In January 1973, the Italian poet Carlo Vittorio Cattaneo asked Jorge de Sena if he was interested in a new book about Nostradamus’ prophecies. “Italy, right now, is throbbing with books on magic, alchemy, etc.” On the 21st, Sena, a teacher at Santa Barbara, California, replied that everyone everywhere was swimming in the same Age of Aquarius: “That about Italy being full of books on magic, alchemy, etc., is part of the general moment – the same is happening in the States and here. Sure sign that we, mannerists, are on the threshold of a new baroque age.” On February 28, bookstores started selling Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. In my view, the two incidents are not unrelated.
Encapsulating the plot is like trying to exhaust a buffet, but from its braid we can disentangle the following thread: Tyrone Slothrop, a US soldier in Europe’s theatre of war (renamed The Zone), is being monitored by a shadowy section within the British Army because of his unique powers: apparently conditioning training on baby Slothrop turned him into a German V-2 rocket predictor: he gets a hardon before one hits a target. Slothrop, after some nudging involving a damsel in distress and an octopus attack, roams The Zone, under many disguises, in search for the S-Gerät (or Schwarzgerät, “black device”), a V-2 rocket component made of an unknown plastic, Imipolex G. Somehow Slothrop and Imipolex G are connected because its inventor, Laszlo Jamf, is also the man who performed conditioning on baby Slothrop.
Tidbits about pop culture, history, science, occultism leap from Gravity’s Rainbow like a locust cloud, and I for one have a practitioner’s curiosity about the sources novelists use in their research and, more specifically, whether or not they get their ideas from real-life material and if so how they shape it into fiction. For instance, PISCES, monitoring Slothrop, is headquartered at a former asylum known as The White Visitation and staffed with a unique brand of personnel: “Instead he found a disused hospital for the mad, a few token lunatics, an enormous pack of stolen dogs, cliques of spiritualists, vaudeville entertainers, wireless technicians, Couéists, Ouspenskians, Skinnerites, lobotomy enthusiasts, Dale Carnegie zealots, all exiled by the outbreak of war from pet schemes and manias damned, had the peace prolonged itself, to differing degrees of failure”. I can’t help wondering whether, notwithstanding Pynchon’s boundless imagination, so prolific it needs no extra proteins, the idea of the British army employing magicians has any basis on history.
The previous year, Walter Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny: the occult power behind the spear which pierced the side of Christ thrilled the public with the story of Walter Stein. Stein fled Nazi Germany to England and warned the authorities that Hitler’s army was recruiting magicians, apparently inspiring Churchill to put Stein in charge of its British counterpart, so that not even the most fantastic way of defeating Hitler would be overlooked. Although Ravencroft’s book probably came too late to be useful to Pynchon, Louis de Wohl’s story was better known. Wohl was an astrologist hired by the British to make horoscopes of major figures to predict events. Allegedly, both Stein and Wohl belonged to a British army section called “The Watch”, but so far only sketchy evidence has come forth regarding its wartime activities. The magician Dion Fortune, who to my knowledge was unconnected to the British army, set up during the war a meditation group that directed positive energies into wishing Hitler’s defeat. But I fear Pynchon would be obvious to her activities too, since they remained unknown until her correspondence was published in 1993 as The Magical Battle of Britain.
Pynchon could have been aware of the vaguely-studied Operation Cone of Power. In his 1954 book, Witchcraft Today, Gerald Gardner, the father of modern Wicca, claimed to have participated in a magical ritual to stop Hitler from invading Great Britain right after the Dunkirk retreat. According to Gardner, this hadn’t been the first time magic had stopped an invasion of the British Isles: in 1588 Francis Drake and sea witches conjured the storm that destroyed the Spanish Armada (in another version I know of it was John Dee instead of Drake); and in 1805 Napoleon was likewise stopped from invading by witches.
Nevertheless, PISCES could just be an inference from correlative imagination: if the Nazis had magicians, and this widely known decades before Gravity’s Rainbow, why not equip the British with their own? As Ravenscroft’s book demonstrates, Nazi occultism was creeping up on pop culture; it had that aura of bad taste that worked like a magnet for American avant-garde writers fleeing from respectable “literary” subjects about middle class suburbia. It wasn’t yet the respectable academic field of knowledge Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke would turn it into; James Webb had recently begun a career full of academic rigor: The Occult Underground (1971), an encyclopedia of the first half of 20th-century occulture, barely touched on Nazi occultism. Before scholars took over, it was a labor or very sick love. In the Spanish-speaking world, Miguel Serrano, a Chilean diplomat and outspoken Nazi, devoted his life to creating a magical Nazi system; in 1948, he published La Antártica y otros mitos, in which he claimed that Hitler had survived the war and was hiding in an Antarctica inhabited by non-human beings. He also believed Hitler to be the incarnation of a god. Nazism’s mystical undertones were widely known, the swastika even happened to be on the insignia of the Theosophical Society founded by Madame Helen Blavatsky in 1875, but reports about it came from the parallel world of crackpots and conspiracy theorists who sent letters to Playboy. This made it ideal material for outré fiction.
A more plausible source was one of the greatest books of the ‘60s and a bestseller up to this day: Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians, originally published in France in 1960 and quickly a global phenomenon, with an American edition three years later. Subtitled “introduction to fantastic realism”, it rode the freeway it cleared, rendering reality into a series of revelations into the unusual and producing material for reveries. France was at the time under siege by cartesianism, positivism and the realist novel at its rigor-mortisest stage yet, the nouveau roman, so no one needed more than the French to take a break from the lexis of literalness, to swim in strangeness, to reignite their imagination. But whereas in other countries vacations from rationality materialized into narrative fiction filled with fantastic elements, France’s fiction remained rheumatically realistic, instead it was its philosophers who unraveled reality by claiming there was no such thing, just words. Culturally speaking, the Pauwels & Bergier book was France’s last worthwhile contribution to world culture, but it did more good abroad than domestically. Besides talking about a thousand other things (it’s a thick book, 500 pages), it disseminated Nazi occult lore in homeopathic doses: the hollow earth, the Vril society, the Antarctica expeditions, the kind of stuff that gives World War II a nearly mythical outlook. Pauwels and Bergier helped make Nazi war magic part of pop culture, so it had to make its way into Gravity’s Rainbow, because it’s an encyclopedia of pop culture up to the 1970s.
Speaking of the Spear of Destiny, Pynchon comes across as a comic book fan: he mentions Plastic Man, Mary Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Superman, which to boot means he’s a DC fanboy! Well, that’s not quite right: originally, Plastic Man belonged to Quality Comics, which folded in 1956 and sold its properties to DC. Mary Marvel belonged to Fawcett Publications, also sold to DC; she and her brother Captain Marvel received their first comic book series in a long time in 1973: Shazam!. The Spear of Destiny actually exists in the DC Universe as a magical artefact yielded by Adolf Hitler, granting its owner tremendous powers; it has been a convenient contrivance to explain why, continuity-wise, superheroes couldn’t just fly to Berlin and smash the Third Reich: thanks to the Spear, any metahuman, especially magical ones like Doctor Fate and The Spectre, who is sort of omnipotent, being the Wrath of God and all, except when the plot requires him to be as useless as honesty in a used cars salesman, falls automatically under its spell. The DCU’s Spear of Destiny debuted in Weird War Tales #50 (February, 1977), featuring the Justice Society of America, and was possibly inspired by Ravenscroft’s book. For me it’s an example of the common pool of disreputable knowledge that fed disposable comics, occult history books, and avant-garde fiction, as if they all met on the same spectrum of creativity. This is one of the things I like about Gravity’s Rainbow, in some ways it feels like the comics I read as a kid.
After all, Pynchon’s over the top WWII comes out of comics’ roots as the patriotic entertainment children read in the early 1940s. Comics have a long tradition of mixing Nazis with weirdness and of keeping cartoonish Nazi villains alive. Captain Marvel had a foe named Captain Nazi, a genetically-altered human, who debuted in Master Comics #21 (Dec. 1941). Many comic book writers active in the ‘60s had served in the army, so they could splice their storage of personal experience with superhero stuff at a moment’s notice to meet the strenuous monthly supply, often with deranged results that veered on awesome bad taste. It was the pop culture Nazis Golden Age.
Baron Zemo, Captain America’s enemy, was introduced in a flashback in The Avengers #4 (March 1964) as the reason why Cap was frozen in a glacier for decades at the end of the war. His debut in modern continuity happened months later in The Avengers #6 (July 1964). In the same month, Zemo showed up in a WWII-set story in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #8. Marvel’s next Nazi villain to return was the Red Skull: first in Tales of Suspense #65 (May 1965), a period story; then to modern-day continuity in issue #79 (July 1966). Comparing this Red Skull with the original one who debuted in Marvel’s ancestor company, Timely Comics, allows us to gauge how pulp imagination started granting Nazis the most outlandish powers. In Captain America #1 (March 1941), the Red Skull was an ordinary guy in a mask, George Maxon, an American industrialist whose Maxon Aircraft Company sold airplanes to the U.S military. A traitor, he’s ordered by Hitler to spread terror in America. Things slowly improved, by Captain America Weird Tales #74 (July 1949) they were fighting in Hell itself with Cap’s soul on the balance. It wasn’t until his return in the ‘60s that Skull gained a more interesting origin as a German man personally trained by Hitler, and since the war the leader of a criminal organization of planetary proportions. However, although Zemo and Skull are two of the best Captain American villains, they’re a notch below in weirdness compared to The Hate Monger, who debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963) and was revealed to be an actual Adolf Hitler clone.
If Pynchon was a comic book fan, given that he was 26 when V. came out in 1963, then he was at the right age to have experienced two distinct comics ages: the Golden Age, which lasted until 1956 and characterized by patriotic superheroes fighting Nazis and the Axis; and the Silver Age that delved more into science stories after atomic energy made science mysterious again. Science and a deranged WWII are two ingredients of Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m not saying there was a direct influence, I’m trying to map out a feel of the cultural cocktail that preceded such novels. To my mind, the outlandish plots of so many ‘60s novels with literary ambition, that shied away from realism, are a result of many future writers spending the ‘40s and ‘50s reading comics. I think the success Gravity’s Rainbow also derives from it, since readers who were kids in the ‘60s would be transitioning in the next decade to “mature” novels that gave off the same vibe.
There are even comic books that capture some of the same feel. Richard E. Hughes and Ogden Whitney’s Herbie has a similar humor since it shows a strange world under a veneer of normalcy: Herbie Popnecker is a fat kid with superpowers who can travel in time and knows all historical figures and world leaders. In the same way that Pynchon’s novels are known for cameos of real-world figures (Malcolm X shows up as a kid in Gravity’s Rainbow; George Washington smokes weed in Mason & Dixon), Herbie meets JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro, Mao, and even gets a kiss from Elizabeth Taylor. Herbie was also loose enough to accommodate any genre, a feature of comics at the time. Something kids growing up with comics would learn is that fiction is a hodgepodge of disparate fields of knowledge. Although Gravity’s Rainbow is celebrated for its erudition (a stapple of avant-garde fiction at the time), that was but one of the many attractions of comics whose stories could unexpectedly contain anything.
Science popularization was taking off at the time, it was everywhere, especially in periodicals, but the press had long been an outlet for digested data. Although people assume that William Gaddis wrote The Recognitions out of extenuating research, Joseph Tabbi explains in his afterword to Agapē Agape that in all of Gaddis’ books “much of the working material was cut out from popular magazines and newspapers.” Some of it is online. Tabbi continues: “Even the high literature, art, music, and technology references that made him seem forbiddingly ‘erudite’ to some readers often came out of daily papers”. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pynchon’s tech-gab about rocket science came straight from a newspaper article he casually found; it was the kind of things newspaper has. Comics were a good and accessible example of how science could be at the service of spectacular stories.
The Silver Age (the period from 1956 to 1970) started when parents and educators found out that kids were reading really violent and gruesome crime and horror comics; out of social hysteria, the comics industry self-regulated its content with a censorious seal of approval. Censorship meant content wholesome to parents, if not to young readers, and as crime and horror genres started to wither stories started relying more on science, and soon most comics wallowed in whimsical science-fantasy. At the time, no one used research more than Gardner Fox. It is speculated that Fox’s Flash #123, “The Flash of Two Worlds” (1961) was inspired by a theory put forth four years before by the physicist Hugh Everett III, namely the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This theory describes the universe as a gigantic wave function that contains within it all possible realities. In Fox’s story, Flash (Barry Allen) vibrates at superspeed and phases into a parallel story where he meets a previous Flash (Jay Garrick), created by Fox in 1940. Soon, every writer after Fox was coming up with parallel earths, named Earth-One, Earth-Two, etc., an elegant means of reintroducing into canon and continuity Golden Age superheroes whose popularity had waned since the end of the war in favor or crime and horror. The fact that Fox might have been aware of modern physics is one of the things that makes comics from this period so engrossing. Editors at DC were particularly proud of grounding the stories on science. The “Flash Fact” was a regular feature in Flash, captions that peppered stories with unusual but factual trivia. There were precedents in the Golden Age, but gained prominence in the ‘50s. Julius Schwartz, DC’s editor throughout the Silver Age, wrote in Flash #124: “Many of our readers have complimented us for our realistic approach to The Flash. When we present an amazing, almost unbelievable idea or gimmick, we like to explain it scientifically.” Like Gravity’s Rainbow, comics resulted from a riotous mishmash of fantasy, bizarre characters, outlandish stories, lots of science, a loose approach to storytelling that focused more on the impact of wonder than in polished refinement.
During the ‘50s, Fox was by far the writer who showed the biggest inclination to grounding a story on real science and facts; a polymath, he spiced his stories with a plethora of topics. In a 1971 interview, Fox said that “Knowledge is kind of a hobby with me” and that “I maintain two file cabinets chock full of stuff. And the attic is crammed with books and magazines… Everything about science, nature, or unusual facts, I can go to my files or the at least 2,000 books that I have”. Fox was also novelist who researched the hell out of his subjects. In Forgotten All-Star: A Biography of Gardner Fox, Jennifer DeRoss demonstrates his devotion to research while writing the novel The Swordsman: “He decided he needed a map of Cairo from the year 1350. Considering public internet service was a long way off, this task proved difficult, but he did manage to find one in the Mt. Vernon Library. The librarians there weren’t so happy when they would see the fastidious Fox come through their doors because, according to him, he was better at their job than they were. He claimed they would groan as soon as they saw him coming. He laughingly stated, ‘If I couldn’t find something in their library, and I knew it pretty well, they didn’t have much chance, either.”
As a speculative exercise, I like to wonder how much comics Pynchon read, and whether they rubbed off on him. To me, comics have operated as a secret cicerone into strangeness. Their impact is hard to estimate, but I think they’ve helped shape fiction. References to them abound in American novels of the time; many references are elliptical, dismissive or parodical; but Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, which feels like an underground comix written by an acid head, is dedicated to the great George Herriman, author of the Krazy Kat strip. Sadly, authors seldom come clean about the importance of comics in their lives. From time to time, you see glimpses of comics’ influence in purveyors of weirdness. A while ago Gary Lachman, who writes mostly about the occult, was saying: “As a kid I was completely absorbed in comic books. I had a huge collection. There was one comic, DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, teenage superheroes from different galaxies, that had a character called Cosmic Boy. He had magnetic powers and I didn’t understand why he wasn’t called Magnetic Boy. I asked my sister what “cosmic” meant and she didn’t know. I asked my mother and she didn’t know either. I guess I’ve been trying to find out ever since.” In my case, I think that without my exposure to comics, especially to Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, I wouldn’t love encyclopedic novels. Without comics I probably wouldn’t have discovered Robert Anton Wilson, whose Quantum Psychology and Prometheus Rising were the locus primus of my fascination with polymathic weirdness and skeptical embrace of arcana, which I then transferred to novels. Narratively speaking, one of the beliefs I retained from reading RAW is that a whole can achieve consciousness out of the disparate jumbling of many minor odd bits.
RAW, Pynchon’s contemporary, reflected very much this culturally effervescent period both grew up in. The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a novel he co-wrote with Robert Shea, is in the spirit of Gravity’s Rainbow, long, full of marginal subjects from the occult to fringe science, and imbedded on conspiracy theories; although it came out in 1975, it predates Pynchon’s since the two wrote it between 1969 and 1971 after they met at Playboy magazine where they worked as associate editors; proving that research is overrated, they mostly used the crank mail Playboy received from actual conspiracy believers.
Unsurprisingly, Pynchon was dismissed by Gore Vidal and Hugh Kenner at the time because of this comic book feel. In “American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction”, a masterclass in the witty philippics Vidal excelled at and a hilarious roasting of avant-garde fictionists. after saying that, “To my ear, the prose is pretty bad”, he clarified that it’s “very close to that of the comic books of the fifties”. Kenner said that V., “amid its intricate promise of significance it is careful never to deliver, proclaims that all the world’s a comic book.” Both Vidal and Kenner were deeply steeped in the great authors of the first half of the 20th century, Joyce, Proust, Faulkner. In United States: Essays 1952-1992 Vidal repeatedly emits his regret that he came too late to be part of the Lost Generation that left provincial USA to cavort with sage Europeans like André Gide – at best Vidal could find solace in still having had a novel of his praised by Thomas Mann, an actual European from the hallowed days of high culture. As for Kenner, being a genial explicator of all things Modernist turned into a disadvantage since for him Modernism could have no second part. Neither had the personality to condone the upheaval in taste after the war, a taste leaning too much to the bad pole of it. For custodians of Modernism, there was something suspicious about intellectually ambitious non-realist novels that took cues from movies, comics, spy novels, science fiction and other exponents of mass culture that Modernism had tried to keep outside Art.
However, it was around the same time that a respected European, Dino Buzzati, made a comic book, Poem Strip (1969). And Julio Cortázar, an Argentinean who lived in Paris like, turned a Mexican superhero, Fantomas, The Elegant Menace, based on the French villain, Fantômas, into a hilarious hybrid called Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires (1975). Pynchon wasn’t alone, not even in America, for Robert Coover had turned the Cat in the Hat into a “political fable”. More understanding was Richard Poirier, who argued that Pynchon was but reflecting the world beyond the novel’s insulated literariness: “Film is everywhere in Gravity’s Rainbow. So is musical comedy — any given scene might break into a lyric. So are comic books, and although Plastic Man and Sundial are directly mentioned, Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel, the superheroes of the World War II comics, determine the tone and the conduct of many of the characters.” That there’s a character whose surname is Spectro quickly brings to mind Ian Fleming’s Spectre, the criminal empire introduced as a foe to James Bond in the novel Thunderball (1961). Several passages stimulate these connections, whether intended or not. After all, in a paranoid world who’s to say what’s accidental and predetermined?
I happen to agree with Kenner that Pynchon proclaims that the world is a comic book; but holding onto that was precisely the way I found of enjoying Gravity’s Rainbow. I think there are many valid reasons not to like it. Once Nabokov told an interviewer that he tried Gravity’s Rainbow but “could not understand it and gave it up”. Although understandable in 1973, I think that’s hardly a problem nowadays with so many resources available online; a reader only gets lost if he wants to. When a few years ago I gave it up after 300 pages it wasn’t so much because I found it hard to follow, although I wrestled with the abrupt shifts in location and POV; the difficulty wasn’t at the level of reading comprehension, Pynchon’s vocabulary doesn’t particularly impress or overwhelm me; it doesn’t produce a sentence-to-sentence obfuscation of what’s going on. What I noticed was that I made little effort to remain focused because I found the prose awful. Vidal summed it up for me: “It is curious to read a work that excites the imagination but disturbs the aesthetic sense.” William H. Gass couldn’t put up with it because it seemed a text designed for the classroom instead of the ear: “Gravity’s Rainbow was written for print, JR was written by the mouth for the ear. By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write. I can still admire the other – the way I admire surgeons, broncobusters, and tight ends. As writing, it is that foreign to me.” For my part, I think Pynchon’s prose is sloppy; not plain, although too many stretches have a workmanlike quality to them; it doesn’t lack distinctiveness, a voice, but it’s unfinished, unpolished. I understand that’s part of his carefree, hippie, gonzo, beach bum, take-nothing-seriously vision; but I’m always aghast at those decades-in-the-making, 1,000-page novels that conform so much to the middlebrow style. Can’t maximalists allocate one or two years to matching their amplified vision with an amplified style?
I went through a ritual to prepare myself for a novel with the type of prose I actively avoid. The only way I managed to finish it was by treating it as a comic book. Read that way, it’s entertaining, enjoyable, hilarious even. Actually, after focusing on the zaniness for a while some bits of prose even started to beam.
Poirier claimed in The Saturday Review (March 3, 1973) that “what distinguishes Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, especially from such writers as John Barth and Borges, is that he does not, like them, make use of technology or popular culture or literary convention in an essentially parodistic spirit, though he tended to do so in V. He is not so literary as to think it odd, an in joke, that literary techniques are perhaps less powerfully revealing about human nature and history than are scientific ones.” I think Gravity’s Rainbow in fact grew very much out of its time like fingernails or hair; it had to happen; and although any novel is unexpected, its oddity was within the confines of contemporary expectations, unlike Ulysses, which it’s so often compared to. Ulysses was unexpected, no heralds trumpeted its coming; there weren’t overt precursors to the stream of consciousness save for those Joyce was kind enough to invent, namely one Édouard Dujardin we only care to know existed because Joyce said he did; and you can read over one hundred famous novels before 1922 without finding one that showcases a succession of pastiches. But Pynchon shared the same humor as Kurt Vonnegut, and Gravity’s Rainbow is a critique of science like Vonnegut’s novels; Ronald Sukenick’s Up was indulging in Nazi BDSM porn five years before; the rewriting of official history as a covert operation that screened what was really going on goes back to John Barth inventing a secret diary for Captain John Smith in The Sot-Weed Factor; and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo seasoned the “real secret history” trope with a dash of conspiracy; the mixture of high and low culture was common, and finally, so was the pining for pre-realist narrative genres. When I blogged about Gaddis’ The Recognitions in October I pointed out that within American postmodernism there were two distinctive strains: one mythical, the other scientific. Although I was already half into Gravity’s Rainbow, I was too lazy to add the caveat that it straddles the line between the two. In spite of Poirier’s claim, Pynchon is indeed very literary, so literary he operated in the mythical mode most of his peers had surrendered to.
Gravity’s Rainbow conforms to what in ancient times was known as Menippean satire. Originally defined by the interpolation of prose and verse, it developed into a self-conscious super-genre that can swallow any literary genre without losing its hybrid identity, coming to stand for a nexus of pastiches and styles. Although highly learned, learning has been one of its traditional targets, and its exuberant display of allusions serve the purpose of mocking ideas and intellectual fashions. As a Menippea, Gravity’s Rainbow encompasses a medley of genres, the spy novel, the science-fiction novel, allusions to fairytales, and at one point it even turns into a pirate tale. As its forebears, it favors diversity and fragmentation over unity and coherence, making it stretchy enough to shift from disquisitions on rocket science to the self-contained narrative of Byron the Bulb, as brilliant a piece of fabulation as any Barth could have conjured; none of the sentient abstract concepts and natural phenomena in Calvino’s Cosmicomics comes close to being as heartfelt as this immortal lightbulb doomed to witnessing without interfering.
In spite of Slothrop’s clairvoyant erections, PIESCES doesn’t harness his gift to prevent collateral damage since it manipulates him into undergoing a quest for a legendary rocket, meaning that at one point he’s stuck in a kind of a ramshackle Grail quest meshed with a picaro, in classical picaro way using disguises on a journey to obtain the Holy Grail: the rocket. Allusions to Grail lore abound, like the Siege Perilous. The Siege Perilous is a vacant seat at the Round Table reserved by Merlin to the knight who’ll find the Grail. (In Marvel Universe lore, which is how I first heard of the Siege Perilous as a boy, it’s a magical teleportation portal that allows the X-Men to start a new life without memory of their previous one.) This is where Pynchon turns to mythical mode, reveling in nostalgia for outdated narrative modes, and deliberately eschewing the realist fiction mode produced by a society that believed itself rationalist. One week after Gravity’s Rainbow came out Coover told Frank Gado, “I went through a period when I didn’t want to read anybody in the novel tradition; I felt there had been no good English novelist since, roughly, before Defoe. I assumed that the stuff that is in a sense furthest in the past – that is the most dated, irrelevant, and useless to us – is what was published last year, and that fictions become more valuable, more relevant to us as they recede from us in time. To me, the pre-Cervantean stuff seemed the most important.”
Pynchon was in sync. His contemporaries were fascinated with the loss of meaning in the modern, and sending characters on mock-quests was a way of showing their attempt to find that lost meaning again, even if often clothed as parody, irony, and cynicism. Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, subtitled “The New Revised Syllabus”, creates a cosmogony in which the university is an allegory for the universe and Giles is a Messiah announced by a prophecy who must fulfil his destiny by destroying the evil computer WESCAC. A Messiah is also at the heart of Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists, in which a new religion is invented around a man who, miraculously it seems, survives a mining accident. In Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, referenced by Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, Papa LaBas is a loa worshipper looking for the holy text of the Jes Grew, a life-affirming spirit spreading throughout America new changes in behavior, thus threatening white, death-oriented civilization: the spirit has come to America where it senses its lost holy text is hidden, the surfacing of which will allow Jes Grew to unleash its full power to change mankind.
But whereas Barth and Reed still dealt with literary texts, in Gravity’s Rainbow Enzian spells out that the new Gospel is not verbal: “all right, say we are supposed to be the Kabbalists out here, say that’s our real Destiny, to be the scholar-magicians of the Zone, with somewhere in it a Text, to be picked to pieces, annotated, explicated, and masturbated till it’s all squeezed limp of its last drop… well we assumed – natürlich! – that this holy Text had to be the Rocket, orururumo orunene the high, rising, dead, the blazing, the great one (“orunene” is already being modified by the Zone-Herero children to “omunene,” the eldest brother)… our Torah.”
Pynchon also resembles his fellow fabulators in his penchant to literalize metaphors. For instance, the Jes Grew spirit is a metaphor for black culture taking white conservative America by storm in the 1920s, turning white youth away from Protestant, puritan values that forbade living for pleasure; but Reed turns it into an actual magic spirit whose antagonist is a secret society trying to preserve Western Civilization, framing their millennia-old battle as a conspiratorial alternative history of the West.
Barth, after being told that his previous novels had made use of the hero’s journey structure, superimposes it on Giles and turns it into his actual identity, one Giles deliberately chooses, thus acquiring the benefits that come with being on a classical hero’s journey, namely being invincible.
The title of Coover’s The Public Burning alludes to the McCarthy “witch hunts”, which brings to mind actual witch burning: so the Rosenbergs, charged with treason for smuggling atomic secrets, are executed in the open in Times Square, surrounded by a crowd of ordinary citizens, cheering, booing, singing, replicating the festive tone of the Inquisition’s autos-de-fé, public performative spectacles that included long processions and sermons atop scaffolds designed as stages. But going even further, Coover foregrounds the pagan roots of those sacrifices and turns the execution into an orgy whose unleashed energies can rejuvenate America.
Coover also literalizes the Cold War. During the 1952 presidential campaign, Eisenhower described the role of U.S. foreign policy as “a war of light against darkness, freedom against slavery, Godliness against atheism.” His Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, said that America’s Soviet enemy was the “Anti-Christ.” Such morally simplistic Manicheism is at the heart of traditional superhero stories, so Coover turned the Cold War into a superhero slugfest between Uncle Sam and the Phantom, complete with Uncle Sam displaying superhero powers on battlefields. According to Jeremy Dauber (American Comics: A History), Uncle Sam coincides with the birth of American comics, since his famous figure was popularized by cartoonist Thomas Nast during the Civil War. Unsurprisingly, given that so many comic book writers took a pro-war stance and made many patriotic heroes during WWII, someone of course remembered to create a superhero called Uncle Sam. Created by Will Eisner for Quality Comics, his Uncle Sam debuted in National Comics #1 (July 1940) and looks exactly like Nast’s iconic image. (Curiously, Coover’s Uncle Sam inspired Alan Moore’s attempt to revamp Eisner’s Uncle Sam, as he himself wrote in his notes to the never to be Twilight of the Superheroes.)
Gravity’s Rainbow also shows Pynchon’s fondness for literalizing metaphors and stale expressions. He picks up the military term “theater of war” and turns Europe into The Zone, an actual theatrical stage, a dance and song hall, where characters burst out on a whim into song and put on disguises and adopt false identities, like in Elizabethan plays. The second paragraph of the novel reads: “It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre.” We’re in the company of Pirate Prentice; nearby “Teddy Bloat is about to fall out of the minstrels’ gallery”. A few pages later he performs a classical circus gag: “In staggers Teddy Bloat with Pirate’s blanket over his head, slips on a banana peel and falls on his ass. ‘Kill myself’, he mumbles.” In brief lines it’s established that they inhabit a circus logic world where nothing too serious can happen. Hundreds of references to movies and film stars keep this unreal feel going. It’s also here that pop culture, overcharging the senses with entertainment, and the Menippea intersect seamlessly, for the Menippea itself posits a deranged world wherein characters adopt strange behavior, act according to bizarre logic, have silly names – Pynchon’s names are perfectly normal in the Menippean tradition – and behave as if they were on a stage all the time, whether they break into song or not. Since the revival of “pre-Cervantean stuff” was going on everywhere simultaneously as if writers were tapping into the morphic field, Pynchon wouldn’t need a source to be conscious of what he was doing; the return of Menippea and its companion the grotesque was part of the zeitgeist, present in The Tin Drum, Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, The Sot Weed’s Factor and Giles Goat-Boy. But since I like to point out synchronicities, it’s interesting that there would soon be a boom of academic attention toward the Menippea thanks to Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965), which started making its way into the West due to Julia Kristeva’s own work based on it.
In the oldest extant Menippeas, namely Lucian’s dialogues, the humor comes from the incoherence he points out in philosophical systems, from the inability of philosophers to live out what they preach, the abstruse language they use, their empty concepts, or their charlatanry. To add to its self-referentiality, Lucian often used Menippus, the real-life Roman author who gives his name to the genre he allegedly invented, as a character. In “Charon and Hermes”, Menippus is in the underworld pointing out philosophers to Hermes:
That's a philosopher, Hermes; and an impudent quack not the bargain. Have him out of that cloak; you will find something to amuse you underneath it.
Off with your clothes first; and then we will see to the rest. My goodness, what a bundle: quackery, ignorance, quarrelsomeness, vainglory; idle questionings, prickly arguments, intricate conceptions; humbug and gammon and wishy-washy hair-splittings without end; and hullo! why here's avarice, and self-indulgence, and impudence! luxury, effeminacy and peevishness!—Yes, I see them all; you need not try to hide them. Away with falsehood and swagger and superciliousness; why, the three-decker is not built that would hold you with all this luggage.
This was pretty sophisticated humor for its time, considering that comedy was barely produced at all. Between stale imitators of Homeric epics and peddlers of lyrical verse, there wasn’t much more available to a reader. The Menippea didn’t have the epic’s reverence for myths and it descried the interiority of lyrical poets. Instead it made fun of revered figures like Socrates and Plato, “the polished flatterer from Sicilian courts”. Only Menippea would have Alexander The Great calling Aristotle “the craftiest of all flatterers. Allow me to know a little more than other people about Aristotle; his requests and his letters came to my address; I know how he profited by my passion for culture; how he would toady and compliment me, to be sure! now it was my beauty—that too is included under The Good; now it was my deeds and my money; for money too he called a Good—he meant that he was not going to be ashamed of taking it.” The scarcity of outlets for mocking intellectuals back then made it a savage, polemical, revolutionary genre. Menippea’s heroes were counterculture figures like Menippus and Diogenes, skeptical outsiders who used their intellect to poke holes in other intellectual’s ideas. Antiquity preserved countless anecdotes about Diogenes’ fearless commitment to intellectual freedom and his joy in taking on his peers’ grandiose proclamations. As such, the Menippea functioned as a corrective to what we nowadays call “fashionable nonsense”.
But fashionable nonsense was hardly a problem for mid-century consumers of philosophical bullshit: anyone who presumed to be well-read by 1973 had read at least one popularizing article that explained Heidegger’s Existentialism, and Sartre’s Existentialism, and Camus’ “revolt”, and Barthes’ Structuralism, or the death of Humanism, or Marxism, in such a dour and consummate way that they seemed impervious to incoherence; and anyway those who believed in these systems were brainwashed and beyond the sting of humor. As for hypocrisy, not living up to the system’s ideas, the cultural milieu spent a lot of energy making sure no one cared about the contradictions of people like Heidegger, an unrepentant Nazi straight-facedly warning people about the coming dangers of American and Soviet imperialism, like really?, him of all people was going to be mankind’s moral consciousness; and Sartre, who in the same day could lie about loving all mankind and not being aware of any crimes against people in Mao’s China. Or Merleau-Ponty, who preached that “progressive violence” was alright if it in Utopia’s behalf; or Herbert Marcuse, who was OK with suppressing freedom of speech if speech came from people whose ideas he deemed right-wing or conservative. But although it was nearly impossible to make literary fun of these people (even if one can and should admire Barth for ridiculing Camus in The Floating Opera, Grass for mocking Heidegger in Dog Years, or Malcolm Bradbury for going after Deconstructionism in Mensonge), and although the biggest ideas from the Humanities were so popular and explicable they did not carry the confusion and unfamiliarity that makes them so appetizing for Menippea, science was virgin territory. Since Menippea cares more about ideas than characters (Pynchon’s weakness, I’m afraid), what I think Pynchon’s use of abstruse, opaque, cryptic jargon is doing, is making fun of the old belief that one day science would unite a mankind fluent in a universal language of common sense, truth and clarity.
A passage like this, far from the densest, means little to me:
“Every square is just as likely to get hit again. The hits aren’t clustering.
Mean density is constant.”
Nothing on the map to the contrary. Only a classical Poisson distribution,
quietly neatly sifting among the squares exactly as it should… growing to
its predicted shape…
“Mean density”, “Poisson distribution”, you could be talking in foreign languages like a possessed child. See, science at some point crossed a threshold of unintelligibility. In 1968, Arthur C. Clarke told Science magazine that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This came to be known as the third of the “Clarke's three laws”. (Curiously, the list’s final form dates from 1973 too.) Scientific utopianism still had its champions, overly optimistic about its potential to save us: not many years before C. P. Snow had caused an uproar because of a lecture called “The Two Cultures”, in fact an attack on the Humanities for being proudly ignorant of Science and of not doing enough to close the gap with between the two. Snow had no doubts science was going to keep making human society better, tinkering with it in a continuous march toward perfectibility.
Snow found it baffling that contemporary scientists boasted of being in a stalwart moment of discoveries, energized by the certainty that they’d surpass their predecessors in knowledge (his prediction was wrong since there haven’t been major breakthroughs in physics since 1960 that have radically changed the way we understand the universe), whereas writers moaned and moped, always painting themselves as inferior to their ancestors. This is natural and only someone who doesn’t understand what the Humanities are would be befuddled: the Humanities are essentially a conservative activity devoted to preserving tradition, whereas science can make measurable progress and discard what is wrong; a Shakespeare expert can’t discard Seneca’s plays anymore than Northrop Frye could have discarded the Bible to study Blake’s poetry, since writers literally build on their predecessors and constantly return to key texts that form the foundations of a culture and identity. A scientist only gains from not knowing the geocentric model, or the phlogiston theory, or phrenology, but any poet would risk scorn from his peers if he suddenly declared himself superior to Homer or Dante.
Poirier claimed in “The Importance of Thomas Pynchon” (1975) that Pynchon was the first writer to take up the challenge Wordsworth laid out in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Pynchon personified his plea that the Poet should “be ready to follow the steps of the Man of Science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science itself.” The “remotest discoveries” of the Chemist, the Botanist, the Mineralogist would “be as proper subjects of the Poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us”. Poirier felt this had not yet been accomplished because readers were too awash in science and technology that they didn’t see it anymore, like an automatism unregistered by the desensitized mind trapped in the “world where the effects of exposure to the implementations of science and technology are so pervasive as to have been invisible and inaudible.” It is true that many treated science as a cookie jar of images. “One ought to know everything, to write. All of us scribblers are monstrously ignorant. If only we weren’t lacking in stamina, what a rich field of ideas and similes we could tap! Books that have been the source of entire literatures, like Homer and Rabelais, contain the sum of all the knowledge of their times. They knew everything, those fellows, and we know nothing”, bemoaned Flaubert. He had only in mind science as generator of fresh similes, not as organizing principle of narrative or the content and theme themselves. But the Poet had always, even if rudimentarily, been on par with science. We know that The Iliad was an oral encyclopedia of knowledge necessary for the Greeks to keep their oral culture alive. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the poet dabbled in everything, since to be encyclopedic was to worship God’s Creation. Even the 18th-century English novel took a realist leap by swimming in the current of philosophical ideas of its time, Defoe’s objective narrators would have been impossible without empiricism. Zola did try to devise a new form for the novel out of the science of his time, namely physiology. If writers before Pynchon seem less scientific it’s because science from the past doesn’t look very scientific either, or it’s been downgraded into alchemy, magic and superstition.
I don’t think science stays out of novels because its usage in day-to-day life turns us blind to it; we ignore it because we don’t understand it. Actually, most novelists would probably love to use science more often in their books, if for nothing else because they’ve been trained to aspire to it since Modernism at least. Because modernists were deeply suspicious of narrative and language, they’d prefer novels to imitate music, painting, theatre, and, why not?, science. In 1937, Beckett asked, “is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting? Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts?” Some writers did feel that novels were lagging behind in relation to non-verbal art forms that had eschewed narrative and representation. It’s easy to suppose that some thought the same about its divorce from science.
Novelists returned to the mythic mode when they realized this aspiration was a waste of time, for words cannot behave like non-verbal artistic media, lest they go silent; they can only behave like words, to be rhetorical, hence you may as well go back to the source: myths, fables, legends, pre-Cervantean stuff. But until post-war novelists realized Modernism was a dead end, how much a few suffered, especially those who so desperately wanted to be thought of as avant-garde. In his essay “Not-Knowing” (1987), Donald Barthelme, Pynchon’s big-time friend, talked anxiously about “a loss of reference.” To be clear and appeal to the general masses, a goal rejected by modernists, meant catering to cliché and convention. Plus, intelligibility was a sure sign that ordinary language no longer packed any news about the world anymore, for now “much of the most exquisite description of the world, discourse about the world, is now being carried on in mathematical languages obscure to most people - certainly to me - and the contributions the sciences once made to our common language in the form of coinages, new words and concepts, are now available to specialists.” (p. 17) Barthelme was just envious because he craved to be as obscure as the scientist, but something in language, an in-built feature, pulls it toward legibility; it requires putting a lot of strain on it to render it baffling, and an even weirder mind to think there’s anything worthwhile in doing that.
Pynchon solved this anxiety by using science, not as the Flaubertian aide to images, but to drive home the point that we’re profane laymen outside a sect with its own priests and commentators. Wordsworth was writing at the endpoint of an optimistic time when science still seemed an activity an amateur who made a bit of effort could fully understand, before it branched into branches of brambly specialization. Exactly when the foliage became impenetrable no one knows for sure, but a lingering myth of science is “the last man who knew everything”. Such person has been identified as Henri Poincaré, Thomas Young, Enrico Fermi, Sabine Baring-Gould, John von Neumann. Days ago I was reading La Barbarie de l'ignorance, and George Steiner just casually mentions that his former teacher, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was the last man to know everything. This is a myth dear to modernists and, like Steiner, worshippers of high modernism, since for them modernism is a nostalgia for geniuses who possess a vast hermetic knowledge the profane are barred from understanding; everything turned to crap when pop culture invaded everything and lowered the expectations of what writers should master.
But by the end of World War I, Max Weber (name-dropped in GR) dropped the bad news everyone knew about what the “intellectualist rationalization, created by science and by scientifically oriented technology, means practically.” “Does it mean that we, today, for instance, everyone sitting in this hall, have a greater knowledge of the conditions of life under which we exist than has an American Indian or a Hottentot?” he asked ironically.
Hardly. Unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. And he does not need to know. He is satisfied that he may “count” on the behavior of the streetcar, and he orients his conduct according to this expectation; but he knows nothing about what it takes to produce such a car so that it can move. The savage knows incomparably more about his tools. When we spend money today I bet that even if there are colleagues of political economy here in the hall, almost every one of them will hold a different answer in readiness to the question: How does it happen that one can buy something for money ‐‐ sometimes more and sometimes less? The savage knows what he does in order to get his daily food and which institutions serve him in this pursuit. The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives.
That’s why Pynchon could only keep his readership engaged with the only science it understood at the time: the bomb. Sure, readers after his techno-jargon came out knowing as nothing at all about it as before, but V-2 rockets weren’t far from the atomic bombs gnawing at minds in 1973, and readers understood the consequences of nuclear holocaust even if they didn’t understand the science behind it. And a movement of social awareness for the past decade had also made them wary about the role politics, industry and the military played in keeping everyone terrified of the Bomb.
In “Science, Axel, and Punning”, Kenner remarked with devilish delight that although science in the 17th century was being reclaimed by men like Bishop Sprat as the “language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants”, fit for no-nonsense people, plain and natural unlike the language of scholasticism, by the 19th it “had withdrawn itself from public comprehension”. In vain could Snow expect proximity between the two cultures, it shall never happen. Pynchon does exactly what Snow demands of the writer, he shows tremendous interest and proficiency in science, and the results couldn’t be more terrifying and nebulous. Science is not the universal language of clarity, it’s a self-regulated hermetic sect; it’s also suspicious because it’s very expense, so expensive its development depends on shady handouts from governments, the military and private investors, faceless entities whose designs upon us we can only speculate. The days of the eccentric dean and parson in the wilderness who built his own amateur lab and maybe actually contributed with something to science are long gone. Pynchon flits between these two poles, science and magic, with excursions into Grail lore, Tarot, Kabballah, the Sephiroth, the Qliphoth, to drive home the point that science is now magic, an arcane knowledge, utterly remote from our concerns, requiring its own priests to interpret it for us laymen outside, thus making Gravity’s Rainbow a Menippean satire of fashionable nonsense and, as Vidal predicted, the ideal classroom novel.
Instead of science as a fraternal glue, Pynchon posits out dehumanization as the endpoint of technology. We establish contact with science mostly via technology, since science is but a method to reason out and arrive at knowledge that can duplicated in controlled situations, as applicable to hard sciences as to any body of knowledge. We don’t see lab experiments nor read science papers; we experience the outcome of science, science shaped into technology, services, inventions, gizmos. Gravity’s Rainbow doesn’t so much criticize wayward technology – the V-2 rockets aren’t wayward since they’re in the hands of their makers, being used for their purpose, like any harmless smartphone – as it shows that technology left to itself will go on dissolving our grasp of a solid reality, our certainties, our feeling that we’re in control of our lives. There’s no reassuring message that we just need to better keep technology in check. It just builds a world in which mysterious, inscrutable technology starts showing up in explanations for why the world is as it is. The more knowledge we accrue the more irrational we also become.
Although the Enlightenment bandied man’s ability to dominate the world through reason, by the 1870s this optimism had fallen apart and irrationalism was recrudescing in several guises. Soon we’d have Freud saying that we act because of unconscious reasons; in the arts dada exploded all order and harmony; André Breton created surrealism and turned automatic writing into an artistic stimulus; Pavlov’s conditioning and Skinner’s behaviorism, both heavily used in Gravity’s Rainbow, got rid of conscious will as the explanation of action; modern magicians showed up in different orders full of rituals and techniques to obliterate the ego that stunts self-improvement; Jung renewed the study of the unconscious and showed its connection to mythical archetypes, helping initiate a spiritual turn. In literary studies, the Russian Formalists were busy removing authorial intention from the creative process, with Osip Brik ludicrously claiming that, “If Pushkin had never existed Eugene Onegin would still have been written.” What all these people and movements had in common was contempt for the mind’s conscious state. At its most powerful form, it grew into a paranoid view of life, turning the 20th century home to conspiracies and cover-ups. In harmless France, before Pauwels and Bergier’s book, in spite of a tradition of cartesianists and positivists, Pierre Plantard was busy crafting the remarkable hoax of the “Priory of Sion”, a secret society that counted amongst its members influential people like Leonardo, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Jean Cocteau, Claude Debussy, Robert Fludd, so seductive a fib its debunking hasn’t stopped it from inspiring a whole industry of which The Da Vinci Code is but the most entertaining offspring. That’s also why Cattaneo and Sena were talking about Nostradamus’ prophecies days before Gravity’s Rainbow reached bookstores: prophecies are a corollary of the paranoid mind, the belief that someone somewhere knows what’s going on, is in control, can see the composition in the chaos, and can even predict centuries in advance.
Pynchon tapped into this desire for our destiny having a direction so long as we don’t have dibs on it. Gravity’s Rainbow is a summa of the many ways people since the Enlightenment have invented of convincing themselves they’re not in control of their lives because some obscure force – the unconscious, motor nerves, Pavlovian conditioned reflexes, secret societies – thankfully is, exempting us from responsibility. A paranoid belief in powerful entities controlling history from the shadows is but the most ostentatious and memorable way we’ve found of killing off the Enlightenment’s too high hopes for us. I don’t think Pynchon believes in conspiracies himself, but he believes that people believe it; he only needed to take a look around him to see them basking in their own powerlessness. In one of these rare occasions cherished by Snow when the two cultures closed the gap and spoke as one, their joint press release to mankind was precisely that it was powerless and ruled by nearly-magical entities swirling around them.
In his 1950 lecture “Language”, Heidegger proclaimed, “Language speaks.” This has been interpreted as meaning that we are passive agents of language, being spoken by it, as so much Continental philosophy stressed. This was a radical change from what Bergson had postulated half a century before. In Time and Free Will, Bergson wrote: “The greater part of the time we live outside ourselves, hardly perceiving anything of ourselves but our own ghost, a colourless shadow… we live for the external world rather than for ourselves; we speak rather than think; we ‘are acted’ rather than act ourselves.” For Bergson, people were spoken by language when they let their guard down and simply parroted newspapers, politicians and admen; but there was hope of freeing themselves from this automated state. For Heidegger and his disciples there wasn’t. “Its speaking speaks for us in what has been spoken”, Heidegger heideggered. This was taken up by Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, into the motto that “we’re spoken by language”, that everything, including our sense of self, is just linguistic structures over which we have no control. My favorite example comes from Barthes: “Language is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist; for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech”, he stated in 1978. Notice the wording: a concept, “fascism”, compels another concept, “language”; there are no humans in sight, not even humans with fascist ideas in their heads, nor beings plainly called “fascists” who use language – there are only abstract concepts having it their own way as if they were imbued with intention.
Or as Geoffrey Galt Harpham says in Language Alone: The Critical Fetish of Modernity: “From the point of view of language, human beings do not possess their most distinctive trait, but rather are possessed by it, gathered into a language that 'speaks' beyond their intentions and within their words, generating a kind of subsemiotic throbbing irreducible to expression, utterance, and representation.” Taking their cue from Heidegger, the French inaugurated “postmodern antihumanism”, populating its ranks with thinkers whose “goal was to dismantle the notion of the self-mastering, self-aware subject and to reveal it as an illusion, an aftereffect, a mirage generated by language.” Pynchon’s peers were fascinated by this. Here’s Ronald Sukenick: “I believe along with some strands of the deconstruction movement that we're spoken by language rather than language speaking us.” (Musing the Mosaic: Approaches to Ronald Sukenick, p. 247) This was becoming the mandatory belief system of the American novelist c. 1970.
Meanwhile, science was giving us a new myth: memes. Richard Dawkins’s 1976 book The Selfish Gene is another entry into the widespread belief that we’re controlled by an invisible force, in this case genes; instead of our actions being the result of consciousness, consciousness is already hardwired by genetics to direct behavior in a certain way that benefits genes, once again as if they were entities imbued with consciousness to decide what they wanted. Not content with this, Dawkins then added yet another self-propagating entity, the meme, which uses our minds to replicate itself and spread to other minds. Like the inversion of speaker and language, the meme inverts the flow of agency from the mind that thinks something to that something showing up inside the mind fully formed and using it for its own designs.
Language, genes were truly systems that controlled us. Marshall McLuhan launched his studies into how publicity manipulated and fabricated reality and formed consent. This occasionally led to important insights. In the field of ecology, Earth was beginning to be seen as a complex array of overlapping systems, whose delicate ecosystems needed protective policies lest they be destroyed. The practice of reductionism was giving way to transdisciplinary fields and systems theory that sought to see the world as a sum of many phenomena bigger than its parts. And who can hear Ned Beatty’s speech about how world economy works in Network without thinking there’s truth to it?
Philosophers were busy annulling the individual. Existentialism gnawed at a label called “individual” to reach at the core of the “Self”, a vague universal creature buried underneath particularity. If we stripped away the outer layers, and kept inquiring after the truer self, hidden in a remote layer beneath banal consciousness, we’d find Man as he really is, who happened to be everyone without the façades of civilization. Identity, then, was a fraud, a lie. Existentialist novelists often tried to show “real” Man by subjecting him to extreme predicaments, what Karl Jaspers called the “limit situation”, as if our true self is hidden by a glittering but false patina of civilization only pain and misery can wash clean. Writing in Constructions (1974), Michael Frayn found this silly:
You might think sometimes, looking at novels and plays, that the paradigm of literature was the Consumers’ Association test report. Like electric toasters, the characters of fiction are tested, by stress and crisis, until they break down. And the convention is that what emerges at this point is their ‘real’ nature… It’s true that in life people sometime do surprise us at such moments, by revealing flaws and virtues we had not known about before. Because of our fascination with the hidden and its revelation, we are easily persuaded that what emerges is of general rather than particular significance. At last, we feel – with a kind of satisfaction – the truth is emerging! On the surface he has always appeared to be calm and cheerful. But now, after he has spent three days without food, under heavy bombardment, lost his home, and got both shoes full of water, it turns out that really – underneath – he is a rather irritable man who lacks the capacity to get pleasure out of life.
Often, people were prepared to believe they were more gullible than they actually are. In 1957, James Vicary told reporters that he had flashed the slogans “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat popcorn” throughout a movie, too fast for conscious perception, but caught by the eye nonetheless. This resulted in sales increase: popcorn by 18.1%, Coke by 57.7%. He called this “subliminal advertising”. Unfortunately, the owner of the theatre he tried this experiment in said that sales had not gone up, and in 1962 Vicary confessed it was a hoax. But although it’s never been proven that subliminal advertising works, people rushed to believe in it without any sound evidence. It’s as if people felt more comfortable believing that they were helpless automata, putty in the hands of publicists. The fear of subliminal messages didn’t go away, instead it joined Manchurian candidates and the USA military MK-Ultra Project experiments being leaked to the public. Everyone was curious to see if the human mind really was so easily deluded. Perhaps it made it easier to understand why Germans had obeyed so fiercely to Hitler. It was easier to believe that he was the Hate Monger, casting psychic spells, than to cope with the fact that Germans probably turned that way because Germany was run to the ground by war reparations, national humiliation, stock market speculation, hyperinflation, currency devaluation, mass unemployment, aka the normal capitalist way of life in the 1920s; belief in an innate propensity for mind control and mass delusion was a fine scapegoat to instead thinking that maybe the Allied nations deserved same of the moral blame for having pushed a broken people into the hands of a demagogue who promised them a proud future; this could have the effect of restructuring society and to give power to capitalism’s rival, communism.
Bit by bit, this worldview bled into literature itself. In Cultural Creation in Modern Society, Lucien Goldmann abhorred the possibility that the contents of novels get on the page because a conscious mind decided so; choosing instead a totally materialist and sociological explanation for creativity, he saw the writer as a hopeless creature manipulated by culture. This was easy to prove if the novel of the future was posited to be, as Goldmann posited it, the novel of Alain Robbe-Grillet, which had only residual interest in humans as active agents in the first place, the bulk of their activity being reserved to observing without interfering:
In the course of a long discussion with this critic I tried to maintain that if a writer narrates things differently it is because things themselves have become essentially different, and therefore he can no longer say them in the accepted way. The discussion ended with the analysis of a passage from Jealousy: “The light, rubber-soled shoes make no sound on the hallway tiles.” The critic says, “Clearly, this involves a jealous man who walks very softly so as not to make noise and surprise his wife.” I replied, “Perhaps what is essential is simply that Robbe-Grillet wrote not ‘a man walks very softly’ but instead ‘the light.. .shoes.. .make no sound,’ probably because what was essential was the fact that in today’s world the shoes carry the man: the motor of events is no longer man but inert objects.”
The same way language speaks us and memes prey upon us, the sole carries the man, it’s not man who willingly decides to put on shoes, he’s just a puppet of marketing departments:
The reply, of course, was, “This is no doubt an amusing, ingenious witticism, but nevertheless a witticism.” Then I asked my interlocutor to choose between two statements which I would present and tell me which he found more accurate, understanding that the answer to the problem at issue would depend on this choice. One could say that every year between July and August some millions-of people in advanced industrial countries take vacations, carrying cameras and taking photographs which they then show to their friends and family. Or one could say that every year, in rarely explicit, usually implicit accord with certain travel agencies, the boards of directors of Kodak and the major camera firms decide to produce a certain number of cameras which will travel around the world, while a certain number of other cameras sold in previous years will remain in circulation. These decisions once made, the cameras set out on their travels with a corresponding number of people to operate them. Which of these formulations gives the best account of the phenomenon’s essential reality?
Goldmann had not doubt: “Any serious sociologist, I think, will choose the second.” Maybe, but sociologists don’t write novels, or should rein in the compulsion to do so, and nowadays few read Robbe-Grillet either because we still write and read novels where the motor of events is man with agency. And yet for a while in the 1970s this view really was a popular meme. Few American novels exemplify it so well as Gravity’s Rainbow. Poirier praised Pynchon for operating outside the confines of literature, but as Vidal pointed out he was in fact the perfect classroom novelist. I don’t know if Pynchon was eager to be up to date on Theory, to construct novels out of it, to predicate assumptions of how human nature works from was fashionable in academe; but he was going to be taught by scholars who needed a text fit that bill.
To me, Gravity’s Rainbow’s predicament is showing humanless without wallowing it, and it fails at it. Even making allowances to the romance form for not having to portray psychologically-developed characters as the realist novel, that’s a shortcoming when Pynchon tries to make a point about psychology. On page 881, right in the end, we’re supposed to believe the ordeal Slothrop has endured has cost him his sanity:
Some believe that fragments of Slothrop have grown into consistent personae of their own. If so, there’s no telling which of the Zone’s present-day population are offshoots of his original scattering. There’s supposed to be a last photograph of him on the only record album ever put out by The Fool, an English rock group – seven musicians posed, in the arrogant style of the early Stones, near an old rocket-bomb site, out in the East End, or South of the River. It is spring, and French thyme blossoms in amazing white lacework across the cape of green that now hides and softens the true shape of the old rubble. There is no way to tell which of the faces is Slothrop’s.
This would have been more persuasive had Pynchon shown him cracking up; instead we were served 880 pages of Slothrop showing no sign of psychic trauma from his quest. Pynchon is not a French psychologiste, he lacks the microscopic touch that renders subtle changes in personality. Characters in picaros and Grail quests do not suffer from psychological shock: they suffer famine, cold, pranks, physical beatings, magical spells, attacks of giants, but like rubber they rebound from all rough stuff. They inhabit their own genre, excluded from the laws of literary realism, impervious to psychology. Character in romance lose their souls to the frenzy of the plot, which is also a very comic book thing. Weirdly, Mary Marvel is also mentioned in Ronald Sukenick’s Up (1968), a novel with many similarities to Gravity’s Rainbow, not the least being Nazi BDSM porn. What I find perplexing is that Mary Marvel hadn’t had stories in media since 1956, meaning she had to be a leftover from memories of them reading her comics before that. Up and Gravity’s Rainbow also use similar narrative structure akin to comics prior to Marvel’s continuity’s impact on them. In 1961, Stan Lee reinvented comics when he and Jack Kirby created Fantastic Four, the first superhero comic book to use continuity, that is, issue-to-issue consequences, turning it into an ongoing soap opera. Thanks to Lee, if a character broke an arm in one issue, for several issues in a row he could be drawn wearing a cast. This was nothing short of revolutionary since it gave the illusion of character development. Superhero comics have their own history of realism, and as preposterous as this may sound Fantastic Four is to comics what Robinson Crusoe or Pamela are to the novel, a quantum leap in reporting the objective world. Prior to Fantastic Four, a typical comic book was constituted of 21 pages containing 3 self-contained stories that hit reset at the end. Action Comics, for instance, could tell one story about Superman being married to a mermaid, only for that never to be talked about again; in the second story Superman’s cousin from Hufjeepe or whatever Dimension would show up and cause mischief, never to show up again (unless popular demand brought him back); and in the third story Superman could be the dictator of a future dystopia. The objective was not for character to be consistent, but to fill paper with weird stuff, to occupy the restless minds of teens with wonder. By then a character like Superman or Batman had no fixed personality, they were whatever the author needed them to be at a given time to tell his weird story. Now, for novelists like Sukenick and Pynchon, they’d be too old to have been exposed to Lee’s continuity, but they were in their wide-eyed formative ages in the ‘40s and ‘50s to get from comics a precious lesson on the dissolution of character or even on the non-existence of “self”. It’s certainly more respectable to chalk it all up to French Structuralism, but the fact is that many American avant-garde novels like Up and Gravity’s Rainbow use precisely the same vignette narrative structure from pre-1961 comics: Up comprises a series of poorly-connected scenes, a “flaw” the narrative self-consciously brings up, centered around one “Ronald Sukenick”, a narrator who often changes biographical facts about himself from scene to scene and sometimes admits he makes things up in this “autobiography”. Comics would have also have provided Pynchon with a remarkable school about the long-lost art of the romance, and Gravity’s Rainbow is also a series of vignettes whose characters don’t seem to keep memory of what happened before, always intensely focused on present shenanigans. This is not only how comics behaved but also how the picaro and the chivalric novella were constructed, as strings of episodes clumsily stitched into a single narrative, concerned only with forward motion, and hence why their plots often involved journeys. So whereas comics were pushing the realist envelope, the novel in the 1960s and 1970s, at least in avant-garde circles, was paradoxically avant-garding by coming full circle to its anti-realist roots in pre-Cervantean stuff, comics being a readymade supply of romance narrative tropes available to young comics readers who’d later become novelists with all the contempt for the quotidian that comics or medieval grail quests would have instilled in them.
For this reason, it’d have been a miracle if Pynchon had known how to show the slow cracking of a character’s mind, or even wanted to. Characters in static realist novels can afford to indulge in introspection and search in themselves ennui, angst, anomie. But the picaroon is always too busy on the move to have leisure to process what he’s feeling. Barth understood this perfectly in The Sot Weed Factor, whose protagonist shows no sign of 1960s existentialist angst because classical heroes don’t catch angst. Tony Tanner thought otherwise; in “Paranoia, Energy, and Displacement” (1978) he wrote about the effect Pynchon’s entropy metaphor had on the psyche:
One result of this is an extreme dissolution of the individual. Although there is an excessive proliferation of names in Pynchon's work, there is a concomitant disappearance of selves. Justas he renames all of postwar Europe "the Zone/' so individuals begin to blur as they try to work with, and live through, the newuncertain categories of the contemporary world. Even the hero - or central name - in Gravity's Rainbow, Slothrop, begins to ''scatter" by the end. His "sense of Now" or "temporal bandwidth" gets narrower and narrower, and by the end there is a feeling that he is so lost and isolated and unconnected that he is vaporizing out of time altogether.
This is lyrical nonsense because at no time are we in doubt about Slothrop’s hold on his own identity, not even when he pretends to be someone else; nor are we confused by his change of identities; nor does he show signs of doubting it himself until Pynchon decides that he should on page 881. It has none of the artistry of The Recognitions: Gaddis does show the dissolution of identity by simply omitting the name of the protagonist after 100 or so pages, turning him into a mere “he” shrunk into nothingness amidst so much blather and blabber. When he makes Wyatt Gwyon change names (Stephan, Esteban, Stephen), each time is confusing and requires readjustment, since unlike GR’s narrator The Recognitions is deeply cinematic and doesn’t have a voice spelling everything out. To me p. 881 is very false, a concession to fashionable Theory. I think it’s also the moment that seals the pact between Academia and the novel: by hook or by crook, they needed an American specimen au courant with French Theory.
For me, the narrator is the novel’s most interesting voice, if not character; Pynchon is captivating when he rolls out musings on anything that seizes his attention at a particular time. It’s like reading the notebook of a doper. Here’s the narrator turning Enzian into a ventriloquist’s puppet so that he can sort out whether history is a matter of conscious will or accidental. Enzian, believing that the Rocket is a Text, tries to provide history an occult meaning:
It means this War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted . . . secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology… by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that needed the energy-burst of war, crying, “Money be damned, the very life of [insert name of Nation] is at stake,” but meaning, most likely, dawn is nearly here, I need my night’s blood, my funding, funding, ahh more, more… The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms—it was only staged to look that way—but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite…
But the opposite view is that technology acts neutrally:
“Yes but Technology only responds (how often this argument has been iterated, dogged and humorless as a Gaussian reduction, among the younger Schwarzkommando especially), ‘All very well to talk about having a monster by the tail, but do you think we’d’ve had the Rocket if someone, some specific somebody with a name and a penis hadn’t wanted to chuck a ton of Amatol 300 miles and blow up a block full of civilians? Go ahead, capitalize the T on technology, deify it if it’ll make you feel less responsible —but it puts you in with the neutered, brother, in with the eunuchs keeping the harem of our stolen Earth for the numb and joyless hardens of human sultans, human elite with no right at all to be where they are—‘”
Pynchon didn’t require adroitness at showing the slow dissolution of Slothrop’s self. He just needed to point it out since his readers could supply the rest. Circumstances were on standby to confirm a deeply pessimistic, nihilistic view that humans are a beastly, unredeemable species, that their minds were faulty tools. Stanley Milgram had made experiments that proved that ordinary people could be turned into callous death camp executioners provided they were ordered by people in authority. In the 1950s, the psychologist Muzafer Sherif tried to make two groups into enemies via a series of “frustration exercises”. William Golding showed what he thought happened to children away from civilization, their descent into barbarity. Curiously, Rutger Bregman recently brough to attention a real life similar situation that showed how cooperation and discipline provided a positive outcome. But prejudice shapes perception, and in that mental atmosphere alternatives were imperceptible. That’s why Pavlov’s conditioning and Skinner’s behaviorism form the heart of the plot, even if they were starting to feel outdated and to be replaced by the psychedelic revolution that restored consciousness to a more magnificent place: for the WWII setting they were historically accurate and they’re more dramatic: it’s not only that Slothrop was experimented upon, but that he was experimented as a baby, meaning there had to be parents to allow such a thing and scientists to experiment on babies. It’s also why parents/children relationships know no love in the novel, and why it’s filled with violence – the sexual violence against women and children is off the charts – including BDSM, degradation, humiliation, incest, prostitution, child prostitution. Not even Up, which manages to get at least five jokes out of rape situations, got this extreme.
And yet even though Gravity’s Rainbow shares the spiritual malaise that was common in the French novel in the 1930’s and 1940s when everyone was emotionally cold, ambling without meaning, committing murder without reason, detached from fellow humans, what saves it from their dullness is Pynchon’s nonchalance, the humorous tone running throughout it, a disposition not to take itself too seriously. From a giant adenoid attack to a conditioned octopus, he interpolates his pessimism with antics. Although the narrator is not very good at people, at least his voice is appealing when it goes off into the place of technology in the big picture. There are a few passages eager to deploy ponderous words and to make statements about technology, so bad that you’d think they were written by Tom McCarthy:
“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. But he said: “Try to design anything that way and have it work.”
But at other times the narrator does provide interesting reflection. Here’s his take on progress:
Religion was always about death. It was used not as an opiate so much as a technique—it got people to die for one particular set of beliefs about death. Perverse, natürlich, but who are you to judge? It was a good pitch while it worked. But ever since it became impossible to die for death, we have had a secular version—yours. Die to help History grow to its predestined shape. Die knowing your act will bring a good end a bit closer. Revolutionary suicide, fine. But look: if History’s changes are inevitable, why not not die? Vaslav? If it’s going to happen anyway, what does it matter?”
This reminds me of why José Ortega y Gasset disliked progressists; for him the myth of inexorable progress gave the idea that nothing was worth fighting for, since progress is a given. But this is an extension of those mysterious entities that control man, and believing in progress’ inevitability only leads to inaction and nihilism. A variation of the attempt to scientifically plan human life is provided by Pointsman, a Pavlov enthusiast:
It isn’t the sort of argument Pointsman relishes either. But he glances sharply at this young anarchist in his red scarf. “Pavlov believed that the ideal, the end we all struggle toward in science, is the true mechanical explanation. He was realistic enough not to expect it in his lifetime. Or in several lifetimes more. But his hope was for a long chain of better and better approximations. His faith ultimately lay in a pure physiological basis for the life of the psyche. No effect without cause, and a clear train of linkages.”
But by 1973 this view, which had been popular in American psychiatry under the guise of behaviorism, was giving way to the more spiritual psychedelic age. As Mexico tells Pointsman, “‘It’s not my forte, of course,’ Mexico honestly wishing not to offend the man, but really, ‘but there’s a feeling about that cause-and-effect may have been taken as far as it will go. That for science to carry on at all, it must look for a less narrow, a less… sterile set of assumptions. The next great breakthrough may come when we have the courage to junk cause-and-effect entirely, and strike off at some other angle.’” The novel doesn’t spell it out, although you can tell from the anachronistic drugs the characters take, that Pynchon didn’t mind the psychedelic revolution underway.
The narrator’s prose improves and acquires a heartfelt tone when he’s ranting against power and money:
Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted 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 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.
Or when he indicts us with environmental destruction:
They are meant only to look at it dead, in still strata, transputrefied to oil or coal. Alive, it was a threat: it was Titans, was an overpeaking of life so clangorous and mad, such a green corona about Earth’s body that some spoiler had to be brought in before it blew the Creation apart. So we, the crippled keepers, were sent out to multiply, to have dominion. God’s spoilers. Us. Counterrevolutionaries. It is our mission to promote death.
Gravity’s Rainbow is a summation of what went wrong with the century and a summons to a ribald trial. The accused is the soul, for having aided its own extermination by collaborating with the forces of money in the destruction of the planet. The crime is a type of felo de se. In the second section of the novel, when Slothrop visits a casino, the narrator says that he’s been playing “perhaps after all for his soul, all day”. The near impossibility of keeping one’s soul in a sea of artificiality and deceit is one of the novel’s themes. The worst forces are the ones that make a person sell out. The narrator reminds us that in the sequel to Martín Fierro the “Gaucho sells out”: this is made to be a condition of all revolutionaries, sooner or later they all betray the revolution, entropy triumphs. Slothrop has been literally sold out, as he says when he dreams a conversation with his father: “Why didn’t you tell me? Pop, I loved him. You only wanted to sell me to the IG. You sold me out.” Then there’s this passage when Prentice thinks of the toll of being a double agent, only to be corrected: “‘But think of the free-dom?’ sez Merciful Evans. ‘I can’t even trust myself? can I. How much freer than that can a man be? If he’s to be sold out by anyone? even by himself you see?’” Prentice can’t convince others that he himself is trustworthy. Everyone’s playing a game for a shadowy organization called The Firm.
Knowing that they can sell out is already part of the remedy. Not a very uplifting one, in fact it can’t lift anyone up, since they’re stuck in a designated place like Byron the Bulb. Slothrop’s been turned into a thing by his dad and Dr. Jamf, whereas Byron is an object granted a soul, a witness too powerless to intervene. It does seem that not having a consciousness is a blessing, and believing in a conspiracy a consolation.
Pynchon is very skeptical about man’s power to oppose those faceless forces. In Inherent Vice, Crocker Fenway says, “We will never run out of you people. The supply is inexhaustible.” Doc threatens him with the type of popular insurrections dreamed up in the 1970s by potheads, but Crocker knows history well: “Then we do what has to be done to keep them out. We’ve been laid siege to by far worse, and we’re still here. Aren’t we.” Some members of PISCES do create the Counterforce, an independent group out to defeat the Man, but the impetus to sell out is the Man’s greatest defense:
Well, if the Counterforce knew better what those categories concealed, they might be in a better position to disarm, de-penis and dismantle the Man. But they don’t. Actually they do, but they don’t admit it. Sad but true. They are as schizoid, as double-minded in the massive presence of money, as any of the rest of us, and that’s the hard fact. The Man has a branch office in each of our brains, his corporate emblem is a white albatross, each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in this world is Bad Shit.
I don’t presume to be an expert in Pynchon, but his shtick does seem to be to put powerless witnesses in historical settings. In Mason & Dixon, the two protagonists carry out the mission of drawing the lines of a new empire of injustice: they themselves are already part of that injustice since the lines they draw over a continent no one once owned will cut up the land, enclose it, create divisions like owners, laborers to work on them, and useless occupants who need extermination like Indians, and there’s nothing Mason and Dixon can do about it other than finish the job. Like a character tells them: “You don’t know what I see back in this Country. Bribes, Impersonations, Land Fraud, Scalp-stealing, Ginseng Diversions. Each Day brings Spectacle ever more disheartening. You there are but Boys out upon a Frolick.” Once Dixon tries to stop a slave driver whipping slaves, but his act doesn’t meet cheers from bystanders:
What's a man of Conscience to do? It is frustrating. His Voice breaks. “If I see you again, you are a dead man.” He shakes the Whip at him. “And dead you'll be, ere you see again this Instrument of Shame. For it will lie in a Quaker Home, and never more be us’d.”
“Don't bet the Meeting-House on that,” snarls the Driver, scuttling away.
“Go back to Philadelphia,” someone shouts at Dixon.
Like good fiction in general, Gravity’s Rainbow can only state the obvious: there’s little we can do to stop the world from being horrible. Knowing that is the first step to any change, if such is possible. Another thing we can do, at least that’s a popular humanist myth, is that by learning history we can avoid repeating its mistakes. As the narrator says: “The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago, or even—as Slothrop now—what you’re doing here, at the base of this colossal curved embankment…” Although in 1973 Pynchon seemed ambivalent about ignoring the present, in Inherent Vice he came to suggest that what ruined the hippie revolution was that potheads spent too much time watching TV and not enough time acting, as if giving off good vibes were enough to change the world. Pynchon’s period pieces do try to thicken his readers’ bandwidth, although the success rate is hard to estimate. I think Pynchon would love to be a revolutionary, but in the end he and his fellow novelists are Byron the Bulb.