For the most part, I want Mesocosm to be a rambling survey of life-intensifying ideas and works of art. I generally keep it apolitical, because by and large I don’t believe political discourse is helpful.
But at this particular time in history, saying nothing about politics would be a kind of untruth. So for this week’s post, I’d like to look at February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together, a special little essay that deeply influenced my thinking. It was jointly published by Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2003. I’d like to briefly say a little bit about what it meant to me at the time, and in the light of current events.
Sometimes I think about the days and years after 9/11. All of us who lived through those times remember the grief, confusion, and the insanity of it – the long years that passed by slowly, when the evening news reported “Threat Level Amber” in a constant scroll across the bottom of the screen in an oblique reminder that the world isn’t safe. Talking heads reporting “high levels of chatter” around the holidays, and other glyphs and half-understood signs of danger.
I remember thinking that many Americans would literally rather go to war with a Muslim country than read a book on Islam. Who knew a Sunni from a Shiite? And I remember my Zen teacher despondently saying that what she found unbearable was that no one seemed to make any sense at all – you kept listening, and you never heard voices of reason. Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and the country was heading to war.
Now, more than ten years later, ideas are taken seriously in American political discourse that would have previously been regarded as madness even by the fringes of the political spectrum. And there’s a chance that in a few days time, we’ll see the election of a man preposterously unfit by any rational standard to the office of president – a man insults comedians and beauty pageant contestants in late-night Tweets, a man who openly called on Russian hackers to intercede in our election on his behalf, a man who celebrates torture, a man who will be standing trial for fraud and racketeering in a few weeks’ time, though he calls his opponent “crooked.”
The Trump phenomenon is increasingly being analyzed for its novel relationship to truth and reason, as he seems to exemplify a political ideology that is fundamentally characterized by a wholesale rejection of conventional standards of reason and evidence (see, for example, here and here). Of the countless examples within easy reach, perhaps the most illustrative case is when Trump insisted that President Obama and Hillary Clinton literally founded the Islamic State. When asked by a sympathetic radio host if he meant that Obama effectively was responsible for the creation of the Islamic State, he respond no, I meant what I said – he is the founder. From CNN’s coverage:
Trump was asked by host Hugh Hewitt about the comments Trump made Wednesday night in Florida, and Hewitt said he understood Trump to mean “that he (Obama) created the vacuum, he lost the peace.”
“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” Trump said. “I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”
At this point one is literally left wondering if he doesn’t understand what the word “founder” means, or if the basic machinery of rational thought has broken down in his mind. What could he possibly mean by such a statement? Is it possible that in some or any sense he actually believes this claim is true?
This type of rhetoric, which proceeds as if the facts of the matter are irrelevant on a basic level, is central to his campaign, with its endless stream of falsehoods and contradictions. It is a new mode of mainstream political discourse which not only lacks but rejects critical self-awareness.
In a recent interview in Die Zeit, Judith Butler offered this observation about the culture of Trump and his supporters:
Butler: Well, it is all rather unfathomable. I think there is an economic component to the support for Trump. For some of his supporters government has gotten in the way of their capacity to make a good living and to succeed financially, so they are against regulations, against government. And that can include paying taxes and workplace regulations meant to secure the health and safety of workers. They applaud the fact that Trump has not apparently paid federal taxes and they think: “Yeah, I want to be that person”.
ZEIT ONLINE: There is a lot of rage?
Butler: I think they have an enormous rage. Not just against women, not only against racial minorities or against migrants – they are thrilled that that their rage is being liberated by his public and uncensored speech. We on the left, we are apparently the superego. What Trump has managed to do, rhetorically, is to identify not just the left, but liberalism – basic American liberalism and the left – as just a bunch of censors. We are the instruments of repression and he is the vehicle for emancipation. It is a nightmare.
A friend of mine sardonically observed “Remembered the good-old days when the Left was the id and the Right was the super-ego?” All I can say is, our version of the id is a lot more fun.
In the dark days around 2003 when I was listening for a voice of reason, one of the first signs of light I found was the essay February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together. Two great European intellectuals representing philosophical positions that are, in many senses, diametrically opposed, came together to make a joint statement that articulated a shared political vision for Europe and a common set of ideals that could be used to chart the way forward.
You may find that short essay worth reading – in essence, it constitutes a reaffirmation of a European social order founded on reason and a concept of basic, universal human rights, in which disagreements are mediated by laws and procedures rather than force.
It was a surprising gesture, with Habermas being the preeminent living representative of the Kantian rationalist view of society, while Derrida represents a career-long manifold critique of the European Enlightenment and its naive construction of the rational subject. I can only conject that when push came to shove, as it did, Derrida found that he was committed to reason and fundamental rights. And though I hadn’t engaged vigorously in political philosophy before that time, I realized that I was, too.
I believe that the United States is, at its best, a society of laws, whose policies are shaped by democratic principles. Democracy depends on judgments that are fired in the collective furnace of rational discourse mediated by shared norms and values. One can and should subject every term of this formulation to critique, but my honest belief is that this is truly the best hope for the country and for the world, and the aberrations and errors made by this country in its checkered past occur, by and large, insofar as we deviate from that model.
Tuesday is the most important election I’ve seen in my lifetime – perhaps more important to me personally and to the world than the Brexit referendum which derailed my in-motion plans to move to London. Tuesday’s election is no less than a referendum on the vision of America as a society in which collective action is coordinated by rational discourse, and which affirms certain fundamental rights owed to every individual on the planet, whatever their country, genealogy, or religion.
We have a choice on Tuesday between a candidate who fundamentally rejects the role of critical reason and the universality of human rights, and one who does not. That is, in fact, no choice at all. If you live in the United States, please vote.
By general agreement, this has been a difficult year. In the United States, the public mood is stoked to the point of conflagration by the ceaseless cacophony of toxic and increasingly unbearable public discourse surrounding our presidential election. Conflict in the Middle East spirals out of control, driving millions of refugees into an unprepared Europe, with the shock withdrawal of the UK from the EU as one result, and a series of grisly terrorist attacks another.
In these bitter times, it’s perhaps all the more striking that three of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century have offered uncanny and profound meditations on mortality in the most personal terms: Leonard Cohen with You Want it Darker, David Bowie with Black Star, and Nick Cave with the gut-wrenching Skeleton Tree.
It is the latter album that concerns me in this post, and particularly the opening song “Jesus Alone,” which I find to be one of the most beautiful songs that artist has created, despite its deep wellspring of darkness. This song in particular represents the working-through of the terrible loss of Cave’s son Arthur, who died last year in a tragic accident at the age of fifteen.
The opening words cloak the events in a cloud of images, evoking Arthur’s fall from a seaside cliff in Ovingdean Gap:
You fell from the sky
Crash landed in a field
Near the river Adur
Flowers spring from the ground
Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers
In a hole beneath the bridge
She convalesce, she fashioned masks of clay and twigs
You cried beneath the dripping trees
Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid
With my voice
I am calling you
I’ve rarely heard Jesus evoked with such power as the bestower of mercy upon lost and grieving hearts.
John Yeats, painter, and father of the great Irish poet William Butler, once said that a work of art is the public act of a solitary man. In Skeleton Tree, Cave has gone into the most solitary darkness of his grief and wrestled out of it an experience that explodes with light and feeling. He has pushed his entire creative idiom into new reaches with a deeply affecting new use of music, which unobtrusively conveys the emotional landscape in which his thoughts and prayers have been articulated. I don’t know if any musician since Wagner has expressed the agony of Schopenhauer’s blind, tormented will with such immediacy.
That Nick Cave is an artist of the deepest religious sensitivity has been evident for many years – no one, for example, who heard “Patripassian,” his collaboration with Current 93, could doubt it.
Skeleton Tree is one of the great works of elegy of modern times. It puts me in mind of another masterpiece of the genre, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy. I leave you with a few stanzas from “Gone”, from that splendid volume:
And now in spite of sorrow unending, the sky is more
Beautiful than it’s ever been.
Blue and night-blue above a string of pale April yellow
Which stands in for incandescent clarity,
Which is heard as if only.
And then not like a dropped curtain
But evening dark and darker
Until a hand is no longer a hand
And yellow goes green-yellow, then narrows to nothing.
And pace is everything. The slow effacement
Of the window through which she looks
And the mirror as far as away
Now as a star and we are
Both gone. Both from each other
And from the myth we were.
This wonderful wine bowl from the mid-sixth-century BCE shows Dionysus as the Lord of Life, the originary matrix from which life springs. He is nestled in the heart of the Tree of Life, or flanked by a symmetrical pair of trees or vines, which are ornamented by a grasshopper, birds, and a serpent (visible as a meandering line under the crown of the left trunk).
Dionysus, or Bacchus, is a complex divinity associated with transgression and the mediation of opposites, as well as ecstasy, frenzy, and epiphany. The legendary rites associated with his worship deal in surrender to enthusiasm and the unconscious.
An Orphic hymn to Dionysus, beautifully translated by Athanassakis and Wolkow in their The Orphic Hymns, reads as follows:
I call upon loud-roaring,
primeval, two-natured lord,
savage, ineffable, secretive,
two-horned and two-shaped,
warlike, howling, pure.
You take raw flesh in triennial feasts,
wrapped in foliage, decked with grape clusters,
immortal god sired by Zeus
when he mated with Persephone
in unspeakable union.
Hearken to my voice, O blessed one,
you and your fair-girdled nurses,
breathe on me in a spirit of perfect kindness.
Dionysus was worshiped by mystery cults in which worshipers identified his divine nature with themselves. Dionysus, alone of the Greek gods, took possession of revelers during their rites – this practice bequeathed us the English word enthusiasm, derived from the Greek enthousiasmos, meaning “possessed by a god.”
Images of Dionysus made popular adornments for the interior of wine bowls such as this. The image would have become visible as wine was drained throughout the course of a symposium. It’s truly an ingenious use of imagery – as intoxication dawned, it was amplified into its cosmic sense by the gradual epiphany of the deity.
In its depths, this epiphany is of a type with the core mythological image of deity as the ultimate ground of life and consciousness, antecedent to the pairs of opposites by which phenomenal reality is always structured by conceptual awareness. So we have the deity residing within the heart of life itself, a Tree of Life branching forth into duality.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche interpreted the character of Dionysian consciousness as the creative impulse which transcends the principium individuationis, the individuating principle that divides and orders experience into a sensible collection of distinct impressions and ideas. Prior that cognitive act of differentiation and ordering lies a buzzing, blooming confusion that is ineffable, but closer to the heart of life. The creative overflow of the Dionysian frenzy and rupture violates boundaries, and exposes an underlying unity between consciousness and nature.
No doubt Dylan Thomas had something like this in mind when wrote:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
In her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, which remains one of the most thought-provoking and insightful essays on ancient Greek religious culture, Jane Ellen Harrison noted the lack of religious feeling and awe that attended the Olympian Gods in the post-Homeric world of classical Athenian Greece, in the time of Pericles and the great tragedians.
As man grew more civilized, his image, mirrored in the gods, grew more beautiful and pari passu the worship he offered to these gods advanced from ‘aversion’ to ‘tendance’. But all along we have been conscious that something was lacking, that even these exquisite presentations of the Nymphs and the Graces, the Mother and the Daughter, are really rather human than divine, and their ritual, whether of ignorant and cruel ‘aversion’ or of the genial ‘tendance,’ was scarcely in our sense religious. These perfect Olympians and even those gracious Earth-goddesses are not really Lords over man’s life who made them, they are not even ghosts to beckon and threaten, they are lovely dreams, they are the playthings of his happy childhood, and when full-grown he comes to face realities, from kindly sentiment he lets them lie unburied in the lumber-rooms of this life.
Just when Apollo, Artemis, Athene, nay even Zeus himself, were losing touch with life and reality, fading and dying of their own luminous perfection, there came into Greece a new religious impulse, an impulse really religious, the mysticism that is embodied for us in the two names of Dionysus and Orpheus. (363-4).
There are two observations here, one historical and one psychological. The historical claim, which goes back to Herodotus, is that Dionysus was a late arrival who entered the Greek cultural landscape from outside, perhaps from Egypt, where his worship resembles the cult of Osiris (Histories, 2.81), or Thrace (Histories, 5.7). We must reject this hypothesis, for we now know that Dionysus was attested in Bronze Age Linear B tablets from Pylos. His cult worship may have been practiced in Greece and Minoan Crete as early as 1500 BCE (see, for example, Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion, 161 ff.).
The psychological observation remains persuasive. The classical Greek mind may have venerated the Homeric deities, but it regarded the mystery cults of Dionysus with the proper sense of awe – the mysterium tremendum of Rudolf Otto – that characterizes a genuine and deeply-felt religious experience.
The symbolism in this painted vase is of great interest to the comparativist. Writing of the cosmic tree in his classic study of Shamanism, Mircea Eliade observes the wide distribution of the Tree of Life motif, and especially of the importance of the cosmological tree associated with the eagle and the snake, which is found throughout central and northern Asia, and may ultimately derive from the Orient (Shamanism; Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, pp. 272-3).
Dionysus is strongly associated with the bull – see, for example, the Orphic Hymn quoted above. The worship of mystery gods associated with epiphany, as well as with the serpent and the tree, is widely known throughout Asia, the Near East, and the Mediterranean of the Bronze and Iron Age.
For example, Dionysus has frequently been compared to the Hindu god Shiva, the great yogi deity frequently paired with Nandi the bull, his yana or mount. Shiva is likewise associated with the bull, the moon, the serpent, and the recognition of one’s own consciousness as the non-dual ground of life.
In a previous post we looked at an interesting depiction of Shiva as a uniting sign who mediated pairs of opposites, and who was figured as the base of the cosmic tree – in that case, the bodhi tree, the tree of illumination under which the Buddha sat when he awoke to his own cosmic Buddha consciousness.
These related sets of symbols begin to form clusters of associations that we can recognize. We see a set of deities linked to the bull, the cosmic tree, and the non-dual ground from which life and death emerge.
That these images were formulated in a common geographical zone of trade, conquest, and cultural exchange cannot be overlooked. These two panels show below, for example, are drawn from a superb painted terracotta from Bactria in the third century CE, now at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. We see Zeus on the left, and Shiva on the right.
In looking at the Lord of Life associated with epiphany and the cosmic tree, we would of course be remiss in neglecting the obvious influence of all this on Christianity. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, written in the first century CE, Jesus clearly occupies the comparable role of an initiatory figure who directs his disciples to recognize their own divinity. Take, for example:
Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will proceed you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you.
“When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” (Gospel of Thomas 3-4, from The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, Meyer et al., 2007).
The teachings of Jesus as presented by Thomas, so Indian in religious character, probably deserve their own post at some point. In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, we are in fact told that Thomas traveled to India and taught there. Not only that, but when Portuguese missionaries traveled to India in the 16th century, they discovered to their amazement a native Christian tradition there, and its representatives claimed it was established by Thomas. The San Thome Basilica was built over the traditional tomb of Thomas in Chennai, and may be visited to this day.
Elaine Pagels makes a fascinating argument that the Gospel of John was largely a polemic against the Gospel of Thomas, and was highly successful in excluding it from the canon. John, after all, is the only gospel to include the story of “doubting Thomas,” which appears to be a caricature of the Thomistic doctrine that individuals can have direct experience of divinity, unmediated by Christ. Hence Doubting Thomas had to see Christ’s wounds for himself, in order to believe.
Within the canonical gospels, it is almost too obvious to point out that the Cross is the Tree of Life from which springs forth the wine of eternal life. In John 15 we have “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
I was recently reading Pascal Bonafoux’s excellent biographical sketch of Van Gogh when I came across this arresting line, drawn from one of the artist’s letters: “Painting harnesses infinity.”
The line stuck with me as I worked my way through Taschen’s two-volume Van Gogh and reviewed most of his surviving work. These three words seemed to epitomize his entire passion and endeavor as an artist – to render a vision of infinity in the everyday by the careful, controlled amplification of sensual experience.
Whether painting a chair, a pair of shoes, or a sunflower, he could see and show us what it is that is alive in that sunflower, shoe, or chair, and in ourselves.
William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
I’m the kind of person who is incapable of reading any fewer than four books at any one time. It’s a habit I picked up in college, and I’ve never lost it – the rewards are too great. I’ve learned to expect unforeseen synergies and reflections that echo across time and space, unifying disparate domains of inquiry into a single insight. It’s what comes of comparative study.
So I wasn’t surprised when I moved from Van Gogh to Eternity’s Sunrise, Leo Damrosch’s outstanding new biographical study of William Blake, to find precisely those resonances. I could imagine no keener or more precise gloss on the function of Van Gogh’s art than Blake’s poetry.
Take these lines from his early work There is No Natural Religion:
Man’s Perceptions are not bounded by Organs of Perception; he perceives more than Sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.
Reason, or the Ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
The Bounded is loathed by its possessor. The same dull round, even of a Universe, would soon become a Mill with complicated wheels.
If the Many become the same as the Few, when possess’d, ‘More! More!’ is the cry of a mistaken soul: less than All cannot satisfy Man.
If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, Despair must be his Eternal lot.
The Desire of Man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite, and himself Infinite.
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.
God becomes as we are, that we may be as He is.
Van Gogh helps us to see the infinite in all things.
This morning I was out in Redwood Shores in California and saw this landscape – the kind of view I normally wouldn’t think twice about.
I couldn’t help but see the cypress trees and fields of Van Gogh’s Arles.
“I do my best,” he wrote to his brother Theo. “I draw, not to annoy people, but to amuse them, or to make them see things that are worth observing and that not everybody knows.”
I destroy the drawers of the brain, and those of social organization: to sow demoralisation everywhere, and throw heaven’s hand into hell, hell’s eyes into heaven, to reinstate the fertile wheel of a universal circus in the Powers of reality, and the fantasy of every individual. – Dada Manifesto, Tristan Tzara
Sometimes you get lucky, walking into a museum. It’s one of the best reasons for museum-going – the opportunity to chance upon something marvelous and unexpected, like the time I happened upon a huge retrospective of Bill Viola’s artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago. I stopped in between trains on a cross-country journey, and my life was unexpectedly changed.
I had a similar experience, stumbling into a gallery of photomontage works by the Dadaist political artist John Heartfield at the Tate Modern in London in 2011.
Imagine having the courage to create a piece like this in 1935, while hiding for your life from the Gestapo:
“Also a Propaganda Minister” proclaims this leering montage of Hitler imploring a coquettish Goebbels, looking like two figures at a high school dance. The caption below reads “Hitler: ‘Goebbels, Goebbels, give me my millions back!”
There is so much scorn in this work, one can easily see why Heartfield was number five on the Gestapo’s most wanted list in Czechoslovakia.
To me this work is like the sol niger of the medieval alchemist – the black sun epitomizing the Great Work, embodying the transmutation of base matter into spirit. The brilliance of its humor is directly proportional to the ponderous darkness of its subject, and its defiance sounds a clarion call to retain one’s own character, and one’s own sense of life, even in the face of crushing forces of silence. It’s a heroic gesture.
The son of a socialist father and activist mother, Helmut Herzfeld was born in Schmargendorf, near Berlin. In a characteristic display of international solidarity and contempt for prevailing political sentiments, he changed his name to John Heartfield at the height of World War I in 1916. The following year he joined the Berlin Dada club, and for the next 15 years he worked as an artist, collaborating with luminaries such as Bertolt Brecht.
After the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the Nazis came to his apartment to arrest him on Good Friday. He escaped by leaping from his balcony and hiding in a trash bin. He fled to Czechoslovakia, then to London, returning to East Germany in 1950 and remaining there until his death in 1968.
This 1934 piece reads “As in the Middle Ages … so in the Third Reich!”
This week I want to take a quick look at a beautiful mask from the remarkable collection of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver. If you ever find yourself in the area, it is well worth making the trip – their collection of art of the Pacific Northwest will leave you gaping in wonder and disbelief.
The Yup’ik are an Eskimo people native to southwest Alaska, and their wonderful tradition of wooden mask-making has been attested by anthropologists for more than a century.
What we have here is a human face with a toothy mouth turned down in a frown. Two concentric loops project forward and enclose the face, and the whole is set squarely in the center of the body of a deer. Decorative elements radiate out from the center, including feathers, several carved fish, a wooden hand, and a lower leg with foot. Several of the feathers are capped with wooden pegs.
Yup’ik masks have been used in a variety of secular and religious contexts, including preparation for hunt, and shamanic dances held during the long, dark winter months. For more on masked shamanic dances in the Pacific Northwest, see Dancing at Time Zero.
According to the sources I have reviewed, many elements of this mask are common, such as the toothy down-turned mouth, the radial bands, and the very restrained use of colored paint. But the individual meaning of these elements varies substantially depending on the use to which the mask was put by its creator. They sometimes express elements of a myth that were recounted, or they may have a ceremonial meaning tied to a petitionary end, such as the desire for a good hunt.
Since we have no context or provenance for this piece, we can only speculate about its meaning. What do you see in this piece? It might be fun to formulate your own ideas before I share some of my thoughts.
My own provisional interpretation finds great significance in the placement of the face, the center of awareness and the personal consciousness, in the middle of the concentric bands, from which various signs of life project.
The circle, evocative of the endless path of the stars and the heavens, is associated with the cosmic cycle in many cultures – take, for example, the ouroboros symbol we looked at in our last piece on Gravity’s Rainbow. The circle conveys the recurring temporal round of the seasons, evocative of the horizon that rings around us, open to the sky.
So reading from the center outwards, we have the individual ego at the heart of the cycle, and set in the heart of a food animal (deer), projecting symbols of human activity (feet, hands), then more food animals (fish). In this I see the individual in the round of life and death found in the mythology of many hunting cultures, uniting the dual culture of life-giving and life-taking in the uniting sign of a single circle.
It reminds me in fact of a classic Tibetan motif in their religious painted scrolls or thangkas, called the bhavacakra, or wheel of existence:
In this motif we have the endless cycle of death and rebirth symbolized in a series of concentric zones subdivided into bands by similar radiating lines. At the center of the cycle is the driving force of the endless cycle of reincarnation as understood by Buddhism, represented pictorially by the snake, the pig, and cock, which represent the three root afflictions of anger, ignorance, and attachment, respectively.
We also see transmigrating souls moving up and down in the wheel, the six realms of existence, and the twelve links of dependent arising, and the whole is encircled by Yama, the Lord of Death, who encompasses the transience of all that exists within his realm.
Both the mask and the thangka depict the projection of the cosmos out from the center of the ego in a round of birth and death, with the individual firmly embedded within it.
But if a symbolic resonance may be detected, the specifics of the mask remain nonetheless obscure. It would be plausible to interpret it as a mask related to a ceremony for the hunt, or a mask expressive of a human transformation into a meat animal, possibly as part of an etiological myth explaining why humans have the right to hunt their pray. Both would be consistent with Yup’ik traditions.
- Agayuliyararput: Our Way of Making Prayer
- Anaywalt PR. Shamanic Regalia in the Far North. Thames and Hudson. 2014.
“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.