52:04 It’s Postmodern Time! Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow
“She has turned her face, more than once, to the Outer Radiance and simply seen nothing there. And so each time has taken a little more of the Zero into herself.” – Gravity’s Rainbow
Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel about nothing. More specifically, it chronicles the emergence and proliferation of disembodied systems of mechanized thought and control which have no ultimate ground, and no ultimate purpose.
And this indeed is how the book is written – continually positing and then undermining its own plots, moods, and meanings, until the reader, like many of the book’s characters, are ineluctably thrown back into paranoid uncertainty regarding the meaning of the book, and of life itself.
The novel takes place in the final days of World War II, primarily in the European theater. Pynchon persuasively locates the roots of postmodernity in the strategic, bureaucratic, mechanized fragmentation of information and communication as it was collectively expressed on unprecedented scale by the confounded pedants, zealots, and office workers who prosecuted the war in the midst of the shattered European heritage.
In one reading, the novel is a grotesque celebration of the totality of the collective psyche insofar as it had advanced at that time. Conflicts, patterns, and mysteries arise, only to be meticulously deconstructed in a frenzy of verbose rhapsodizing, and the action moves on without any sense of progress or closure to the next theater of action. The story unfolds with a mechanical logic while signs and meanings arise, multiply, and vanish, much like the war itself:
The War needs electricity. It’s a lively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes – gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival.
Pynchon suggests the rocket as the sign of a new kind of worship for a new kind of God, and its handiwork is a cathedral to nothing. The bombed-out architecture of the London Blitz is described more than once as openwork, likening the networks of cracks and fissures to the tracery of Gothic cathedrals. How this is to be read – as atheism, nihilism, solipsism, or an apophatic theology which denies the knowability of God – is held in permanent suspension, signifying a crisis of meaning that still holds the Western tradition in its grip.
“In hoc signo vignes,” Constantine saw in his prophetic dream of the Cross on the advent of Christianity’s ascension in Rome: “By this sign, conquer.” Thus, Pynchon:
Outside, through the dirty periscope, gnarled fog unloosens from the bright zone of frost that belly-bands the reared and shadowy rocket, where the liquid-oxygen tank’s being topped off. Trees press close: overhead you see barely enough sky for the rocket’s ascent. The Bodenplatte—concrete plate laid over strips of steel—is set inside a space defined by three trees, blazed so as to triangulate the exact bearing, 260°, to London. The symbol used is a rude mandala, a red circle with a thick black cross inside, recognizable as the ancient sun-wheel from which tradition says the swastika was broken by the early Christians, to disguise their outlaw symbol. Two nails are driven into the tree at the center of the cross. Next to one of the painted blaze-marks, the most westerly, someone has scratched in the bark with the point of a bayonet the words in HOC SIGNO VINGES. No one in the battery will admit to this act.
Note that again we see life’s primary action proceeding from the root of the world tree – it turns up again and again, wholly unlooked for.
Gravity’s Rainbow is famously about the V-2 rocket, but it is no less about the concept of zero, which serves as the point of origin and return.
In one arresting image, the zero is imagined as the ouroboros, or serpent devouring its own tail. It forms a zero with its very body, in an age-old symbol of the self-subsisting character of life itself.
In a well-known legend, the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé is said to have discovered the chemical structure of benzene after a night of fitful sleep while he was feverishly working on the problem. He had a vivid dream about the ouroboros, and awoke with the realization that the benzene molecule forms a ring. Pynchon uses this striking image:
Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity — most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to being with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life.
This is one of many overpowering images that seem to encompass the totality of the book in a single sign. These images frequently appear to the book’s enormous cast of characters, who are often paranoid, drugged, stupid, or mentally unstable, and who expend enormous energy gratuitously interpreting and theorizing about their meaning.
The central puzzle involves a mysterious link between the sexual conquests of Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrup and the sites of V-2 bombings in London during the Blitz. The sexualized/phallic character of the rocket plays like a book-length parody of the German Romantic motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which goes back at least as far Gottfried von Strassburg’s 13th-century masterpiece Tristan, but is better known today as the core motif of Wagner’s great opera. In this symbol, love and death are combined in a single image, uniting temporal existence in a dual expression of generation and extinction.
Obvious musicological parallels between Wagner’s method in Tristan und Isolde and this book may be drawn, particularly regarding the opera’s famous overture based on the “Tristan chord.” It progresses but never resolves, leaving the listener in a constant state of suspension, waiting closure like Vladimir and Estragon.
For Wagner, this endless chromatic progression implies the insatiable character of romantic love, but Pynchon elaborates it into an image of metaphysical estrangement. I believe the fact that the word Liebestod never appears in this book is a minor joke.
Music and its meaning is obviously of interest to Pynchon. One of my favorites of several ongoing philosophical arguments in the book is the debate between Gustav Kerl and Säure on music. Kerl argues that the new “atonal” style of Schoenberg and his disciples is the future of music, while Säure unapologetically argues for the sentimental music of the 19th century. In this scene, they wrangle over the Row, which is the basic compositional unit for Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition:
“You’re caught in tonality,” screams Gustav. “Trapped. Tonality is a game. All of them are. You’re too old. You’ll never move beyond the game, to the Row. The Row is enlightenment.”
“The Row is a game too.” Säure sits grinning with an ivory spoon, shoveling incredible piles of cocaine into his nose[..].. “Sound is a game, if you’re capable of moving that far, you adenoidal closet-visionary. That’s why I listen to Spohr, Rossini, Spontini, I’m choosing my game, one full of light and kindness. You’re stuck with that stratosphere stuff and rationalize its dullness away by calling it ‘enlightenment.’ You don’t know what enlightenment is, Kerl, you’re blinder than I am.”
This struggle between the human and the abstract may tell us something about a divide within the author. This book is, after all, extremely abstruse, and the very names of its characters often calculated to keep us at a distance in high Brechtian mode. Characters often evidence little interiority or personality and strike me as little more than pieces on a great board, or ciphers for theories or ideas.
Yet the interiority that Pynchon denies to his characters is evident in the voice of the novel itself, and may be sensed in how it focuses its attention. Gravity’s Rainbow often betrays its author’s deep concern with the real human cost of bad ideas, evidenced by numerous lacerating jibes at war, such as “Don’t forget the real business of War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals.”
One can only read real human feeling in such bitterness – a sentiment that the author clearly goes to considerable lengths bury in his book, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.
Although Gravity’s Rainbow is obviously a work of genius, in many important respects it is not a book that I enjoyed reading or would lightly recommend. It pointedly and continually poses deep aesthetic and interpretive challenges to the reader, and not always in a manner I found rewarding or enjoyable.
Indeed, it is often unpleasant. Like a bad acid trip, the book inventories the repressed contents of the European collective unconscious at punishing length, with numerous hateful scenes of debauchery and vulgarity that to me were exceedingly tedious – but not as tedious as the witless lyrics that fill this book in inexplicable songs that crop up repeatedly, caricatures of something that I think never existed. Here is one of the first:
Colder than he nipples on a witch’s tit!
Colder than a bucket of penguin shit!
Colder than the hairs of a polar bear’s ass!
Colder than the frost on a champagne glass!
The point of these hateful songs is beyond quite me.
Pynchon revels in obscenity, and the book is crowded with long, repugnant descriptions of scatological fantasies and S&M orgies that left me equally revolted and mystified.
Perhaps these scenes serve the artist’s need to deal with the totality of humanity’s physical and psychic life in the same way that the novel Ulysses unflinchingly accompanying Leopold Bloom into the outhouse. But Joyce was concerned with people in their totality, while Pynchon’s use of the Freudian Id feels arbitrary to me – neither illuminating or amusing. To be sure, if I never see the word “cunt” in print again, it will be too soon.
Many of us are unlucky in the year of our birth, and it can be a diverting meditation to ruminate on which time one would have preferred. Perhaps one would have been happier living in Elizabethan London, rubbing elbows with bawdy playwrights and playing high-stakes political chess. Or one might have lived in Baghdad during its Golden Age, gathering in the great mosques alongside Neoplatonist philosophers and Central Asian spice merchants bound for the Tarim Basin.
When I play this idle game, I would like to have come of age in the 1920s, which saw the appearance of Ulysses, “The Waste Land,” Being and Time, To the Lighthouse, The Magic Mountain, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Bliss it would have been in that dawn to be alive, but to be young would have been very heaven!
Alas, I’m a castaway on the rocky shores of the late 20th century, having formed my worldview within the horizon of postmodernism, and I can only look back with wistful longing at the golden age that lies almost within reach. And in some sense, we are still in the wake of the great creative age of modernism, for the questions and concerns that haunt postmodernity were all well known to the modernist. It is only that the center of gravity has shifted – where the modernist was creative, the postmodernist is critical – and that is the tragedy.
I sometimes think this must have been what it was like to grow up in the time of Mannerism, so close to the Italian Renaissance, and to see the profound epiphany of Da Vinci and the theophany of Michelangelo debased into Mannerism in works like Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck.
But postmodernism is where we live, and if I doubted it before, I could doubt it no longer, having made my way through Thomas Pynchon’s novel, for it is just like the present, only more so.
I have three primary complaints about postmodernism. The first is that its fixation on a critical posture makes it reactive and alienates it from a truly generative creative impulse. It elaborates and responds, but never affirms, never becomes what Nietzsche refers to in Zarathustra as “a wheel rolling out of its own center.”
My second problem is with postmodernism’s critical engagement with epistemology and metaphysics. The central theoretical preoccupation of postmodernity is how to deal with structure and meaning in a world devoid of any transcendental basis or framework for understanding either. In my view, structure and value are not arbitrary, but emergent. That is, they arise from the interaction of elements of complex dynamic systems, and cannot be reduced to the individual elements.
The absence of a reductive or transcendental ground poses a crisis of meaning to the postmodernist, who sees values as arbitrary, historicized creations of human culture. In my view, they are not arbitrary, they follow the logic of systems. This problem was already largely solved in postmodernism’s heyday: Bertalanffy wrote General System Theory in 1968, and Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action appeared in 1982.
My third problem with postmodernism is that it’s often boring. I have never encountered a postmodern work that did not wear out its welcome, because once the rules of the game have been established, it can only continue to play, embracing its arbitrary quality as an aesthetic virtue. The reader absorbs the point, and then they’re just along for the ride while the artist pontificates like a Free Jazz soloist.
Gravity’s Rainbow would have benefited enormously from aggressive editing – I believe it would have worked far better at 400 pages than 750, and it was often tedious, repetitive, and dull.
I could imagine no more fitting testimony to Gravity’s Rainbow timeliness and success than the fact that it was literally awarded no Pulitzer Prize.
That is, the Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction unanimously voted for Gravity’s Rainbow to receive the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but their selection was vetoed by the board, and no prize was awarded that year. If you view the Pulitzer website, look for the Fiction award for 1974, and you will find nothing there.