent to name me Max Schlepzig.”

Recall also that von Göll has also gone by Der Springer (a name that comes within the book to be synonymous with the knight on a chess board).

And when Erdmann and Slothrop are having by-now-typically-instantly-satisfying sex as 3.10 closes, she calls him by Max’s name, then calls the name of her daughter, while Slothrop thinks of his own chameleonish Katje.

Slothrop is also basically given the name of Tanhäuser and Erdmann of Lisaura.

I have no grand thesis about what all this naming means, though it’s clearly something Pynchon’s playing with and so is something of interest.

The other thing in this week’s reading that made me think of Genesis was Erdmann’s mention of Cain and Abel, of von Göll’s use of shadow doubling to create a symbol of that first pair of brothers. The notion of a marked brother and a pure, righteous one certainly plays into a lot of the opposites Pynchon writes about. And in particular it resonates with the relationship between half-brothers Enzian and Tchitcherine. Back in early 3.5, Tchitcherine’s companion Džaqyp Qulan gives him sometimes a look that seems to say the following:

“Nothing you do, nothing he does, will help you in your mortality”? And, “You are brothers. Together, apart, why let it matter this much? Live. Die someday, honorably, meanly — but not by the other’s hand.”

Pynchon has set up these warring brothers, both pioneers or civilization-builders of a sort, as Tchitcherine brings an alphabet to the savages and Enzian leads the Schwarzkommando, and for me it was a little hard not to think of them as a sort of Cain and Abel.

Tannhäuser

In a note to 3.2 of Gravity’s Rainbow, Weisenburger explains Pynchon’s use of the word “Tannhäuserism” as follows:

The tragic error of Tannhäuser — for example, in Richard Wagner’s operatic version of the myth — was to postpone his quest in order to linger for one year of sensual, “mindless pleasure” with the goddess Venus under her mountain called Venusberg.

For further details, I’ve taken the easy route and discovered from Wikipedia (also, Wagner’s version) that legend has knight/singer/poet Tannhäuser discovering Venusberg and lingering there for a while. Venus being the goddess of love, one assumes that he frolics and fornicates a bit, much to the consternation of God and, if I read it correctly, sort of behind the back of one Elisabeth, whose heart he later wins back with a song (just how it always goes, eh?). Further hilarity and songmaking ensue, and poor Tannhäuser goofs up again, praising Venus to the point of basically insulting Elisabeth to her face, when she’s poised to give the winner of what amounts to an old Teutonic rap battle the wish of his choice — which I presume to be a setup for betrothal. Tannhäuser screws it up to the horror of the court and goes looking for the Pope to seek absolution. The Pope replies that it’s more likely that his own staff will  sprout blossoms (I’m going to snicker here for Christine’s benefit) than that Tannhäuser will be forgiven, and Tannhäuser goes back to Venusberg dejected. Three days later he arose from the dead the Pope’s staff in fact blooms, but our venery-seeking poet is gone forever.

The Wikipedia entry adds this:

The legend has been interpreted as a traditional folk tale which has been subject to Christianization where the familiar story of the seduction of a human being by an elf or fairy leads to the delights of the fairy-realm but later the longing for his earthly home. His desire is granted, but he is not happy, and in the end returns to the fairy-land.

Well of course this makes me think back to an earlier post in which I noodle a bit on the costs of succumbing to temptation. You may recall that I considered Pointsman’s temptation alongside Slothrop’s. It turns out that Pointsman also has a subterranean Venusian connection (which I discovered by landing on this pretty much by accident). In 1.13, we find this (emphasis mine):

Surely the volume preceding The Book — the first Forty-one Lectures — came to him at age 28 like a mandate from the submontane Venus he could not resist: to abandon Harley Street for a journey more and more deviant, deliciously on, into a labyrinth of conditional-reflex work in which only now, thirteen years along the clew, he’s beginning to circle back, trip across old evidence of having come that path before, here and there to confront consequences of his younger, total embrace… But she did warn him — did she not? was he ever listening? of the deferred payment, in its full amount. Venus and Ariadne! She seemed worth any price, the labyrinth looking, in those days, too intricate for them…

So, as Pointsman ventured into the labyrinth of science as if at the behest of the love goddess beckoning from under Venusberg, Slothrop too now goes into the tunnels of the Mittelwerke, where he is taunted (though nobody’s actually aware of the fact) by what amount to gnomes singing of a man horny for a rocket. And just as Pointsman’s quest for knowledge has lured him into the confusing labyrinth of his work, Slothrop’s quest for knowledge of Imipolex G has led him underground as well, to the very place where the object of his unwitting affection has been forged.

Interestingly, for Pointsman, the labyrinth is a place to have been avoided. His thoughts as laid out in the quote above suggest regret, a wish that he had heeded the warning not to enter the labyrinth. Slothrop’s view of the underworld seems less — or at least differently — depressive:

There is that not-so-rare personality disorder known as Tannhäuserism. Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations — Venus, Frau Holda, her sexual delights — no, many come, actually, for the gnomes, the critters smaller than you, for the sepulchral way time stretches along your hooded strolls down here, quietly through courtyards that go for miles, with no anxiety about getting lost … no one stares, no one is waiting to judge you … out of the public eye … even a Minnesinger needs to be alone … long cloudy-day indoor walks … the comfort of a closed place, where everyone is in complete agreement about Death.

This poor fellow, who has an increasingly keen and correct sense that he’s been watched all his life, and never more openly or oppressively than as at present, just wants a refuge.

Like Tannhäuser, Slothrop’s had the odd carnal dalliance or two himself, debatably with more outwardly catastrophic consequences (or at least associations). I’m a little ahead in the reading and am in a position to give you the head’s up that the Tannhäuser theme continues to appear. So if it’s a thread that interests you, keep your eyes peeled.

The narrator sez

On a mission to figure out a rhyme or reason behind the use of the colloquial “sez” in Gravity’s Rainbow, I rescanned Section Two.

Here’s a quick chronicle from my 1995 Vintage edition copy:

p. 223 the “ID bracelet. Sez KATJE BORGESIUS” [Slothrop’s learning something]

p. 238 “‘It’s Slothrop,’ sez Bloat” [Bloat’s feigning discovery]

p. 239 “‘Shit,’ sez Slothrop” [Slothrop’s in pain]

p. 245 “‘Oink, oink, oink,’ sez Slothrop” [Slothrop’s gleeful]

p. 250 “‘Bad Guy,’ sez Slothrop” [Slothrop’s wishfully thinking; he’s boastful]

p. 264 “‘Hey, Katje’ ‘s all he sez” [after the classic ‘he rapes her but she likes it’ scene; Slothrop’s tentatively probing {not like that}]

p. 266 “‘Come on upstairs,’ sez Slothrop” [Slothrop’s hoping and timidly probing]

p. 271 “‘Your Interested Parties again?’ sez Rollo Groat” [Slothrop’s timidly probing]

p. 288 “Flagnote on the flagnote sez” [major revelation about plastics]

Sez is not the only word the narrator spells phonetically. There are other instances of colloquial spellings. Slothrop says, “whyzat?” on page 287.  The Webley Silvernail section on page 272 is all in phonetically written dialect with “dey wuz” kind of theater.

So why the “sez”?

It’s not when someone is being a phony…

It’s not when someone is being dumb…

It’s not when someone is feigning casualness when in danger…

It’s not when someone is on the verge of an important discovery…

It’s used for men and for inanimate objects with writing on them but never about women…

It’s only the narrator who uses “sez.”

So the best I can come up with is it’s an inconsistent narrator tic that serves to remind us of the fundamental unreliability of our narrator? That much is writ large in the 294 minute detailing of Tamara and Perlimpinpin’s debt, the long description of which ends with “Something like that.”

Perhaps the narrator uses “sez” when he’s being particularly intimate with the reader. Clueing us in on something important, peeking in on a private moment, being technically insubordinate to let us see what he’s seen. (I’m assuming the narrator is male. He is visually fixated on genitalia, and I could find pages of clues to convince you, but until I hear a good argument for the narrator being female, I’m going to default to my IPR argument and say we’re being told a story by a man.) At least two-thirds of the above listed “sez”s fit that intimation idea. But two-thirds is not enough for me.

Is it, perhaps, a slip, when the narrator lets down his guard because he’s most engaged in the story? Do we see his true voice rather than his storytelling voice when he’s enrapt with the details of the novel? That fits 100% of the above incidents, presuming the narrator is engrossed in the most significant bits of the book’s prose. So our narrator is pretending to fit in and have clearance to get the gig of telling us the story? That means his true self, the “sez” self, revealed when he’s not paying attention to his persona, is younger, less well educated and connected, and less experienced than he pretends?

I couldn’t find the etymology of “sez” or when it came into fashion. I sense that it was a post-Flapper flippancy that gained ground in the ’40s (as Paul noted) or with Beat writers in the ’50s (as Daryl noted).

In none of  the historical slang dictionaries have I found an etymology for “Jackson,” Slothrop’s infrequent pet phrase, either. I have found, though, that Slothrop uses “Jackson” in his internal monologue when he’s seriously terrified. To wit: 221 (octopus), 232 (wardrobe’s a fake), and 287 (with Bounce talking about Shell).

I don’t have the e-version, so I’m sure I’m missing some sezes and some Jacksons. If you come across some, do they help or hurt my theory?

Alchemy

In section 2.7 of Gravity’s Rainbow, we see a number of things that might be considered sorts of alchemy. Slothrop is converted into Ian Scuffing, who goes on a quest to learn about Imipolex G, a quest that requires the conversion of capital into information. Then of course there’s the conversion of molecules into plastics like Imipolex G. Earlier, we saw some of the history of such processes as we learned that the nasty (base?) substance coal-tar was discovered to be of great use in creating beautiful dyes in the purple/mauve family (royal colors, note). Coal-tar derivative indole, which Pynchon mentions by name, is also used to convert chemicals into the mind-altering drug LSD, which also comes up. Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest a sort of alchemical interchangeability between the (mind-altered?) nuts and the keepers who emerge in the silly chorus line number that describes Slothrop’s experience with information traders in Zürich, but the transmogrification of air into diamonds within that episode seems alchemical enough. Even the baking of bread — a conversion of flour, water, yeast, and a few pinches of salt and sugar into a delightful, aromatic loaf of sustenance — struck me as being something of a nod to alchemy. But the kicker is Pynchon’s mention of an alembic, which Weisenburger describes as “the sealed vessel in which the adept seeks to achieve a conjunction of all opposites to produce gold.” Although I do not herewith propose a debt on Pynchon’s part to renascence dramatist Ben Jonson, I also couldn’t help thinking of the social climbers in his great play The Alchemist and of Pynchon’s persistent references to the preterite (and by implication the elect). As is often the case, I have no great thesis here — just a few observations.

Too Much Fun

Part 2 of Gravity’s Rainbow opens at a seaside casino around Christmas and ends at a seaside amusement park on Whitsunday, which to the Americans among us is Pentecost, or the day that the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ’s disciples a few weeks after Easter. Both holidays would seem to be holidays of great joy, as casinos and amusement parks would seem to be places of great fun, but of course we know that Slothrop has rather a hard time at the casino, and the closing scene of part 2 just oozes the despair of a forced, joyless professional retreat.

This makes me think back to our second week’s reading and my thoughts on temptation. The fun-seekers in part 2 call to mind for me the abandoned children in the Hansel and Gretel tale who happen upon a delightful house of candy only to find it a gateway to suffering.

As we come to the end of part 2, we discover that Pointsman is hallucinating and that his hallucinations are telling him to find a way to get rid of Jessica Swanlake so that he can keep Roger Mexico’s talents on hand for his nefarious research. His impulse, in other words, is to use people as a means toward his own Faustian ends (he’s previously demonstrated a lack of concern for Slothrop’s well-being).

I had made a few very brief notes on all of this when I encountered on the pynchon-l discussion list a link to a video in which artist and writer (and apparent Pynchon friend) Jules Siegel says that Pynchon had been somehow party to the government’s experimentation with LSD on the baby boomers and that Gravity’s Rainbow is something of a confession. I suppose the pieces are there: unconscionable experimentation on people in states of altered consciousness, a mad scientist who sees people as essentially disposable, a growing entanglement between the military and industry, and of course in part 2 the explicit introduction of LSD and some vague ties between its production and the coal-tar-based substance “indole” used to make LSD (see Weisenburger on coal-tar, indole, IG Farben, and Imipolex G).

The short segment of an interview with Siegel embedded below strikes me as being the stuff of the tinfoil hat crowd, but that’s not exactly out of place within the context of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Signs and Symptoms

I couldn’t help noticing in this week’s reading (1.19 – 2.3) that Pynchon writes a whole lot about things beneath the surface, including most notably the machinations leading to the theft of Slothrop’s identity so that, stuck, he can be manipulated and monitored as part of Pointman’s great experiment. Much has been choreographed with the intention — failed — of hoodwinking Slothrop without letting him know he’s being hoodwinked. Weisenburger points out that section 2.1 is very theatrical and that Katje pulls something of a magician’s stunt by covering Slothrop with a red cloth so that his identity can be made to disappear. And of course it’s worth noting that the epigraph that opens part 2 references a movie about an animal that captures a woman, much as the octopus Grigori somewhat comically captures Katje. Movies, of course, also attempt to dupe you into believing the stories they put before you, so the epigraph does more than simply prefigure the Grigori scene; it telegraphs something about the understanding that creeps along beneath the surface of at least the opening chapters of the section: that there’s the way things seem and there’s the manipulation being carried out to make them seem that way.

But it starts before we even get into part 2. Consider this exchange between Franz and Leni Pökler in 1.19:

She even tried, from what little calculus she’d picked up, to explain it to Franz as Δt approaching zero, eternally approaching, the slices of time growing thinner and thinner, a succession of rooms each with walls more silver, transparent, as the pure light of the zero comes nearer….

But he shook his head. “Not the same, Leni. The important thing is taking a function to its limit. Δt is just a convenience, so that it can happen.”

What Leni sees as a way of understanding something about the way the world works Franz brushes aside as a convenience. A scientist, he sees the way things operate under the surface, while Leni tries to use a mathematical metaphor to explain to him her outward perception of the world. In other words, it’s as if he sees what lies beneath while she sees only the surface; he seeks cause while she’s stuck with effect.

He was the cause-and-effect man: he kept at her astrology without mercy, telling her what she was supposed to believe, then denying it. “Tides, radio interference, damned little else. There is no way for changes out there to produce changes here.”

“Not produce,” she tried, “not cause. It all goes along together. Parallel, not series. Metaphor. Signs and symptoms. Mapping on to different coordinate systems, I don’t know…” She didn’t know, all she was trying to do was reach.

We learn next that Franz can’t stay awake during films (and how filmlike that description of sliced time), and that he watches them “nodding in and out of sleep,” as if his experience of movies mimics the way moving pictures themselves worked, stills spliced together but always with gaps in between. Leni wonders how “did he connect together the fragments he saw while his eyes were open?” Moreover, he’s unable simply to enjoy films, picking at technical points because he’s more tuned in to the mechanisms of the films than the feelings they evoke. Yet we find him pasting up advertisements for a film and finally attempting to attend the film only to find the theater empty. This misadventure brings him to the rocket, which ignites in him a passion for the work, though at the cost of his partnership with Leni. The cause-and-effect man indeed.

This is all of course in the past. Jumping back to the present of the novel and all its obfuscations, we find the American Slothrop forced to go about confusingly in a British uniform, speaking with Dodson-Truck about signs and symbols and their hidden meanings, trying to grok schematics whose symbols are reversed as if to camouflage them, growing one of many possible types of mustache that could provide different cues about what type of person he might be. As he encounters the somewhat chameleonish Katje in the Himmler-Spielsaal room and ponders the roulette wheel, he thinks of “the game behind the game.” Within a page or so, we learn that Slothrop knows of some room in his past he doesn’t have access to, some horrible hidden thing that Katje seems to know about that he doesn’t. Later, as Dodson-Truck confides in Slothrop, we read again of this “terrible secret.”

Then we move into a séance and learn that the medium Eventyr, who channels the control Peter Sascha, doesn’t even have access to the very information he channeled, that he gets only the censored (read: manipulated) transcripts after the fact. He thinks of his “hidden life” and mentions “acrostics” — a sort of poetry but also a sort of crude code in which one message is buried within another. And this very notion of a person with access to some other plane hidden to most seems related to the concept of things being other than they seem.

It took delving into the chemistry of coal-tar to produce from an unlikely nasty substance a whole dye industry that made beautiful things.

And, finally, there is Slothrop’s unpleasant feeling that everybody around him seems to know something that he doesn’t. Is it paranoia if it’s true? He has access to the facts as they seem, but the machinery driving the great theater of his capture is a little off-kilter, a little bit too funhouse maybe, and he’s aware dimly that something fishy’s going on, though he lacks the hidden knowledge he’d need to have in order to understand just what.

Several times now, we’ve seen this funny little word “preterite,” which before reading Gravity’s Rainbow I had encountered only as it pertained to verb tense. Pynchon uses the word to mean something like “common people,” but there’s also the more specific meaning (rare according to the OED) “a person not elected to salvation by God.” In other words, the preterite are people denied access to certain knowledge/salvation/whatever that the elect do have access to, which would seem to apply pretty well to poor Slothrop, as, with less dire ramifications, to those of us consuming the shuddering frames a film is edited down to, or the jump-cut narrative of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow.

Quote of the week candidates

Week Two had several outstanding choices for quote of the week.

What’s your vote? One of these or something else?

“Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be trusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides the raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world….The true war is a celebration of markets.” (124-5)

“Pointsman’s season of despair was well upon him….this war, this State he’d come to feel himself a citizen of, was to be adjourned and reconstituted as a peace—and that, professionally speaking, he’d hardly got a thing out of it.” (88)

The first, a devastating view of the reality of conflicts that are politically manufactured and controlled by wealth, is intensely cruel on several levels. And feels very true. Nauseatingly true.

The second captures what seems, thus far, a central tension of the novel. War is a monumental Hell experienced by all involved, and yet each still has to live each day. Live, as in eat and clean and think and have sex and work. But it’s war, and so none of that really happens in a way that feels normal? How do we not collapse into deep existential depression? How do moments like Roger and Jessica’s “Fuck the war. They were in love.” happen? And do they accumulate sufficient moments of humanity to allow the net reality of war to still be life?

Finally, my personal favorite:

“Ask them at ‘The White Visitation’ about the master plan of BBC’s eloquent Mryon Grunton, whose melted-toffee voice  has been finding its way for years into the fraying rust boucle of the wireless speakers and into English dreams, foggy, old heads, children at the edges of attention…” (87).

Why? Because it feels luxuriously normal and beautiful in a sea of cold and deadly and fearful.

How about you?

I’m late I’m late I’m late

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).

WTF for Gravity’s Rainbow, Week 2

We had two WTFs this week. Read and take a crack at them in the comments if you have any ideas or suggestions.

From Carol:

Are there underlying themes or histories, other than technical texts, that would be helpful in making sense of this? Herero language, European colonialism, the entire war in Britain…it all seems so vast and yet so specific.  And I am saying this as a Joycean.  Somehow I thought that this novel’s being set 40 years later than Ulysses would make the context easier.  Not in the least, even with the companion text.  And I am finding it difficult to just enjoy the ride for the beauty of it.  But stay I will, if only to read again to see what hindsight might bring to the table!  Any thoughts most appreciated!

And from edmondcb:

So at the end of 1.17, Pointsman recalls that Slothrop had been with Darlene, and later a rocket struck only a few blocks away (striking St. Veronica’s hospital). I had assumed that the rockets struck the EXACT location of Slothrop’s sexual encounters, but I tracked back through the book and couldn’t decipher if this was true or if they simply struck in close proximity. Helping justify the latter is the fact that Slothrop has been to Darlene/Ms. Quoad’s before, even tracked her on his map (p. 19), and that exact location was clearly not destroyed. So my assumption was probably just off, though it seems weird that exactitude is such a prominent measure in this book, as with the fact that Slothrop and Mexico’s maps have stickers on the exact same squares, etc.

To muddy the waters even more, the EXACT location the rocket struck is the ward that Slothrop was recently in, being given drugs that caused him to think of shit and history, not of sex. And as far as I know, there was no “hardon” to speak of, which we have been lead to believe would bring a rocket to that exact location.

Am I reading too much into this, or is this supposed to be a shift in the paradigm? I mean, Slothrop did get booted to France…