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In the late stages of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union sent teams of scientists into newly-liberated regions of Central and Eastern Europe. Their mission was to locate German scientists known to be affiliated with that country’s efforts at developing rockets and ballistic missiles. The fragile alliance between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. – an alliance of convenience born of a common enemy – was already fracturing, and the emergence of what would come to be known as “the Cold War” was taking shape. An early and dangerous manifestation of the birth of the Cold War (and, yes, one can, and should, trace the origins of the Cold War to the period of Revolutionary Russia) was the race between post-war superpowers to develop long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying atomic weapons to the territory of the other side. German success in developing rocketry during the course of the war was evident in the number of V-1 and V-2 rockets striking Great Britain.
In his 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon, a particularly complicated individual, raised Catholic but who made that transition to agnosticism common to many so-called intellectuals, explores spirituality in an exceedingly circuitous way, linking it more to politics and greed than to any notion of a Supreme Being dispensing justice over mankind. Man, to Pynchon, lost sight of the goal with respect to virtue and the notion of an eternity spent in a higher world. At one point, Pynchon’s narrator rambles on about spirituality and about the conflict between secularism and religious orthodoxy:
“The rest of us, not chosen for enlightenment, left on the outside of Earth, at the mercy of a Gravity we have only begun to learn how to detect and measure, must go on blundering inside our front-brain faith in Kute Korrespondences, hoping that for each psi-synthetic taken from Earth’s soul there is a molecule, secular, more or less ordinary and named, over here—kicking endlessly among the plastic trivia, finding in each Deeper Significance and trying to string them all together like terms of a power series hoping to zero in on the tremendous and secret Function whose name, like the permuted names of God, cannot be spoken . . .”
Additionally, Pynchon’s scion of corporate greed, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, embodies the degradation of true spirituality by virtue of having been born to a family that built a fortune but at what cost to their souls and to the world around them. The Slothrops represent the decline of America as a moral being, and the excesses of capitalism and the enduring legacy of corporate greed have become more synonymous with “America” than the principles upon which the country was founded. As Pynchon writes early in his novel:
“Shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country’s fate. But they did not prosper … about all they did was persist.”
As the two global superpowers would proceed over decades perfecting their ballistic missile inventories, many a liberal pundit (yes, Maria, I use that word) would interpret notions of an U.S.-Soviet arms race through the prism of pseudo-intellectual Freudian psychoanalysis (in effect, larger missiles as a metaphor for penis-envy). Pynchon, however, goes farther, suggesting that capitalist influences have infiltrated religion and supplanted God with rocketry. It is not God to whom man has dedicated himself; rather, it is the catastrophic weaponry man has developed with but one purpose in mind: to destroy the guy across the ocean before he can destroy me. As he wrote in towards the end of Gravity’s Rainbow:
“But the Rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it—in combat, in runnel, on paper—it must survive heresies shining, unconfoundable . . . and heretics there will be: Gnostics who have been taken in a rush of wind and fire to chambers of the Rocket-throne . . . Kabbalists who study the Rocket as Torah, letter by letter—rivets, burner cup and brass rose, its text is theirs to permute and combine into new revelations, always unfolding . . . Manichaeans who see two Rockets, good and evil, who speak together in the sacred idiolalia of the Primal Twins (some say their names are Enzian and Blicero) of a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle.”
In contemplating Pynchon’s novel, which has been appropriately compared to Joyce’s Ulysses for length and complexity and for opportunities for interpretation, it is perhaps a good idea to keep in mind the framework in which Gravity’s Rainbow was written. Pynchon was prone to indulging in hallucinogenic substances, when he wasn’t sleeping with his friend’s wife, and admits that the process of writing of Gravity’s Rainbow was influenced by his ingestion of foreign substances. He is alleged to have told the aforementioned friend, Jules Siegel, that "I was so fucked up while I was writing it . . . that now I go back over some of those sequences and I can't figure out what I could have meant." Reading Gravity’s Rainbow, one can believe this to have been the case.
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