Thomas Pynchon

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Lawrence C. Wolfley (essay date October 1977)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12364

SOURCE: Wolfley, Lawrence C. “Repression's Rainbow: The Presence of Norman O. Brown in Pynchon's Big Novel.” PMLA 92, no. 5 (October 1977): 873-89.

[In the following essay, Wolfley examines the thematic structure of Gravity's Rainbow.]

Since its publication in 1973, Gravity's Rainbow,1 by Thomas Pynchon, has attained a cult following, which continues to grow. There is even a current vogue of inflicting its tortured 760 word-crammed pages on innocent undergraduates. But, for all this interest, the body of admiring commentary that has sprung up around the novel has so far failed to develop any coherent approach to its central meanings. This essay offers a usable handle on the novel's ideas by demonstrating Pynchon's pervasive indebtedness to the school of psychoanalytic culture criticism best exhibited in the two major works of Norman O. Brown—Life against Death and Love's Body.2 I want to caution, however, that this essay does not convey much of the complex texture of GR [Gravity's Rainbow], particularly of the many subtle ways the book parodies and subverts certain received notions about the nature and function of literature itself. I am concerned primarily with thematic structure, rather than with esthetic surface, where the moment-to-moment reading experience lies. Other paths should and will be taken with this novel. But my purpose will be served if this essay helps a few of my readers not just to start but to finish a novel that bids well to stand as one of the greatest of our time.


The structure of GR is episodic, with vignettes from multiple plot lines intertwining like the molecules of a dozen covalent chemicals dumped together at once. As indicated by the stylized square film-projector sprocket holes used to divide the chapters, Pynchon's chosen artistic metaphor is the novel as movie; and, while the idea of the omniscient narrator as camera eye has long been cliché, Pynchon's handling of the device is consistently fresh and imaginative. GR is basically a takeoff on the historical-novel genre, as processed by the makers of B-grade movies about, and of, the period of World War II. The book bears out McLuhan's assertion that the content of any medium is another medium, but Pynchon has turned on its head McLuhan's observation that “The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera.”3 For the content of the novel GR is a hypothetical movie—a melodramatic and occasionally musical rendition of a number of stories about World War II, themselves perhaps drawn from novels. (We find at the end of the book that we, Pynchon's readers, have been watching this movie in the Orpheus Theatre in Los Angeles.) But this series of Chinese boxes has serious intellectual content. GR constitutes a revisionist analysis of a turning point in contemporary history: the resolution of the European power struggle and the transition to the postwar balance of terror and the on-again-off-again cold war that we still live with.

Like Pynchon's two previous novels, V. and The Crying of Lot 49, the plot of GR takes the form of a quest attended by numerous interlocking conspiracies. As before, narrative “plot” is continuous with conspiratorial “plot.” The central character, Tyrone Slothrop, is a familiar sort of American antihero and Everyman: schlemiel and victim, he is nevertheless providentially protected. His conditioning as an infant by onetime behaviorist Laszlo Jamf—who went on to develop a mysterious plastic capable of evoking erotic responses in human beings—results in a correlation, during his tenure as an intelligence officer in the London of the blitz, between the locations of his sexual adventures and...

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the actual rocket strikes. This phenomenon gains the obsessive interest of Edward Pointsman, a master behaviorist and leader of the research group known as The White Visitation, who (with funds provided by corporate authorities who think Slothrop can be used to locate a corps of black rocket troops they want to destroy) sends Slothrop into the “Zone” of recently defeated Germany to search for a special rocket equipped with Jamf's plastic. Pavlovian Pointsman wants a perfect test case that will prove once and for all “the stone determinacy of everything, of every soul” (p. 86). Slothrop willingly quests for the unique rocket, No. 00000, believing that its secret device (the Schwarzgerät—which Slothrop never learns is actually a human being shrouded with Jamf's plastic, Imipolex G) will help him understand why and how he was originally conditioned and what it means. Like all metaphorical Grail seekers, he is really after some special understanding of himself, of his nature and situation, that will allow him to live and act in the world. Associated with Slothrop's quest are several major subplots, including the stories of (1) the perversely romantic Major Weissmann (SS code name Blicero), who develops and fires Rocket No. 00000, with his passive lover, Gottfried, dressed in white lace and surrounded with Imipolex G, in the nose cone; (2) the engineer Pökler, whose daughter Blicero keeps hostage in return for his work on the special rocket; (3) the half-Herero, half-Russian Enzian, who leads the black rocket troops and who in his African youth was the lover and protégé of Blicero; and (4) the career Communist Tchitcherine, Russian half brother of Enzian, ostensibly working for Soviet Intelligence but actually seeking personal revenge on Enzian for what he perceives as the career-ruining shame of having a black half brother.4

Movie techniques pervade even the finest details of Pynchon's narrative presentation. For the movie audience the mere sequence of scenes is sufficient; if we fail to catch the connections favored by the director, we invent others equally adequate to our needs. Thus, a scene in GR typically plunges us into a chaos of human appearances and material appurtenances objectively described, and we perforce read on, foundering haphazardly toward an understanding of the present action—of what is simply going on. Pynchon composes, it would seem, by first projecting an imagined scene on the screen of his mind and then transcribing what he has observed according to the unmediated sequence of raw perception. Moreover, the main significance of hardly anything of importance is ever revealed at first mention. As a result, it is virtually impossible to assimilate the book in a single reading. GR is designedly difficult to read because Pynchon is determined to have the manner of his fiction mirror the complexity of contemporary existence.5

Furthermore, Pynchon's view is “phenomenological,” in the sense that official pronouncements and the interpretations of establishment historians are meaningless in the face of the reality of the event, the immediate impact on the human organism and its hope for a viable future. We are being told not to try to read from cause to effect; we should start with the human reality of the effect and read back from that to the significance of the event. The determining factor in Pynchon's allegory of the human condition is the unholy alliance that has developed between, on the one hand, media, technology, and the inanimate in general and, on the other hand, the will to power of those who control the dominant commercial and bureaucratic structures. It is suggested that at some point during World War II Western culture (like that atomic pile at the University of Chicago) reached a “critical mass” (see p. 539) that evoked revolutionary changes in the nature of experience. The egalitarian, pop-culture esthetic of GR has disturbed many readers. But this is precisely the relevance of Pynchon: that, more successfully than anyone else to date, he has assimilated into an essentially novelistic sensibility the pertinence of those powerful antiliterary modes and tendencies that presently threaten to swamp a large part of the humanistic tradition. In so doing he has to some extent tamed them and made them accessible to that community of the strictly literate that yet remains. GR, which has been called “the most important novel to be published in English in the past thirty years,”6 has the potential to give the novel genre a new lease on life. Pynchon's spirit of experimentation (with recent extraliterary modes and with older literary conventions) is liberating, and the example of his novel returns the genre to its original concerns with social responsibility and the human comedy. His democratic attitude toward all his materials (which together constitute a very large world indeed) means that, more than ever, nothing need be excluded from the novelist's repertoire.


From the beginning Pynchon's writing has been haunted by an awareness of T. S. Eliot's fundamental point—that a totally secular culture is absurd and unworkable. Having killed all the old gods, we turn and, out of the strangest materials, reify new and more terrible gods. The one line in GR that could serve as motto for all the rest occurs in Walter Rathenau's lecture (through the lips of medium Peter Sachsa, from the other side of the Zero) to the gathered “corporate Nazi crowd.” “All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic” (p. 167). Western history is actually propelled by savage atavisms more deadly than those obtaining in Darkest Africa, and yet we persist in rationalizing our behavior and giving “explanations” for the horrors that surround us. It is no wonder that Pynchon writes as one surrounded by madmen. That we tolerate the intolerable is a source of constant amazement to him, and out of that sense of wonder he writes.

Clearly GR is as much about the period during which it was written as it is about 1944-45. “Between two station-marks, yellow crayon through the years of grease and passage, 1966 and 1971, I tasted my first blood” (p. 739). This novel is Pynchon's version of Why Are We in Vietnam? But, even more than the Vietnam debacle, this novel is the etiology of the Cold War and the nuclear balance of terror, as the conclusion (in which an atomic warhead is surrealistically delivered on us by rocket in Los Angeles) makes explicit. Indeed, in innumerable ways GR reads like a historical product of the late fifties, when the Cold War was most intense. One reason for this is that Pynchon's sensibility was formed in the late fifties at Cornell and around Greenwich Village. A further reason is that this period produced the book that provides a conceptual framework into which the literary content of a fiction such as GR can be subsumed. In the Introduction to Life against Death Brown anticipates the thrust of his entire argument and adumbrates the deepest fears of the fifties intellectual:

… it begins to be apparent that mankind, in all its restless striving and progress, has no idea of what it really wants. Freud was right: our real desires are unconscious. It also begins to be apparent that mankind, unconscious of its real desires and therefore unable to obtain satisfaction, is hostile to life and ready to destroy itself. Freud was right in positing a death instinct, and the development of weapons of destruction makes our present dilemma plain: we either come to terms with our unconscious instincts and drives—with life and with death—or else we surely die.

(LAD [Life against Death], p. x)

Brown begins with the Freudian postulate that the essence of Homo sapiens is repression. Individual man represses himself in the name of deferred gratifications and, through the institutions of society, collaborates in a condition of general repression. Repression of the self precedes social repression. Human consciousness, through which man is able to stand back and rationally impose on himself a painful self-denial, is a form of disease, since the division of the self into subjective and objective violates the organic unity with nature experienced by every other animal. “We are all therefore neurotic” (LAD, p. 6). Further, the whole of human “culture”—including language, religion, and all the arts and sciences—emerges in this view as a product of the universal neurosis. Unable to accept on the instinctual level the denials of rational consciousness, man attempts to compensate through sublimations, and sublimations accumulated over time lead to “civilization” and the full panoply of cultural artifacts. These increasing refinements evoke the illusion of linear sequence and development that we think of as history. Brown's concept of history is extremely complex. Ultimately he sees history as the result of an unwillingness to die, and therefore an inability to live, an inability to live in and for the body and be satisfied with just being here.

History is also viewed as the product in human praxis of the gap between what men tell themselves that they want and what unconsciously they really want. Brown further supplements his theory of “the psychoanalytical meaning of history” with Mircea Eliade's distinction between cyclical time (proper to tribal societies) and linear time (proper to detribalized Western man). Great stress is laid on the conclusion of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents: unless mankind finds a way out of the snowballing accumulations of repression and attending guilt, “the sense of guilt may swell to a magnitude that individuals can hardly support” (quoted in LAD, p. 15). That is, unless an alternative path can be found, the whole structure of human culture will most likely undergo a catastrophic collapse. It is inevitable that there someday be an end to the Western mode of history making. As an alternative Brown would prefer, as he puts it in the final chapter of LAD, “the abolition of repression.” But he has the courage to face and state directly his knowledge that “the malignant death instinct can unleash those hydrogen bombs” (LAD, p. 307).

Now it must be stressed that, Frederick Crews notwithstanding,7 the scientific validity of Brown's analysis is not at issue: experimental verification of Brown's postulates will never be forthcoming, nor does it matter. LAD articulates to perfection a mind-set that has been popular among a certain class of alienated American intellectuals since the twenties, and Brown is simply the most provocative member of a broad movement (exemplified in its activist form by Wilhelm Reich and his legion of present-day disciples). With the current reaction against sixties radicalism, Brown has become rather unfashionable, and his presence in contemporary culture criticism shows signs of fading. Yet it should be apparent that GR, a sixties novel born late, is shot through with the particular style of Freudian thinking represented by Brown. The issue here is the use Pynchon made of those ideas identified preeminently with Brown.

In V. we recognize the influence of Henry Adams' dark meditations on the second law of thermodynamics. But entropy is naturally conceived as a sort of straight-line decline toward inanition, leading to a gradual cessation of all the motions of life. In GR Pynchon reverses his theme but picks up another of Adams' concerns, the acceleration of history, and his metaphysical speculations now center on the far more violent implications of gravitational pull—the exponential acceleration of falling at thirty-two feet per second per second. Gravity, not entropy, applies to a world that will most likely end with a bang, not a whimper. And, within the structure of Pynchon's social speculations, gravity in the macrocosm corresponds to the mechanism of repression in the little world of man, the microcosm. Lyle Bland “imagines that he has been journeying underneath history: that history is Earth's mind, and that there are layers, set very deep, layers of history analogous to layers of coal and oil in Earth's body” (p. 589). He discovers “it's hard to get over the wonder of finding that Earth is a living critter. … To find that Gravity, taken so for granted, is really something eerie, Messianic, extrasensory in Earth's mindbody …” (p. 590; second ellipsis Pynchon's). At one point Nora Dodson-Truck, a mysterious psychic with a decidedly “heavy” personality, makes an amazing discovery: “In recent weeks, in true messianic style, it has come clear to her that her real identity is, literally, the Force of Gravity. I am Gravity, I am That against which the Rocket must struggle, to which the prehistoric wastes submit and are transmuted to the very substance of History …” (p. 639; ellipsis Pynchon's). And, when we recall that her husband, Sir Stephen, is one of the most notably “repressed” figures in the novel (his sexual inadequacy is a direct result of his conscious acceptance of his role as a mere pawn of the higher authorities—see pp. 215-16), the connection becomes obvious: repression gives us individuality and culture, a collective history, as gravity gives the earth form and configuration. Physics provides the metaphor for metaphysics, and for social theory as well. Gravity is the ultimate metaphor in the novel for the human repression that is its theme.8

At the limit of Brown's analysis there are only two alternatives, each achieving through different means the same end: the disappearance of man and the abolition of human history. Either we allow the accumulation of guilt to draw us into racial suicide (most likely through nuclear weapons), or we abolish repression and allow our bodies to enter into a resurrected state of polymorphously perverse erotic being, without guilt and also without what we now think of as “consciousness.” The psychological and political obstacles to the latter alternative are so great that we seem condemned to the former. Brown and Pynchon, however, not only mutually fear the fiery consummation of the world but, paradoxically, seem simultaneously to long for it. “To bring this world to an end: the consummation devoutly to be wished, the final judgment” (LB [Love's Body], p. 232)—this I take to be one meaning of Pynchon's title. God sent the rainbow to Noah as a promise that the world would never again be destroyed by flood, but made no promise excluding fire, and Revelations suggests that fire will indeed be the mode of the final judgment. Brown's chapter on “Fire” in LB contains many potent suggestions: “Set fire to the sacrifice. … The real prayer is to see this world go up in flames.” “To heal, to cauterize. Therapy as apocalypse, conflagration; error burned up. Not catharsis but cruelty” (LB, p. 177). Brown's outlook matches the brutality of Pynchon's vision. Further on, Brown cites Pasternak to the effect that “art has two constant, two unending concerns: it always meditates on death and thus always creates life. All great, genuine art resembles and continues the Revelation of St. John” (LB, pp. 206-07).

Although references to our special fire, the atomic bomb, are few in GR, they resonate powerfully. Slothrop is given a revelation of the bomb sitting at a curb staring at a scrap of newspaper headline that proclaims: MB DRO / ROSHI; and the accompanying wirephoto is analyzed in genital terms. The narrator's sadness over the event is indicated in the paragraph prefacing Slothrop's revelation: “At least one moment of passage, one it will hurt to lose, ought to be found for every street now indifferently gray with commerce, with war, with repression …” (p. 693; ellipsis Pynchon's). Brown would prefer, like all of us, that the fire were God's, not man's; figurative, not literal: “To find the true fire … Hiroshima mon amour. Save us from the literal fire. The literal-minded, the idolaters, receive the literal fire. Each man suffers his own fire” (LB, p. 182). Pynchon has it both ways. On the final page of GR the fire is not only man's thermonuclear self-destruction but at the same time the fire of God's wrath, manifested as that hand pointing down from the clouds to zap us for our sins. Each civilization, like each man, suffers its own fire. In this connection, I think it would be simplistic to view the conclusion of GR as merely a warning, along the lines of science-fictional dystopias. Pynchon surely sympathizes with the exhausted Blicero, who tells Gottfried (God's Peace): “I want to break out—to leave this cycle of infection and death” (p. 724).

Naturally the other alternative, the abolition of repression, also attracts Pynchon, and it receives due consideration in the rather contrived scene in which Thanatz tells Ludwig that “a little S and M never hurt anybody.”

“Who said that?”

“Sigmund Freud. How do I know? But why are we taught to feel reflexive shame whenever the subject comes up? Why will the Structure allow every other kind of sexual behavior but that one? Because submission and dominance are resources it needs for its very survival. They cannot be wasted in private sex. In any kind of sex. It needs our submission so that it may remain in power. It needs our lusts after dominance so that it can co-opt us into its own power game. There is no joy in it, only power. I tell you, if S and M could be established universally, at the family level, the State would wither away.”

(p. 737)

Besides being a nice jab at Marxism, whose contemporary states show no sign of withering away, this constitutes a perfectly serious endorsement of the “polymorphously perverse” body, free of repressions both inner and outer. If childhood were released of all adult-imposed sexual inhibitions, the distortions evolving from what Brown calls “the peculiar prolongation of infancy in the human species” (LAD, p. 28) might indeed be counteracted. (But, however serious Pynchon may be about Thanatz' “Sadoanarchism,” the speech in context is compromised by the humor of Thanatz' motive, and by everything we know about him as a character—his name is an allusion to Thanatos, the Freudian term for the death instinct.)

As Thanatz' vague reference to “the Structure” indicates, Pynchon throughout GR plays on our wonderment over who or what really exercises power (that is, enforces social repression) in the world, and how. Hence the rhetorical trick of capitalizing third-person plural pronouns. Something about our world induces a paranoid sense that it is not ourselves who control our destinies; therefore it is natural to speculate over who does. Curiously, Pynchon seems more interested in intensifying our paranoia than in providing an answer, easy or complex.9 However, GR has aims very different from those of, say, a straightforward sociological work like G. William Domhoff's Who Rules America? The question raised is equally crucial in psychoanalytic theory, and Brown's solution is frightening in its lucidity: “If there is a class which has nothing to lose but its chains, the chains that bind it are self-imposed, sacred obligations which appear as objective realities with all the force of a neurotic delusion” (LAD, p. 252). As students of Brown know, the bleakness of this position produces serious tensions at the end of Life against Death, where Brown attempts to make an optimistic conclusion. These tensions are finally resolved in Love's Body when he deliberately removes the discussion from the realm of practicality and effectively gives up on the “real” world.10

The final section of GR is titled “The Counterforce” precisely because Pynchon feels this tension also. It should be called “An Investigation into the Possibility of a Counterforce,” for it is a soul-searching inventory of the resources possessed by the intelligentsia for resisting the depredations of the military-industrial-political complex. Sadly enough, the appraisal is negative, for Pynchon finds himself caught within the same logic in which Brown was trapped. Roger and the other participants in the Gross Suckling Conference “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. We do know what's going on, and we let it go on. As long as we can see them, stare at them, those massively moneyed, once in a while” (pp. 712-13). We let it go on, we participate in our own shackling, because the repression that society imposes is made possible only by the individual's initial repression of himself. Brown is adamant in his insistence that self-repression precedes social repression, and his chapter on “Sexuality and Childhood” explains the sequence as a function of that “peculiar prolongation of infancy in the human species”: “… the infant's objective dependence on parental, especially maternal, care promotes a dependent attitude toward reality and inculcates a passive (dependent) need to be loved, which colors all subsequent interpersonal relationships. This psychological vulnerability is subsequently exploited to extract submission to social authority and to the reality-principle in general” (LAD, p. 25).

Under what auspices does the Gross Suckling Conference take place? “Well, Under The Sign Of The Gross Suckling. Swaying full-color picture of a loathsomely fat drooling infant. In one puddinglike fist the Gross Suckling clutches a dripping hamhock (sorry pigs, nothing personal), with the other he reaches out for a human Mother's Nipple that emerges out into the picture from the left-hand side …” (p. 707). The humorous irony of this softens the sense of failure; but, as we have seen, Pynchon does not always stand off so far. At one point, after the narrative breaks into square brackets for almost the only time in the novel, he ominously implicates himself in the evil that is his subject: “I am betraying them all … the worst of it is that I know what your editors want, exactly what they want. I am a traitor. I carry it with me. Your virus” (p. 739; Pynchon's ellipsis). Pynchon and Brown thus agree that the reason social amelioration is impossible is that the slaves love their chains. They must; else the situation would be otherwise. This interpretation is not likely to endear Pynchon and Brown to anyone with Marxist leanings, but, as it turns out, they both explicitly reject Marxism as a political philosophy and theory of human nature, and for the same reasons: its materialism ignores the fact that the world is a projection of spirit, and its much touted dialectical method is merely a cover for a perverted millennialism, itself an excuse for totalitarian structures.

The primary locus for the theme of repression in GR is, not Marxism, but a strangely similar dogma—namely, Calvinism, particularly the form we encounter in Slothrop's Puritan background. Slothrop's ancestors, obsessed with the hand of God proclaiming, not life to Adam's outstretched hand, but rather judgment, generation on generation of longed-for death, put much of their money “into timberland whose diminishing green reaches were converted acres at a clip into paper—toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word” (p. 28). In one way or another Pynchon manages to trace back to early Calvinism some of the major perversions of the modern world: racist wars, urban blight, the cash nexus of society, sexual fetishes and dysfunctions, runaway technology, our projection of every interior evil onto a nature conceived as lifeless, inert, “out there”—on and on. Thus Pynchon's view of historical development agrees with Brown's: “whereas in previous ages life had been a mixture of Eros and Thanatos, in the Protestant era life becomes a pure culture of the death instinct” (LAD, p. 216). (LAD is in fact a massive indictment of “Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism” as the source of our ills, with Max Weber appearing as just more grist to Brown's dialectical mill.11) The attributions of the artist are confirmed by the psychoanalytic doctrine that “the entirety of culture is projection” (LAD, p. 170). The world without is the world that was within.

The main reason for Pynchon's hostility to the Calvinist tradition is that it divides society, on specious and hypocritical moral grounds, into two unequal classes, which he usually refers to as the Elect and the Preterite. The universe itself becomes divided into a part that matters (the immortal and immaterial souls of the Elect, predestined for salvation) and a part that does not matter (the souls and bodies of the damned, and the entire natural world). Calvinism also splits the geocultural world into a Western Elect and a non-Western Preterite. Westerners are Faustian: aggressive, alienated, obsessed with history. For them nature, the entire natural world, is dead. Man is composed of flesh and spirit, eternally at war. Brown accuses Christian theology of committing “its own worst sin, the sin of pride,” for taking man “out of this real world” (LAD, p. 16). The subjective-objective illusion results in an eternal and painful division between mind and object, self and other, human society and nature. Western man is perpetually confused by the paradox of being in but not of the world. Non-Westerners generally do not suffer from these delusions, and they are especially free from the supposition that time is linear and must someday end in judgment.


“The dynamic of history is the slow return of the repressed” (LAD, p. 230). Indeed. One of Freud's most useful observations is that what we most violently repress will inevitably return as the determining factor in our neurosis, and Freud does not hesitate to extend this principle to cultural analysis. The return of the repressed is an essential component in the psychoanalytic theory of history and culture, and it takes on primary significance in any reading of GR because it dominates so much of the narrative action of the tale. As this section demonstrates, the principle manifests itself everywhere, but the major illustration is the history of the Hereros in Germany, led by Enzian. Pynchon is here exercising his talent for prophecy and cultural allegory. Aside from averting nuclear holocaust, the greatest challenge the West presently faces is that of establishing toward the Third World a constructive policy acceptable to an electorate that is mainly intent on maintaining its material privileges and that has never granted the right of nonwhites to a place in the neo-Calvinist creation.

The dilemma faced by the Schwarzkommando (the black rocket troops) is faced by all non-whites, and again Brown provides a key: “Cultures … differ from each other not in the content of the repressed—which consists always in the archetypical fantasies generated by the universal nature of human infancy—but in the various kinds and levels of the return of the repressed in projections made possible by various kinds and levels of environment, technology, etc.” (LAD, p. 171). For the Schwarzkommando the environment is Germany and the Zone, and the specific technology is the rocket. Enzian's personal crisis began “when Weissmann brought him to Europe: a discovery that love, among these men, once past the simple feel and orgasming of it, had to do with masculine technologies, with contracts, with winning and losing. Demanded, in his own case, that he enter the service of the Rocket. … Beyond simple steel erection, the Rocket was an entire system won, away from the feminine darkness, held against the entropies of lovable but scatterbrained Mother Nature …” (p. 324; first ellipsis Pynchon's).

The essence of Pynchon's irony is that the repressed, reified as black tribesmen, return literally, back to that Europe which tried so hard to suppress the knowledge of their very existence. Not differently but only more openly than everyone else in the novel, they take the rocket as their totem, and the geometry of its flight becomes the model for what history they have left. Only Enzian and a few other skeptics fight a political holding action against Enzian's opposition, “the Empty Ones,” who have the advantage because they have accurately diagnosed the meaning of Western history and intend to imitate that death wish in the microcosm of the tribe. “Revolutionaries of the Zero, they mean to carry on what began among the old Hereros after the 1904 rebellion failed. They want a negative birth rate. The program is racial suicide. They would finish the extermination the Germans began in 1904” (p. 317). The Empty Ones exemplify Brown's observation that “The link between the theory of neurosis and the theory of history is the theory of religion …” (LAD, p. 12). Furthermore, they justify their mania in terms drawn from Eliade. Tribal time is nonprogressive, cyclic, since the paradigm is the myth of the eternal return. But Western time is linear, as unnatural as any purely straight line in nature, and demands a complete end someday. The rocket's parabola provides a connection between the two conceptions; it is a cycle cut off, stopped midway, unable to swoop down and return again. “They calculate no cycles, no returns, they are in love with the glamour of a whole people's suicide …” (p. 318).12

Brown traces some of our most unpleasant symbolic associations back to early Protestantism and its peculiar origins. For Luther, an entire moral complex of anal repulsions associating blackness, excrement, and death was cathected by his special concept of the Devil—traditionally the Black Man, and seen by later fundamentalists in the Negro. The explanation of the Schwarzkommando offered to his colleagues by Gavin Trefoil of the psychoanalytic wing of Psi Section exhibits the same insight as Brown's “Studies in Anality”: “He had not meant to offend sensibilities, only to show the others, decent fellows all, that their feelings about blackness were tied to feelings about shit, and feelings about shit to feelings about putrefaction and death. It seemed to him so clear … why wouldn't they listen? Why wouldn't they admit that their repressions had, in a sense that Europe in the last weary stages of its perversion of magic has lost, had incarnated real and living men …” (pp. 276-77; first ellipsis Pynchon's). Now in context this is both dramatic—and to that extent provisional—and wildly comic; but it is nevertheless as close as we are likely to come to the meaning of the whites' relation to the blacks in the novel.

This fact is reinforced by the narrator's analysis of Slothrop's subconscious attitude toward blacks. We are introduced to Slothrop's elitist inheritance in the sodium amytal session set up by PISCES, in which Slothrop fantasizes an encounter with the historical Malcolm X “in the men's room at the Roseland Ballroom” in Boston (p. 63). Slothrop's Orpheus-like trip down the toilet in pursuit of his “harp” is a descent into a comic-Jungian underworld of white stereotypes about blacks, and tells us more about Slothrop's Puritan ancestors and their living presence in contemporary racism than about friendly Slothrop as an individual—though it's part of the point that he is his past. The journey through the shit-encrusted sewer (pp. 62-67) suggests also that the entire following action of the novel is going to take place in a hell of white Protestant fears and obsessions. This is finally made explicit in one of the disjointed episodes near the end of the novel when the narrator returns to the subject of Slothrop's racist background and spells out its psychoanalytic meaning, just in case we had missed the point:

Well there's one place where Shit ‘n’ Shinola do come together, and that's in the men's toilet at the Roseland Ballroom, the place Slothrop departed from on his trip down the toilet. … Shit, now, is the color white folks are afraid of. Shit is the presence of death, not some abstract-arty character with a scythe but the stiff and rotting corpse itself inside the whiteman's warm and private own asshole, which is getting pretty intimate. That's what that white toilet's for. You see many brown toilets? Nope, toilet's the color of gravestones, classical columns of mausoleums, that white porcelain's the very emblem of Odorless and Official Death. Shinola shoeshine polish happens to be the color of Shit. Shoeshine boy Malcolm's in the toilet slappin' on the Shinola, working off whiteman's penance on his sin of being born the color of Shit ‘n’ Shinola.

(p. 688)

Scatology, some of it funny and some not so funny, is merely the most obvious evidence of Pynchon's adherence to the psychoanalytic theory; yet it deserves attention, for it takes us to the heart of his moral vision. Anyone reading for the first time of Brigadier Pudding's coprophagous submission to his own Domina Nocturna in the form of Katje is understandably stunned. The passage is an incredible tour de force, as powerful as anything in the novel, and it hardly needs comment: the “open copy of Krafft-Ebing” (p. 232) the Brigadier passes on his way to the tryst nearly tells it all. Pudding's anal-intellectual obsession with the “long pathology” of the European balance of power (p. 77) is matched on the emotional level by the sexual organizations resulting from his battlefield traumas as a pawn in that game. As he champs down on Katje's turd, “thinking of a Negro's penis,” the most overwhelming anal-erotic experience of his life comes back to him in all its original intensity: “It is the smell of Passchendaele, of the Salient. Mixed with the mud, and the putrefaction of corpses, it was the sovereign smell of their first meeting, and her emblem” (p. 235). The members of the Pulitzer advisory board who thought Pynchon was doing this merely to shock have a long way to go.13

The reductio ad absurdum of the political and scientific drive for knowledge and dominance occurs when the Schwarzkommando, intent on solving the mystery of the Schwarzgerät, go looking for onetime rocket engineer Horst Achtfaden, and find him on a most strange naval vessel: “The Rücksichtslos itself is the issue of another kind of fanaticism [than Nazi racism]: that of the specialist. This vessel here is a Toilet-ship, a triumph of the German mania for subdividing” (p. 448). Pynchon is continually aware of that commonplace of intellectual history, that Germany was the home of the scientific method on a large scale (see also LB, p. 198). And his presentation of character as based in sexual orientation accords with Brown's postulate that all our mental operations are extrapolations of our sexual organizations.

The central figure in Pynchon's attack on the anal-erotic character of science conceived as a program of dominance (of others and of nature) is Pointsman—whom we first encounter, appropriately enough, with his foot in a toilet bowl (p. 42). Pointsman represents everything from the mad scientist of the pop media to the “B-mod” enthusiasts who currently infest the classrooms of America. In a less secular age he could even be Faustus, his intellectual progenitor; as the curse of “the Book” approaches ever closer he feels the ancestral impulse: “Yes, recant, grovel, oh fabulous—but before whom? Who's listening?” (p. 140). Devoted to mechanistic interpretations of linear cause and effect, Pointsman is unable to appreciate the nondeterminist implications of Roger Mexico's specialty, statistics. Mexico seems oblivious to the old pieties, is perhaps unaware “that in his play he wrecks the elegant rooms of history, threatens the idea of cause and effect itself. What if Mexico's whole generation have turned out like this? Will Post-war be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?” (p. 56). In the novel's rainbow spectrum of sexual orientations, the behaviorist is naturally the onanist: masturbation is a perfect model of controlled stimulus-response. As interesting as the justice of the sexual mechanism is the nature of Pointsman's one exclusive erotic fantasy. Cock in fist, does he visualize forties-style pinup girls? “Here's an erection stirring, he'll masturbate himself to sleep again tonight. A joyless constant, an institution in his life. But goading him, just before the bright peak, what images will come whirling in? Why, the turrets and blue waters, the sails and churchtops of Stockholm …” (p. 141). No, his sexual organization is dominated by a deferred anticipation of receiving the Nobel prize; and when he does have sex with a woman the effect is weak and dribbling, nothing compared to his self-induced orgasms (cf. pp. 169, 143).

“An organism whose own sexual life is as disordered as man's is in no position to construct objective theories about the Yin and the Yang and the sex life of the universe” (LAD, p. 317). Pointsman's self-repression is as violent as it is massive, and it requires a control of self as great as that he hopes to impose on others. Seeking a physiological basis for all human behavior, he meets his nemesis in Slothrop, whose apparent control of the V-2 strikes is the author's most telling joke on the Western fetish of cause and effect. (“Events are related to other events not by causality, but by analogy and correspondence,” LB, p. 209.) In the face of such an imponderable, Pointsman cracks up, triggering the narrator's major statement in refutation of determinism (see p. 275). His mental disturbance takes the form, fitly enough, of schizo-phrenia. In an earlier discussion with Mexico, Pointsman had denounced Pierre Janet's mystical tendencies: “The last refuge of the incorrigibly lazy, Mexico, is just this sort of yang-yin rubbish” (p. 88). Now he hears a voice in his head, his inner opposite, telling him the way to retain Mexico's services as funding gets tighter is to commit the despicably evil act of having Jessica, Roger's love, secretly transferred out. The chapter ends with Pointsman in total confusion: “‘Yang and Yin,’ whispers the Voice, ‘Yang and Yin … ’” (p. 278; Pynchon's ellipsis).

The repressed also returns in the form of various Oedipal conflicts, and these become more numerous as the novel proceeds. This topic is given comic treatment in the story of young Otto Gnahb (whose first name is the same as that of Otto Rank, who, Brown notes, “went so far as to claim that the traumatic experience of birth is the cause of neurosis,” LAD, p. 114). Brown explains how in Freud's deepest formulations of the Oedipal conflict Mother and Father are really interchangeable (LAD, p. 126 and passim), so that little Otto's theory of the Mother Conspiracy (GR, p. 505; see also “the story about the kid who hates kreplach,” p. 737) is thematically continuous with Slothrop's more classic conflict: “… there is a villian here, serious as death. It is this typical American teenager's own Father, trying episode after episode to kill his son. And the kid knows it. Imagine that” (p. 674). In one of the most brilliant twists of the plot, Slothrop discovers that he has been literally sold by his father to an international cartel (for Jamf's experimental purposes) “like a side of beef” (p. 286). Pynchon wants us to know, if we don't already, that we have all been sold by our father-figure authorities to commercial interests, though in ways perhaps once removed. (I suspect that Pynchon was also thinking about the impact of the draft at the time he was writing.) We are afforded a glimpse (p. 682) of Slothrop's mother, Naline, making an apparently sincere effort to return her son to the “safety” of America; but we know that subconsciously her real intent is to practice even more refined tortures on her offspring. Slothrop's suspicion of her (as of Broderick) is more justified than Otto's of Frau Gnahb. With both parents Slothrop's fears are not just projections; though, as Freud insisted, whether such fears are generated by fact or fantasy is irrelevant to the nature of the complex. Furthermore, Jamf's conditioning of the infant Tyrone functions as a metaphor for the Oedipal mechanism: a curse that dates from his unconscious childhood, which he cannot escape and of which he is not even aware, and that impels him toward compulsive and retributive genital contacts.

The climax to all this comes right at the end of the novel when the metaphor of the Zone is applied to the entirety of present-day America—America, which has always had a special propensity for the Oedipal conflict. In this vision Weissmann, having now attained archetypal status, appears as

the father you will never quite manage to kill. The Oedipal situation in the Zone these days is terrible. There is no dignity. The mothers have been masculinized to old worn moneybags of no sexual interest to anyone, and yet here are their sons, still trapped inside inertias of lust that are 40 years out of date. The fathers have no power today and never did, but because 40 years ago we could not kill them, we are condemned now to the same passivity, the same masochist fantasies they cherished in secret, and worse, we are condemned in our weakness to impersonate men of power our own infant children must hate, and wish to usurp the place of, and fail.

(p. 747)

By presenting the matter in these terms, Pynchon is in effect following Brown's command: “Go down and stay down, in the forbidden zone; a descent into hell” (LB, p. 241).

In this chapter on “Sexuality and Childhood” Brown discusses the theory that “the pattern of normal adult sexuality (in Freud's terminology, genital organization) is a tyranny of one component in infantile sexuality, a tyranny which suppresses some of the other components altogether and subordinates the rest to itself” (LAD, p. 27). And he develops this insight to argue that genital organization is constructed by the death instinct. In other words, our adult concentration on the end pleasure of genital organization is viewed as a direct product of those particular Western neuroses that are reflected in our social environment, characterized as it is by commerce, technology, and war. In every important case, sexual behavior in GR conforms to the social criticism implied in this theory. There is no totally healthy sex in the novel because the characters are all participating willingly in a society committed to the death instinct. Each of the sexual oddities is traceable to some peculiarly Western social perversion. While homosexuality is not viewed as abnormal per se (see p. 616), all its manifestations within the novel's time frame are viewed as distinctly perverse, and all the other conceivable “deviations” are labeled as such.14 Literary-romantic considerations cause Pynchon to soften his criticism in the case of Roger and Jessica's heterosexual affair, but repression triumphs as Roger comes to admit that “Jessica believes Them” (p. 628). The burden of the Roger-Jessica subplot is not so much the limitations of genital organization as Freud's observation that “There is no longer any place in present-day civilized life for a simple natural love between two human beings” (LAD, p. 141).

According to the term Brown takes from Freud, children are polymorphously perverse: nothing is unnatural to them. Slothrop has a childlike animality about him that would seem to make him an exception to the general repression. But Slothrop is a complex character, because, like most other American protagonists, he is at once in and out of society, both programmed and unrepressed. Actually it is Slothrop who carries the full curse of genital organization. His epic genital capacity derives directly from his mysterious link with the charismatic, phallic rocket (symbolic of technology) and, as we should expect, proceeds in inverse proportion to his capacity for spiritual love—which is nil. His only romantic attachment, to Katje, is grotesque, given what the reader knows about her that Slothrop does not. His coupling with the child Bianca does not extend his sexual range; in fact, in the act he imagines himself “inside his own cock,” like Gottfried in the rocket, and his orgasm is the blast-off: “Announcing the void, what could it be but the kingly voice of the Aggregat itself?” (p. 470). Slothrop, we learn, is an extension of the rocket; it may even be that his penis has been replaced or grafted with Imipolex G. Genital (which could be what that G stands for) organization is for Slothrop precisely a tyranny; the penis he thought was his own really belongs to the Firm, or perhaps to father Broderick, who first sold it to the Firm: “In genital organization we identify with the penis; but the penis we are is not our own, but daddy's …” (LB, p. 57). The larger issue is indicated by the formulation of Bruno Bettelheim, another theorist cited approvingly by Brown: “Only with phallic psychology did aggressive manipulation of nature by technological inventions become possible” (LAD, p. 280). Western man bred technology out of his drive to dominance—sexual, social, and material—and now the Frankenstein monster returns to dominate man's sexual fantasies and functions, narrowing them to the exclusively genital.15


Under conditions of general repression we cannot hope to escape the returns of our negations or of our assertions. The villain is nothing less than human nature itself, and the diseased rationality it employs. As with the “dream of annihilation” in V., there is a horrid secret at the center of GR, a secret that the narrator hesitates to reveal directly because it sounds mad; it can never be proved, only felt. But the idea is simple: man's uniqueness in the creation is a function of his sickness, of the fact that he is the one true aberration in nature. Geli Tripping, self-styled witch, is permitted a vision of this central horror.

… human consciousness, that poor cripple, that deformed and doomed thing, is about to be born. This is the World just before men. Too violently pitched alive in constant flow ever to be seen by men directly. 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 over-peaking 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. Counter-revolutionaries. It is our mission to promote death. The way we kill, the way we die, being unique among the Creatures. It was something we had to work on, historically and personally.

(p. 720; opening ellipsis Pynchon's)

Unable to be satisfied with simply being here, being alive, collective man, through repression both personal and social-historical, has pursued the death instinct nearly to the extreme of sacrificing all nature to the logic of his compulsion.

Geli's vision shares a chapter (pp. 717-24, IV, “The Counterforce”) with a chronologically and narratively unrelated episode, Blicero's farewell monologue to Gottfried on the eve of the sacrificial firing of Rocket 00000. (Since Blicero's gesture takes place long before the other stories conclude, the narrator introduces it in snatches where it seems most effective.) Germany's and Blicero's hopes for the ultimate dominance are about to be shattered by America, which was, when first found by the white man (as Blicero propounds), “A message for Europe, continent-sized, inescapable. Europe had found the site for its Kingdom of Death, that special Death the West had invented. … America was a gift from the invisible powers, a way of returning. But Europe refused it” (p. 722). Europe is to be punished for the sin of negation, exclusion, but ironically America the punisher presents an identical face of dominance: not better, but more powerful. Blicero finds that the enemy is like himself, and merciless. “American Death has come to occupy Europe” (p. 722). European man is humiliated by his own specter.

This chapter is the thematic apex of the novel's flight. The vision and the monologue, thus “framed” by their own set of sprocket holes, are segued together in one narrative rush that blurs them into a single comment. Though Geli's vision, at least, falls within a loose order of events, the two scenes, like everything else in the novel, could have come anywhere. But thematically they belong together, and here at the end of the book, because they state, as directly as the narrator ever dares, the ultimate significance of the entire action. They are dramatic enough to complement what we know of Geli and Blicero and discursive enough to qualify as commentary on the final unfolding of the action.


The end of GR is, in ordinary terms, pessimistic: the Counterforce fails, Slothrop is lost, Blicero's romantic affirmation offers only sterility and death, the Schwarzkommando are eliminated from history, the bomb falls on us all in Los Angeles, the world ends. The expressions of hope along the way have been few; but Pynchon does recognize, as a minor character puts it, the possibility “that some chance of renewal, some dialectic, is still operating in History” (p. 540). Dialectics, in fact, becomes the charm Pynchon holds up, as he finished his novel, against the vampire logic of one-way time; and this is precisely the straw at which Brown grasps for the conclusion of LAD. A culture committed to the reality principle is presided over by Thanatos, the death instinct. Yet Eros still lives, and, if a dialectic can be established between Eros and Death, some way of finding each in the other, there is hope. Brown defines dialectics as “an activity of consciousness struggling to circumvent the limitations imposed by the formal-logical law of contradiction” (LAD, pp. 318-19). According to the Aristotelian law of contradiction nothing can be, or be in, its opposite. Either a thing is A, or it is not-A. If A, then not not-A. It is in the nature of the law of contradiction to negate. And the law of contradiction is a close description of Calvinist dualism: things are divided into two separate and opposite categories and then pushed apart, polarized as much as possible. “We may therefore entertain the hypothesis that formal logic and the law of contradiction are the rules whereby the mind submits to operate under general conditions of repression” (LAD, p. 321). Dialectical consciousness, on the other hand, would be “the struggle of the mind to circumvent repression and make the unconscious conscious”; it would be “a manifestation of Eros”; and it would be “a step toward that Dionysian ego which does not negate any more” (LAD, pp. 321-22).

Throughout GR Pynchon pits dialectical consciousness against the dead hand of dualism. Dialectical reality receives notable expression in the vision of primal unity attributed to the non-Westerners and associated with the natural world as it existed prior to Western consciousness. Enzian, who reconciles in his person the antinomies of black and white, is obsessed with the idea of return. Eliade's “myth of the eternal return” is in fact a religion of dialectics. For Enzian in his youth, still in Africa, “God is creator and destroyer, sun and darkness, all sets of opposites brought together, including black and white, male and female …” (p. 100; Pynchon's ellipsis). Because of his unique position, Enzian comes closer than anyone else in the novel to fulfilling the traditional role of hero. (His opposite is Blicero, another kind of specifically romantic hero.) Later, speeding (in two complementary senses) through the German night, paranoid about technology, Enzian thinks, “Somewhere, among the wastes of the World, is the key that will bring us back, restore us to our Earth and to our freedom” (p. 525).16

As a matter of esthetics, the dialectical impulse common to Pynchon and Brown is evidenced mainly in their increasing reliance on metaphor and symbolism. Brown escapes the logical difficulties of LAD by shifting in LB to the abstract realms of transcendental mysticism; and toward the end of GR Pynchon escapes the strictures of his realistic story line by increasingly fading into surrealism and thematic fancy, playing variations on themes already established. Brown, however, uses the term “symbolism” in rather special ways. As he puts it in the chapter on “Unity,” “Symbolism is mind making connections (correspondences) rather than distinctions (separations). Symbolism makes conscious interconnections and unions that were unconscious and repressed. Freud says, symbolism is on the track of a former identity, a lost unity …” (LB, pp. 81-82). In other words, Brown's symbolism is conceptual and associative.

Pynchon employs this sort of symbolism, and he is also interested in what the symbol-making impulse tells us about human nature. The runaway symbolism in GR (e.g., the double S) sometimes just points to Pynchon's favorite notion that all of reality is invariably a mental construct. If we take the specific constructions too seriously, not only do we miss the point, we become the point. There is a neat correlation between the omnibus feminine symbolism of the mons veneris in V. and the omnibus masculine symbolism of the rocket in GR; but the hopeless paranoid projections that impel the endless quests of V. should serve as warning. The subject is not the “meaning” of the symbol but our very Western propensity to seek meaning, to project it into the most empty vaginal void, if necessary. On another tack, the lapses into surrealism in GR (e.g., the pie-throwing episode, pp. 332-36) operate as confirmations of the inadequacy of a perceptual structure based on the reality principle, and the same goes for the thematic use of drugs and movie-director talk. “Upside down. Not the reality-principle but surrealism. Surrealism, a systematic illumination of the hidden places and a progressive darkening of the rest; a perpetual promenade right in the forbidden zone” (LB, p. 241).

Pynchon is also trying to say something about the ultimate illusion, which most of us are not yet ready to accept as such, the illusion of personality. Brown insists that “psychic individuals” are “an illusion” (LB, p. 82) and that “The inner voice, the personal salvation, the private experience are all based on an illusory distinction” (LB, p. 87). In GR the illusory nature of the phenomenal world and the transparency of the individual are evidenced by dreams and archetypes, among other means. “Symbolical consciousness is the interpretation of dreams, of this life as a dream” (LB, p. 218). GR begins with Pirate Prentice's dream of an evacuation that is simultaneously a descent into hell. Dreams and dreaming pervade the narrative, to the extent that the line between various waking and sleeping, conscious and unconscious, states is instructively blurred.17 And Pynchon would agree that “there is only one psyche, a general possession of mankind” (LB, p. 86), with the reservation that archetypes themselves seem to be to some extent culturally determined. Recent “black humor” fiction in general displays a surprising lack of interest in that pastime of the fifties, the identity crisis or search. Some critics complain that Pynchon's characters are merely conceptual, two-dimensional.18 But this objection makes sense only in terms of more traditional fictional paradigms requiring that characters have absolute psychological coherence (i.e., that they be like Shakespeare's). Pynchon's treatment of Slothrop, for instance, seems to follow Brown's formula (itself traditionally Christian): “The solution to the problem of identity is, get lost” (LB, p. 161).

Symbolism in GR also takes the form of “signs,” especially of the sort dear to the early Calvinists, for whom nature was God's book, and every natural object or occurrence appeared as evidence of a spiritual state or allegorical lesson. Here for once Pynchon is in sympathy with Slothrop's ancestors, and with all the idealists throughout history who have thought that, even if the external world is real, and not just God's movie, we can have no direct knowledge of it, so that the only “rational” way to approach the world is to view it as a system of symbols relating to inner states or spiritual realities. “Everything is symbolic, everything is holy” (LB, p. 239). Everything is a sign, nothing is “real.” In the modern wasteland, with all the monotheistic gods dead and Pan still suppressed, the signs are evidence of spiritual waste. Slothrop learns to read the signs of the times in public graffiti (see pp. 623-26 and 733-34).

One unstated metaphor is that of the book itself as rocket flight. It begins with a V-2 going up over the Channel and ends with an ICBM falling on Los Angeles, and the final section (all of “The Counterforce,” or at least from p. 674 to the end) disintegrates into flying fragments like a rocket exploding, ending, like all such charismatic events, with a loud and resonant silence. Matter and manner are thus joined, fused by the white-hot heat of intellect. Yet this fusion is accompanied by a special sort of tension, located in the reader and generated by Pynchon's deliberate stepping-up of the degree of surrealism to an almost intolerable level. This tension is finally dissipated in the fear and pity of Gottfried's sacrifice, in our recognition of the religious-romantic meaning of Blicero's final gesture—and in the sobering realization that we too have been sacrificed, that in a real sense our end has already been spelled out.

Two specific factors create tension in the reader: violations of historical chronology and the progressive disintegration of the narrative into chaos. The fiction of linear time is fruitfully violated by reminiscences of American adolescence and by snatches of media and street experience in Los Angeles from the period the novel was being written. For example, the sequence of pages 674-81 is a surrealistic vision of adolescent Tyrone's Boston (or is it L.A.?), rocket city-state of the future, as reification in media terms of all of America's Oedipal conflicts and accumulations. Freud saw the Oedipal conflict as the basis of human culture, and McLuhan showed how the media have become a collective central nervous system. The combination is explosive. In the final movement Pynchon is gravely attempting to compose sequences “forever beyond the reach, the rape, of literal-minded explication” (LB, p. 264). One way is to load the narrative with more fresh, evanescent suggestiveness than it can bear. Brown's chapter on “Freedom” provides many pregnant recommendations: “A symbol is never a symbol but always polysymbolic, overdetermined, polymorphous. Freedom is fertility; a proliferation of images, in excess. The seed must be sown wastefully, extravagantly. Too much, or not enough; overdetermination is determination made into chance; chance and determination reconciled. Too much meaning is meaning and absurdity reconciled” (LB, pp. 248-49).

Another weighty means of blowing up the narrative (thereby forcing the reader to take up the burden of meaning personally, or give up) is “to reconnect words with silence; to let the silence in” (LB, p. 258). Brown and Pynchon are both fighting “Against gravity; against the gravity of literalism, which keeps our feet on the ground” (LB, p. 259). The solution advocated in the final chapter of LB, “Nothing,” is silence: “Get the nothingness back into words. The aim is words with nothing to them; words that point beyond themselves rather than to themselves; transparencies, empty words. Empty words, corresponding to the void in things” (LB, p. 259). The stakes are high, the goals many: a purgation and cleansing, setting the stage for a fresh start; repealing repression, annihilating all inhibitions; and, the sine qua non, making the unconscious conscious.

“The real meaning of the last days is Pentecost” (LB, p. 220). In the final movement Pynchon speaks in tongues, and the model is von Göll, surrealistically framed in his own movie sitting on “an unusually large infant's training toilet,” high on sodium amytal:

“Through evil and eagles,” blithers the Springer, “the climate blondes its way, for they are no strength under the coarse war. No not for roguery until the monitors are there in blashing sheets of earth to mate and say medoshnicka bleelar medoometnozz in bergamot and playful fantasy under the throne and nose of the least merciful king. …”

(p. 746; Pynchon's ellipsis)

Like all the concluding weirdness of GR, this is and is not nonsense. A great deal can be read into these lines, and the wonderful thing is that it cannot all be determined, that each of us is free to bring his or her offerings of paranoia and solipsism. “The Babylonian confusion of tongues redeemed in the Pentecostal fusion. Many meanings dwelling together in unity; because it is the unspoken meaning that they mean” (LB, p. 253).

The tension generated by the final section—between the reader's expectations for literary endings and the author's determination to defeat those expectations—is itself a paradigm of the dialectical imagination. The choice is between, on the one hand, an artifice completed, fixed, and therefore dead and, on the other, the pulse of life; and the synthesis of elements is an art form, the novel genre itself, brought back to life. A similar dialectical tension exists in an absolute sense between style and content in this novel. The content affirms death, since it tells the truth: that we are all like Slothrop, who is “in love, in sexual love, with his, and his race's, death” (p. 738). The style affirms life, since the intuitive basis of that marvelously poetic and spontaneous prose is the author's own enactment of what Brown calls “an erotic sense of reality” (LB, p. 81). The nihilism of GR is only apparent; it is actually anarchy that Pynchon affirms, and the medium is the message. The orgasmic rush—the continual nowness—of Pynchon's present-tense style is a direct transcription of the life instinct. By joyfully embracing and celebrating all the death instincts of Western man in a style of unmediated euphoria, GR dramatizes the perpetual struggle of life against death. And thus we disaffirm the supposed pessimism of GR. The solution is Rilke's, as quoted by Brown: “Whoever rightly understands and celebrates death, at the same time magnifies life” (LAD, p. 108).

Pynchon's style is also his primary evidence against determinism. He shares with most contemporary novelist an obsession with man's freedom; Pointsman represents no idle threat. It is strange how critics keep looking to the mere content of novels for some kind of hope—for confirmation of the old humanistic concept of the self, or for evidence of the resistance of human goodness against the inroads of greed and power, or for some overt moral; whereas, strictly speaking, and from a psychoanalytic point of view, there isn't any hope—certainly not of the kind they entertain. We are all under sentence of death. But Pynchon does have a kind of hope, though like Brown's hope it does not attach to anything in this material-political world. Nothing really matters but individual freedom, and Pynchon knows that the best defense of freedom is not Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy, or even dialectics, but the miracle of language itself—language, an irreducibly intuitive symbolic process.


  1. All page references to Gravity's Rainbow are given in the text and are taken from the standard edition (New York: Viking, 1973). The Viking hardcover and paperback versions are the same. I abbreviate Gravity's Rainbow as GR.

  2. Life against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1959), abbreviated LAD, with all page references to the Wesleyan paperback edition, first printed in March 1970; and Love's Body (New York: Vintage-Random, 1966), abbreviated LB, with all page references to the paperback edition published in 1966.

  3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Paperbacks, 1964), p. 18; see also p. 305.

  4. Other relevant subplots have to do with Roger Mexico (Pointsman's associate) and Jessica Swanlake, two sides of a love triangle; triple agent Katje Borgesius, an exotic Dutch blond who vamps Slothrop and lets herself be used and abused in various decadent sexual arrangements; “Pirate” Prentice, a British officer whose capacity for fantasy and the dream world provides ominous overtones to the literal action; and a large number of associates in The White Visitation, including “cliques of spiritualists, vaudeville entertainers, wireless technicians, Couéists, Ouspenskians, Skinnerites, lobotomy enthusiasts, Dale Carnegie zealots,” etc. (p. 77). Minor subplots abound.

  5. Richard Poirier, perhaps Pynchon's most sensitive critic, puts it well: “If in the structure of his books Pynchon duplicates the intricate networking of contemporary technological, political, and cultural systems, then in the style and its rapid transitions he tries to match the dizzying tempos, the accelerated shifts from one mode of experience to another, which characterize contemporary media and movement” (“Rocket Power,” Saturday Review of the Arts, March 1973, p. 60). This essay is still probably the best general introduction to GR. And it must be credited with providing the seminal suggestion for this study.

  6. Edward Mendelson, “Pynchon's Gravity,” The Yale Review, 62 (Summer 1973), 631. Obviously I think that one can add the intervening four years (or even a longer period, though that's not necessary) to this statement and have it still hold true. It's strange, but in reading one gets the feeling that GR somehow qualitatively subsumes everything that has happened since its putative action of 1944-45. Mendelson's more recent essay on GR (“Gravity's Encyclopedia,” in Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. George Levine and David Leverenz [Boston: Little, 1976], pp. 161-95) provides an interesting basis for this feeling in its thesis that GR is not properly a novel at all but an “encyclopedic narrative.”

  7. Frederick C. Crews, “Love in the Western World,” Partisan Review, 34, No. 2 (Spring 1967), 272-87. This influential spoiler essay has been reprinted as “Norman O. Brown: The World Dissolves,” in Frederick Crews, Out of My System: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Critical Method (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975). Crews, who admits that he was disillusioned by the discovery that Brown is not “true” in a Marxian, positivist sense, complains that “psychoanalysis for Brown is not science but poetic philosophy, just as its harshest critics have always said” (PR, p. 277), and that in all important controversies Brown “never once deviates into petty considerations of evidence” (PR, p. 278).

  8. Gravity is also important to Pynchon because it remains one of the most embarrassing mysteries in modern science. No one has yet produced, to everyone's satisfaction, a single set of equations uniting what we now know about gravitational and electromagnetic phenomena. There is no “unified field theory.” Therefore “gravity's rainbow” is also “the beauty of gravity's mystery.” The problem of gravity, in layman's terms, is action at a distance—a favorite of mystics in all ages.

  9. Scott Sanders objects that “Pynchon's conspiratorial imagination tends to make our social organization appear even more mysterious than it really is, tends to mystify the relations of power which in fact govern our society” (“Pynchon's Paranoid History,” in Mindful Pleasures, p. 157; this essay was originally published in Twentieth Century Literature, 21, No. 2 [May 1975], 177-92.) Aside from the intriguing question of what “really is,” my analysis should demonstrate that Sanders has seriously misread Pynchon's strategy, partly through an assumption that the novel genre is really a branch of descriptive sociology.

  10. Crews rightly stresses this shift, though he is hardly fair in viewing it as a moral transgression on Brown's part; but such is the burden of the reprint's subtitle (“The World Dissolves”) and of his general conclusion: “He eliminates our problems by eliminating us” (PR, p. 286).

  11. In his book-length review of Pynchon's works, Thomas Pynchon (New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1974), Joseph W. Slade gives to Weber something of the same prominence I give to Brown. But Weber's thought is more properly viewed as one more set of background materials for the historical narrative, though at times he is very much in evidence.

  12. On p. 732 Enzian comments to the leader of the Empty Ones, Ombindi, “I'm projecting my own death wish, and it comes out looking like you.” And on p. 726 the narrator shouts, “Of Course It Begins Infinitely Below The Earth And Goes On Infinitely Back Into The Earth it's only the peak that we are allowed to see. …”

  13. The three members of the Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction recommended GR unanimously, but the fourteen-member advisory board decided to give no prize for 1973, certain members describing the jury's selection as “unreadable,” “turgid,” “overwritten,” and in parts “obscene” (paraphrased and quoted from the New York Times, 8 May 1974, p. 38). Those who enjoy making paranoid connections (such as the one I made in noting that the date of the Times item just cited is also Pynchon's birthday) should see Mathew Winston's “The Quest for Pynchon,” in Mindful Pleasures. Winston's essay is a judicious and tactful exposition of the major public facts available about a writer who has always displayed an obsessive but quite understandable insistence on his personal privacy. An intimate, firsthand account of Pynchon the man was published by Jules Siegel in Playboy (March 1977) under the title “Who Is Thomas Pynchon … and Why Did He Take Off with My Wife?” Siegel's essay, unfortunately, lacks Winston's taste, but it is nevertheless of biographical significance.

  14. In Blicero's monologue, pp. 723-24, Pynchon explicitly equates homosexual love with death and heterosexual love with life. Enzian's attitude toward the word “deviations” is ambivalent (p. 319). He does not like the term, but accepts its use.

  15. A corollary of man's capitulation to his own creature (technology) is man's impoverishment of nature. See Webley Silvernail's fantasy of the lab as just a larger maze, and the important elegiac lament that follows, pp. 229-30.

  16. Various episodes of the book are illuminated by this view of the novelist as dialectician. Thus, the fundamental intent of the Counterforce (aside from their immediate interest in trying to save Slothrop) is to introduce a dialectical element into the prevailing climate of dualism. Thus the ambivalence of the narrator's concluding attitude toward Slothrop may signal, not confusion on Pynchon's part, but rather a higher unity of opposing views, a conjunction of evaluations mutually exclusive and yet equally “true.” Only the law of contradiction insists that, if Slothrop is saved, he is not not-saved, and vice versa. And my reader can identify many more examples. But, however we interpret the various syntheses, we always return to one truth: “Dialectics rather than dualism is the metaphysic of hope rather than despair” (LAD, p. 84).

  17. Mircea Eliade, in Birth and Rebirth: The Religious Meaning of Initiation in Human Culture (New York: Harper, 1958), pp. 127-28 and passim, establishes that the dream life and unconscious operations in general always express themselves in religious symbols. Thus Slothrop dreams of a woman who is found “at the bottom of the river. She has drowned. But all forms of life fill her womb.” He finds that “This dream will not leave him. He baits his hook, hunkers by the bank, drops his line into the Spree” (p. 447). He has become the Fisher King as described by Eliot, searching for fertility in a land now spiritually sterile. As Brown comments, “to see symbolism is to see eternal recurrence” (LB, p. 200).

  18. A revealing example is provided by David Thornburn in “A Dissent on Pynchon,” Commentary, 56 (Sept. 1973), 68-70. He complains that Slothrop is not allowed individuality by his creator, and, if Slothrop is an “emblem” of “all white Americans,” then this answer “defines Slothrop yet again not as an individual but as a member of a class, a mere carrier of meanings outside himself …” (p. 70). The overall objection concerns “Pynchon's failure to allow his characters an imaginative space of their own” (p. 70). There is no answer to this sort of criticism, except that of irrelevance. The real question is whether Pynchon understood the irony of his godlike creation and manipulation of everyone—manipulators and manipulated alike—in a novel so much concerned with questions of free will, determinism, and control. I think that in writing he did understand this irony and that he and his fragmented narrative persona play on it in numerous ways—though to establish this properly would take far more space than I have here. But I also think that the particular romantic esthetic of this novel dictated that such formal concerns as this not be very central to the novel's purpose.


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Gravity's Rainbow Thomas Pynchon

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow (1973) through 2001. For further information on his life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, 18, 33, 62, 72, and 123.

Published in 1973, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is recognized as a classic of postmodern absurdism. Set during World War II in Western Europe, the sprawling narrative combines numerous plots and subplots that either directly or indirectly center on the construction of a secret rocket by Nazi Germany and the simultaneous Allied quest to prevent its deployment. Divided into four sections that progressively become more disorienting for both the characters and the readers alike, Gravity's Rainbow exploits the thermodynamic principle of entropy and the psychological concept of paranoia to reflect the so-called postwar “culture of death,” which the novel identifies with the proliferation of technology, bureaucracy, and violence in contemporary society. A metafictional text, the novel mirrors the chaos of the modern world through nonlinear, fragmented narration and by randomly weaving historical and scientific facts into the fantastic hallucinations that flit through the consciousnesses of the major and minor characters. In this way, Gravity's Rainbow not only exhibits Pynchon's encyclopedic knowledge of American popular culture, music theory, behavioral psychology, mathematics and physics, and classical and modern literature, but also his command of a diverse array of literary genres and discursive modes, ranging from cinematic techniques and pornography to science fiction and picaresque adventure. Despite its dark themes, the novel extensively uses such humorous devices as puns, parody, satire, and slapstick situations to transform serious fears into comic play. Unanimously selected for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1974, Gravity's Rainbow was ultimately denied the prize by the advisory board, who deemed the novel unreadable and obscene. However, the novel won the National Book Award for fiction in 1974 and the William Dean Howells Award of the Academy of Arts and Letters for the best novel of the previous five years in 1975, both of which Pynchon declined.

Plot and Major Characters

Characterized by instability, discontinuity, and abrupt spatial-temporal dislocations, the plot of Gravity's Rainbow is so dense that it resists effective summary. Narrated by an omniscient consciousness, the principal “action” traces multiple quests through various locales in Western Europe for a secret rocket under construction during the closing months of World War II. Alluding to the dark zeitgeist of global culture in the postwar era, conspiracy and paranoia cloak both the search for and development of the powerful and deadly rocket, known simply as No. 000000. One plot line involves Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, a naïve American monitoring V-2 rocket attacks in London for the Allied intelligence unit. As a child, Slothrop was conditioned by Laszlo Jamf, a former Harvard professor who now develops rockets for the Nazis, to predict V-2 rocket strikes with his erections. Slothrop is also under surveillance by agents of the Firm, a mysterious military organization, who discover his unusual ability. A member of the Firm, behavioral psychologist Ned Pointsman, believes that Slothrop can be further conditioned to locate No. 000000, so he concocts an elaborate plan to send Slothrop on an odyssey to find the missile. Ultimately unsuccessful with this mission, Slothrop encounters all sorts of characters engaged in power struggles that are somehow linked to a vast, shadowy conspiracy, known only as “They,” who seek to consolidate their power over the world. Another plot concerns Nazi Colonel Weissmann (also known as Captain Blicero) and his efforts to plan and build No. 000000 with the assistance of double agent Katje Borgesius, African tribal leader Enzian, and German soldier Gottfried, Weissmann's lover. A subplot of this storyline involves German engineer Franz Pökler and his work on No. 000000. Blicero coerces Pökler to work on the missile by holding Pökler's daughter hostage to ensure the engineer's cooperation. Other plots in Gravity's Rainbow revolve around Roger Mexico, a British officer and mathematician whose humanism serves to counterpoint Pointsman's behaviorism, and his mistress Jessica Swanlake; Pirate Prentice and Teddy Bloat, who discover the connection between Slothrop's erections and the V-2 targets; and Russian agent Vaslav Tchitcherine, Enzian's half-brother, whose mission is to destroy the Schwartzkommando (“black rocket troops”), an organization of South-West Africans exiled in Germany and headed by Enzian that may or may not have developed prototype No. 000001. Although none of the characters successfully find the rocket, Gravity's Rainbow concludes with No. 000000, which has blasted off from 1945 Germany, about to make contact with the roof of an old restored movie house in 1970 Los Angeles, where the omniscient narrator is watching a movie with “we.”

Major Themes

An extended meditation on the death of human civilization, Gravity's Rainbow represents contemporary society as a culture fixated on the technologies of death, which the rocket No. 000000 metaphorically and mythically signifies throughout the narrative. The rocket literally and figuratively symbolizes modern technology in the service of a culture of death and self-annihilation. Gravity's Rainbow examines the peculiarities of modern life, particularly within the context of the Cold War, explosive technological advances, and the proliferation of mass media. In such an era, coupled with the dread and terror of nuclear warfare hovering over everything, Pynchon has portrayed the chaotic experience of modern consciousness in the late twentieth century. At the same time, the structure and narrative style of Gravity's Rainbow reflect the entropic tendencies of contemporary culture. Although most of the characters are determined to make sense of this chaos, a goal which they pursue by positing various conspiracy theories designed to make connections, find patterns, and discern an underlying meaning to the seemingly random jumble of events and information that swirls all around them, they are ultimately victimized by governmental bureaucracy and mass media. The narration of Gravity's Rainbow confuses the reader's perceptions of the distinction between fantasy and reality, and it illumines the nature of consciousness while questioning the ways in which the human mind encounters reality through mass cultural modes of discourse. However, in the face of the seemingly overwhelming forces of political power, mass technology, and death, most of Pynchon's characters represent the forces of life, love, and humanity that embody the only possible antidote to the dehumanization of life in twentieth-century postwar society.

Critical Reception

Gravity's Rainbow is regarded by many as a masterpiece of twentieth-century fiction, rendering Pynchon one of the most important writers of modern literature. Numerous academic studies have been written on Gravity's Rainbow, assessing such far-ranging concerns as the relevance of its mathematical formulas, the use of psychoanalytic theory, the construction of white masculinity, the significance of sado-masochism, and the cultural-historical-political context of the novel. A number of critics have explored the postmodern elements of the narrative structure and point of view in Gravity's Rainbow, pointing out the many ways in which Pynchon's narrator disrupts, confuses, and frustrates the reader's attempts to make sense of the story as a coherent whole. It is thus regarded as a meta-narrative that is as much about literature and the act of reading as it is about the content of the story. Brian McHale, for example, argued that Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow challenges the reader to break free from accepted modernist modes of reading, “For the effect of this troublesome novel is, finally, the salutary one of disrupting the conditioned responses of the Modernist reader (and we are all, still, Modernist readers), of de-conditioning the reader.” Critical studies of Gravity's Rainbow have further explored the ways in which Pynchon's narrative draws on cinematic technique in the telling of his story. Lawrence C. Wolfley, for example, observed, “As indicated by the stylized square film-projector sprocket holes used to divide the chapters, Pynchon's chosen artistic metaphor is the novel as movie; and, while the idea of the omniscient narrator as camera eye has long been cliché, Pynchon's handling of the device is consistently fresh and imaginative.” Wolfley continued, “[Gravity's Rainbow] is basically a takeoff on the historical-novel genre, as processed by the makers of B-grade movies about, and of, the period of World War II.”

Critics have discussed the social, cultural, political, and historical context of Gravity's Rainbow in World War II and the post-War era within the novel, as well as the ethos of 1960s youth counterculture and radical political activism in which the novel was written. These critics point to the ways in which Pynchon portrays a power establishment (“Them”) that operates in opposition to the individual citizenry (“Us”), such that “They” worship technologies of death and threaten to destroy the basic humanity of “Us.” A number of critics have discussed the ways in which Gravity's Rainbow describes a major cultural and historical shift in geopolitics that took place around the events of World War II. As Wolfley, writing in 1977, explained, Gravity's Rainbow “constitutes a revisionist analysis of a turning point in contemporary history: the resolution of the European power struggle and the transition to the postwar balance of terror and the on-again-off-again cold war that we still live with.” Tony Tanner similarly observed that, in choosing to situate Gravity's Rainbow in Europe at the end of World War II, “Pynchon is concentrating on a crucial moment when a new transpolitical order began to emerge out of the ruins of old orders that could no longer maintain themselves.” Tanner continued, “What emerges from the book is a sense of a force and a system—something, someone, referred to simply as ‘the firm’ or ‘They'—which is actively trying to bring everything to zero and beyond, trying to institute a world of non-being, an operative kingdom of death, covering the organized world with a world of paper and plastic and transforming all natural resources into destructive power and waste: the rocket and the debris around it.” Patrick McHugh described the complex interrelationship between culture and power and between comedy and tragedy in the postmodern world as represented in Gravity's Rainbow, stating that Pynchon's novel re-creates a “dissonance of pleasure and pain for the reader by combining comic distance and delight with tragic pity and terror. The narrative provides tons of textual fun, the satisfaction of siding with the hippie good guys, the turn-on of rebellion and transgression, the textual pleasures of indeterminacy, and of course laugh-out-loud hilarity. At the same time, the narrative draws the reader into the pain of history, the terror of the Cold War, the fear of victimization, the guilt of complicity.” McHugh added, “Structuring a remarkable balance between comic and tragic affects, the novel leaves the reader emotionally strung between the manic euphoria of cultural revolution and the absolute terror of nuclear night.” Pynchon's multitude of intertextual references to fields of knowledge as diverse as physics, literature, psychology, cultural history, and music theory have spawned a vast body of criticism aimed at explicating these references in terms of their factual accuracy as well as their significance to the central thematic concerns of the novel as a whole.

For all of the worshipful adulation it has received since its initial publication over thirty years ago, Gravity's Rainbow continues to be criticized by its detractors for its nihilistic world view, narrative incoherence, underdeveloped characters, oversimplified treatment of its major themes, and generally opaque, obscure meaning. Perhaps the only aspect of Gravity's Rainbow that all critics agree on is that it requires a demanding and challenging effort on the part of the reader to make sense of Pynchon's densely provocative narrative monument.

Brian McHale (essay date autumn 1979)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11815

SOURCE: McHale, Brian. “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity's Rainbow.Poetics Today 1, no. 1-2 (autumn 1979): 85-110.

[In the following essay, McHale investigates received Modernist reading strategies exploited by Gravity's Rainbow.]

Welcome Mister Slothrop Welcome To Our Structure We Hope You Will Enjoy Your Visit Here.1

Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow (1973) opens, apparently, in medias res:

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it's all theater. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it's night. He's afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.

(GR [Gravity's Rainbow]: 3)

This opening passage abounds in the sort of provocatively matter-of-fact references which one is familiar with from other fictional beginnings. The reader's need to know is immediately aroused: who is this “he” whom the narrative does not find it necessary to identify? where and when is this Evacuation taking place? what screams across the sky? The reader's queries are directed toward reconstructing, among other patterns, the fictive world in which the events of the novel unfold. No doubt he takes it for granted that this opening passage gives him access to that world.2 Hence the disorientation when the reader learns that he has begun not “in the midst of things,” as he had assumed, but in the midst of dream: on the next page “Pirate” Prentice awakens from his nightmare of Evacuation to the real (that is, fictive) morning of wartime London. With this reversal begins the reader's re-education—or, to borrow a metaphor from the Pavlovian discourse which this novel sometimes affects, his de-conditioning. For this passage is a paradigm of problematic passages throughout Gravity's Rainbow: the reader, invited to reconstruct a “real” scene or action in the novel's fictive world, is forced in retrospect—sometimes in long retrospect—to “cancel” the reconstruction he has made, and to relocate it within a character's dream, hallucination, or fantasy.

After such an embarrassment, the reader, in order to reassert his mastery over the text, may evoke the model of a genre or period which will “explain” what has happened to him. In this case, he may evoke the model of so-called “Post-Modern” fiction. In doing so he will presumably have in mind certain contemporary (post-war) fictional texts which are strongly self-conscious, self-reflective, self-critical; which, by laying bare their own devices, continually raise the problem of the relation between the game-like artifices of fiction and the imitation of reality; which actively resist and subvert the reader's efforts to make sense of them in the familiar novelistic ways; the sort of texts which the French would be apt to call texts of the “practice of writing.” But such a model, particularly when used in this defensive or naturalizing way, is apt to draw less on the full range of phenomena it ought to capture than on certain extreme cases: Robbe-Grillet at his most choisiste, Borges at his most labyrinthine, Beckett at his most minimal. The example of such limit-texts is not, however, very helpful in dealing with the intractabilities of Gravity's Rainbow, which falls somewhat short of these limits. Gravity's Rainbow, Barthes might say, still casts a “shadow”: it still contains “a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject” (1975: 32). It has, at least at the outset, characters who can actually be “‘found’ […] in the conventional sense of ‘positively identified and detained'” (GR: 712). It has plot, or rather a proliferation of plots, to the point that “plot” here acquires the punning sense of “conspiracy” as well as “intelligible sequence of actions.” And it has an openness to real-world facts—historical, socio-economic, linguistic, scientific, esoteric—an openness perhaps unequalled even by the great nineteenth-century Realists and Naturalists.

Is there, then, any sense in which evoking Post-Modernism is more than merely a defensive gesture, a fending-off of the embarrassments of intractable fiction by relating it to certain extreme examples of intractability? Is there any way in which this period- and genre-label can be made to do useful descriptive work? There is, if one takes the label sufficiently literally: “Post-Modern,” coming after the Modernist movement in literature and the other arts. To take the label literally is to orient oneself toward the relation between Pynchon's text and Modernist textual models. Thus, in this paper I propose to inquire into the Modernism of Pynchon's Post-Modernism in Gravity's Rainbow.

There is perhaps a mandate for this sort of inquiry in Pynchon's obvious debt to Modernist theory and practice in his earlier fiction. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) is in many ways a classic example of the Jamesian novel with a single consistent point-of-view and restrained narratorial intervention—it might plausibly be retitled What Mrs. Maas Knew.3 What disqualifies Lot 49 [The Crying of Lot 49] as a proper Jamesian novel is the fact that the “central consciousness” or “reflector” is not well-developed, not very interesting, indeed not the point at all (Cf., Mendelson 1978a: 2-5). The novel V. (1963) incorporates elaborate parodies, or at least self-conscious exploitation, of characteristic Modernist techniques. It includes a Conrad-like unreliable narration at two removes, bearing on events in German Southwest Africa which recall Marlow's and Kurtz's Belgian Congo; a Proustian first-person “confession” displaying the successive personalities of the character-narrator (Patteson, 1974: 37-38; Cf., Siegel, 1976: 41); a baring of the characteristic Modernist device of style indirect libre through a character who practices “forcible dislocation of personality” by referring to himself exclusively in the third person;4 and above all, a tour-de-force use of eight distinct points of view to render an espionage melodrama, climaxing in a rare instance of Norman Friedman's limit-case, the “camera eye.”5

Thus, the Modernism—even if it is only mock-Modernism—of Pynchon's earlier fiction gives one a priori some reason to think that the investigation of Modernist aspects of Gravity's Rainbow should be fruitful. But how are we to formulate the Modernist model of fiction so as to bring into sharpest focus the relation between this model and our so-called Post-Modern text? This relation emerges most clearly, I would maintain, when we concentrate not on formal textual organization as such, but on text-processing, the pattern-making and pattern-interpreting behavior which the text's formal organization elicits from the reader. Concentration on text-processing is particularly appropriate where Modernist fiction is concerned, for one of Modernism's fundamental characteristics is the relatively expanded function of the reader; or, shall we say, the apparently new and expanded repertoire of operations which the reader is expected to undertake. For we can conceive of period-models in literary history as specific sets or repertoires of pattern-making and pattern-interpreting operations which readers must undertake in order to render texts intelligible.6 It would be impossible to attempt a full inventory of the Modernist repertoire here. Let it suffice to observe that the Modernist repertoire certainly includes operations through which readers reconstruct the chronology of the fabula from the sometimes drastically displaced order of the syuzhet; impart intelligible motivation to sequence and transitions; motivate large-scale parallelisms, doublings, and analogies (Perry, 1968; Sternberg, 1970); discover narrators, and evaluate their knowledgeability and reliability; reconstruct psychological processes, and the external reality which they mediate, from such conventions as interior monologue and style indirect libre; etc. Clearly, none of these operations is strictly “new” in the Modernist repertoire; what is new, however, is their frequency, sophistication, and prominence.

Our present purposes will best be served if we restrict ourselves to consideration of two groups of operations from the Modernist repertoire. First, we shall consider the process of reconstructing elements of external (fictive) reality from the evidence of a character's mediating consciousness—an aspect of paradigmatic processing, or of narrative statics. Secondly, we shall consider a characteristic Modernist process of motivating transitions between characters' minds in a sequence—an aspect of syntagmatic processing, or of narrative dynamics.


Those like Slothrop, with the greatest interest in discovering the truth, were thrown back on dreams, psychic flashes, omens, cryptographies, drug-epistemologies, all dancing on a ground of terror, contradiction, absurdity.

(GR: 583)

Criticism of Modernist fiction has tended, quite properly, to dwell on the unreliability of characters' visions or accounts of the external world, compared to the quasi-divine reliability of the narrators and implied authors of earlier fiction. This is undoubtedly a crucial factor when the narrative has been entrusted, totally or in part, to the mediating consciousness or mediating language of a fictional character. But equally crucial in this sort of narrative is the somewhat neglected broad zone of reliability. In texts like Ulysses,To the Lighthouse, or The Sound and the Fury, the reader has no choice but to rely for much of the material from which he reconstructs a fictive world on the mediating consciousness of fictional characters; that he can do so with considerable confidence is a measure of the reliability of the “reflectors.” Unreliability and reliability can coexist in this way because they are found at different levels. A character's unreliability normally manifests itself in his interpretations or evaluations of the fictive world; unreliability can also be epistemological, involving the character's knowledge or ignorance of his world; but it is seldom ontological. What the character definitely knows to be there normally is there in the fictive world, and the reader can confidently incorporate it in his reconstruction; as indeed he must, if he is to reconstruct at all.

From the evidence of a character's mediating consciousness, the reader will often be able to reconstruct, first, the immediate “reality”—objects and persons in the character's field of perception, his actions and those of others, etc.; secondly, absent “reality”—objects, persons and events present in the character's memory or, more dubiously, in his speculative projections or imaginings; and thirdly, by extrapolation, the general material culture, mores and norms, etc. These reconstructions are not, of course, relevant only for visualizing the scene directly at hand. They may function as the basis for further reconstructions, whether of another such scene or of the fictive world in general; or they may participate in other types of patterning, formal or thematic.

The reliability of evidence obtained from a character's consciousness may be guaranteed in several ways. The narrative may shuttle back and forth between the character's consciousness and external reality directly presented by the narrator, thereby confirming the character's perceptions. This is the strategy used, for instance, with Bloom and Stephen in Ulysses (1922), where continual microscopic shifts between interior monologue and narratorial segments produce a composite picture, part contributed by the perceiving characters, part directly presented. But the same strategy is not employed in Molly's interior monologue, from which all narratorial segments have been excluded. Nevertheless, we confidently undertake to reconstruct large sectors of fictive reality from Molly's monologue: her immediate experience (train-whistles and church-bells, the unexpected onset of her period, her noisy recourse to the chamber-pot), her recent past (what the cards foretold that morning, her sexual interlude with Boylan that afternoon, Bloom's order of eggs), her more distant past (her first lover “under the Moorish wall, Bloom's courtship and proposal, successive jobs, successive homes), and a fairly thick slice of Dublin life at the beginning of the century.

Thus, reliability may be guaranteed by other means than direct narratorial intervention. Principally, of course, reconstructions based on the content of characters' consciousness are tested against the reader's extra-textual knowledge, the models of physical phenomena, norms of verisimilar behavior, and real-world information which he brings to bear on the text. But reconstructions may also be confirmed internally at a distance, so to speak, rather than immediately as in Bloom's and Stephen's interior monologues. This is classically the case with The Sound and the Fury (1931). Here, increasingly intelligible mediators—Jason, and the completely authoritative voice of the Dilsey section—retroactively substantiate the reconstructions which the reader has made on the basis of less intelligible mediators—the suicidally disturbed Quentin, and, most radically, the idiot Benjy.

When ontological doubt, uncertainty about what is (fictively) real and what fantastic, insinuates itself into a Modernist text, we might well prefer to consider this the leading edge of a new mode of fiction, an anticipation of Post-Modernism. For the ontological stability of external reality seems basic to Modernist fiction. Even where, as in the “Circe” section of Ulysses, we are unsure of the exact boundary between the real and the hallucinatory, we can nevertheless be fairly confident of the underlying reality upon which the hallucinations rest. The underlying reality of Nighttown reasserts itself, for instance, in certain “real” conversations between the whores and their clients, in Stephen's frenzy in the whore-house parlor, in the fist-fight with the soldiers, in Corny Kelleher's intervention, etc. Only in such cases as the joint imaginative projection of the Sutpen story by Quentin and Shreve in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) must the reader fully relinquish ontological certainty.

But if the reader seeks a stable reality among the minds of Gravity's Rainbow—and the novel anticipates that he will—he will be checked and frustrated. Reconstructing a fictive world is a hazardous undertaking here, as several critics have observed; “it is not always clear,” writes Tony Tanner, “whether we are in a bombed-out building or a bombed-out mind” (Tanner, 1974: 51; Cf., Wolfley, 1977: 885). While the minds of James's child and Faulkner's idiot give us reliable access to the worlds of their novels—although not without some interpretative effort on our parts—the minds of Gravity's Rainbow give us access only to provisional “realities” which are always liable to be contradicted and cancelled out. For most of Pynchon's central characters are either paranoiacs “who may possibly be suffering systematized delusions and projecting hostile forces” (Siegel, 1976: 50), or are otherwise hallucination-prone. Tyrone Slothrop, the “hero” insofar as this novel has one, is described as “psychopathically deviant, obsessive, a latent paranoiac” given to “falsification, distorted thought processes” (GR: 90). Pirate Prentice's “talent” for “getting inside the fantasies of others” (GR: 12), Franz Pökler's cinema-oriented dreaminess, Mr. Pointsman's burgeoning megalomania, Tchitcherine's and Enzian's predilections for powerful drugs—all these belong to the same general tendency. Motivation here is reciprocal: hallucination-prone characters motivate the presence of hallucinatory structure and content, while hallucinatory structure and content motivate the presence of hallucination-prone characters.

The shape of the reader's experience in Gravity's Rainbow is repeatedly that of his opening encounter with the Evacuation dream.7 Having reconstructed a partial picture of the novel's fictive world, the reader learns that the episode on which he based his reconstruction never “really” occurred after all. The episode must now be re-motivated as “dream, psychic flash, omen, cryptography, drug-epistemology,” and the supposed realia must be edited out of the reconstructed picture. These unreal realia are now available for integration into other patterns: characterological patterns, thematic patterns, or perhaps the psychic reality “beyond the Zero” which is a feature of this novel's “world” (see part III below)—but in any case not the reconstructed external reality.

There are three variants of this recurrent concretization-deconcretization structure, depending upon the nature and location of the indicators of unreality. In the least problematic variant, the reader is given advance warning that what follows does not belong to the reconstructed “real” world, that it is only a hashish hallucination (GR: 367-368) or a “Leunahalluziationen” (produced by “Leunagasolin,” [GR: 523-524]). In another variant, the most common one, the marker is not prospective but retrospective. Prentice's nightmare is a good example; so is an episode from the history of Franz Pökler's relationship with his supposed daughter Ilse. Pökler is beginning to suspect that the girl who is allowed to visit him once annually may not be his long-lost daughter but a surrogate supplied by the Nazi brass to keep him pacified in his job at Peenemünde, and that through her “They” might also be catering to certain unspoken desires:

“Papi,” gravely unlacing, “may I sleep next to you tonight?” One of her hands had come lightly to rest on the beginning of his bare calf. Their eyes met for a half second. A number of uncertainties shifted then for Pökler and locked into sense. To his shame, his first feeling was pride. He hadn't known he was so vital to the program. Even in this initial moment, he was seeing it from Their side—every quirk goes in the dossier, gambler, foot-fetishist or soccer fan, it's all important, it can all be used. Right now we have to keep them happy, or at least neutralize the foci of their unhappiness. You may not understand what their work really is, not at the level of the data, but you're an administrator after all, a leader, your job is to get results … Pökler, now, has mentioned a “daughter.” Yes, yes we know it's disgusting, one never can tell what they have locked up in there with those equations, but we must all put off our judgments for now, there'll be time after the war to get back to the Pöklers and their dirty little secrets. …

He hit her upside the head with his open hand, a loud and terrible blow. That took care of his anger. Then, before she could cry or speak, he had dragged her up on the bed next to him, her dazed little hands already at the buttons of his trousers, her white frock already pulled above her waist. She had been wearing nothing at all underneath, nothing all day … how I've warned you, she whispered as paternal plow found its way into filial furrow … and after hours of amazing incest they dressed in silence, and crept out into the leading edge of faintest flesh dawn, everything they would ever need packed inside her flowered bag, past sleeping children doomed to the end of summer, past monitors and railway guards, down at last to the water and the fishing boats, to a fatherly old sea-dog in a braided captain's hat, who welcomed them aboard and stashed them below decks, where she snuggled down in the bunk as they got under way and sucked him for hours while the engine pounded, till the Captain called, “Come on up, and take a look at your new home!” Gray and green, through the mist, it was Denmark. “Yes, they're a free people here. Good luck to both of you!” The three of them, there on deck, stood hugging. …

No. What Pökler did was choose to believe she wanted comfort that night, wanted not to be alone. Despite Their game, Their palpable evil, though he had no more reason to trust “Ilse” than he trusted Them, by an act not of faith, not of courage but of conservatism, he chose to believe that.

(GR: 420-421)

The problem here is not that Pökler's incestuous fantasy is not identified as such almost immediately, but rather that, in the face of such concretely, not to say shockingly, realized actions, the retraction is apt to go overlooked. This appears to be what one of Pynchon's critics has done, when he writes: “Pökler's incestuous reunions with [Ilse] are a profound act of imagination, and the writing of these incidents is itself an impressive achievement” (Lippman, 1977: 33). True enough; except that the incest never “actually” occurs. Having been called upon to concretize an arresting and no doubt disturbing scene, the reader is all the more unwilling to deconcretize it again, perhaps even misreading in order to avoid having to do so.8

Often, however, the unreality of an episode is not indicated by any explicit marker, prospective or retrospective, but only by some internal contradiction, or incompatibility with the frame of “reality” within which the episode has been placed, or by some gross violation of extra-textual norms of verisimilitude. Tchitcherine, describing the peculiar hallucinogenic effect of the drug Oneirine, calls this the “radical-though-plausible-violation-of-reality” (GR: 703-704). In a Modernist text like, e.g., Conrad's Under Western Eyes (1911), such a criterion for determining what is “real,” what fantastic, might be adequate. When Razumov strides through the supine body of Haldin on the snowy pavement of St. Petersburg, we have no difficulty in bracketing this apparition, however “solid, distinct, real” (Conrad, 1971: 38), as hallucinatory. But identifying a “radical-though-plausible-violation-of-reality” in Gravity's Rainbow is a rather more daunting task, as Tchitcherine himself discovers when trying to determine whether Nikolai Ripov of the Commissariat for Intelligence Activities is really, threateningly there, or only an Oneirine hallucination (GR: 703-705). However, there are passages in which unmistakable “radical-though-plausible-violations-of-reality” reliably indicate unreality. Several of Slothrop's many fantasies and dreams fall under this category (GR: 251, 255-256, 266, 293). So does the following passage, in which Seaman Bodine and Roger Mexico experience a joint fantasy or imaginative projection of what is about to happen to them at a banquet given by their direst enemies:

At the edge of the pit, with Justus about to light the taper, as Gretchen daintily laces the fuel with GI xylene from down in the dockyards, Seaman Bodine observes Roger's head, being held by four or six hands upside down, the lips being torn away from the teeth and the high gums already draining white as a skull, while one of the maids, a classic satin-and-lace, impish, torturable young maid, brushes the teeth with American toothpaste, carefully scrubbing away the nicotine stains and tartar. Roger's eyes are so hurt and pleading. … All around, guests are whispering. “How quaint, Stefan's even thought of head cheese!” “Oh, no, it's another part I'm waiting to get my teeth in …” giggles, heaving breathing, and what's that pair of very blue peg pants all ripped … and what's this staining the jacket, and what, up on the spit, reddening to a fat-glazed crust, is turning, whose face is about to come rotating around, why it's—

“No ketchup, no ketchup,” the hirsute bluejacket searching agitatedly among the cruets and salvers, “seems to be no … what th'fuck kind of a place is this, Rog,” yelling down slant-wise across seven enemy faces, “hey, buddih you find any ketchup down there?”

Ketchup's a code word, okay—

“Odd,” replies Roger, who clearly has seen exactly the same thing down at the pit, “I was just about to ask you the same question!”

(GR: 714)

What signals unreality here is the incompatibility between the framed passage, in which Roger and Bodine are already prepared and spitted, and the framing “reality”, in which they are still intact.

If the reader experiences disorientation even when markers of unreality come before, within, or immediately after an episode, the disorientation only increases when there is a lag between concretization and deconcretization. Recall that in, e.g., The Sound and the Fury, reality as it appears in later, more intelligible sections only confirms and substantiates, never repudiates, the reality which was reflected in Benjy's mind at the beginning. In Gravity's Rainbow, the reverse is apt to be true: reconstructed realities are liable to be undermined by passages appearing literally hundreds of pages later in the book. This is particularly demoralizing when the elements involved participate in crucial patterns in the text. Slothrop's sexual conquests in London are crucial to the plot of Gravity's Rainbow, since they provide the first evidence of that affinity for the V-2 blitz which will determine Slothrop's subsequent career in the novel. So it is with some dismay that we later learn from Slothrop himself that at least some of these conquests were simply erotic fantasies, not real girls (GR: 302).9 Mr. Pointsman, who is vitally interested in Slothrop's sexual activity, can console himself with the thought that Freud's hysterics, too, reported sexual experiences which “might have been lies evidentially, but were certainly the truth clinically” (GR: 272). This sort of consolation may do for Mr. Pointsman, but it will hardly do for the reader, who, unlike Pointsman, has “witnessed” some of the scenes which are now in jeopardy of disappearing into Slothrop's fantasy-life. In particular, the reader's reconstructed picture incorporates the scene in which Slothrop returns with a girl named Darlene to her East End flat, where her landlady, Mrs. Quoad, subjects him to the “Disgusting English Candy Drill” (GR: 114-120). Mrs. Quoad is minutely particularized: she is a widow, suffers from “a series of antiquated diseases”—currently scurvy—and dreams of her meeting with a royal pretender in the gardens of Bournemouth. But when Poinstman's agents, Speed and Perdoo, seek to verify this episode from Slothrop's erotic history, they find no Darlene at all, and as for Mrs. Quoad, the woman they find by that name is a “flashy divorcée,” not a widow with scurvy, living at “a rather pedicured Mayfair address,” not in the East End (GR: 271). Mrs. Quoad, with all her minute particulars, evidently must be edited out of our reconstructed world, and along with her the “Disgusting English Candy Drill” itself, a memorable slapstick scene. As with Pökler's “amazing incest,” the reader is reluctant to surrender the reality of Mrs. Quoad and the Candy Drill; and we have as evidence a critic's instructive misreading, whereby the “new” Mrs. Quoad is assimilated to the Mrs. Quoad of the Candy Drill (Kaufman, 1976: 204).

But there are additional dimensions of uncertainty in the case of Mrs. Quoad. For the interview with the contradictory Mayfair divorcée is conducted in a context of hallucination. Speed and Perdoo themselves seem to be given to joint fantasies (GR: 270-271), and we approach the Speed-Perdoo episode by way of the consciousness of Mr. Pointsman, who is “feeling a bit megalo these days” (GR: 269), and who shortly thereafter will suffer hallucinations. Is this “new” Mrs. Quoad another of Speed's and Perdoo's joint fantasies, or do all three, Speed, Perdoo, and Quoad, perhaps belong to Mr. Pointman's hallucination? Is Slothrop's version, then, the “real” Mrs. Quoad after all? There is simply no way to decide, so that we are left not with a “real” Mrs. Quoad, but not quite with a figment of Slothrop's imagination, either; rather, we are left with elements whose ontological status is unstable, flickering, indeterminable.

Mrs. Quoad, Darlene, and Slothrop's other girls are victims of a process of retroactive deconcretization. The opposite possibility is also exemplified in Gravity's Rainbow: retroactive concretization of what was originally presented as not real. Again, this effect is especially pronounced when it bears upon crucial patterns in the text. The Schwartzkommando, displaced Black Africans who man German V-2 installations, play an increasingly major role at all levels of the text in the latter part of the novel. They first appear as a fiction devised by an Allied psychological-warfare unit (GR: 74-75, 112-113), so that the discovery of real black rocket troops in Germany is understandably traumatic for all concerned, not least of all the reader (GR: 275-276). Certain “experts” theorize that the Schwartzkommando were actually called into being by Operation Black Wing's phoney evidence of their existence.10

This and similar instances of the concretization of fantasy, of the “return of the repressed” (Wolfley, 1977: 879-880), lack the impact that the flickering reality-unreality of Mrs. Quoad has, for they are narrated summarily rather than presented to the reader through fully particularized scenes.11 More concrete, and therefore more disorienting, is the problematical reality of Tchitcherine's rumored interviews with Wimpe, the head salesman for an IG Farben subsidiary. These scenes are said to be at best highly improbable, for political reasons: “If it were literally true, Tchitcherine wouldn't be here—there's no possible way his life could have been spared [. …]” (GR: 344). Nevertheless, the narrator presents a sample or composite conversation between Wimpe and Tchitcherine, hedging it round with conditionals: “Certainly he could have known Wimpe” (GR: 344); “Tchitcherine would have stayed” (GR: 344); “Surprising they could have got this far, if indeed they did” (GR: 345).12 Occasionally the narrator will sharply remind us of the doubtfulness of the whole episode: “Was Tchitcherine there at all?” (GR: 345); “But these are rumors. Their chronology can't be trusted. Contradictions creep in” (GR: 349). The reality of the scene is further undermined by the interpolation of an unrelated opium hallucination of one Chu Piang, an associate of Tchitcherine's, and by our knowledge that Tchitcherine is himself a habitual drug-user. All of this raises the suspicion that the interviews with Wimpe might be no more than drug-induced hallucinations of Tchitcherine's.

But the doubts so deliberately fostered throughout this episode are completely dispelled by a reprise that comes some three hundred and fifty pages later (GR: 701-702). Tchitcherine's memories of one of his conversations with Wimpe are here presented in a context free from grammatical hedging and the possibility of hallucination (despite the presence of the ubiquitous Oneirine). Thus, the reality of Tchitcherine's interviews with Wimpe is retroactively confirmed.

We can get some insight into the interpretative operations which are responsible for the ontological instability of Gravity's Rainbow if we consider the case of Pirate Prentice and his “strange talent.” Prentice is a “fantasist-surrogate” (GR: 12): he “liv[es] the fantasies of others” (GR: 620), he is able “to take over the burden of managing them […]” (GR: 12). Early in the novel we observe Prentice in the act of managing a monstrous Adenoid which is absorbing London, the fantasy of a certain Lord Osmo of the Foreign Office (GR: 14-16). Another early episode, Frans van der Groov's extermination of the dodoes of Mauritius (GR: 107-111), is only revealed many hundreds of pages later to have been a fantasy in Prentice's management, one he had taken over from Katje Borgesius (GR: 545, 620-621). And this is precisely the unsettling thing about Prentice's talent, so far as our reconstruction of the novel's world is concerned: any passage whatsoever may be a candidate for the internal world of Prentice's managed fantasies. The reader has no real right to be surprised—although he always is—when an episode is retroactively revealed to have been lifted from Prentice's mind, for that possibility is always open. Presumably, to qualify as one of Prentice's second-hand fantasies a passage should display some “radical-though-plausible-violation-of-reality,” and should stand in some relation, even if only of textual continguity, to Prentice himself, but it is not clear that these conditions must invariably be met. In short, Pynchon's invention of the man who manages other people's fantasies places in our hands an immensely powerful naturalization, a ready-made strategy for accounting for anomalous passages. Critics of Gravity's Rainbow have not been slow to appreciate the uses to which such an all-purpose naturalization could be put. For instance, one of them has suggested that we should attempt to read the dream-passage which opens the novel as somebody else's nightmare, taken over by Prentice. Perhaps, suggests this critic, it is none other than Thomas Pynchon's own personal nightmare! (Siegel, 1976:52).

Now this is certainly whimsical, but it does at least hint at the potential comprehensiveness of this naturalization, and the quality of the intelligibility it produces. Like any powerful naturalization of a more general type—e.g., psychoanalytic, archetypal—this one is also powerfully reductive. Ultimately, it is capable of the reductio ad absurdum of locating the whole of the novel within the capacious mind of Pirate Prentice, converting Gravity's Rainbow into a peculiar psychological novel: A Portrait of the Artist as a Fantasist-Surrogate.13 However, Prentice's is not the only mind capacious enough and pliant enough to absorb otherwise unmotivated material. He is not even the only fantasist-surrogate; much later, a minor character named Miklos Thanatz also shows signs of possessing Prentice's talent (GR: 672). But with so many hallucination- and fantasy-prone characters to choose from—Slothrop, Pökler, Tchitcherine, Enzian, Pointsman, and others—there is no reason to center exclusively on Prentice the naturalizing operation that might equally well be centered on any of them.

The temptation to apply this type of naturalization on a large scale is especially strong when we reach the later parts of the novel, where fragmentation, discontinuity, lack of motivation, and unintelligibility increase drastically. The textual evidence which might justify our naturalizing these fragments as characters' dreams or fantasies is there for us to discover, if we choose. For instance, the “disquieting structure” in which Prentice and others inexplicably find themselves (GR: 537-548), and which a cryptic epigraph suggests might be Hell, seems eminently suitable for naturalization as Pirate's fantasy, perhaps a joint fantasy shared with Katje Borgesius. The clue is there: at one point, it passes through Pirate's mind that “This is one of his own in progress. Nobody else's” (GR: 543). The even more bizarre story of Byron, the sentient and immortal light-bulb (GR: 647-655), is explicitly connected with dream-dialogues which Franz Pökler once held with a light-bulb in the underground rocket factory at Nordhausen (GR: 647; Cf., GR: 426-427): an unmistakable invitation to naturalize.14 The comic-book-style adventures of the Floundering Four (GR: 674-681, 688-690) and of Takeshi and Ichizo, the “Komical Kamikazes” (GR: 690-692, 697-699), might be read as emanating from Slothrop's mind. Here the textual evidence is more plentiful than in the case of Prentice's “disquieting structure” or Pökler's sentient bulb, but less straightforward.15 The contents of these fragments are of a kind with which we already know Slothrop's mind to be stocked; moreover, they are all more or less contiguous with plausibly “real” episodes involving Slothrop. That is, Slothrop is “on the scene,” available should one require a likely mind to which to attribute an unattached fantasy. Accordingly, more than one critic has attached these fantasies to Slothrop (Mendelson, 1976: 183-184; Sanders, 1975: 143).

If we concur in this, we will have succeeded in imposing a high degree of order on a violently disorderly section of the text. This may be a satisfying outcome, but our satisfaction will have been purchased at the price of too much of the text's interest. The text is more intelligible now, true, but less interestingly so than if we had allowed ourselves to entertain less total naturalizations, to build, if only provisionally, other possible worlds, to give full play to sheerly formal patterning, to dwell on the very tension between modes of intelligibility and the apparently unintelligible. The naturalization we have been tracing, which absorbs otherwise unmotivated passages into the minds of characters, is too powerful: it drastically curtails the process of reconstructing a world, ultimately leaving too little unresolved.


“[…] not cause. It all goes along together. Parallel, not series. Metaphor. Signs and symptoms. Mapping onto different coordinate systems, I don't know …” […]

But he said: “Try to design anything that way and have it work.”

(GR: 159)

If one long-recognized trademark of Modernist fiction is the interposing of a character's mind between the reader and the external (fictive) world, with all that that implies for the reader's reconstruction of reality, then another is certainly the use of more than one mediating consciousness. The presentation of multiple minds is likely to entail the use of some device for effecting transitions from one mind to another, some device, that is, for motivating the sequence of minds. Where, as in earlier fiction, a narrator is present who is able to enter any character's mind more or less at will, mind-to-mind transitions pose relatively little difficulty.16 But where, as typically in Modernist fiction, the narrator voluntarily renounces some of his powers or even absents himself entirely, some device must be developed for motivating mind-to-mind transitions. This new device—new at least in its frequency and prominence, if not an absolute innovation—involves the use of coordinates in the “real” world external to all the minds in question. The transition from the third to the fourth chapters of the final section of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) makes use of external coordinates in this way:

Down there among the little boats which floated, some with their sails furled, some slowly, for it was very calm, moving away, there was one rather apart from the others. The sail was even now being hoisted. She decided that there in that very distant and entirely silent little boat Mr. Ramsay was sitting with Cam and James. Now they had got the sail up; now after a little flagging and hesitation the sails filled and, shrouded in profound silence, she watched the boat take its way with deliberation past the other boats out to sea.


The sails flapped over their heads. The water chuckled and slapped the sides of the boat, which drowsed motionless in the sun. Now and then the sails rippled with a little breeze in them, but the ripple ran over them and ceased. The boat made no motion at all. Mr. Ramsay sat in the middle of the boat. He would be impatient in a moment, James thought, and Cam thought, looking at their father, who sat in the middle of the boat between them (James steered; Cam sat alone in the bow) with his legs tightly curled. He hated hanging about.

(Woolf, 1974: 184)

The narrative moves from the mind of Lily Briscoe, watching from the shore, to the minds of those in the boat—James's, Cam's, and, at one remove, Mr. Ramsay's—by way of the sail. The sequence is evidently to be motivated in terms of some notion of “triangulation”: two perceivers having focused on the same object of perception, the sail in this case, a channel is opened through which we pass from one perceiver to the other. Examples include not only the various transitions back and forth between shore and boat in the final section of To the Lighthouse, but also the intriguing motor-car and the skywriting airplane which motivate transitions among whole series of minds in Mrs. Dalloway (1925; cf., Sternberg 1970). But Mrs. Dalloway also features several less spectacular, more routine, but equally functional transitions of this kind: between Peter Walsh and Rezia, once by way of the little girl in Regent's Park and once by way of the vagrant woman who sings opposite the tube station; between Rezia and Hugh Whitbread, by way of the clock on Harley Street; between Elizabeth and Septimus, by way of the alternating shadow and light of an afternoon in the Strand; between various minds gathered at Clarissa Dalloway's party, first by way of the billowing yellow curtains, then later by way of the Prime Minister, who functions here much as the royal motor-car did earlier; and finally, pervasively, by way of the chimes of Big Ben. There are other good Modernist examples of transition by triangulation in, for instance, the “Wandering Rocks” section of Ulysses.

As with all types of sequence in fiction, the temporal dimension of the sequence of minds is crucial. What is the relation between the order of the formal sequence mind-object-mind and the temporality of the reconstructed fictive episode? Evidentally there are two possibilities. Either the order at the formal level represents, by its own sequentiality, consecutiveness at the reconstructed level—one person perceives an object, then another person does, as is predominantly the case with the motor-car and skywriter of Mrs. Dalloway; or sequential order at the formal level represents simultaneity at the reconstructed level, as is the case with the transition from Lily Briscoe to those in the boat or, even more markedly, with the following transition from Mrs. Dalloway's mind to Miss Kilman's. (The preceding paragraphs had been devoted to Mrs. Dalloway's interior monologue.)

[…] but here the other clock, the clock which always struck two minutes after Big Ben, came shuffling in with its lap full of odds and ends, which it dumped down as if Big Ben were all very well with his majesty laying down the law, so solemn, so just, but she must remember all sorts of little things besides—Mrs. Marsham, Ellie Henderson, glasses for ices—all sorts of little things came flooding and lapping and dancing in on the wake of that solemn stroke which lay flat like a bar of gold on the sea. Mrs. Marsham, Ellie Henderson, glasses for ices. She must telephone now at once.

Volubly, troublously, the late clock sounded, coming in on the wake of Big Ben, with its lap full of trifles. Beaten up, broken up by the assault of carriages, the brutality of vans, the eager advance of myriads of angular men, of flaunting women, the domes and spires of offices and hospitals, the last relics of this lap full of odds and ends seemed to break, like the spray of an exhausted wave, upon the body of Miss Kilman standing still in the street for a moment to mutter, ‘It is the flesh.’

(Woolf, 1971: 141-2)

In the “real” world, Clarissa's and Miss Kilman's experiences are simultaneous, in parallel, as the presence of the late clock's chimes in both their fields of perception emphasizes. But narrative, by its very nature incapable of representing simultaneity except by sequence, must deploy this moment of parallel experience as a transition from one perceiving mind to another by way of a mutually-perceived sound.

Is the real-world temporal order ever reversed in this kind of sequence? Do we ever pass from a mind in the present to a mind in the past by way of external coordinates? Evidently not, unless we extend our description of this device to cover certain related phenomena: the use of external objects to effect a transition between different moments of consciousness of a single individual, or between present experience and memorial experience. The locus classicus is of course Proust (the madeleine, the uneven paving-stones, etc.), although in A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927) such transitions, instead of being left to the reader to motivate, are explicitly motivated by the narrator's elaborate discurses on the mechanism of “involuntary memory.” However, motivation is left to the reader to supply in the idiot's monologue of The Sound and the Fury—of necessity, since Benjy lacks Marcel's powers of introspection and articulation. Not only do objects or phenomena in Benjy's immediate field of perception (snagging himself on a nail, wading in the branch, the carriage, the gate, the fire) give him access to past moments of consciousness, allowing him to relive them, but certain remembered objects or phenomena (cold weather, the smell of Versh's house, a phrase uttered by Roskus, rounding a corner) allow him to pass from one past experience to another within his memory.

Several crucial transitions in Gravity's Rainbow similarly reverse real-world temporal order; yet these are not transitions among moments of consciousness of a single self, as in Proust and Faulkner, but genuine transitions among separate minds. In order to motivate these mind-to-mind transitions, one must shift one's sights from coordinates in the characters' “real” phenomenal world to coordinates in the Other World, the world “beyond the Zero.”

A passage early in the novel establishes the paradigm for all subsequent occurrences of this “mediumistic” transition. Carroll Eventyr has been serving as the principal “reflector” of life at a wartime psychic-research unit in Kent. Although the narrative shifts fairly freely from his mind to other, contiguous minds, or to the narrator's perspective, Eventyr's consciousness is nevertheless the touchstone throughout the passage (GR: 145-154). Now, Carroll Eventyr is a spiritualist medium. His “control,” the spirit who speaks through him, and through whom he contacts others in the spirit-world, is one Peter Sachsa, himself once a successful medium in Weimar Germany. Thus, it is by way of Sachsa that a transition is made between Eventyr in Kent, 1945, and the Weimar Republic sometime in the late Twenties:

On his side, Eventyr [the medium] tends to feel wholly victimized, even a bit resentful. Peter Sachsa [the control], on his, falls amazingly out of character and into nostalgia for life, the old peace, the Weimar decadence that kept him fed and moving. Taken forcibly over in 1930 by a blow from a police truncheon during a street action in Neukölln, he recalls now, sentimentally, evenings of rubbed darkwood, cigar smoke, ladies in chiseled jade, panne, attar of damask roses, the latest angular pastel paintings on the walls, the latest drugs inside the many little table drawers. More than any mere “Kreis,” on most nights full mandalas come to bloom: all degrees of society all quarters of the capital, palms down on that famous blood veneer, touching only at little fingers. Sachsa's table was like a deep pool in the forest. Beneath the surface things were rolling, slipping, beginning to rise. … Walter Asch (“Taurus”) was visited one night by something so unusual it took three “Hieropons” (250 mg.) to bring him back, and even so he seemed reluctant to sleep. They all stood watching him, in ragged rows resembling athletic formations, Wimpe the IG-man who happened to be holding the Hieropon keying on Sargner, a civilian attached to General Staff, flanked by Lieutenant Weissman, recently back from South-West Africa, and the Herero aide he'd brought with him, staring, staring at them all, at everything … while behind them ladies moved in a sibilant weave, sequins and high-albedo stockings aflash, black-and-white make-up in daintily nasal alarm, eyes wide going oh. … Each face that watched Walter Asch was a puppet stage: each a separate routine.

… shows good hands yes droop and wrists as far up as muscle relaxant respiratory depression …

… same … same … my own face white in mirror three threethirty four march of the Hours clock ticking room no can't go in no not enough light not enough no aaahhh

… theatre nothing but Walter really look at head phony angle wants to catch light good fill-light throw a yellow gel …

(A pneumatic toy frog jumps up onto a lily pad trembling: beneath the surface lies a terror … a late captivity … but he floats now over the head of what would take him back … his eyes cannot be read. …)

… mba rar m'eroto ondyoze … mbe mu munine m'oruroto ayo u n'omuinyo … (further back than this is a twisting of yarns or cordage, a giant web, a wrenching of hide, of muscles in the hard grip of something that comes to wrestle when the night is deep … and a sense, too, of visitation by the dead, afterward a sick feeling that they are not as friendly as they seemed to be … he has wakened, cried, sought explanation, but noone ever told him anything he could believe. The dead have talked with him, come and sat, shared his milk, told stories of ancestors, or of spirits from other parts of the veld—for time and space on their side have no meaning, all is together).


Having accomplished the passage from present to past, from Eventyr's world to Sachsa's, the narrative is now able to circulate among the minds of Sachsa's circle as it had among those of Eventyr's. We are plunged successively into the streams-of-consciousness of the spectators of Walter Asch's memorable séance, although we can only identify a few of them specifically (the Herero aide, Wimpe, perhaps Sachsa himself). The structural parallelism between this mode of transition and Modernist transition by triangulation is striking. However, where the Modernist device involves the use of coordinates in the “real” visible, audible, tangible, etc. world shared by the characters, Pynchon's device involves the invisible, extra-sensory world, accessible only to the likes of Eventyr. Where the Modernist sequence represents either simultaneity or consecutiveness at the level of the reconstructed world, Pynchon's sequence carries the narrative by mind-to-mind transition backwards into the past.

The mode of transition worked out in little in this passage is almost immediately afterwards applied on a much larger scale (GR: 154-167). Once again the narrative moves from Eventyr the medium, through Sachsa, his control, to Sachsa's Weimar milieu; but this time it lingers within the various minds it finds there—that of Sachsa's lover Leni, that of her husband Franz—rather than hurrying on from one to the next as in the earlier passage. Note that Sachsa's mind is not in any sense embedded in Carroll Eventyr's, as one narrator may be embedded within another's narration in, e.g., Conrad or Faulkner. Nor is Leni's consciousness embedded in Sachsa's; and certainly Franz's is not. Mediumistic contact only allows us to motivate, in terms of norms of verisimilitude presupposed by this novel (mediums, controls, a spirit-world, etc.), transitions on the formal level; it does not authorize our reconstructing a “real” situation in which the contents of one mind are accessible to another.

When the narrative next makes the transition from Eventyr's world to Sachsa's by way of the “Other Side,” a new element will be introduced, one which also recalls typical Modernist structures, but again with a difference. Eventyr has been given to understand, by oblique and sinister hints, that he is in some sense Peter Sachsa's double. He speculates that the parallelism might extend to his lover, Nora Dodson-Truck: “If there are analogies here, if Eventyr does, somehow, map on to Peter Sachsa, then does Nora Dodson-Truck become the woman Sachsa loved, Leni Pökler?” (GR: 218) The passage which immediately follows serves to answer this question in the affirmative, for here we pass imperceptibly—ambiguous pronoun references help—from Eventyr's relationship with Nora, to Sachsa's with Leni (GR: 218-220). Clearly this transition is motivated at least in part by the mediumistic contact which we already know to exist between Eventyr and Sachsa. But just as clearly it also relates to the characteristically Modernist structure of analogical integration. As Meir Sternberg has demonstrated with respect to Faulkner's Light in August, the Modernist novel often resists attempts to unify it according to mimetic models, forcing the reader to discover non-mimetic unifying patterns: analogies between events, strands of action, characters, themes (Sternberg, 1970; Cf., Perry, 1968). Pynchon's metaphor of “mapping” is a good one for this process; nevertheless, the transition in this passage is significantly unlike Modernist analogical integration. In novels like Light in August, analogical integration cannot be related to norms of verisimilitude; it is expressly anti-mimetic. That is, analogical patterns lie at a level above that of the fictive world in which the characters move. By contrast, in Gravity's Rainbow “mapping” is mimetically motivated. The correspondence between Eventyr and Nora on the one hand, and Sachsa and Leni on the other, is, in the terms of the model of reality presupposed by this novel, “real”—psychic, but “real.”

This transition by “mapping”, if dependent upon bizarre norms of verisimilitude, is, at least, readily intelligible in one respect: the analogical pattern upon which it is based is known in advance. Indeed, Eventyr's troubled ruminations have no other function than to inform the reader that Eventyr maps onto Sachsa, Nora onto Leni, thereby explicitly motivating the transition from Eventyr, 1945, to Sachsa, 1930, which follows. The text is less attentive to the reader's comfort in other instances of transition by “mapping”. Consider the bizarre transition between Slothrop's sado-masochistic episode with Margerita Erdmann and Franz Pökler's memories of the begetting of his daughter Ilse (GR: 395-398). In a derelict film studio, 1945, Slothrop and Greta recreate a scene of bondage and copulation from a film in which Greta once played, Slothrop doubling as Greta's one-time co-star, Max Schlepzig, whose passport he happens by an absurd coincidence to be carrying. Sometime in the Thirties, Franz Pökler, aroused by this same film, had come home to father a child on his wife Leni. This daughter, Ilse, is thus the double on this side of the cinema-screen, so to speak, of the daughter that Greta conceived during the filming of the scene. A whole system of analogies among characters and events arises from these episodes: both Slothrop and Franz Pökler map onto Max Schlepzig; Leni maps onto Greta, Ilse onto Greta's daughter Bianca, and Greta onto her own earlier self. But one could not say that this paradigm of doublings allows us to motivate the transition from Slothrop's consciousness to Pökler's. If anything, the reverse is true: it is the sequence which allows us to reconstruct the analogical pattern.

Or, finally, consider the even more bizarre transition from Geli Tripping, the witch, to Gottfried, Captain Blicero's catamite, very late in the novel (GR: 720-721). One critic (Wolfley, 1977: 883-884) has rightly observed that there is no justification for this transition in terms of plot or chronology: Geli and Gottfried have never had even indirect dealings, and Geli's moment of consciousness is located in spring 1946, Gottfried's the year before. This critic is equally correct in finding the motivation for this conjunction at the level of thematic analogy: Geli meditates upon man's role as promoter of death in Creation, while Gottfried is harangued by Blicero on the “American Death” about to be visited on Europe. But there are, in addition, other analogies which make this another example of the mediumistic “mapping” transition. Blicero reminds Gottfried of a time when “you used to whisper me to sleep with stories of us one day living on the Moon” (GR: 723). Now, we have heard of such stories before, but in connection with Franz Pökler's daughter Ilse (GR: 410, 420), never in connection with Gottfried. So Gottfried, it seems, maps onto Ilse; and Ilse, as we know, maps onto Greta Erdmann's daughter Bianca. Geli Tripping, in turn, is a sort of Bianca-surrogate, both having been Slothrop's lovers at one time or another. This might seem an extraordinarily devious way to establish an analogy between Geli and Gottfried, but it should be borne in mind, first, that by this point in the novel all the young female characters have begun to merge in Slothrop's mind, but more so in the reader's, so that to equate Gottfried with any one of them is tantamount to equating him with the whole series; and, secondly, that the deviousness and implausibility of the connection may very well be the point. This transition may have been introduced, among other reasons, to focus sharply for us our growing suspicion that almost any character in this novel can be analogically related to almost any other character—to raise for us the demoralizing prospect of free and all but unmanageable analogical patterning.

Last but not least, it should be recalled that Geli Tripping, as a practicing witch, is qualified to effect “mediumistic” transitions from mind to mind by way of the “Other Side” in the same way that the spiritualist medium Carroll Eventyr was. Viewed in one light, then, the transition from Geli to Gottfried, just as the earlier transition from Slothrop to Franz Pökler, appears as an instance of Pynchon's outrageous and subversive manipulation of analogies. But it is also strictly mimetic in a world in which, as we already know, occult “mappings” are possible.


If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.

(GR: 434)

Pynchon's reader has every right to feel conned, bullied, betrayed. Indeed, these responses are the essence of the aesthetic effect of Gravity's Rainbow. The reader has been invited to undertake the kinds of pattern-making and pattern-interpreting operations which, in the Modernist texts with which he is familiar, would produce intelligible meaning; here, they produce almost a parody of intelligibility. He has been confronted with representations of mental processes of the kind which, in Modernist texts, he could have relied upon in reconstructing external (fictive) reality. In Gravity's Rainbow, such representations are always liable to be retroactively qualified as dream, fantasy, or hallucination, while the reconstructions based upon them are always subject to contradiction or cancellation. The ultimate effect is radically to destabilize novelistic ontology. Similarly, the reader has been invited to motivate transitions among sequences of minds in a way which obviously relates to the Modernist device of transition by “triangulation”, only to find himself led into increasingly bizarre and increasingly unstable “occult” transitions. Elusive modes of intelligibility and, if that weren't enough, unacceptable or distressing types of content—pornography, broad slap-stick comedy, technical scientific material, etc.—one might well wonder, along with the Pulitzer committee that rejected Gravity's Rainbow, what to make of it all.

Or perhaps the question should be not so much what to make of it, as what it makes of one. For the effect of this troublesome novel is, finally, the salutary one of disrupting the conditioned responses of the Modernist reader (and we are all, still, Modernist readers), of de-conditioning the reader. It is the same effect, no doubt, as Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Sound and the Fury had on their first readers.

Pynchon at one point quotes Pavlov's remarks about the extinction of a conditioned reflex “beyond the point of reducing a reflex to zero,” “a silent extinction beyond the zero” (84-85). The readerly equivalent of this de-conditioning “beyond the zero” is that state in which “nothing is connected to anything” which Pynchon calls anti-paranoia. It is an instructive, perhaps even hygenic, state to be in for a time, even though it is, as Pynchon goes on to say, “a condition not many of us can bear for long” (GR: 434). My use of the metaphors of paranoia and anti-paranoia for our habits of reading and the damage which Gravity's Rainbow does them may seem extravagant, but it is not wholly unadvised. As one of Pynchon's critics has penetratingly remarked, the frame of mind in which one is required to read Modernist fiction, the mind-set of tout se tient, might aptly be characterized as paranoiac. Paranoia, it seems,

is the condition under which most of modern literature comes to life: the author relies on the reader to find correspondences between names, colors, or the physical attributes of characters and other invisible qualities of those characters, places, and actions, while to do so in “real life” would clearly be an indication of paranoid behavior.

(Siegel 1976: 50)

Pynchon's text sets itself against this Modernist mind-set, chiefly by luring the paranoid reader—the Modernist reader—into interpretative dark alleys, cul-de-sacs, impossible situations, and requiring him to find his way out by some other path than the one he came in.

We could make a different approach to the effect of Gravity's Rainbow by way of Reuven Tsur's illuminating distinction between certitude and “negative capability” in literary interpretation (Tsur, 1975). Tsur's distinction derives, of course, from the famous and much-debated remark in John Keats's letter to his brothers (Dec. 21/27, 1817): “I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason [. …]” (quoted in Tsur, 1975: 776). It is certainly the case, as Tsur observes, that too much literary criticism is characterized by a “reaching after fact & reason” and an incapability of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts;” and scarcely any criticism has been more “irritable” in its “reaching” than the criticism written on Gravity's Rainbow. As certain of Pynchon's more sympathetic—and more negatively capable—critics have remarked, Pynchon criticism has tended to translate the disturbing experience of reading Gravity's Rainbow directly into tractable, coherent statements of theme (Poirier, 1973: 167; Poirier, 1975: 19; Levine, 1976: 113; Levine & Leverenz, 1976a: 11; Rosenbaum, 1976: 67-68). Needless to say, nearly everything is lost in the translation. From first to last, the reader's experience proves that Gravity's Rainbow will not boil down quite so readily to intelligible patterns of theme, or indeed to any of the patterns which we have learned to expect from Modernist texts. Reading Gravity's Rainbow is good training in negative capability.

I would, finally, like to venture some hypotheses about the general relation between Post-Modern writing and the literary tradition. These are not in the nature of considered conclusions, but strictly of hypotheses to be verified only by further empirical study.

The received verdict on Post-Modern fiction has been that it constitutes an affront to the whole prior history of literature, that it is directed against narration and the principles of narrativity in general. This view of the universal subversiveness of the Post-Modern can be traced, I suspect, to the French criticism of the 1950's which sprang up around the Nouveau Roman, on both sides, pro and con of the question (see, e.g., Barthes 1964: 29-40, 63-70, 101-105, 198-205). I would like to suggest that this view is an effect of the perspective of these particular critics and apologists at their particular historical moment. The Post-Modern, I would like to suggest, is less an indiscriminate shotgun-blast than a kind of sharpshooting directed at specific targets.

For the Post-Modern which those seminal critics defined was a particular Post-Modern—that of the Nouveau Roman—and the literary past which it spurned and subverted was equally specific: not narration in general, not the principles of all narrativity, but the particular historical phenomenon which might be called Balzacian Realism. By the same token, I have been arguing that the variety of Post-Modern writing exemplified by Gravity's Rainbow—the variety of which Pynchon is perhaps the preeminent practitioner17—is specifically directed against Modernist reading. Other varieties may well be related to other specific historical phenomena; in any case, it is clear that it will not do simply to set Post-Modern fiction in opposition to the whole prior development of narrative. Any respectable description of a Post-Modern text should include some account of the specific repertoire of interpretative operations—whether it be that of Balzacian Realism, that of Modernism, or any other—against which it is directed; the repertoire, in other words, which the text in question “keys on.” This way we will eliminate the “apocalyptic” view of literary history (see, e.g., Barthes 1971: 155-164), whereby serious fiction is supposed to have become at one moment—and across the board—irrevocably and monolithically Post-Modern.


  1. Pynchon, 1973: 194. All subsequent references will be to the 1973 Viking edition of Gravity's Rainbow, and will be noted parenthetically in the text (GR:).

    No reader could hope to grapple with Pynchon unaided. I am indebted to friends who have helped clarify literary and/or scientific aspects of Gravity's Rainbow: John Cartmell, Ron Hankison, Randall Stevenson, Douglas Young.

  2. The “realism” of this opening dream-episode—the fact that it cannot be distinguished on internal evidence from “real” episodes—has been remarked by several critics: Siegel (1976:51-52); Seed (1976:79). And surely that “realism” is only enhanced by recollections of another text, an aggressively “realistic” one, which also begins with screaming in the midst of an evacuation, viz., Hemingway's In Our Time (1930): “The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight. I do not know why they screamed at that time. We were in the harbor and they were all on the pier and at midnight they started screaming” (Hemingway, 1958:9).

  3. Actually, The Crying of Lot 49 is formally closer to The Ambassadors than to What Maisie Knew. Oedipa Maas, like Strether but unlike Maisie, is articulate to the same degree as the novel's narrator is articulate; the gap between her voice and the narrator's is so small as to be negligible. Indeed, the novel goes out of its way to motivate several of its most important and extravagant metaphors as plausibly emanating from Oedipa: Pynchon (1967: 13, 15; 93, 95-96; 136-137).

  4. This baring of the device was already anticipated in Pynchon's short story “Entropy” (1960), in which a character dictates his memoirs in the third person. The Education of Henry Adams was explicitly named as the precedent in this short story; a Post-Modern version is, of course, Mailer's The Armies of the Night.

  5. The extreme self-consciousness of this strategy is made all the more apparent when one realizes that this same espionage melodrama had originally been rendered from a unitary, “omniscient” narratorial point of view in an earlier short story, “Under the Rose” (1961); see Cowart (1977).

  6. The general perspective underlying my approach is best formulated in the admirable chapter on “Convention and Naturalization” in Culler (1975: 131-160).

  7. This experience of the reader's in Gravity's Rainbow is anticipated by Pynchon's earlier novels. The career of V. in the novel of that name is an imaginative projection by one Herbert Stencil on the basis of doubtful and fragmentary information. The information, we are told (Pynchon, 1964: 211), has been “Stencilized”: “Around each seed of a dossier […] had developed a nacreous mass of inference, poetic license, forcible dislocation of personality into a past he didn't remember and had no right in, save the right of imaginative anxiety or historical care [. …] The rest was impersonation and dream” (Pynchon, 1964:50-51). In The Crying of Lot 49, the ontological embarrassments are transferred to the heroine, Oedipa, something of a literary critic herself, whose difficulties in reconstructing the reality of the Tristero System the reader shares.

  8. Should one be in doubt about the unreality of this incest, since there is some ambiguity here about how much of this episode did not happen, confirmation is to be found 1) in the fact that Franz and Ilse do not defect to Denmark, and 2) in a later moment when “Pökler got hysterical and did slap her” (GR:430)—the “did” here indicating that the first time he had not actually slapped her after all. If he did not slap her, and if they did not defect, then the intervening events—paternal plow and filial furrow—seem unlikely to have “really” occurred.

  9. In fact, this possibility had been anticipated from the beginning, although only in the form of unreliable speculation by a minor character, one Teddy Bloat (GR: 19).

  10. The Schwarzkommando themselves are sensitive to the implausibility of their own existence. As Enzian the Nguarorerue, their leader, tells Slothrop: “There are even now powerful factions in Paris who don't believe we exist. And most of the time I'm not so sure myself […] I think we're here, but only in a statistical way. Something like that rock over there is just about 100٪ certain—it knows it's there, so does everybody else. But our own chances of being right here right now are only a little better than even—the slightest shift in the probabilities and we're gone—schnapp! like that” (GR: 361-362).

  11. The theme of concretization of fantasy had already been anticipated in The Crying of Lot 49, where Driblette the theatrical director describes himself as “the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also” (Pynchon, 1967:56). Oedeipa takes over his metaphor along with his ontology: “Shall I project a world?” (Pynchon, 1967:58-59).

  12. Such verbal blurring or hedging of reality is of course a major stylistic device of Faulkner's prose. For these purposes Faulkner favors the conjunction or and conditional adverbs such as possibly, likely, probably, doubtless, maybe, perhaps; see especially Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Pynchon had already used such a device to comic effect in The Crying of Lot 49: “Popov did send out a ship, either the corvette ‘Bogatir’ or the clipper ‘Gaidamak,’ to see what it could see. Off the coast of either what is now Carmel-by-the-Sea, or what is now Pismo Beach, around noon or possibly toward dusk, the two ships sighted each other. One of them may have fired; if it did then the other responded; but both were out of range so neither showed a scar afterward to prove anything” (Pynchon, 1967: 32).

  13. This is not as fanciful an outcome as it might seem. After all, what else has Bruce Morrissette done but apply precisely this reductive naturalization to Robbe-Grillet's novels, locating each within the mind of a protagonist whose particular psychopathology manifests itself in the novel's structure; Morrissette (1963); cf., Culler (1975: 200).

  14. Other naturalizations are possible, however. Byron's story is said to be dictated to one Eddie Pensiero, who is able to “read” shivers, through the “muscular modulations” of the soldier cranking the generator that supplies Byron with power (GR:640-642, 647). Since Pensiero is also identified as a benzedrine user, perhaps this authorizes us to locate Byron's story within Pensiero's hallucination. A more disorienting possibility is that we are meant to incorporate Byron in the “real” world of Gravity's Rainbow. This may be indicated by the recurrence throughout the novel, in contexts of varying reliability, of other sentient inanimate objects: ball-bearings (GR:583-585), rocks (GR:612-613), even other light-bulbs (GR:464).

  15. Certain material in these passages, in fact, resists this naturalization. Some elements of the “Komical Kamikaze” episodes obviously relate to Pirate Prentice's experience, and could not plausibly emanate from Slothrop's mind (GR:698). Other elements (GR:691-692) derive from a hallucination once suffered by a certain Geza Rózsavölgyi (GR:634-635), hence are equally inaccessible to Slothrop; unless, that is, we give credence to Roger Mexico's paranoid fear of merging minds with Rózsavölgyi (GR:634). If with Mexico, why not with Slothrop?

  16. For an exemplary analysis of the motivation of transitions in a typical nineteenth-century Realist text, see Hrushovski (1976). My own approach draws upon the general theory of the literary text outlined in Hrushovski's paper.

  17. As testimony to his preeminence, we note that Pynchon has already acquired his first epigone in Tom Robbins, whose recent Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976) is clearly derivative of Gravity's Rainbow.


Barthes, Roland, 1964. Essais critiques (Paris: Seuil).

1975 The Pleasure of the Text, Richard Miller, trans. (New York: Hill & Wang).

1977 “From Work to Text,” in: Image—Music—Text, Stephen Heath, trans. (New York: Hill & Wang), 155-164.

Conrad, Joseph, 1971. Under Western Eyes (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Cowart, David, 1977. “Love and Death: Variations on a Theme in Pynchon's Early Fiction,” Journal of Narrative Technique 7, 157-169.

Culler, Jonathan, 1975. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Hemingway, Ernest, 1958. In Our Time (New York: Scribner's).

Hrushovski, Benjamin, 1976. Segmentation and Motivation in the Text Continuum of Literary Prose: The First Episode of War and Peace (=Papers on Poetics and Semiotics 5) (Tel Aviv: Israeli Institute for Poetics and Semiotics).

Kaufman, Marjorie, 1976. “Brünhilde and the Chemists: Women in Gravity's Rainbow,” in: Levine & Leverenz, 1976b: 197-227.

Levine, George, 1976. “Risking the Moment: Anarchy and Possibility in Pynchon's Fiction,” in: Levine & Leverenz, 1976b: 113-136.

Levine, George, & David Leverenz, 1976a. “Introduction: Mindful Pleasures,” in Levine & Leverenz, 1976b: 3-11.

1976b Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon (Boston: Little, Brown).

Lippman, Bertram, 1977. “The Reader of Movies: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow,The Denver Quarterly 12, 1-46.

Mendelson, Edward, 1976. “Gravity's Encyclopedia,” in: Levine & Leverenz, 1976b: 161-95.

1978a “Introduction,” in: Mendelson, 1978b: 1-15.

1978b Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall).

Morrissette, Bruce, 1963. Les Romans de Robbe-Grillet (Paris).

Patteson, Richard, 1974. “What Stencil Knew: Structure and Certitude in Pynchon's V.,Critique 16, 30-44.

Perry, Menachem, 1968. “Analogy and its Role as a Structural Principle in the Novels of Mendele Moykher-Sforim” (in Hebrew), Hasifrut 1, 65-100.

Poirier, Richard, 1973. “Rocket Power,” in: Mendelson, 1978b: 167-178.

1975 “The Importance of Thomas Pynchon,” in: Levine & Leverenz, 1976b: 15-29.

Pynchon, Thomas, 1964. V.: A Novel (New York: Bantam).

1967 The Crying of Lot 49 (New York: Bantam).

1973 Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking).

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, 1976. “A Reply,” in: Mendelson, 1978b: 67-68.

Sanders, Scott, 1975. “Pynchon's Paranoid History,” in: Levine & Leverenz, 1976b: 139-159.

Seed, David, 1976. “The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon,” Critical Quarterly 18, 4, 73-81.

Siegel, Mark R., 1976. “Creative Paranoia: Understanding the System of Gravity's Rainbow,” Critique 18: 39-54.

Sternberg, Meir, 1970. “The Compositional Principles of Faulkner's Light in August and the Poetics of the Modern Novel” (in Hebrew), Hasifrut 2, 498-537.

Tanner, Tony, 1974, “V. & V-2,” in: Mendelson, 1978b: 47-55.

Tsur, Reuven, 1975. “Two Critical Attitudes: Quest for Certitude and Negative Capability,” College English 36, 777-788.

Wolfley, Lawrence C., 1977. “Repression's Rainbow: The Presence of Norman O. Brown in Pynchon's Big Novel,” PMLA 92, 873-889.

Woolf, Virginia, 1971. Mrs. Dalloway (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

———, 1974. To the Lighthouse (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Principal Works

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The Crying of Lot 49 (novel) 1966

V. (novel) 1966

Gravity's Rainbow (novel) 1973

Slow Learner: Early Stories (short stories) 1984

Vineland (novel) 1990

Mason and Dixon (novel) 1997

Joel D. Black (essay date winter 1980)

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SOURCE: Black, Joel D. “Probing a Post-Romantic Paleontology: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.Boundary 2 8, no. 2 (winter 1980): 229-54.

[In the following essay, Black discusses the ways in which Gravity's Rainbow revivifies the Romantic conception of the relationship between the physical force of gravity and the ethical problems of humanity's Fall and sinful nature.]

How tardily men arrive at any result! how tardily they pass from it to another! The crystal sphere of thought is as concentrical as the geological structure of the globe. As our soils and rocks lie in strata, concentric strata, so do all men's thinkings run laterally, never vertically. Here comes by a great inquisitor with augur and plumb-line, and will bore an Artesian well through our conventions and theories, and pierce to the core of things. But as soon as he probes the crust, behold gimlet, plumb-line, and philosopher take a lateral direction, in spite of all resistance, as if some strong wind took everything off its feet, and if you come month after month to see what progress our reformer has made—not an inch has he pierced—you still find him with new words in the old place, floating about in new parts of the same old vein or crust. The new book says, “I will give you the key to nature,” and we expect to go like a thunderbolt to the centre. But the thunder is a surface phenomenon, makes a skin-deep cut, and so does the sage. The wedge turns out to be a rocket.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson “The Method of Nature” (1841)

Surely there is a vein for the silver,
and a place for gold where they fine it.
Iron is taken out of the earth,
and brass is molten out of the stone.
He setteth an end to darkness,
and searcheth out all perfection:
the stones of darkness, and the shadow of death …
He putteth forth his hand upon the rock,
he overturneth the mountains by the roots.
He cutteth out rivers among the rocks;
and his eye seeth every precious thing.
He bindeth the floods from overflowing;
and the thing that is hid bringeth he forth to light.
But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?

—Job, 28:1-3; 28:9-12

It appears from the many attempts to review or analyze Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow, in the seven years since its publication in 1973, that most readers have been diverted by the work's singular monstrosity, and that most of the work's commentators—while acknowledging Pynchon's immediate and rather obvious literary precursors1—have paid only scant attention to the significant intellectual traditions out of which this novel has emerged and which it has in turn demonically transformed. I would like to suggest that one strand of the work's complex lineage can be traced back to a dissenting scientific strain in Anglo-American and German Romanticism. Moreover, an appreciation of this radical strain may not only enhance our understanding of Gravity's Rainbow, but also inversely, Pynchon's novel may provide twentieth-century cultural historians living in a technological, post-Romantic age with an awareness of the deep intellectual disturbances which the seventeenth-century “scientific revolution” set off in the Romantic world.

It has been widely acknowledged that many Romantics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries reacted immediately to the abstract, scientific discourse ushered in by Newton's mathematical formulations in the seventeenth century.2 Poets, mystics, and scientists such as Blake in England, Goethe in Germany, and Diderot, Mesmer, and Lamarck in France, objected in various ways to what they felt to be the growing preoccupation of established science with inanimate rather than vitalistic phenomena. The impact of modern scientific analysis on epistemology and technology was already perceived in Newton's study of optics by some of these thinkers; as George Steiner observes: “The prismatic decomposition of the rainbow in Newton's optics, and the effacement of this same rainbow behind factory steam are, as Blake saw, rigorously connected. In both, the truth is tyrannical.”3 A yet deeper source of dissatisfaction with Newtonian “truths,” however, arose in the field of mechanics over the issue of gravitation. Newton's emphasis on quantity of matter, or mass, as a decisive factor in the attraction of physical bodies abruptly discredited a longstanding belief that all attraction was the result of secret sympathies or affinities inherent in the particular quality of matter itself. Furthermore, if quantity of matter was constant, then matter could not be transformed into some other state; matter could never become a mental or spiritual substance, for example. In short, Newtonianism claimed that all matter possessed a measurable weight which was a sign of its susceptibility to gravity and of its non-transformability. For Blake and other radical Romantics, Newton's emphasis on quantity of matter and his use of a gravitational principle to account for the motion of falling bodies, implied that all terrestrial matter was irredeemably “fallen” in a physical sense, and that this apparent fallenness of matter was in turn the result of man's “fallibility,” which had also occasioned man's spiritual Fall and the subsequent fall and limitation of his senses. According to this interpretation, which has its roots in Gnostic and Neoplatonic tradition, the force of gravity in the Earth was a sinister, repressive agency which prevented the World's spiritual regeneration. My principal objective in this paper, then, will be to suggest some ways in which Pynchon's novel, besides revealing the ironic implications of the spectral rainbow of both Noah and Newton, succeeds in rediscovering the Romantics' awareness of the profound relationship between the physical force of gravity and the ethical problems of the Fall and of human transgression in general.

Historically, Pynchon's novel expands conceptions of gravity which have been developed by post-Romantic philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who responded to the Romantic radicals' traumatic recognition of gravitation as a demonic force. For example, in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1st ed. 1819; see esp. secs. 26 and 27). Arthur Schopenhauer identified gravity as the most basic physical objectification of a metaphysical Will. Gravity was a primal, occult, force slumbering in physical nature, waiting to reclaim the individual organism as soon as its high level of organization and differentiation should, for some reason, break down. Indeed, so long as the individual was involved in an organic Bildungsprozess4 in which he was free to deviate and differentiate himself from other individuals according to his own will, he would remain relatively immune to such a primal, degrading force as gravitation; he would be a discrete individual, developing in what would appear from his own progressive perspective to be part of an organically unfolding, self-directed World-process.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, many cultural philosophers called the Romantic ideal of a Bildungsprozess into question as the result of their sense that a general historical depersonalization of the individual seemed to be well under way. Thus Friedrich Nietzsche, in Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben (1874), observed that historical and technological conditions in late nineteenth-century European civilization ultimately favored uniform organization over eccentric individuality, mechanical inorganicism over organic vitality. As a result of contemporary developments in applied science and due to the proliferation of the efficient algorithms and circuits of modern technology, the individual was ultimately capable of re-forming himself on the entirely new corporate level of History. That is to say, the eighteenth-century cultural ideal of a Bildungsprozess in which the hero was the individual was reformulated in the nineteenth century as the cultural ideal of History in which the subject was the corporate structure as suggested by Hegel's concept of a “universal individual” (“das allgemeine Individuum”) and its objective form, the State. In short, Nietzsche recognized that as soon as the individual ceased to be the subject of his own natural Bildungsprozess and became integrated as a member of the corporate State, he would automatically forfeit all his characteristic tendencies and his defiant willfulness, becoming instead a uniform and un-formed being.

This depressing cultural situation corresponds to the moment described by Schopenhauer in which the primal force of gravity—with its peculiar quality that though it is the weakest of all physical forces, it affects matter over the greatest distances—would suddenly reveal its long-latent power, and complete the individual's reduction and disorder. Thus Emerson, for example, in “The Method of Nature” (1841), bewails the rupture between man and nature to which the Romantics were always so sensitive, and he observes that the human will is no longer equal to a cosmic Schopenhauerian Will, objectified in the impressive and repressive force of gravity:

… we no longer hold [Nature] by the hand; we have lost our miraculous power; our arm is no more as strong as the frost, nor our will equivalent to gravity and the elective attractions. Yet we can use nature as a convenient standard, and the meter of our rise and fall. It has this advantage as a witness, it cannot be debauched.5

Emerson—a post-Romantic thinker living in an age when the uniform, mechanized individual was increasingly caught up in the corporate organizational systems of historical process—elegiacally expresses his fear that the individual has somehow lost his own dynamic will, and hence has lost the sense of his own organically unfolding, natural Bildungsprozess. Emerson suggests, however, that although humanity has failed to “humanize” the physical sciences, it may at least still be possible for Nature to “naturalize” man and awaken him to the disgrace of his own dehumanized condition. That is to say, it would always be within man's ability to reorient himself to an inviolable, self-sufficient Nature, thereby gauging the extent of his own fall from natural grace.

Nevertheless, Emerson's designation of Nature as “the meter of our rise and fall” leaves itself open to the insidious interpretation of his succeeding American cultural critics of the twentieth century who do not fail to point out that when humanity can no longer hold its own with Nature, then all that the individual can do is to measure his own unnatural rate of growth. Thus in his Education (1907), Henry Adams confesses that his task as a historian is finally to be “a mere instrument of measure”;6 and in his “Dynamic Theory of History,” he “takes for granted that the forces of nature capture man.”7 Almost seventy years later, Adams's careful student Thomas Pynchon draws the further conclusion that non-human Nature itself has been debased through its persistent use as a quantitative meter of human progress, rather than as a qualitative indicator of human integrity or lack thereof. Such manipulation of Nature in the modern age is precisely what Pynchon documents in his fiction; he describes a Nature which has been ruthlessly violated, quantified, and technologically transformed by the irreversible, exhaustive processes of History. It would seem, then, that Pynchon effectively dashes Emerson's last resort—his plea to use Nature as a means for re-qualifying man.

Pynchon does more, however, than merely document the modern transposition from the individual's Bildungsprozess of organic vitality to a historical dialectic of mechanistic technology. He also lays bare a regressive, disorganizing movement present in all romantically-inspired, allegedly progressive and formative Bildungs-systems. This negative movement arises from what might be described as a paleontological impulse of man which involves his introspective regression towards his prehistorical and proto-biological origins.

Strictly speaking, paleontology is only a relatively recent interest, involving as it does a concept of archaism which is peculiar to the last two-hundred years. It is essential to note, along with Owen Barfield, the significance for human thought of the emergence of paleontology at the precise historical moment of the early nineteenth century:

If the impulse to construe as process the record of the rocks and the vestiges of creation apparent in the natural order had come either a little earlier, before participation had faded, or a little later, when the iconoclasm implicit in physical analysis—and in the [reflective thinking] to which it can give rise—had really begun to work, man might have read there the story of the coming into being, pari passu, of his world and his own consciousness. As it was, all that paleontology could take over from the experimental sciences, such as astronomy and physics, was the idols which these latter had so far succeeded in creating.8

That is to say, it was very nearly the case that Emerson's hope was realized, that Nature should indeed have functioned as man's familial witness, the meter of his rise and fall which would have indicated to him the evolution of his own consciousness vis-à-vis the phenomenal world. However, instead of becoming a genuine hermeneutic activity which could have recovered man's original organic nature, paleontology claimed scientific validity for itself by taking literally the fossilized records it studied—i.e., as an array of autonomous objects detached from consciousness. The rocks and fossils studied by the paleontologist were taken as mute testimony of an evolution of the world which was completely independent from an evolution of consciousness and collective representations—an evolution which for the phenomenologist is the only constitutive reality. In crudely simple terms, the scientific discipline of paleontology came to regard the Earth as a graveyard of extinct species and petrified shells of life.

There is evidence, moreover, that the modern geological concept of the Earth as an inanimate globe, or as a stratified collection of inorganic fossils, radically distorts the Earth's actual pre-history. If paleontology is a study of death and dead fossils, it is so only because man was not able to sustain the overwhelming, living force of pre-historic nature. Pynchon is unambiguous on this point:

This is the World just before men. Too violently pitched alive in constant flow ever to be seen by men directly. 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. Counter-revolutionaries. It is our mission to promote death.9

The “human” science of paleontology, spawned in the literal-minded nineteenth century as an inventory of fossils and dead bones, obscures the awful splendor of preternatural vitalism. (Similarly, the deliberately non-interpretive stance of Pynchon's narrator avoids both the pitfalls of historicism in the reconstruction of the last days of World War II, and the conventional omniscience of the nineteenth-century novel.) Nevertheless, intuitions of the force of pre-historic nature, analogous to the appearance of the world to Barfield's participating consciousness, seem to have been widely accessible to earlier thinkers. Such intuitions figure prominently, for instance, in alchemical traditions, according to which the Earth was envisioned not as a graveyard of expired life, but rather as an organic womb or “matrix” in which all matter underwent a physiological process of development (cf. AM [The Architecture of Matter], 138-9). Educated in Aristotelian theories of development, many alchemists accepted the idea that even minerals were participating in a slow, organic evolution under respective planetary influences. Far from considering petrification as a deathly process of decay, the alchemists believed it to be part of an embryological process (AM, 171).

Traces of this conception of an animate Earth in which all matter participates in an ongoing process of gestation occur with great frequency in the philosophy and literature of the Romantic period. In the passage cited as an epigraph to this paper, Emerson represents the Earth as a living “mindbody”10 in his comparison of the “crystal sphere of thought” with the “concentric strata” of the globe. In an even more striking way, Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807) is informed by a paleontological metaphor according to which organic Geist repeatedly sinks into its objective form as repressed, inorganic and petrified Nature:

Science lays before us the morphogenetic process of this cultural development in all its detailed fullness and necessity, and at the same time shows it to be something that has already sunk into the mind as a moment of its being [was schon zum Momente und Eigentum des Geistes herabgesunken ist] and become a possession of mind.11

Through the act of bringing the repressed and disordered past to consciousness, the individual is able to reconstitute that past as an ordered and living subject: “… culture or development of mind (Bildung,) regarded from the side of the individual, consists in his acquiring what lies at his hand ready for him, in making its inorganic nature organic to himself, and taking possession of it for himself [seine unorganische Natur in sich zehre und für sich in Besitz nehme].”12

Hegel's dialectical procedure by which the mind is capable of exhuming the repressed, inorganic wastes of its own history into a new organic life is indicative of what may be called a “naïve” paleontology. This involves a spiritual redemption of Nature, as, for instance, in Schelling's Naturphilosophie or in Novalis' magischer Idealismus whereby the poet-scientist performs a specific psycho-spiritual act, such as the Orphic utterance of a poetic formula, which will succeed in bringing inorganic Nature or the dead past back to life after ages of stony sleep. In a more literal use of the metaphor, Schopenhauer describes the sudden release of dynamic physical forces from their protracted slumber in the Earth's womb: “For thousands of years chemical forces slumber in matter, till contact with the reagents sets them free; then they appear …”13

This popular paleontological metaphor, employed briefly by poets and philosophers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, reflects a pervasive interest at this time in the distant geological past. Five years before the appearance of Hegel's Phänomenologie, the French naturalist, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, published his Hydrogéologie which disclosed, among other theories, the doctrine that all sedimentary rocks have an organic origin.14 The countless fossils of monstrous, pre-historic forms of life which were unearthed during the Romantic period were perceived as the dried-up, discarded traces of Nature's ingenious efforts to create man.15 Anticipating Lamarck's theory of sedimentary rocks, Novalis jotted down that “the science of rock-formation is nothing other than the science of fossil-formation,”16 and towards the end of his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1799-1800), he notes, “Here in the gray stones, jagged rifts, the eerie towering shapes one looked into innumerable ages and saw all history drawn together into shining little minutes.”17 By unlocking the buried secrets of the Earth, a general reconstruction—possibly even a reactivation—of the Earth's primitive History became theoretically possible.

The Romantics' paleontological interest, moreover, was closely allied with an interest in mineralogy and mining technology. Such notable figures among the German Romantics as Steffans, von Humboldt, Baader, Schubert, and Novalis all studied at the Mining School of Freiberg;18 and in the case of Novalis, this familiarity with mining was put to poetic use, as in the cryptic observation of the subterranean hermit in Heinrich von Ofterdingen:

“You miners are almost astrologers in reverse,” said the hermit. “Whereas they gaze incessantly at the heavens and stray through those immeasurable spaces, you turn your gaze into the earth and explore its structure. They study the powers and influence of the constellations, and you investigate the powers of rocks and mountains and the manifold effects of the strata of earth and rock. To them the sky is the book of the future, while to you the earth reveals monuments of the primeval world.”19

Indeed, the notion that an examination of the earth's bowels could provide oracular knowledge of the earth's past seems to have had wide currency at this time. For Novalis, as a scholar of German natural science observes, “mining, like all other attempts of man to penetrate into the mysteries of the earth and of nature in general, must be thought of as attempts to free the spirit of nature from its bonds.”20

This sanguine paleontological endeavor undergoes a parodistic literalization in post-Romantic thought. The eighteenth-century belief in Nature's guaranteed economy gave way in the nineteenth century to a recognition of History's vast, irredeemable waste. Already, in Hegel's reference to “versteinerte” stratified social castes,21 in Clemens Brentano's Das steinerne Bild der Mutter (the alternate title of his novel Godwi [1801], or in Eichendorff's novella Das Marmorbild (1819), we detect an awareness of the inorganic waste produced by social and cultural history, a corollary of the fossilized waste which provided essential evidence of the Earth's age for natural historians of the early nineteenth century. As the century wore on, the Earth was regarded less and less as an organic and rational entity, informed by Geist and fundamentally akin to the individual as his own frozen history. And the individual was increasingly unable to regard himself as a growing organism whose dynamic life-activities were capable of spiritually regenerating the Earth by thawing its icy history. Rather, as recent cultural historians have made us aware, the Earth came to be experienced by modern man in a Gnostic sense,22 i.e., as an intrinsically alien and hostile substance. Such a demonically vital Earth had to be materially converted by men, “God's spoilers,” into a new form in order to assure their own spiritual salvation. Emerson's suggestion that Nature could serve as an undebauched witness to man's own debauchery may ultimately have become a threat in a technological age when what many men desired most was proof of historical progress and a denial of human fallibility. Hoping to leave no mute witness of the debauchery and fall brought upon himself through his inability to withstand a primeval chthonic vitalism, the guilt-ridden “latecomer”23 of our century may have tried to synthesize Nature anew; he may have tried to re-create natural processes not only as the rational History of Hegel, but as a rationalized, fictive “history” which would agree with his desired self-image.

This new paleontology of the twentieth century receives a poignant, literal expression in Pynchon's vision of present-day technological enterprises to excavate fossilized inorganic material which has been buried for ages in the Earth. Now, however, this material is not exhumed to satisfy the geologist's or naturalist's curiosity about the Earth's ancient natural history, or to support eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century notions of the fixity of the species and of Nature's economy; rather, such inorganic material is itself regarded by the modern industrial entrepreneur only as evidence of wholesale extinction and waste. Such natural waste can only be useful for the entrepreneur when it is reconstituted as available energy, fossil fuels for the purpose of enabling rockets to escape the Earth's most primitive force, thus allowing man to deny the Earth's most primitive history and to avoid his own extinction. In a way Emerson had not foreseen, “The wedge turns out to be a rocket.”

We have, then, on the one hand, the early Romantics' “naïve” paleontology which recognizes the necessary affinity between the phenomenal representations of the world and consciousness and which regards the earth as an organic matrix whose low-grade natural substances can be redeemed because they share a fundamental rational or spiritual affinity with an ideal human agent. Over against this naïve paleontology we find a “demonic” paleontology emerging in the twentieth century, practiced by an alliance of the visionary technologist who pursues the reorganization of a radically alien nature, and of the industrial technocrat who is bent upon the reorganization of social systems through the deliberate manipulation of human nature. In the cultural critique offered by Pynchon, the visionary technologist rashly extracts the Earth's buried wastes and recombines its sleeping elements to produce such synthetic gravity-defying structures as the rocket which have never before appeared in the World, and which are immediately co-opted by the technocrats for their destructive policies. But Pynchon's fiction is by no means a mere historical critique of the modern technocracy. Rather, Pynchon transmutes the genealogy of that technocracy into a myth of tragic magnitude in which the solitary technologist's drive towards transcendence is unfailingly subverted by the corporate technocrat's mania for control.

The aggressive acts against the Earth which are presented in Gravity's Rainbow receive an irresistable and irreversible dynamic as the demonic historical conspiracy of the elusive pre-war German conglomerate, IG Farben. In a notable passage, one of the company's minor American employees, Lyle Bland, appears to have succeeded occasionally in piercing the corporate veil, and to have had mystical visions of an “astral IG” whose technocrat-priests are the initiates into the secrets of the Earth's “holy center.”

To find that Gravity, taken so for granted, is really something eerie, Messianic, extrasensory in Earth's mindbody … having hugged to its holy center the wastes of dead species, gathered, packed, transmuted, realigned, and rewoven molecules to be taken up again by the coaltar Kabbalists of the other side, the ones Bland on his voyages has noted, taken boiled off, teased apart, explicated to every last permutation of useful magic, centuries past exhaustion still finding new molecular pieces, combining and recombining them into new synthetics—“Forget them, they are no better than the Qlippoth, the shells of the dead, you must not waste your time with them. …”

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 psisynthetic taken from the 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 … plastic saxophone reed sounds of unnatural timbre, shampoo bottle ego-image, Cracker Jack prize one-shot amusement, home appliance casing fairing for winds of cognition, baby bottles tranquilization, meat packages disguise of slaughter, dry-cleaning bags infant strangulation, garden hoses feeding endlessly the desert … but to bring them together, in their slick persistence and our preterition … to make sense out of, to find the meanest sharp silver of truth in so much replication, so much waste. …

(GR [Gravity's Rainbow], 590; Pynchon's ellipses.)

Pynchon imaginatively works out his ironic paleontological vision in which Gravity represents the compacting and densitizing force that constitutes the brute substance of History. If Nature for the late Romantic poet Emerson could be a “meter of our rise and fall,” the post-Romantic encyclopaedist Pynchon describes Gravity as a natural, charismatic force which man is desperately trying “to detect and measure”—in short, to control. Again, as Emerson writes elsewhere in “The Method of Nature,” if Nature is a “memory of the mind”24 which could presumably be “recollected” by the individual, History as described by Pynchon is the cumulative deposit of all the material waste of ages past, buried stratigraphically, layer upon increasingly dense and archaic layer in the Earth's occult, unified “mindbody” (cf. Hegel's Geist in the sense of a “Universal Mind” which internalizes its own past as “memory”—Er-innerung). In Pynchon's vision, the single individual is no longer directly in touch with the Earth's in-drawn divinity; therefore he can hardly hope to “recall” the Earth's repressed, compacted origins, but can only kick among the plastic trivia of cultural history, seeking “ordinary,” “secular” molecules which might dimly reveal something about the secrets of natural history. Ironically, the only individuals for whom the Earth is still a divine mystery and who are still capable of a psycho-spiritual act which can retrieve the Earth's “Deeper Significance” and redeem its History are those technologists who have re-formed themselves in the interests of a highly-organized corporate technocracy; the Earth's secret history is “taken up again by the coal-tar Kabbalists of the other side.”

Thus, Pynchon's paleontology is actually an interpretive effort involving two related activities. The first paragraph of the preceding passage describes the “messianic” program of an elite group of technologists and technocrats associated with the IG. The “coal-tar Kabbalists,” as the technologists are called, extract buried deposits of inorganic matter, the raw materials of History, from the Earth's mind (or bowels); then they proceed to select and interpret their finds Kabbalistically according to the “alphabetic … nature of molecules” (GR, 355), into new permutations of molecular structure. In this way, the scientific Illuminati claim to be promoting a new synthetic world in which man will presumably possess the energy needed to transcend his fallen, natural condition. Actually, however, their inevitable dependence on technocratic systems of control only accelerates the spread of History's plastic contagion and “the persistence … of structures favoring death” (GR, 167).25

Such first-degree interpretation is succeeded by a second-degree interpretation which is described in the second paragraph of the preceding passage. This involves the quotidian labors of the non-elect individual (“The rest of us, not chosen for enlightenment …”) to assign an order and a significance to the welter of synthetic, historical waste (plastic saxophone reeds, shampoo bottles, etc.) which has been produced from ageless reserves of natural waste (e.g., coal tars) by the secret scientific elite. And the fate of non-election falls the hardest in Gravity's Rainbow on the work's principal protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop.26 Slothrop clearly does not know what is going on in the course of the novel, and his paranoia stems from his ignorance of what the corporate IG is up to—what the extent of its control over his own personal history and over History in general actually is. Thus, Slothrop's interpretive adventure becomes a quest for information which will illuminate his ignorance regarding his own formation and that of the age in which he lives.

Moreover, Slothrop's hermeneutics—the blind groping of the bricoleur, the preterite—is itself rooted in a long-standing tradition. In another age, his Puritan ancestors were elect interpretants, stationed at the vanguard of their own corporate-messianic enterprise; and it is this genetic inheritance which impels Slothrop in the twentieth century to seek out connections and systems of order, to find evidence of God's handiwork in the natural phenomena of the world.27 This is what Pynchon describes as the “puritan reflex of seeking other orders behind the visible, also known as paranoia, filtering in” (GR, 188). In Slothrop's preterite natural theology, it is not God who reveals Himself in Nature, but rather the demon who motivates an insidious historical logic which informs and perverts even Nature itself. In short, Slothrop perceives modern secular history to be a demonic parody of the seventeenth-century Puritan salvation-history to which his ancestors subscribed. And as a result of his genetically-inherited ordering impulse, Slothrop suffers a paranoid reaction when he is confronted by the possibility of his own selection in a demonic, twentieth-century historical system; indeed, this is a worse fate than being passed over in an orthodox seventeenth-century salvation-scheme.

Throughout Pynchon's novel, a paranoiac “We-They” categorization is constructed around the reciprocal interpretive paleontologies of demons and their victims, the chosen and the passed-over, the priestly elect and the profane preterite. At the core of the novel is the blundering, “naïve” individual Slothrop, who is caught between the demonic dream of transcendence of the German rocket-commander Blicero, and the deadly systems of control imposed by the British Pavlovian behaviorist, Edward Pointsman. Yet for all Blicero's apparent mastery over gravity, and for all Pointsman's apparent control over programs of human stimulus-response, both men inevitably fail in their respective endeavors. Blicero's rocket is finally betrayed to gravity, and Pointsman ultimately loses Slothrop to a mysterious Counterforce which eludes the bureaucratic maneuvers of both the “We” and the “They” factions. And in precisely the same way, for all the apparent control of the narrating persona over the narrative itself, the sheer volume of the material which he presumes to order will at some point exhaust his energy. Indeed, it is axiomatic in Pynchon's fiction that the rational processes of History (natural and human history as well as Pynchon's fictional histories themselves) are running at an ever-increasing energy-deficit; that History will ultimately burn itself out like the projected A-4 rocket's Brennschluss; and that in its final exhausted state, hyper-organized History will give itself up to the primal, pre-rational counterforce of Gravity. As Pynchon's narrating persona himself suggests, the view of History as a cyclical, reversible process—an ongoing thermostatic activity—has been betrayed to a one-way, irreversible system of thermodynamic decay:

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 begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must 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. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide …

(GR, 412)

No one can be said to possess “control” in such a mad Death-Process—neither the persona over his fictional history, nor the corporate technocrats over world-historical processes. The latter can only assume a limited control of History through their unseen “switching-system” which, while wasting the rest of Creation for some end of ultra-organization, is doomed to exhaust itself. Unlike the ancient alchemical symbol of the Ouroboros, the serpent with its tail in its mouth, the new System of the technocrats is a self-consuming monster which yields no “feed-back”; it knows neither self-regulation nor self-regeneration, but only indulges in a voracious orgy until both it and its food supply have been converted into impacted waste.

The technocratic elite in Gravity's Rainbow which demonically profits from energy at such a loss and which “saves” the World by steering it headlong into extinction is preceded by a vanguard, we have seen, of select “coal-tar Kabbalists” who view the rest of the Creation as the Qlippoth, the passed-over shells of the dead. In a curious way, the coal-tar Kabbalists pursue neither more nor less than the original objectives of the medieval alchemists, though in a more systematic way. The alchemists combed through all the available natural minerals for a low-grade substance susceptible to short-term, artificial transformation into gold (or at least into the color gold.) Similarly, in 1856, William Perkin became the first industrial technologist by producing the first coal-tar dye, mauve. With this discovery, as the historians of science Toulmin and Goodfield observe (AM, 297), “the synthetic dye-stuffs industry became the first large-scale example of scientific technology, in which theoretical understanding was exploited for technological purposes.” Pynchon himself characterizes the synthesis of the dye mauve much as Schopenhauer had described the sudden appearance of exotic physical forces and chemical reactions after having slept for eons in the Earth. And Pynchon suggests that a demonic succession may be traced from medieval alchemy with its preference for substances resembling gold, to Liebig's application of the principles of chemistry to physiology, to Kekulé “looking among the molecules of his time” (GR, 412) until he “selected” the shape of the aromatic ring, through Perkin's dye-technology and its selection of synthetic mauve, to its culmination almost ninety years later in the diabolical proliferation of the German dye-industry, IG Farben, with its shimmering rainbow of colors, chemicals, companies, and conspiracies.28 And still the processes of selection and rejection continue. At a séance, the spirit of Walther Rathenau, the assassinated German foreign minister and industrialist, explains the production of steel from coal-tars in these terms to an IG director:

“We thought of this as an industrial process. It was more. We passed over the coal-tars. A thousand different molecules waited in the preterite dung. This is one meaning of mauve, the first new color on Earth, leaping to Earth's light from its grave miles and aeons below. There is the other meaning … the succession … I can't see that far yet. …”

(GR, 166; Pynchon's ellipses.)

Technology is here envisioned as an operation of selection/rejection in which elect, shining steel passes over its own black raw materials, the coal tars; and synthetic dyes which have been freed from the gravitational pull of the Earth supersede the natural color spectrum. With the chemical fetishism of Pynchon's technologists, we have moved a long way from Novalis' humble miner: “He is content to know where the metal powers are found and to bring them to the light of day, but their dazzling glamor has no power over his pure heart.”29

The parallel activities of the medieval alchemists and of the modern Hermetic society of industrial technologists betrays a yet more significant analogy in Pynchon's work. For if the alchemists sought to speed up inside their glass flasks the organic processes of mineral gestation which they believed to occur naturally and laboriously in the womb of the Earth, so Pynchon's technologists also propose the artificial acceleration of chemical processes already occurring in Nature—namely, by “creating” History in the combustion chambers of rockets. However, as Pynchon shows with reference to thermodynamic law, the artificial acceleration of historical events which is brought about by the technologists' advanced systems of interpretation and organization causes the relative rate of organic formation in Nature to run down, and the revelation of some immanent natural order in the world to be less and less likely. It was only in a supersonic world, familiar with the transformations of acceleration, that Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle insisted its way into the purest of symbol-systems, mathematics, thereby coercing that discipline to rely increasingly on predictions based on probability—i.e., on chance. Ultimately, however, one wonders with Barfield if a “hypothesis of chance” can really save the appearances of the phenomenal world, or if it can legitimately even be called a “hypothesis”:30

The hypothesis of chance has already crept from the theory of evolution into the theory of the physical foundation of the earth itself; but, more serious perhaps than that, is the rapidly increasing ‘fragmentation of science’ which occasionally attracts the attention of the British Association. There is no ‘science of sciences’; no unity of knowledge. There is only an accelerating increase in that pigeon-holed knowledge by individuals of more and more about less and less, which, if persisted in indefinitely, can only lead mankind to a sort of ‘idiocy’ (in the original sense of the word)—a state of affairs, in which fewer and fewer representations will be collective, and more and more will be private, with the result that there will in the end be no means of communication between one intelligence and another.31

The problem of increasing non-communication in an increasingly “organized” civilization was handled by Pynchon in an explicit manner in his brief novel, The Crying of Lot 49. The same problem is implicit in the encyclopaedic, verbal and narrative structure of Gravity's Rainbow where the almost intolerable complexity of discursive organization both establishes and undermines the possibility of Order. The text's own transmissibility is an open issue. Does the work ultimately possess an Order, or can that Order only be guessed at in terms of probability and chance? By enticing the naïve reader into this interpretive quest for Order, Pynchon enmeshes him in a weave of acceleration and probability that is analogous to the Poisson maps and chi-square diagrams developed by the guilt-ridden behaviorists and technologists in the novel. But there remains just enough distance between the technologists' perception of Order in the world and the reader's perception of Order in the text for the reader to make a terrifying discovery. As the evidence of Order in the world becomes increasingly rare and less probable with respect to the technologists' interpretive maneuvers, such Order nevertheless appears to them in increasing abundance. This is because they become progressively more attuned to interpreting whatever rare, improbable burst of Order they perceive as a useful bit of information against a general noisy background of Disorder which they readily discount from their analyses. An hypothesis of chance, once accepted by the scientific Illuminati, allows them quite confidently to perceive and even to regulate a world of seemingly absolute intelligibility and Order—a world to which their technocratic masters are desperately committed, yet which they are unable to understand. Thus, the confident assertion of the technologist-seer Wernher von Braun in the epigraph to the first part of the novel—i.e., that “Nature does not know extinction,” and that everything which is passed over is capable of being transformed in the same way that coal is elevated to steel—is totally incomprehensible to the technocratic manipulator Richard M. Nixon who, in the epigraph to the last part of the book, can only respond, “What?” Both the technologists and the technocrats are finally duped by their respective selection processes—i.e., by their selective perception which leads them both to observe World-History tending towards increasing formation and information when it actually is only plunging ever deeper towards decay.32 As Rathenau's spirit warns the IG Generaldirektor: “You think you'd rather hear about what you call ‘life’: the growing organic Kartell. But it's only another illusion. A very clever robot. The more dynamic it seems to you, the more deep and dead, in reality, it grows” (GR, 167).

In a work which depicts everything in a condition of running down, it is curious to note that Gravity's Rainbow itself is written in a volatile, highly digressive style. This could, of course, be just another illusion: “the more dynamic it seems … the more deep and dead, in reality, it grows.” On closer examination, however, it appears that such erratic stylistics may actually be a defensive maneuver, designed by the author as a means of avoiding a fall into the sway of conventional linear narrative, into the “gravity of plot”—in short, into the death-favoring structures of History. Again and again, the narrating persona “passes over” and momentarily escapes his commitment to straightforward narrative, but he consistently completes his parabolic excursus and returns to the exigencies of plot.

Such parabolic arches away from the gravity of plot receive a demonic concretization in Pynchon's description of the V-2 rockets of World War II which break away from the Earth's gravitational force only to return towards it—with apocalyptic implications. Pynchon reveals the rocket to be the mature form of primitive, petrified matter after it has undergone a prolonged, organic gestation period in the Earth's secret womb. As inorganic waste, this matter is finally wrested from the Earth's bowels by an elite of technologists who then transmute it through their molecular hermeneutics into the fuels and parts needed for the rocket. The blazing arch of the rocket's parabolic trajectory represents the final form of the long evolution of matter in the Earth, and it marks the fruit of the technologists' labors—their doomed attempt to escape gravity and to free themselves and all matter from the curse of the Fall. More generally, the rocket as presented in Pynchon's novel represents a literalization of historical process, a concretization of human History's own inane attempts to digress and break out of the recurring cycles of a closed, self-contained Bildungs-system into the open, irreversible course of the physical universe towards increasing disorder.

One is reminded here of Lord Byron's ironic comment in Don Juan (X.ii) on the redemption of man through Newton's scientific discovery of the laws governing the fall of physical bodies, and consequently governing the Fall (and rise) of man: “Man fell with apples, and with apples rose.” Byron predicts that man will soon reap the technological “fruits” of this discovery: “… full soon / Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.” Pynchon writes in the 1970's when rockets are in fact able to escape the Earth's gravity and take man to the moon. From this perspective, Pynchon's novel probes that precise historical instant in the '40's when rocket technology was on the point of first overcoming the indrawing force of gravitation—of achieving escape velocity, and hence of breaking out of the fixed cycles of parabolic flight into endless digressions. (Of course, man's act of leaving the Earth's gravitational field only succeeds in plunging him into an endless fall—a perpetual transgression.) By limiting his fiction to the historical moment just prior to man's definitive break with the Earth in order to explore new digressive possibilities, Pynchon imposes a partial control on his own work; and the transgressive movement of digression, the doomed trajectory of Icarian flight, is confined to the finite form of the parabola.

Pynchon's fascination with the parabolic curve described by the flight of projectiles transgressing against the Earth's primitive power is particularly interesting in view of Martin Heidegger's observation of a primal antagonism between the World and the Earth (“die Streit zwischen Welt und Erde”).33 Heidegger associates the World with a dis-closing activity which reveals the meaning and ultimate essence of bodies by implicating them in a World-system. Earth, on the other hand, is an occult, unknowable repository of Being which is characterized by the self-enclosing movement of material things away from all worldly, discursive systems which would attribute a useful significance to them. Heidegger interprets this double movement of disclosure and closure as Loswerfen and Versammlung—as a vital parabolic movement of physis: “Earth is that whence the arising of everything that rises, and indeed as such, returns to its security [zurückbirgt]. In the things that arise, earth is present as the securing agent [das Bergende].34

In this metaphysical context, it is necessary to revise our narrow view of the parabolic flight of the rocket as a finite movement. As we are told towards the end of Gravity's Rainbow, the rocket's parabola is

… not, as we might imagine, bounded below by the line of the Earth it “rises from” and the Earth it “strikes” No But Then You Never Really Thought It Was Did You Of Course It Begins Infinitely Below The Earth And Goes On Infinitely Back Into The Earth it's only the peak that we are allowed to see, the break up through the surface, out of the other silent world.

(GR, 726; Pynchon's ellipses)

Pynchon's portrayal of the merely technological parabolas described by the V-weapons is a grotesque parody and profanation of Romantic intuitions of a secret, generative power in the Earth (as, similarly, in Pynchon's first novel, V. (1963), the bionic heroine's “rise and fall” may be read as a parody of Romantic notions of an organic, self-directed Bildungsprozess). Apart from the transgression inherent in western man's Icarian temptation to digress—i.e., his urge to flee his enforced bondage to the physical force of gravitation and to conspiratorial schedules of historical progress—Pynchon's novel is preoccupied with the transgressive aspect of all interpretive activities which presume to dis-close or profane some inviolable, sacred core of meaning. It was on similar grounds, after all, that many of the radical skeptics of the late eighteenth century attacked Newton's theory of gravity—i.e., for Newton's abstract disclosure in the World of a secret, vital force enclosed deep inside the Earth and within all matter:

… Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
A thing to counterbalance human woes …

(Byron, Don Juan, X.ii.3-5)

The unwarranted dis-closure of a secret principle in the Earth necessarily degrades that principle's value by bringing it into the open discursive space of the World.

Similarly, Pynchon exposes both the individual's paleontology (his reconstruction of his own past as deduced from the uncovering of his most repressed memories) and the paleontology practiced by a corporate elite (the recycling of expired life from the Earth's archaic ages in the form of fossilized waste) as transgressive regressions insofar as they involve a common introspective effort to exhume a hidden meaning from a self-enclosed, inviolable structure. Such transgressive activity is most clearly expressed in Pynchon's recurring descriptions of hybristic attempts to disclose or bring out into the open some pure, transcendent value which could enlighten man with self-knowledge, and thereby redeem the World. Specifically, the alleged sightings of Rilke's poetic symbol of the supernatural Angel in Gravity's Rainbow (as in the description of the Palm Sunday bombing raid over Lübeck, p. 151) are depicted as man's ultimate self-mystification and his supreme transgression. For the Angel who looms across the sky is actually an analogue of Lévi-Strauss' “floating signifier”—that is, a surcharged “Origin of all signifiers,” as Edward Said describes, which is accessible only to pre-literate man living at the “zero-point”—i.e., before all signification and discourse: “Life at the zero point was ruled over by a central ‘floating signifier,’ a kind of spiritual etymon, whose ubiquity and perfect consistency endowed it with the power to act as a pure semantic value.”35 The Angel in this sense is the primal signifier of the World which the literate individual can never hope to signify in the World. As a pure qualitative value, the floating signifier can never be dragged down inside a relative, quantitative system of weights and measures—or, for that matter, of language.

Indeed, it may have been the rational impulse of modern science since the seventeenth century to originate meaning in the World, and to make all things-in-themselves accessible objects of human knowledge and desire, that has resulted in the further withdrawal of a transcendent source of value to an even more remote region of inaccessibility. And it may have been the case that, after a brief period of dissent coinciding with the Romantic period, the ensuing proliferation of “progressive” historical systems and of “regressive” paleontological ventures after some central Origin has succeeded in sinking the formerly floating World-signifier deep into the Earth where this signifier has completely hidden and enclosed itself as the occult, metaphysical force described in our own time by Heidegger and Pynchon. Again, to cite Said: “The Origin is a silent zero point, locked within itself. … There is no center available to the modern thinker, no absolute subject, since the Origin has been curtained off.”36 In short, we may say that the temptation to specify a transcendent floating signifier in the World inevitably betrays the interpreter himself to a demonic, sunken quantifier in the Earth—i.e., the force of Gravity.

As a modern work of literary fiction, Pynchon's novel is itself caught in a related double-bind. Whereas the brief Romantic fragment from Novalis to Rilke offered itself as a surcharged, generative utterance, directly in touch with a presumed, transcendent source of value, Pynchon's encyclopaedic post-Romantic fiction is a huge, groping structure which is unable to posit a transcendent source of value beyond itself. For Gravity's Rainbow is, in effect, a fallen narrative, bound to a sunken valorizing principle somewhere in its own interior which cannot be divulged. The profane novel's “holy center” can never be determined with certainty, but only in terms of probability. In this respect, the novel's center resembles the center of the corporate IG, or the IG's most advanced product, created in its own preposterous image—the elastic polymer, Imipolex G—which features an occult “Region of Uncertainty” below its surface: “terms referring to the Subimpolexity such as ‘Core’ and ‘Center of Internal Energy’ possess, outside the theoretical, no more reality than do terms such as ‘supersonic Region’ or ‘Center of Gravity’ in other areas of science” (GR, 700).

To a greater or lesser extent, much post-Romantic, encyclopaedic fiction may be characterized by its desperate struggle against a compulsory, internal principle of order, an indeterminate valorizing principle. It is as if post-Romantic narrative is possessed by a persistent impulse to deny its own still center by launching itself out in dizzying, expansive digressions against the resistant drag at its core. In the case of Pynchon's narrative, the visionary technologist may finally reconcile his romantic dream of transcendence with the pressures of immanent reality; thus Blicero may discover the insight of his beloved Rilke at the conclusion of the Tenth Elegy—namely, that he who tries to achieve ecstasy in flight may also discover a joy in falling.37 But the preterite reader who cannot escape the gravitational sway of the technocrats' fiction of History, and the narrator who cannot finally escape the gravity of his own fictive plot, do not register joy so much as terror in the return of the repressed, in the recovery of the archaic forms buried in the Earth's mindbody in all their detailed, encyclopaedic grotesquerie. We may expect Pynchon, in the course of further paleontological researches, to continue to uncover the mysterious, preterite forms of our pre-human past. Perhaps he will even show us the Romantic vision of Icarus, the original Angel-Man who was once able to overcome Gravity before, as Francis Bacon wrote, he “digressed and fell.”38 Or perhaps a more attentive study of Pynchon's post-Romantic vision will lead us to find that primordial Man only appeared to have fallen, that like the flightless dodoes (Didus ineptus) on the island of Mauritius (GR, 110), he was himself merely an isolated evolutionary digression, a brief stage of Nature's trial-and-error experiment which was all too soon passed over in Nature's unceasing search for more perfect forms.


  1. Thus, in his book-length study of Pynchon, Joseph Slade announces that he will “ignore” the crowded roster of writers who have been cited as Pynchon's forerunners: “Herman Melville … William Burroughs, Nathanael West, S. J. Perelman, Joseph Heller, John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, William Gaddis, John Dos Passos, Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce …” Thomas Pynchon (New York: Warner Paperback, 1974), p. 15. Almost immediately, however, Slade presents his own host of contenders which includes Henry Adams, Max Weber, Machiavelli, Robert Graves, Rilke, Wagner, and Whitehead (p. 16). More recently, Lawrence C. Wolfley has disproportionately argued the “pervasive indebtedness” of Pynchon to Norman O. Brown in “Repression's Rainbow: The Presence of Norman O. Brown in Pynchon's Big Novel,” PMLA, 92 (1977) 873-89. I hope to show at the very least that Pynchon is tapping a far deeper and compelling intellectual heritage than that of cultist criticism.

  2. A succinct discussion of the radical skepticism engendered by Newton's physics and Dalton's atomic chemistry in the late eighteenth century may be found in Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Architecture of Matter (London: Hutchinson, 1962; rpt. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1965), pp. 262-68 (hereafter cited as AM). Of particular interest for the relationship of the scientific formulation of gravitational theory to the eighteenth-century consciousness of the Fall is Sigurd Burckhardt's article, “Tristram Shandy's Law of Gravity,” English Literary History, 28 (1961), 70-88, in which Burckhardt reveals the impact of Newton's cosmic discovery on Sterne's literary consciousness. Michael Seidel has observed the analogous uses by Sterne and Pynchon of the metaphor of gravitation with respect to the satiric plots of these authors' most important works, in “The Satiric Plots of Gravity's Rainbow,” in Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. E. Mendelson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978), pp. 193-212; see esp. pp. 199 f.

  3. George Steiner, “Has Truth a Future?” Bronowski Memorial Lecture, BBC 2, January 10, 1978. See also Donald Ault, Visionary Physics: Blake's Response to Newton (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974).

  4. I will retain the comprehensive term Bildung (“formation,” “education,” “shaping”) in this article, employing it sometimes in German compounds (e.g., Bildungsprozess) and sometimes in bilingual compounds (e.g., Bildungs-system).

  5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature: Addresses and Lectures (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904), p. 197.

  6. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, ed. Ernest Samuels (1918; rpt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), p. 456.

  7. Adams, Education, p. 474.

  8. Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), p. 63.

  9. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 720 (hereafter cited as GR).

  10. Emerson, Nature, p. 590.

  11. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (1910; rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 90. Emphasis and interpolation of the original text in square brackets are mine.

    Hegel's insight that the cultural development of a people ultimately sinks into the Earth's unconscious “mindbody” is not merely to be construed as a metaphoric utterance. For Hegel, all civilizations are physically founded on the remains of past empires and ancient tribal communities; any metropolis is, so to speak, a necropolis. Hegel illustrates this idea later in the Phenomenology through his observations on the issue of interment in Sophocles' Antigone. Hegel argues that the fundamental conflict in this tragedy subsists between the sacred laws of familial kinship represented by Antigone and the spiritual law of the community represented by Creon. “The strength of the former,” Hegel writes, “is effective in the nether realm, not on earth and in the light of day” (p. 494). When Creon refuses to allow the sacred ritual of burial to be performed on Antigone's brother, Polyneices, he offends against the familial law of “the Dei inferi of Hades, the instinctive Powers of feeling, Love and kinship” in The Philosophy of Fine Art, trans. F. P. B. Osmaston (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1920) II, 215. The unburied dead who have not been delivered back into the Earth's primeval unconscious, represent a terrible threat to the World of conscious reality:

    The spirit which is manifest to the light of day has the roots of its power in the lower world. … The slain, whose right is injured, knows, therefore, how to find means of vengeance which are equally as real and strong as the power at whose hands it has suffered. These powers are other communities, whose altars the dogs or birds defiled with the corpse of the dead, which is not raised into unconscious universality by being restored, as is its due, to the ultimate individuum, the elemental earth, but instead has remained above ground in the sphere of reality, and has now received, as the force of divine law, a self-conscious actual universality. They rise up in hostility, and destroy the community which has dishonoured and destroyed its own power, the sacred claims, the “piety” of the family.

    (Phenomenology, 495; my ellipsis.)

    Pynchon's novel, with its imminent prospect of the numberless unburied victims of a nuclear holocaust, employs elements of a terrestrial mythology which are markedly similar to those used by Hegel.

  12. Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 90. The ellipsis, emphasis, and interpolation of the original text in square brackets are mine.

  13. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne (Indian Hills, Colorado: Falcon's Wing Press, 1958; rpt. New York: Dover, 1969), I, 136.

  14. In fact, Lamarck set forth a general theory of mineral development in which basic chemical compounds were formed as the result of physiological processes intrinsic to matter: “All the compounds making up what are called minerals are, without exception, the material remains sloughed off by organic or living beings, and without these organisms Nature would nowhere present us with chalk, clay, gypsum, sulphur, lead, gold, etc. etc.” (Cited in translation by Toulmin and Goodfield, AM, 361.) Lamarck's theory is suggestive in view of Hegel's general idea that organic nature is continuously sinking into a repressed, inorganic and disorganized state. Such geological motifs are present in the work of Novalis, Brentano, and Eichendorff. In a sense, Pynchon recasts Hegel's concept of Geist or Universal Mind as the Earth's occult “mindbody.” The Earth's petrified strata here are neither the result of natural organic processes nor the “versteinerte Kasten” of pre-historical peoples (see below, n. 21); on the contrary, such dead waste is the product of a general repression brought about by the high degree of organization in contemporary civilization. For Pynchon's use of gravitation as an analogue to human psychological and political repression, see Wolfley, “Repression's Rainbow,” p. 876: “Gravity is the ultimate metaphor in the novel for the human repression that is its theme.”

  15. One thinks primarily, in this regard, of the proto-evolutionary theory of the eighteenth-century French philosophe, J. B. Robinet:

    In the prodigiously varied sequence of the animals below man, I see Nature in labor advancing fumblingly towards that excellent being who crowns her work. … All the varieties intermediate between the prototype and man I regard as so many essays of Nature, aiming at the most perfect, yet unable to attain it except through this innumerable sequence of sketches. I think we may call the collection of the preliminary studies the apprenticeship of Nature in learning to make a man.

    De la Nature, V (1768); cited in translation by A. O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (1936; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), 280; my ellipsis.

  16. Novalis, Schriften, 2nd ed., ed. P. Kluckhohn and R. Samuel (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1968), III, 450 (948); my translation.

  17. Novalis, Henry von Ofterdingen, trans. Palmer Hilty (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964), p. 159.

  18. Cf. H. A. M. Snelders, “Romanticism and Naturphilosophie and the Inorganic Natural Sciences 1797-1840: An Introductory Survey,” Studies in Romanticism, 9 (Summer 1970), 193-215; see p. 194.

  19. Novalis, Henry Von Ofterdingen, p. 86.

  20. Alexander Gode-von Aesch, Natural Science in German Romanticism (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1941), p. 173.

  21. Hegel, from the Introduction to the Philosophie der Geschichte in Sämtliche Werke, ed. H. Glockner (Stuttgart: Fr. Frommanns Verlag, 1927), XI, 99.

  22. Cf. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity, 2nd. ed. (1958; rpt. Boston: Beacon, 1963). In the epilogue to the second edition (pp. 320-40), Jonas draws some significant parallels between ancient Gnosticism and the modern movements of nihilism and existentialism. (Eric Voegelin has extended this parallel to include Hegelianism, Marxism, and in short, any form of ideological fiction; see Science, Politics and Gnosticism [Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1968].) Interestingly, Gnostic teaching refers to demons called Archons who exert a tyrannical rule over the world called heimarmene. Jonas notes that “in its physical aspect, this rule is the law of nature,” and that “each Archon bars the passage to the souls that seek to ascend after death” (p. 43). In this respect, the Gnostic concept of heimarmene is analogous to Newton's law of gravitation as it was reacted to by many eighteenth-century skeptics who associated terrestrial gravity with man's fall and earthly bondage (see also pp. 62-65 for descriptions of the Gnostic experiences of “sinking” and “the fall”).

  23. Such is Harold Bloom's diagnosis of the Romantic and post-Romantic poet's malaise. See The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), p. 154.

  24. Emerson, Nature, p. 197.

  25. Pynchon's label for the modern scientific elite—the “coal-tar Kabbalists”—recalls the dream vision of the nineteenth-century chemist, August Kekulé (1829-96), who in 1865 first envisioned the circular structure of the benzene molecule (linked by Pynchon to the alchemical symbol of the serpent with its tail in its mouth), which laid the foundations for aromatic chemistry “and made the IG possible” (GR, p. 410). Pynchon's imaginative description of Kekulé's visionary method alternately depicts the chemist as the paleontologist hunting out the forms passed over by Nature in her trial-and-error experiment of life (cf. Robinet's theory, n. 15), or as the seventeenth-century Kabbalist rummaging among the broken shells of the Qlippoth which have been passed over by canonized salvation-history: “Young ex-architect Kekulé went looking among the molecules of the time for the hidden shapes he knew were there, shapes he did not like to think of as real physical structures, but as ‘rational formulas'” (GR, p. 411 f.). The “rational formulas” Kekulé was seeking are conceived by Pynchon as the scientific equivalents of esoteric Kabbalistic formulas. In fact, Kabbalistic lore may have been related more than one might suspect to actual historical attempts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to deduce the molecular structures of proteins. L. J. Rather discusses possible relationships between theoretical concepts in biochemistry which led to the discovery of the DNA molecule (20 amino acids based on a “triadic” genetic code), and Kabbalistic doctrine according to which 22 consonantal roots, most of them consisting of three consonants themselves, were thought to have been used by God to generate the entire cosmos. “Alchemistry, the Kabbala, the Analogy of the ‘Creative Word’ and the Origins of Molecular Biology,” Episteme, 6 (1972) 83-103. Rather's article, published a year before Gravity's Rainbow, also raises the historical implications of Kekulé's dream, and he suggests that the dream may be indebted in part to alchemical and Kabbalistic concepts which enjoyed a vogue in nineteenth-century European thought. According to Rather, “Neither Kekulé nor Leibig [Justus Leibig, 1803-73, Kekulé's teacher; also referred to in GR] escaped from the pervading influence of the doctrine of the creative word when they attempted to convey their meanings” (p. 101).

  26. Ironically, however, the narrating persona of the novel casts himself as well in this category of the non-elect: “The rest of us,” “our preterition.” Elsewhere, the narrating persona finds evidence in Slothrop's tarot, not only for Slothrop's preterition, but for his own as well. With his customary ironic underplay, the persona reports that the cards “point only to a long and scuffling future, to mediocrity (not only in his life but also, heh, heh, in his chroniclers too. …) (GR, p. 738). For all the information he appears to possess, Pynchon's narrating persona is the eiron who repeatedly underplays himself. He is the paranoid god who utters the Logos of History while ironically counting himself among those lost souls who are passed over by that History.

  27. Here it is worth noting that Slothrop's interpretive endeavor, grounded as it is in the natural theology of seventeenth-century Puritanism, symmetrically balances the esoteric interpretive enterprise of the technologists—the “coal-tar Kabbalists”—which, as is repeatedly observed in the novel, owes much to the supernatural theologies of seventeenth-century Kabbalistic tradition. Indeed, throughout his work, Pynchon specifies the affinity between methods of theological interpretation employed by Kabbalists and Puritans in the seventeenth century, and their reappearance in methods of historical interpretation in the twentieth century. Parallels between Kabbalistic and Puritan tradition are most strikingly evident, as Pynchon reveals, in their similar obsessions with the underdog, the reject—namely in the Kabbalistic concept of the Qlippoth (the shattered shells or broken vessels of the dead which were unable to withstand the tremendous force of the divine Word at the Creation), and the Puritan doctrine of the preterite (the souls which have been passed over by divine destiny).

  28. For a discussion of the use of strikingly similar alchemical and Hermetic operations by Romantic and post-Romantic poets, see Stephen Mathias Schicker, “The Rainbow beneath the Ground: A Study of the Descent into Hell Metaphor in William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Gerard de Nerval's Aurelia and Arthur Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer,DA, 31, (1970-71), 369-A.

  29. Novalis, Henry von Ofterdingen, p. 69.

  30. Barfield, Saving the Appearances, p. 64.

  31. Barfield, Saving the Appearances, p. 145.

  32. Interesting in this context is the philosophy of values developed by the German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932) which is based on thermodynamic concepts in physics. Ostwald envisioned Entropy as a Satanic tendency in the universe which would ultimately destroy all creative activity brought about by divine Energy. See Toulmin and Goodfield, AM, p. 298. Their lucid distinction between thermostatic systems of constant entropy and thermodynamic systems of increasing entropy is also useful (pp. 293-95).

  33. Martin Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes,” Holzwege (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klosterman, 1950), pp. 7-68; 38.

  34. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” trans. Albert Hofstadter, in A. Hofstadter and R. Kuhns, eds., Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger (New York: Modern Library, 1964), p. 670. See also Holzwege, p. 31.

    My reference to Heidegger in the course of the analysis of Gravity's Rainbow is not gratuitous; indeed, both Heidegger and Pynchon allude extensively to Rilke's poetry in their respective works. In the essay “Wozu Dichter?” (also in Holzwege), Heidegger exhaustively analyzes several of Rilke's short lyric pieces which are concerned with the force of Gravity and with Rilke's symbol of the hovering Angel. In Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon explicitly cites several references to the Angel in Rilke's Elegies, and Pynchon even develops Rilke's symbol as a major image in his novel. Consequently, one suspects that Pynchon may also have had some familiarity with Rilke's poetic concept of Schwerkraft—the metaphysical force exerted by the Earth's occult Center, the “Eigensinn der Erde” in Rilke's fragment, “Weisst du Gewölk …” Sämtliche Werke (Wiesbaden: Insel Verlag, 1956), II, 462. This Center does not so much attract corporeal bodies to itself as it constantly extricates itself from those bodies, even from flying bodies which threaten to de-center or dis-close it:

    Mitte, wie du aus allen
    dich ziehst, auch noch aus Fliegenden dich
    wiedergewinnst, Mitte du Stärkste.

    “Schwerkraft,” II, 179, II. 1-3. Rilke's poetic use of gravitation may provide a literary link which joins Pynchon's occult sense of the Earth's gravitational force to the philosophical interpretations of gravity which I have indicated in the writings of Hegel and Schopenhauer.

  35. Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1975), p. 317.

  36. Said, p. 318.

  37. Rainer Maria Rilke, Duineser Elegien, X.111-14:

    Und wir, die an steigendes Glück
    denken, empfänden die Rührung,
    die uns beinah bestürtzt,
    wenn ein Glückliches fällt.
  38. Francis Bacon, Of the Advancement and Proficiencie of Learning, trans. Gilbert Watts (Oxford: printed by Leon Lichtfield, for R. Young, 1640), VII, iii.

Further Reading

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Henkle, Roger B. “The Morning and the Evening Funnies: Comedy in Gravity's Rainbow.” In Approaches to Gravity's Rainbow, edited by Charles Clerc, pp. 273-90. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983.

Traces the progression of Pynchon's comedic technique throughout Gravity's Rainbow, analyzing the various ways Pynchon transforms serious fears into comic play.

Noya, Jose Liste. “Mapping the ‘Unmappable’: Inhabiting the Fantastic Interface of Gravity's Rainbow.Studies in the Novel 29, no. 4 (winter 1997): 512-37.

Explication of how Gravity's Rainbow represents a “fantastic real,” demonstrating how Pynchon play on the conventions of literary representation.

Siegel, Mark Richard. “Narrative Point of View.” In Pynchon: Creative Paranoia in Gravity's Rainbow, pp. 20-43. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1978.

Focuses on the elements of realism, allegory, and cinematic narrative technique in Gravity's Rainbow.

Additional coverage of Pynchon's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Bestsellers, Vol. 90:2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 22, 46, 73; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, 18, 33, 62, 72, 123; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers, Ed. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 173; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 14; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

John M. Muste (essay date winter 1981)

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SOURCE: Muste, John M. “The Mandala in Gravity's Rainbow.Boundary 2 9, no. 2 (winter 1981): 163-79.

[In the following essay, Muste examines the symbolic implications of the mandala in Gravity's Rainbow, illuminating the novel's thematic structure that reflects both the unity and division of the mandala's four segments.]

Gravity's Rainbow contains dozens of symbols, many of which announce themselves as having special importance, and of course most of them have. It would be foolhardy to suggest that any one of them is the key to the novel, or even that it has more final significance than some of the others, but despite some interesting recent attempts to find all-embracing explanations for the novel or identifications of its central theme1 none of these to my knowledge has yet investigated satisfactorily the recurrent symbol of the mandala which is associated with the Hereros and with the Schwarzkommando whose insignia it has become. This device does, I think, shed considerable light on the structure of the novel and, by symbolic extension, on the kinds of forces Pynchon has placed in contention with one another.

Andreas's Orukambe explains to Tyrone Slothrop that the symbol itself is drawn from an old Herero mandala which represented the shape of the tribe's villages. The two northern quadrants, belonging to the women, represented fertilization and birth, on the one hand, and breath or spirit on the other; the two southern quadrants contained the male signs of “the activities, fire and preparation or building. And in the center, here, Hauptstufe. It is the pen where we kept the sacred cattle. The souls of the ancestors. All the same here. Birth, soul, fire, building. Male and female, together.” Andreas goes on to explain that, transplanted to Germany and put to work with rockets, the Herero recognized the same shape in the rocket seen from above: “Opposites together. You can see how we might feel it speak to us, even if we didn't set one up on its fins and worship it. But it was waiting for us when we came to Germany so long ago … even confused and uprooted as we were then, we knew that our destiny was tied up with its own.”2 It is also tied up with Slothrop's destiny.

Given the central part played by the rocket in all of the novel's tangled strands of action, we need to pay special attention when its significance is brought up, and even if we were to ignore everything else in Andreas's speech we ought to catch the wider application of “confused and uprooted,” a phrase which could and does apply to all of the novel's characters. It would be a tedious task but a simple one to demonstrate the extent to which each of Gravity's Rainbow's dozens of characters share with one another confusion and uprootedness.

It is also possible to show that the separation of male and female suggested by the Herero mandala is central to at least some of the novel's major impulses. Scientific discovery is referred to as something “won from the feminine darkness” (GR [Gravity's Rainbow], p. 324), an essentially masculine activity in which women can be involved only peripherally (e.g. Jessica's ignorance of what Roger knows and does, Katje's lack of understanding of both Blicero and Enzian, even poor Maudie Chilkes). The rocket itself is manifestly a phallic symbol of masculine domination and the wish to penetrate the unknown. Further, throughout the novel, both sexes use the other, with very rare exceptions, with the result that the center, the pen where the Herero kept the sacred cattle, remains inviolate, a closed circle none of the characters can enter, except under extraordinary circumstances. The essential point at this stage, however, is that while the mandala taken as a whole represents a potential for unity (the four sections are contained within an outer circle) revolving around a commonly held center, it is also a symbol of separation, for each of the segments represents a different force, and the forces contend with and oppose one another. As Andreas explains to Slothrop, the different vanes of the rocket's tail counteract one another to keep the rocket on course, and they can do so only because they are opposed.

This rather paradoxical symbol seems, as I have already suggested, to carry great weight in the novel, and I would like to argue that the notion of four contending forces is one which can be used to understand better the world view projected by Gravity's Rainbow. The core of my argument (its Hauptstufe, if you will) is that the novel presents us with four contending ways of dealing with the world, that it shows us the virtues and limitations of each, and that it makes no choices among them, suggesting that it may be the reader's task (or the great world's) to find a way of joining them into an integral unit.3 The necessity (or apparent necessity) for developing a strategy for dealing with the world results, of course, from the increasing strength of “Them,” the controllers of the world and increasingly of all the activities of every individual in it. “They” use wars for the restructuring of obsolete technologies, “They” destroy human beings and other creatures (including the dodo bird) for no reason at all except the need for technologies to be put into practice, “They” employ Ned Pointsman and his Pavlovian behaviorist psychology to strive for total predictability and, consequently, for total control over all behavior. All of the characters in Gravity's Rainbow who make any kind of claim on our sympathies eventually find that they must find a way of keeping “Them” out of at least some areas of individual life, and these struggles fall into four categories, the segments of the mandala.

Among critics, the most persuasive argument so far has been that Pynchon was much influenced, in writing Gravity's Rainbow, by Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death, and that the way out of a world that is too controlled is through a return to Brown's favorite Freudian concept, “polymorphous perverse sexuality.”4 There is a good deal of evidence in the book to support this argument. It is clear that the prose of the novel is often warmly lyrical and sometimes nearly fervid when describing sexual activity of almost any kind as long as it is not merely exploitative or cruel. The most conventionally “romantic” relationship detailed in Gravity's Rainbow is that involving Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake. They begin with banter but there is an overpowering sexual attraction between them, so powerful in fact that Jessica has her first orgasm from the touch of Roger's hand on her wrist (GR, p. 120). Significantly, for the scientific Roger, Jessica means a release from the past, in other words from conditioning and conventional expectation: “He'd seen himself a point in a moving wavefront, propagating through sterile history—a known past, a projectable future. But Jessica was the breaking of the wave. Suddenly there was a beach, the unpredictable … new life” (GR p. 126). When they are truly together, Roger and Jessica approach a condition of perfect love, and it is in sex that they are truly together.

There are other heterosexual relationships that underscore the value of erotic contact: that between Slothrop and Katje Borgesius, for example, while part of a plot to manipulate Tyrone, is itself frolicsome and liberating, and even when Katje prepares to leave him, as Pointsman's plan dictates she must, she has come to sufficient humanity to warn Slothrop that he is being used—and this warning is not part of her conditioning. Geli Tripping is able to preserve Tchitcherine and rescue him from the effects of his life-long hatred of his half-brother Enzian through a magic that is made potent by her love for him. And, of course, Slothrop has a final chance to escape his own conditioning when he reaches a sexual apogee with the pubescent Bianca, for once transcending the separation between his sexuality and the rest of his personality. Because he is Slothrop he fails to recognize the opportunity opened for him by the experience, and he leaves Bianca to be murdered, but the experience was real (GR, pp. 468-70).

But the phrase “polymorphously perverse” suggests sexuality beyond the conventional, and there is a great deal of that in Gravity's Rainbow. The paean to honest homosexuality which concludes book 3 is significant: “In the trenches of the First World War, English men came to love one another decently, without shame or make-believe, under the easy likelihoods of their sudden deaths, and to find in the faces of other young men evidence of otherworldly visits, some poor hope that may have helped redeem even mud, shit, the decaying pieces of human meat …” (GR, p. 616). That this honest emotion has decayed to the “idle and bitchy faggotry” of Sir Marcus Scammony (GR, p. 616) does not negate its own honesty.

There are, too, the still wilder shores of love. The infatuation of the pig for Slothrop in his Plechazunga costume is mostly a joke, of course, but it cannot be called dishonest, and the pig does lead Slothrop to Pökler. One of the few happy endings to a love affair in the entire novel involves Ludwig and his wandering lemming, Ursula, who are finally reunited. Probably the trickiest area of sexuality involves sado-masochism, but because it is probably the most common variety in the novel it must be confronted. Most readers, I would guess, recoil at the amount and variety of sadism and masochism in the novel, and take it as a manifestation of the sickness of the modern world. No doubt the revulsion of some of its members caused the Pulitzer committee to reject Gravity's Rainbow's nomination when confronted by the famous scene involving Katje and Brigadier Pudding, or even the initial encounter between Slothrop and Great Erdmann, not to mention the accounts of Weissmann's indulgences with Katje and Gottfried, and many readers feel the same revulsion and arrive at the same conclusion: sadistic and masochistic practices are evil, and those who engage in them are sick.

But like every other kind of easy interpretation of this novel, this one begins to waver when we look at it closely enough. The key, I think, lies in Thanatz's defense of the practice. Thanatz himself, of course, is not one of the book's admirable characters, and we cannot help but find something self-serving in his little speech to Ludwig, where “they have crept away, to a piece of the interface …” (GR, p. 737). But his logic seems too close to the heart of the novel to be dismissed lightly: “But why are we taught to feel reflexive shame whenever the subject comes up? Why will the Structure allow every other kind of sexual behavior but that one? Because submission and dominance are resources it needs for its very survival. They cannot be wasted in private sex. In any kind of sex. It needs our submission so that it may remain in power. It needs our lusts after dominance so that it can co-opt us into its own power game. There is no joy in it, only power. I tell you, if S and M could be established universally, at the family level, the State would wither away” (GR, p. 737).5

This is called “sado-anarchism,” but there are other incidents of sadism in the book which are presented in such a way as to make suspect any too-easy revulsion. Some characters, clearly enough, need pain. Greta Erdmann, in her first encounter with Slothrop, demonstrates this clearly, and Gottfried's devotion to Weissmann is not the less real because it stems from his degradation at Weissmann's hands. Again, although the source is suspect, the novel does not permit us to deny the truth of Weissmann's letter to Enzian concerning Katje: “Her masochism … is reassurance for her. That she can still be hurt, that she is human and can cry at pain. Because, often, she will forget. I can only try to guess how terrible that must be. … So, she needs the whip” (GR, p. 662) (first ellipsis mine, second P's). Finally, inevitably, there is the encounter between Katje and Pudding; I will not try here to embroider Paul Fussell's brilliant explication of that scene,6 but the point is the same: Pudding's pain and degradation are necessary to him and to his ability to think of himself as still human. What seems to be crucial in the episodes of sado-masochism is that, paradoxical as it may seem, pain must be necessary to the victim.7

Unfortunately, of course, this is not always possible or even worth hoping for. Major Marvy's fantasy is closer to the usual motivation for the infliction of pain than Weissmann's madly tender regard for Gottfried and Katje: “She'll do anything he orders, yeah he can hold her head under water till she drowns, he can bend her hand back, yeah, break her fingers like that cunt in Frankfurt the other week. Pistol-whip, bite till blood comes … visions go swarming, violent, less erotic than you might think—more occupied with thrust, impact, penetration and such other military values” (GR, p. 606). And the final truth about sadism, made clear throughout the novel, is that it does indeed humiliate and degrade another human being: that, in fact, it has such degradation as its aim. This being the case, it is as Thanatz has said one of the principal weapons employed by “Them,” and its acceptance is a yielding to “Their” values.

That love or sexual contact in its many forms is not any kind of final answer to the destruction of the world or the increasing control of the “Firm” seems to be clear wherever we look in Gravity's Rainbow. Once the ostensible war is over, Jessica abandons Roger and tries to have a baby with good old Beaver; Slothrop finds Bianca hanging in the dark bowels of the Anubis, and can no more stay with the pig or the printer's daughter than he could with Bianca; Katje's betrayal of Slothrop is as real as her warning to him; Weissmann's care for Gottfried wins the latter a doomed ride in the A-4 rocket. However closely Pynchon may have attended to Norman O. Brown, I would argue that sexuality in any form functions in Gravity's Rainbow as a source of temporary respite but not as any kind of answer to the problem of control. On a psychological level, a return to polymorphous perverse sexuality is a return to childhood, and this kind of return seems to be specifically rejected in the poignant section called “The Occupation of Mingeborough,” which richly details the back way home through empty lots and driveways but concludes “But there is the occupation. They may have already interdicted the kids' shortcuts a long with the grown-up routes. It may be too late to get home” (GR, p. 744). Given earlier references to “occupation” as a psychological device for conditioning individuals to accept “bad shit,” the larger implications of this passage seem final.

If love will not serve as a way out of the dilemma, the novel offers other possibilities. One of these, of course, is resistance. As the novel unwinds, we find many examples of resistance to the stratagems and powers of “Them,” including the Argentinians on their submarine, Slothrop in his various disguises, Mexico with his warning to Pointsman that theories of cause and effect are too limited, and Seaman Bodine's machinations. The two most noticeable, however, and most deserving of attention, are the attempt of Katje and Pirate to opt out of the system they have served for so long and the attempt, late in the novel, to create a “counterforce” which will function as a not-entirely-hopeless resistance. Both these attempts are clearly valuable and, to a degree, redemptive, but both are also doomed. It is worth considering them for both reasons.

Katje and Pirate Prentice are quintessentially servants of the system, but both have redeeming qualities. Pirate has been employed by the “Firm,” even before WWII, because of his not entirely common ability “for getting inside the fantasies of others: being able, actually, to take over the burden of managing them,. … It is a gift the Firm has found uncommonly useful. …” (GR, p. 12) (ellipses mine in both cases). Despite his occasional gestures toward independence (the banana farm at the beginning of the novel suggests a certain streak of unconventionality) even his love life with Scorpia Mossmoon has been carefully managed, and the extent of the “Firm's” control over Pirate is indicated by his conditioned sexual response enabling him to decipher Katje's message contained in the V-2: “He never told anyone. Like every young man growing up in England, he was conditioned to get a hardon in the presence of certain fetishes, and then conditioned to feel shame about his new reflexes. Could there be, somewhere, a dossier, could They (They?) somehow have managed to monitor everything he saw and read since puberty … how else would They know?” (GR, pp. 71-72).

Katje is equally a servant of the forces of control. She participates in her own degradation and Gottfried's, is a hostess for a Luftwaffe pilots' club, and betrays Dutch Jews to the Nazis in the service of British intelligence. Back in England she is conditioned to entrap Slothrop and on the Riviera she carries out her mission with skill, if not with human warmth, only once allowing Slothrop a glimpse of the plot of which she is a part. And, with the aid of a laxative, she performs perfectly her role of Domina Nocturna in the ritual which keeps Pudding bound to his duty.

But unlike such characters as Teddy Bloat or Pointsman, both Pirate and Katje have doubts about what they are doing and suspicions about the purposes for which they are being used, and there are others who recognize those doubts. Katje is eventually directed to the house in London where Osbie Feel is doing incredible things with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and from there to a meeting with Pirate at a kind of surrealistic indoctrination center for a resistance, where they meet others in the same position. The passage describing their experience is one of the most extraordinary in the book (GR, pp. 537-48) for its integration of contradictory suggestions. As initiates, Katje and Pirate must learn from such earlier arrivals as St.-Just Grossout and Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck that however sincere their desire to escape the Firm and struggle against it, they cannot hope ever to be anything better than double agents. Nor, as people who have caused the deaths of others in the service of the Firm, can they ever hope “for a bit of mercy” (GR, p. 542). They also hear the priestly disciple of Teilhard de Chardin raise the dreadful possibility that “They” have found a way around death, and no longer share even our common mortality. Katje's understanding is femininely intuitive, but Pirate's comes more slowly. Still, it comes: “But he understands where he is, now. It will be possible, after all, to die in obscurity, without having helped a soul: without love, despised, never trusted, never vindicated—to stay down among the Preterite, his poor honor lost, impossible to locate or to redeem” (GR, p. 544).

Grim as all this is, it is better than not resisting at all. “Pirate is surprised to find Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck more fit than he ever looked in his life. The man is actively at peace, in the way of a good samurai—each time he engages Them fully expecting to die, without apprehension or remorse” (GR, p. 541). Both Pirate and Katje discover that with the acceptance of the permanence of their own guilt, and especially with the knowledge that they are fully responsible for it (GR, p. 546), there is a measure of something suggestive of happiness: “And they do dance: though Pirate never could before, very well … they feel quite in touch with all the others as they move, and if they are never to be at full ease, still it's not parade rest any longer … so they dissolve now, into the race and swarm of this dancing Preterition, and their faces, the dear, comical faces, grimly flirtatious, and striving to be kind. …” (GR, p. 548).

The more formal manifestation of the resistance is the Counterforce itself, manifested in Roger Mexico's assault on Twelfth House (GR, pp. 632-37); his connection with Pirate, Osbie Feel, Sir Stephen and the others (GR, pp. 637-40); the Gross Suckling Conference involving Ensign Morituri, Carroll Eventyr, Thomas Gwenhidwy and Mexico which determines the probable firing direction of Weissmann's 00000 rocket (GR, pp. 706-8); and the escape of Mexico and Seaman Bodine from the formal dinner through a verbal assault on every convention of “good taste” (GR, pp. 714-17). This last episode is an apparent triumph (the other achievements of the Counterforce seem even more dubious), since it at least saves the lives of Mexico and Bodine and attracts (at least temporarily) such new recruits as the female war-correspondent, the members of the string quartet who have been playing Haydn's suppressed “‘Kazoo’ Quartet in G-Flat Minor” (GR, p. 711), and the black butler. Bodine and Mexico had apparently been invited to the dinner to be served as the main course, so their ability to nauseate the genteel members of the establishment and make their escape preserves them for a while, but the triumph is considerably less than total.

Even as they arrive at the dinner party, the reader is reminded that “They” retain control even over rebels: “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, and each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in the world is Bad Shit. We do know what's going on, and we let it go on” (GR, pp. 712-13).

Additionally, it becomes clear in the later stages of the novel that the Counterforce is itself doomed to the bane of 20th-century life, the greatest weapon in “Their” arsenal, bureaucratization. The final betrayal of Slothrop, after so many others, after he has finally been dispersed through the Zone, is by a “spokesman for the Counterforce” in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, who acknowledges that “We were never that concerned with Slothrop qua Slothrop …” (GR, p. 738) and who goes on to acknowledge that the Counterforce has split into schisms, to demonstrate his own rampant paranoia, and to acknowledge that the secret of control is that it is present even in its adversaries (GR, p. 739). Perhaps the cruelest irony is that there is for Slothrop even a “Book of Memorabilia” which seems to correspond to the forbidden book of Pavlov's letters so cherished in the early pages by Pointsman and his fellow behaviorists. It is a way of showing that the world is so dominated by the Firm that even resistance movements cannot help but imitate its methods and patterns: as the Counterforce becomes organized, as it must to have any chance, it loses whatever force it once had.

The systematic undercutting of resistance movements in Gravity's Rainbow shows that they are not the way to salvation, any more than love is the way. But this is by no means to say that the Counterforce and the impulses which lead to resistance are without value; without their verbal resistance, Mexico and Bodine would not have escaped being served for dinner, and Pirate and Katje, however sadly, do manage to dance. It seems clear in one episode after another that survival is possible, at least for some characters, only through resistance. What the undercutting does show is that resistance can have only very limited success, only on a personal level, and that it will not change the nature of the world.

The third quadrant of the mandala is the acceptance of preterition. Again, like love and resistance, acceptance of one's common basic humanity can be redemptive or ameliorative only on the most personal level. We see it most often in Gravity's Rainbow in characters who have striven to become part of the elect or who have served Them, sometimes involuntarily. The acceptance of preterition may be a disappointment, as it is for Pirate, who is reminded by Katje that “the People will never love you …” (GR, p. 547), and for whom the recognition of his status represents a failure.

More often, however, acceptance is seen positively, as in the case of Franz Pökler, who after years of being manipulated by Weissmann finds a kind of contentment in burned-out Zwölfkinder with the pig Frieda, waiting without urgency for the return of his daughter, Ilse (GR, pp. 575-76). Coincidentally (if coincidence is even imaginable in this novel), Ilse herself has found something like Pökler's peace, though hers comes through motion, not rest. Her mother's hope for her is apparently coming true: “… it's of her own child, Ilse, riding lost through the Zone on a long freight train that never seems to come to rest. She isn't unhappy, nor is she searching, exactly, for her father. But Leni's early dream for her is coming true. She will not be used. There is change, and departure; but there is also help when least looked for from the strangers of the day, and hiding, out among the accidents of this drifting Humility, never quite to be extinguished, a few small chances for mercy …” (GR, p. 610) (1st ellipsis mine, last P's).

The exact nature of preterition is, of course, somewhat difficult to define. Its theological terms are set forth in the passage dealing with Tyrone's ancestor, William Slothrop, the Puritan heretic who argued that Election could have no meaning if there were not a group of souls chosen not to be saved, and that this group had its own essential part in God's plan. Pynchon has a good deal of fun with William Slothrop's love for his pigs, “their nobility and personal freedom,” and the consternation caused in the Boston establishment by his pamphlet, “On Preterition” (GR, p. 555). But he also uses the Slothropite heresy to raise one of those frequent uncomfortable questions: “Could he (William Slothrop) have been the fork in the road America never took, the singular point she jumped the wrong way from? Suppose the Slothropite heresy had had the time to consolidate and prosper? Might there have been fewer crimes in the name of Jesus, and more mercy in the name of Judas Iscariot?” (GR, p. 556). In William Slothrop's view, there is more nobility in those who have no ambition for election than in the strivers.

One of the most controversial questions among critics of Gravity's Rainbow is the meaning of Slothrop's ultimate fate: “So is her son Tyrone, but only because by now—early Virgo—he has become one plucked albatross. Plucked, hell—stripped. Scattered all over the Zone. It's doubtful if he can ever be ‘found’ again, in the conventional sense of ‘positively identified and detained'” (GR, p. 712). It may be that Slothrop's final loss of identity is in fact a sign of his failure and a final loss of significance. But it may also be that what happens to Slothrop, in the aftermath of his vision of the rainbow (not gravity's rainbow) is itself a kind of salvation. This is, I think, one of the most important passages in the entire novel, since it contains Slothrop's scratching of the mandala figure as his own sign and his recognition of its ubiquitousness, his own experience of becoming a crossroad, and his own memory of a time when “he could make it all fit” (GR, p. 626). “Crosses, swastikas, Zone-Mandalas, how can they not speak to Slothrop?” (GR, p. 625). What he hears from them seems to lead to the most natural experience Tyrone is to have in the novel: “… and now, in the Zone, later in the day he became a crossroad, after a heavy rain he doesn't recall, Slothrop sees a very thick rainbow here, a stout rainbow cock driven down out of the public clouds into Earth, green wet valleyed Earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural …” (GR, p. 626).

It is tempting to see Slothrop's experience in unqualifiedly positive terms; all searching done, all striving over, he can abandon the questions of his own identity which have plagued him as he abandons the fruitless search for the rocket; he can relapse into simple acceptance of the natural world and the other ordinary people in it. Given his conditioning and his past, this is undoubtedly a kind of triumph for Slothrop. But the temptation to see it as an answer must, like all other temptations offered by the book, be rejected. Surely it is no accident that this scene is not the last time we see Slothrop. We encounter him once again, sitting on a curbstone in some German town, failing entirely to understand the significance of what he sees: “In one of those streets, in the morning fog, plastered over two slippery cobblestones, is a scrap of newspaper headline, with a wirephoto of a giant white cock, dangling in the sky straight downward out of a white public bush. The letters

                                                            MB DRO

appear above with the logo of some occupation newspaper. … The white image has the same coherence, the hey-lookit-me smugness, as the Cross does. It is not only a sudden white genital onset in the sky—it is also, perhaps, a Tree …” (GR, pp. 693-94) (first ellipsis mine, 2nd P's). Slothrop has removed himself from the world so far that he cannot recognize the significance of this second cock driven out of the sky, as destructive as the first was generative. He only sits and stares.

This is, of course, the great failing of preterition. Slothrop sitting on his curbstone, Ilse moving along the rails on an endless freight train, Pökler becalmed at Zwölfkinder, even Ludwig sliding along the interface between armies, are out of it in a quite literal way. But events continue to occur in the world outside, which has lost none of its potential for destructiveness just because a few individuals have learned to ignore it, or have forgotten that it is there. It seems to me unclear whether their ignorance confers a kind of immunity on them, or whether they retain the same potential for victimization that the rest of the characters have, but this is not the essential point. Their withdrawal does not change the nature of the world around them, the fecund earth which the industrial system violates in repudiation of Kekule's vision:

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 begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must 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.

(GR, p. 412)

While the preterite may represent the human component of the innocent group of victims, they cannot be immune, and their preterition seems to remove them from any involvement in attempts to offer a sane corrective to Them.

If love, resistance and acceptance offer no final answers, the novel continually dangles before us the possibility of transcending death and what we have done to the earth. One of the narrator's darkest pronouncements on the human mission (granted, there are plenty to choose among, and comparisons are not easy) appears near the end of the novel, a vision of incredible life and activity:

This is the World just before men. Too violently pitched alive in constant flow ever to be seen by men directly. 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 overspeaking 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. Counter-revolutionaries. It is our mission to promote death. The way we kill, the way we die, being unique among the Creatures.

(GR, p. 720)

Not only did we bring with us new ways to kill and to die, we brought with us also the frantic desire to escape death, somehow to transcend what we feared as the final end of our precious consciousnesses; there are few more chilling notions in Gravity's Rainbow, after all, than while we must die, They may not, as Teilhard's disciple suggests.

The desire for transcendence as a way past or through death pervades Gravity's Rainbow. And the novel clearly encourages us to consider the possibility. From the quotation from Wernher von Braun which is the epigraph to the opening section, titled “Beyond the Zero” (the quotation from von Braun indicating belief in “the continuity of our spiritual existence after death” is clearly ironic but just as clearly is something more than ironic at the same time), to the spirit of Walter Rathenau speaking to a sense of IG executives about the proliferation of “structures favoring death” but going on to say that “secular history” is useful to humans “but no longer so to us here” (GR, p. 167), to the success of Geli Tripping's love potion, we are constantly warned against a too-ready acceptance of cause-and-effect reasoning and its attendant assumption that death is final. Tchitcherine may not be capable of seeing the Kirghiz Light, but we are not made to question the Light's existence (GR, p. 359).

But if various ways of transcending this life and its limitations recur throughout the novel, the possibilities of transcendence remain difficult for many readers of Gravity's Rainbow to grasp. There are several reasons for this difficulty, among them our rationalistic rejection of spiritualism and our skepticism about redemption brought by a babe (skepticism shared by the narrative voice),8 but the major difficulty, I think, is that Pynchon has chosen as the major spokesman for and avatar of transcendence a character from whom most readers recoil in disgust, Major Weissmann/Blicero, whose adopted SS code name suggests a choice of death and negation and a rejection of inherited wisdom, and who is presented in a way calculated to arouse apprehension and disgust in the reader.

Certainly Weissmann/Blicero is no attractive figure. His sadistic treatment of Gottfried and Katje, his homosexuality, his association with the rockets which carry such terrifying destruction with them, his cynical manipulation of Pökler—all of these are calculated to make the reader see him as the most villainous of the novel's figures, an agent of destruction and a servant of “Them.” But in the characterization of Blicero, as in so many other things, a funny thing happens on the way to the end of this novel. It is curious but clear that none of the other characters whom he has exploited sexually feels resentment, much less hatred, for him in the novel's later stages. Katje and Enzian, when they eventually meet, speak of him with tenderness, not only Enzian whose first lover Weissmann was, but Katje as well, and after she has joined the Counterforce. For both of them, Weissmann has been a necessity, has somehow made life possible. And the change in our understanding of Weissmann is assisted by our recognition of the accuracy of his comments about Katje.

Most important, of course, is the fact that it is through Weissmann that our attention is so often drawn to Rilke, whose dreams of transcendence permeate the atmosphere of Gravity's Rainbow. It is Weissmann who chooses a name from Rilke (“Enzian”) for his young African lover. And it is Weissmann who single-mindedly, through the relentless destruction of the Third Reich, keeps Pökler and others at work, amasses the technicians and the materials, struggles against his own waning powers to build and launch the numberless rocket 00000, the first rocket to carry a human cargo, the hapless Gottfried, who has been saved specifically for this encounter with destiny. And it is clear that for Weissmann this last is an act of love, that he intends Gottfried's flight to be a transcendence for both of them. In a late passage in which he expatiates upon Europe as purveyor to the world of “Analysis and Death” (GR, p. 722), Weissmann sees that “Now we are in the last phase. American Death has come to occupy Europe. It has learned empire from its old metropolis” (GR, p. 722). But his dream remains one of transcendence, the expression of a desire to go back (“return”) combined with a recognition of the necessity to go forward, beyond, somehow through the death civilization has imposed on the individual: “‘I want to break out—to leave this cycle of infection and death. I want to be taken in love: so taken that you and I, and death, and life, will be gathered, inseparable, into the radiance of what we would become … ”” (GR, p. 724). This is the Rilkean dream, and Weissmann is its avatar.

Because we see so much of the rocket's potential for destruction, we are likely to be cynical about its transformation into a symbol of possible salvation. And the final pages of the novel dealing with the firing give heavy weight to the picture of poor Gottfried, wrapped in his shroud of Imipolex—G, cut off from communication with the ground, being launched toward certain death in the fulfillment of Weissmann's demented vision. But we must balance this picture with the fact that the possibility is never finally erased that the rocket has indeed transcended, for we and the characters never know where (or if) the rocket has ever landed, and we can never be certain that Gottfried has not in some way found his way to another order of existence. It is this lack of knowledge that provides Enzian with the dream that he can use his rocket, 00001, which will not only permit him personal transcendence but will also provide the Zone-Herero with a new myth which will be the basis for a true return. And we never finally know that Enzian's dream, either, is doomed or is a real possibility. Finally, of course, neither the other characters nor the reader ever sees Weissmann himself after the launching of the 00000, so the chance remains that he has succeeded, through Gottfried, in his dream of transcendence. Poor members of the Preterite that we are, we readers can only know that we do not know.

These, then, are the possibilities for the characters in this novel for dealing with the modern world which is controlled by immensely powerful forces whose aim, whether primary or tangential, is to control everything and to annihilate individuality. Love, resistance, preterition, transcendence. Each seems to work, at least briefly, for some of the characters, but all of them are so thoroughly discredited in one way or another that none of them can be looked to for salvation. And so we come back to the Herero mandala, with its four quadrants representing the four parts of the village; each has its own function and symbolic meaning, but each has meaning only as it is joined with the others through (around) the center, the common ground where the cattle are kept, which links the parts of the village and gives the entire society its coherence. That center is at the heart of the mystery of Gravity's Rainbow.

The mandala, with its functions as I have described them, is one among many symbols in the novel; it is not the key to unlock all of its mysteries. The interpretation I have provided is plausible and, I believe, sound, but it is not the only possible way of reading the mandala and its functions.9 Recognition of the centrality of the mandala is necessary, however, entirely apart from the accuracy of my reading of its specific meaning: such recognition is a corrective to the popular notion that the basic structure of Gravity's Rainbow is dialectical. Proponents of the dialectic (or its twin, dualism) have called attention to the existence in the book of many pairs of opposites, from white/black and north/south to Beethoven/Rossini and Pointsman/Mexico, and they have argued that this implies that resolutions are to be found when these opposites can somehow be reconciled.10 But the theory, in my view, has its origins in the limitations imposed on us by our traditional Western view of possibility. Dialectical reasoning is, after all, one manifestation of the kind of logic which leads in the end to Pavlovian behaviorism, a logic which maintains that everything can be reduced to stimulus/response or to thesis/antithesis: it denies the existence of anything between (or beyond) the zero and the one. And dialectics implies the inevitability of synthesis, but the case has not been made for a synthesis of opposing elements in Gravity's Rainbow. To the contrary, it would seem that the reconciliation of opposites through synthesis is entirely absent from the book, one of whose few clear lessons is that Western thought is impotent when confronted with the multiplicity and confusion of existence. Even if individual cases of successful synthesis could be located in the novel, the entire tone of the book would seem to warn us against acceptance of so reductive a system.

In the quadripartite mandala, on the other hand, the various forces exist in a dynamic relationship which cannot be described in formulaic terms. These forces may be in conflict with one another, and indeed they seem to be mutually exclusive, but relationships among them are not easily predictable. Two impulses sometimes arise from similar motives, and are in some ways linked, as in Gottfried's relationship with Weissmann/Blicero, where both earthly love and the impulse to transcend are apparent; in a similar way, acceptance of preterition should rule out the possibility of transcendence, but when Slothrop finally accepts his preterite nature he has a transcendent experience, crying for no reason at all and watching the fertile rainbow thrusting into the earth. This interaction may mean nothing, or it may mean a great deal. In the Herero origins of the mandala it was clearly evidence of vitality, but in our world the parts of the mandala do not exist in harmonious relationships with one another; they can do so only if the center is a vital core, as it was in its African village. The mandala has traditionally been the focus of mystery as it is in Gravity's Rainbow, developing out of the way people lived (it is not, like the dialectic, a product of the dissociated intellect), but how it does so and why it retains its potency remain matters not susceptible of rational explanation. This would suggest that the search of humanity for the unifying middle which can hold together the parts of the mandala cannot be a purely intellectual search but must also call upon our resources of emotion, intuition and spirit. And that seems to me entirely in accord with the ambience of Gravity's Rainbow.

To say this is not to say, however, that the novel tells us that the search will be successful, or even that it is worth undertaking, because the novel leaves open the central mystery, the “O” at the center of the mandala. In one of the visual representations of the mandala (GR, p. 361), the center is the body of the rocket itself, seen from above, possible vehicle of transcendence, more likely carrier of destruction. The other visual representation leaves the middle as open and empty as the head of Slothrop, who draws it (GR, p. 624).11 Whether the rocket is a means of going beyond the zero or a finally destructive force we are never told; on the final page, we leave Gottfried, past Brennschluss, as “the first star hangs between his feet,” and sit in the theater as the rocket reaches its final delta-t above our heads (GR, p. 760). Transcendence or destruction, which will it be? Which do we want it to be?

Even a resolution of this question would still answer only the most elementary of the questions posed by the “O” at the center of the mandala. For that circle reverberates throughout the entire novel, representing as it does the zero beyond which we may or may not go, the emptiness which all the characters try to fill, the “progressive knotting into” which tries “to bring events to Absolute Zero” (GR, p. 3), the silence, the empty Kirghiz plains; it is, in fine, “the nothing that is.” Whether we can penetrate the circle, or accept the existence of the void, the novel does not say. For the novel itself, art may be said to fill the empty space with its profligate variety of styles, with jokes, with a bewildering display of knowledge, with the multiple masks of the narrator. It is art which performs the necessary task of “singing back the silence” (GR, p. 172), that auditory analogue of the zero; art covers the blank pages. But it is an art which refers only to itself, offering no solution to the novel's beleaguered characters.

Or to its beleaguered readers. As critics, as readers, simply as human beings, we demand more. We want to be told that if we persist in the struggle we will find our way home, that true return is possible, or that we need not struggle for nothing is possible; we need an answer, even if only to allow us to reject it. All of our training in reading has taught us that if we persist long enough and apply enough intelligence we can unravel the mystery, identify the author's attitude, and learn the lesson of the text. Confronted with a text which contains a veritable cornucopia of clues, we search diligently and sometimes desperately for ways of arranging those clues in a meaningful pattern. Gravity's Rainbow invites, even demands, such efforts, and steadfastly rebuffs them. It gives nothing away. At the center of the mandala rests that infuriating empty circle, that refusal to impose meaning or to confirm either our fondest wishes or our direst fears. We are left with the silence, the void, the sterile nothingness; we are left also with unlimited possibility. Which is it to be? Which do you want it to be?


  1. See Mark Richard Siegel, Pynchon: Creative Paranoia in Gravity's Rainbow (Port Washington and London: 1978); Lawrence C. Wolfley, “Repression's Rainbow: The Presence of Norman O. Brown in Pynchon's Big Novel,” PMLA, 92, No. 5 (Oct. 1977), 873-89, William M. Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon (Bloomington: 1978).

  2. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (New York and London: The Viking Press, 1973), p. 563 (hereafter cited as GR). Except where noted, all ellipses are Pynchon's.

  3. Several numbers are given symbolic significance in the novel, and 4 appears more frequently than most; the novel is divided into four sections, four characters participate in the Gross Suckling conference, and in many important scenes four characters are involved. Number-mysticism is undoubtedly a factor in Gravity's Rainbow, but like everything else it is an object of humor as well as susceptible to possible serious belief.

  4. See Wolfley, No. 1 above. I also owe a debt to a former student, Jeff Thomas, who in an unpublished paper extended Wolfley's theory in interesting ways.

  5. Thanatz's name, of course, relates him to the forces of death, and makes his reasoning even more suspect, but it contains a seed of truth.

  6. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 328-44.

  7. Katje Borgesius is of special importance here. While she joins the Counterforce and dances with Pirate Prentice, she later goes to the Zone to join Enzian in the search for Weissmann, only to find that, in Enzian's words, “her story is saddest of all” (GR, p. 662), her punishment in her very survival.

  8. The desperate nostalgia for belief in a redeeming child and this skepticism are both contained in the superb description of the Advent service attended by Roger and Jessica (GR, pp. 128-36).

  9. The four quadrants of the mandala of course correspond to the four sections into which the novel is divided, a division which may parody the Gospels, but I have chosen not to develop that parallel. I also recognize that other readers will not necessarily assent to my divisions of the mandala; for example, there might be objections to the connections I see between Rilkean transcendence and the dream of the redeeming child, but I have tried to deal in probabilities in a novel which offers few certainties.

  10. Brown …” (PMLA, p. 885). See also his fn. 16 (PMLA, 888). We are told by the narrator that Thomas Gweahitwy, one of the counter force, “has not fallen to the dialectic curse of Pointsman's Book …” (GR, 639).

  11. When Slothrop scratches his mandala in the dust, and it is identified as his sign, he does so unconsciously, seemingly unaware of its significance. This is entirely appropriate, since Slothrop throughout the novel misses the significance of signs and always misses his opportunities for salvation (as with Bianca); it would be entirely out of character for him to recognize the significance of the sign he draws.

Tony Tanner (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7544

SOURCE: Tanner, Tony. “Gravity's Rainbow.” In Thomas Pynchon, pp. 74-95. New York: Methuen, 1982.

[In the following essay, Tanner demonstrates how Gravity's Rainbow subverts the traditional methods of reading, suggesting that this strategy renders conventional attempts to interpret the text ineffective.]

Gravity's Rainbow (1973) is a novel of such vastness and range that it defies—with a determination unusual even in this age of ‘difficult’ books—any summary. It defies quite a lot of other things as well. There are over 400 characters—we should perhaps say ‘names', since the ontological status of the figures that drift and stream across the pages is radically uncertain. There are many discernible, or half-discernible, plots, involving, for example, the GI Tyrone Slothrop, whose sexual encounters in London during the war uncannily anticipate where the V2 rockets fall; a rocket genius named Captain Blicero (later Major Weissmann); Franz Pökler, who worked on the rocket but is hoping to retrieve his wife and daughter from the concentration camps; Tchitcherine, a Soviet intelligence officer (who, among other things, has to impose a Latin alphabet on an illiterate tribe in Central Asia); Enzian, his half-brother and leader of the Schwarzkommando, a Herero group exiled in Germany from South-West Africa which is trying to assemble the secrets of the rocket, and which also seems bent on self-annihilation. These plots touch and intersect, or diverge and separate, as the case may be. Somewhere at the back of them all is the discovery by the nineteenth-century German chemist, Kekule von Stradonitz, of the model of the benzene ring, which made possible the manufacture of the molecular structures of plastic and, ultimately, rocketry.

There is a good deal of well-informed technological reference in the book—inserted not gratuitously but to demonstrate how technology has created its own kind of people (servants) with their own kind of consciousness (or lack of it). There is evidence of a whole range of knowledge of contemporary ‘specialized’ expertises—from mathematics, chemistry and ballistics, to classical music theory, film and comic strips. There is also a prevailing sense of the degree to which modern life has been bureaucratized and turned into an impersonal routine (Max Weber is alluded to and his phrase ‘the routinization of charisma’ quoted twice—as Edward Mendelson, again, was the first to point out). As before, many other writers are alluded to, directly or indirectly—Melville, Conrad, Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Rilke (crucial), Borges (always important for Pynchon, but in this novel finally named), etc. Out of all this—and much, much more—Pynchon has created a book that is both one of the great historical novels of our time and arguably the most important literary text since Ulysses.

I think it is important to stress that the novel provides an exemplary experience in modern reading. The reader does not move comfortably from some ideal ‘emptiness’ of meaning to a satisfying fullness, but instead becomes involved in a process in which any perception can precipitate a new confusion, and an apparent clarification turn into a prelude to further difficulties. So far from this being an obstacle to appreciating the book, it is part of its essence. It is the way we live now.

Gravity's Rainbow does indeed have a recognizable historical setting. It is engaged with Europe at the end of the Second World War and just after. In choosing to situate his novel at this point in time, Pynchon is concentrating on a crucial moment when a new transpolitical order began to emerge out of the ruins of old orders that could no longer maintain themselves. At one point he describes the movements of displaced people at the end of the war, ‘a great frontierless streaming’. The sentences that follow mime out this ‘frontierless’ condition in an extraordinary flow of objects and people, and conclude: ‘so the populations move, across the open meadow, limping, marching, shuffling, carried, hauling along the detritus of an order, a European and bourgeois order they don't yet know is destroyed forever’ (p. 551). A later passage suggests what is taking the place of this vanished order. ‘Oh, a State begins to take form in the stateless German night, a State that spans oceans and surface politics, sovereign as the International or the Church of Rome, and the Rocket is its soul’ (p. 566).

The Rocket is specifically the V2, which was launched on London and, because it travelled faster than sound, crashed before the sound of its flight could be heard—a frightening disruption of conventional sequence and cause—effect expectations. (Hence the famous opening sentence, ‘a screaming comes across the sky’.) It also becomes the paradigm product of modern technology, and, in making it the central object of the book, Pynchon is clearly addressing himself to the sociopolitical implications of contemporary trends in history. But he refuses to do this in a conventional narrative way because conventional narrative procedures were themselves products of that vanished bourgeois order, and it is no longer possible to ‘read’ what is going on in any conventional manner. Thus Pynchon's characters move in a world of both too many and too few signs, too much data and too little information, too many texts but no reliable editions, an extreme ‘over-abundance of signifier', to borrow a phrase from Lévi-Strauss. I stress this first because, before attempting to indicate what the novel is ‘about’ in any traditional sense, I think it is important to consider how to read it, for more than anything else this book provides an experience in modern reading. People who expect and demand the traditional narrative conventions will be immediately disoriented by this book.

There is one phantasmagoric episode in a ‘disquieting structure’ which is a dream-version of some contemporary hell. We read: ‘It seems to be some very extensive museum, a place of many levels, and new wings that generate like living tissue—though if it all does grow toward some end shape, those who are here inside can't see it’ (p. 537). Now not only is this applicable to all the dozens of characters in the book itself—drifting in and out of sections, participating in different spaces, finding themselves on different levels; it is both their dream and their dread to see an ‘end shape’ to it all, though of course, being in the book, they never will. But—and I think this is very important—nor do we as readers. One of the things Pynchon manages to do so brilliantly is to make us participate in the beset and bewildered consciousness which is the unavoidable affliction of his characters.

As you read the book you seem to pass through a bewildering variety of genres, behavioural modes, and types of discourse: at different times the text seems to partake of such different things as pantomime, burlesque, cinema, cabaret, card games, songs, comic strips, spy stories, serious history, encyclopedic information, mystical and visionary meditations, the scrambled imagery of dreams, the cold cause-and-effect talk of the behaviourists, and all the various ways in which men try to control and coerce realities both seen and unseen—from magic to measurement, from science to seances. At one point, one character is reading a Plasticman comic; he is approached by a man of encyclopedic erudition, who engages him in a conversation about etymology. Here is a clue for us: we should imagine that we are reading a comic, but it is partly transparent, and through it we are also reading an encyclopedia, a film script, a piece of science history, and so on. There is only one text but it contains a multiplicity of surfaces; modes of discourse are constantly turning into objects of discourse with no one stable discourse holding them together.

This is not such a bizarre undertaking as it may sound. We can all read and decode the different languages and genres Pynchon has brought into his book. Modern man is above all an interpreter of different signs, a reader of differing discourses, a servant of signals, a compelled and often compulsive decipherer. In Henri Lefebvre's use of the word, we do live in a ‘pleonastic’ society of ‘aimless signifiers and disconnected signifieds’ on many levels, so that you can see evidence of hyper-redundancy in the realm of signs, objects, institutions, even human beings. Wherever we look, there is too much to ‘read’ (‘Is it any wonder the world's gone insane, with information come to be the only real medium of exchange?’, p. 258). But never before has there been such uncertainty about the reliability of the texts. One character in the novel, making his way across the wastelands of post-war Europe, wonders whether it does contain a ‘Real Text’ (p. 520). He thinks that such a text may be connected with the secrets of the rocket; but perhaps the ‘Real Text’ is the desolate landscape he is traversing, or perhaps he missed the Real Text somewhere behind him in a ruined city … Reading Pynchon's novel gives us a renewed sense of how we have to read the modern world. At times in his book it is not always clear whether we are in a bombed-out building or a bombed-out mind, but that too is quite appropriate. For how many of those rockets that fell in London fell in the consciousness of the survivors, exploding in the modern mind? And, looking around and inside us, how can we be sure how much is Real Text, and how much is ruined debris?

In all this it is impossible to say with confidence what the book is ‘about', but constantly you have the sense of many things that it seems to be about. We might consider the title, or titles, of the novel. Originally it was to be called Mindless Pleasures. We can perhaps infer the intention behind such a title from a passage in which a girl, Jessica, temporarily in love with the rebellious Roger Mexico (of whom more later), thinks of her other suitor, Jeremy, who is the quintessence of the Establishment.

Jeremy is the War, he is every assertion the fucking War has ever made—that we are meant for work and government, for austerity: and these shall take priority over love, dreams, the spirit, the senses and the other second-class trivia that are found among the idle and mindless hours of the day. … Damn them, they are wrong.

(p. 177)

Pynchon has ever been a sympathetic supporter of ‘second-class trivia', which would seem to include those ‘mindless’ pleasures that have no interest in ‘the War', which ‘the War'—and all the official organization, technology and bureaucracy it represents (is the product of)—dismisses and disavows. One basic struggle or opposition in the book, then, is indeed between ‘mindless pleasures’ and the all-too-mindful pains and perversions of ‘the War’.

The second title suggests the opposition another way. The ‘Rainbow’ inevitably triggers reminiscences of the rainbow in Genesis, which was God's covenant to Noah ‘and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth’ that there would be no more destruction on the earth. Gravity, by contrast, is that law (not a ‘covenant’) by which all things—‘and all flesh that is upon the earth'—are finally, inexorably, drawn back down and into the earth: an absolutely neutral promise that all living things will die. The trajectory of the rocket—which at the end of the novel is both a womb (it contains the living figure of Gottfried) and a coffin (arguably embodying the death and perversion of all life-giving love and sexuality)—exactly enacts this stark ironic ambiguity. And in this apparently hopelessly proliferating novel the rocket is always there. It is phallic and fatal, Eros transformed into Thanatos, invading ‘Gravity's grey eminence’ only to succumb to it, curving through the sky like a lethal rainbow, then crashing to the earth. Does it strike by ‘chance’ or according to some hidden design, some ‘music’ of annihilation which we shall never hear but which is always being played?

Around the rocket and its production Pynchon builds up a version of wartime England and post-war Europe which is staggering in both its detail and its fantasy. In addition, the novel, as if trying to reach out into wider and more comprehensive contexts, extends back into colonial and American history, down into the world of molecules, up into the stars, back even to Bethlehem when men saw another kind of burning light in the sky. In all this, certain abiding preoccupations may be discerned. Pattern, plots and paranoia—these are familiar in Pynchon's world; add to those paper, plastic, preterition, probability theory and Pavlovian conditioning, and some of the main themes have been listed. (The alliteration is not, of course, accidental: Pynchon, as author, knows that he is engaged in an activity related to Stencil's search for V. Unlike Stencil, however, he is constantly breaking up the gathering pattern of echoes, clues and similarities.)

What emerges from the book is a sense of a force and a system—something, someone, referred to simply as ‘the firm’ or ‘They'—which is actively trying to bring everything to zero and beyond, trying to institute a world of non-being, an operative kingdom of death, covering the organic world with a world of paper and plastic and transforming all natural resources into destructive power and waste: the rocket and the debris around it. ‘They’ are precisely non-specific, unlocatable. There is always the possibility of a They behind the They, a plot behind the plot; the quest to identify ‘Them’ sucks the would-be identifier into the possibility of an endless regression. But, whatever Their source and origin, They are dedicated to annihilation. This is a vision of entropy as an extremely powerful worldwide, if not cosmos-wide, enterprise. From Their point of view, and in the world of insidious reversals and inversions They are instituting, the war was a great creative act, not the destruction but the ‘reconfiguration’ of people and places. They are also identified with ‘the System’ which removes

from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit. … The System may or may not understand that it's only buying time … [that it] sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply. … Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide.

(p. 412)

The ecological relevance of this is all too frighteningly obvious.

Inside the System everything is fixed and patterned, but its organizing centre—its ‘soul'—is the rocket. To the extent that the System and everyone inside the System in one way or another converge on the rocket, they are converging on death. Outside the System, and one of its by-products as it were, is the Zone in which nothing is fixed and there are no patterns or points of convergence. There are ‘no zones but the Zone’ (p. 333) says one voice. This is the area of ‘the new Uncertainty’: ‘in the Zone categories have been blurred badly’ (p. 303). In the Zone everything and everyone is adrift, for there are no taxonomies, and no narratives, to arrange them. If all the concepts are blurred, can the people in the Zone have any knowledge of reality, or are they perhaps nearer to reality by living in a deconceptualized state, fumbling around among the debris left when the prisonhouse of language itself seems to have been destroyed? In the Zone there are only ‘images of Uncertainty’. This involves a release from feeling that one is living in a completely patterned and determinate world, but also a panic at being outside any containing and explaining ‘frame’ (in his review Richard Poirier wrote at length on the significance of the ‘frame’ throughout the book). Those outside the System seem doomed to go on ‘kicking endlessly among the plastic trivia, finding in each Deeper Significance, and trying to string them all together … to bring them together, in their slick persistence and our preterition … to make sense out of, to find the meanest sharp sliver of truth in so much replication, so much waste’ (p. 590).

Figures in the book inhabit either the System or the Zone or move between them (or do not know whether they are in either or both, for of course System and Zone have no locational as well as no epistemological stability), and this in turn elicits two dominant states of mind: paranoia and anti-paranoia. Paranoia is, in terms of the book, ‘nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination—not yet blindingly One, but at least connected’ (p. 703). Of course, everything depends on the nature of the connection, the intention revealed in the pattern; and just what it is that may connect everything in Pynchon's world is what worries his main characters, like Slothrop. Paranoia is also related to the Puritan obsession with seeing signs in everything, particularly signs of an angry God. Pynchon makes the connection clear by referring to ‘a Puritan reflex of seeking other orders behind the visible, also known as paranoia’ (p. 188). The opposite state of mind is anti-paranoia, ‘where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long’ (p. 434). (This may be a reference to the lines in The Waste Land:

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.

(‘The Fire Sermon’))

And, as figures move between System and Zone, so they oscillate between paranoia and anti-paranoia, shifting from a seething blank of unmeaning to the sinister apparent legibility of an unconsoling labyrinthine pattern or plot. ‘We are obsessed with building labyrinths, where before there was open plain and sky. To draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet. We cannot abide that openness; it is terror to us’ (p. 264). Those who do not accept the officially sanctioned ‘delusions’ of the System as ‘truth', but cannot abide pure blankness, have to seek out other modes of interpretation. Thus ‘Those like Slothrop, with the greatest interest in discovering the truth, were thrown back on dreams, psychic flashes, omens, cryptographies, drug-epistemologies, all dancing on a ground of terror, contradiction, absurdity’ (p. 582). This is the carnival of modern consciousness which the book itself portrays.

All this is related to our situation as readers. To put it very crudely, the book dramatizes two related assemblings and disassemblings—of the rocket, and of the character or figure named Slothrop. Slothrop is engaged in trying to find out the secret of how the rocket is assembled, but in the process he himself is disassembled. Similarly the book both assembles and disassembles itself as we try to read it. For, just as many of the characters are trying to see whether there is a ‘text’ within the ‘waste’ and a ‘game behind the game’ (p. 208), that is what we are having to do with the book as it unfolds in our attention. There is deliberately too much evidence, partaking of too many orders of types of explanation and modes of experience for us to hold it all together. Reading itself thus becomes a paranoid activity which is, however, constantly breaking down under the feeling that we shall never arrive at a unitary reading, never hold the book in one ‘frame’: the sense of indeterminateness is constantly encroaching on us. We fluctuate between System and Zone, paranoia and anti-paranoia, experiencing both the dread of reducing everything to one fixed explanation—an all-embracing plot of death—and the danger of succumbing to apparently random detritus.

Behind all this is the process of nature itself, working by organization and disorganization. The rocket is described as ‘an entire system won, away from the feminine darkness, held against the entropies of lovable but scatterbrained Mother Nature’ (p. 324). It engorges energy and information in its ‘fearful assembly’; thus its ‘order’ is obtained at the cost of an increase in disorder in the world around it, through which so many of the characters stumble. But in its fixity and metallic destructive inhumanity it is an order of death—a negative parallel of the process of nature, since its disintegration presages no consequent renewal and growth. That is one reason why at the end the rocket is envisaged as containing the living body of a young man (Gottfried), for this is the System inside which man is plotting his own annihilation. If we as readers try to win away one narrative ‘system’ from the book, we are in danger of repeating mentally what They are doing in building the rocket. To put it in its most extreme form, They are trying to reduce all of nature's self-renewing variety to one terminal rocket; we must avoid the temptation to reduce the book to one fixed meaning. That is why our reading should be paranoid and anti-paranoid, registering narrative order and disorder, experiencing both the determinate and the indeterminate,1 pattern and randomness, renewing our awareness of our acts and interpretations as being both conditioned and free, and of ourselves as synthesizing and disintegrating systems.

In this way we can to some extent be released from the System-Zone bind which besets Pynchon's main characters, in particular the figure of Slothrop. What happens to Slothrop is in every sense exemplary. One of the earliest events in his life is being experimented on in a Pavlovian laboratory (which is related to the obsession with all kinds of control and ‘conditioning’ that the book also explores). He is last seen, if seen at all, on a record cover. In between he has been the Plasticman and Rocketman of the comics he reads, played a variety of roles for English and American intelligence, been involved in the distorted fantasies and plots of dozens of figures in post-war Europe, all the time approaching the centre, the secret of the rocket, which is also the absolute zero at the heart of the System. He knows that he is involved in the evil games of other people, whether they are run by the army or black-marketeers or whatever, but he cannot finally get out of these games. Indeed, leaving all the games is one of the hopes and dreams of the few people with any human feeling left in the book. But it remains a dream. (This is problematical. Of one character we read: ‘Pökler committed then his act of courage. He quit the game’ (p. 430). And an earlier comment seems to allow of this possibility:

But now and then, players in a game will, lull or crisis, be reminded how it is, after all, really play—and be unable then to continue in the same spirit. … Nor need it be anything sudden, spectacular—it may come in gentle—and regardless of the score, the number of watchers, their collective wish, penalties they or the Leagues may impose, the player will, waking deliberately … say fuck it and quit the game, quit it cold …

(p. 107)

The problem is that there seems to be nowhere to go if you ‘quit the game'—though I suppose it could be an internal secession—unless it means to get lost in the Zone. But that is not an unequivocal experience.)

Reality has been pre-empted by games, or it has been replaced by films, so that people can be said to live ‘paracinematic lives’. As Slothrop moves through different experience-spaces, he suffers a loss of emotion, a ‘numbness', and a growing sense that he will never ‘get back’. Along with this erosion of the capacity to feel, he begins to ‘scatter', his ‘sense of Now’ or ‘temporal bandwidth’ gets narrower and narrower, and there is a feeling that he is getting so lost and unconnected that he is vaporizing out of time and place altogether. Near the end of his travels, Slothrop suddenly sees a rainbow, a real one, and he has a vision of its entering into sexual union with the green unpapered earth; it is the life-giving anithesis to the rocket's annihilating penetrations: ‘and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural’ (p. 626). After that he effectively vanishes. There is a story told about him.

[He] was sent into the Zone to be present at his own assembly—perhaps, heavily paranoid voices have whispered, his time's assembly—and there ought to be a punch line to it, but there isn't. The plan went wrong. He is being broken down instead, and scattered.

(p. 738)

The disassembling of Slothrop is, as I have suggested, in some way related to the assembling of the rocket—the plan that went right—and it has far-reaching and disturbing implications.

The last comment on the possible whereabouts of Slothrop is this: ‘we would expect to look among the Humility, among the gray and preterite souls, to look for him adrift in the hostile light of the sky, the darkness of the sea’ (p. 742). This idea of ‘the preterite’ is very important in this book and, I think, central to Pynchon's vision; as he uses it, it refers to those who have been ‘passed over', those he has always been interested in, the abandoned, the neglected, the despised and the rejected, those for whom the System has no use, the human junk thrown overboard from the ship of state (a literal ship in this book, incidentally, named Anubis after the ancient Egyptian God of the Dead). Set against the preterite are the élite, the users and manipulators, those who regard the planet as solely for their satisfaction, the nameless and ubiquitous ‘They’ who dominate the world of the book. One of the modern malaises Pynchon has diagnosed is that it is possible for a person to feel himself entering into a state of ‘preterition’. But—and once again Pynchon's erudition and wit work admirably here—the idea of humanity being divided into a preterite and an élite or elect is of course a basic Puritan belief. In theological terms, the preterite were precisely those who were not elected by God and, if I may quote from one of those chilling Puritan pronouncements, ‘the preterite are damned because they were never meant to be saved’. In redeploying these terms, which after all were central to the thinking of the people who founded America, and applying them to cruelly divisive and oppositional modes of thought at work throughout the world today, Pynchon once again shows how imaginatively he can bring the past and present together.

One of Slothrop's ancestors wrote a book called On Preterition, supporting the preterite as being quite as important as the elect, and Slothrop himself wonders whether this doesn't point to a fork in the road which America never took, and whether there might not be a ‘way back’ even in the ruined spaces of post-war Europe:

maybe for a little while all the fences are down, one road as good as another, the whole space of the Zone cleared, depolarized, and somewhere inside the waste of it a single set of coordinates from which to proceed, without elect, without preterite, without even nationality to fuck it up …

(p. 556)

This, then, is the organizing question of the book. Is there a way back? (Page 1 signals this question: ‘Is this the way out?’) Out of the streets ‘now indifferently gray with commerce’; out of the City of Pain, which Pynchon has taken over from Rilke's Tenth Duino Elegy and offers as a reflection of the world we have made; a way back out of the cinemas, the laboratories, the asylums and all our architecture of mental drugging, coercion and disarray (derangement)? Out of a world in which emotions have been transferred from people to things, and where images supplant realities? Where, ultimately, would the ‘way back’ lead, if not to some lost Eden previous to all categories and taxonomies, election and preterition, divisions and oppositions? Can we even struggle to regain such a mythic state? Of course the book offers no answers, though the possibility of a ‘counterforce’ is touched on.

The last section of the novel is indeed entitled ‘The Counterforce', and one figure, Tchitcherine, is convinced ‘There is a counterforce in the Zone’ (p. 611). But if there is an active ‘counterforce’ it would seem to be vitiated by its contact with, and contamination by, the System. A crucial figure in this possible counterforce is Roger Mexico, and here are some of his late doubts about its viability or possible effectiveness.

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. We do know what's going on, and we let it go on … which is worse: living on as Their pet, or death? It is not a question he has ever imagined himself asking seriously. It has come by surprise, but there's no sending it away now, he really does have to decide, and soon enough, plausibly soon, to feel the terror in his bowels. Terror he cannot think away. He has to choose between his life and his death. Letting it sit for a while is no compromise, but a decision to live, on Their terms …

(pp. 712-13)

In the event, all that Roger Mexico achieves (along with Seaman Bodine, an old Pynchon figure) is the disruption of an official dinner with obscene language. It is a gesture against the binding power of the official language, but not much more.

We hear no more of Roger Mexico after this incident. But, in a world dominated by the firm, the System, They, he does represent two crucial potential ‘counterforces’—in brief, ‘probability’ and love. There are a number of references to probability theory in the book, and their relevance can be appreciated if we recall Oedipa Maas caught between zeroes and ones as she found herself forced into a mental prison of binary oppositions at the end of Lot 49 [The Crying of Lot 49]. In Gravity's Rainbow the behaviourist Pavlovian scientist Pointsman is absolutely a zero/one man, and ‘If ever the Antipointsman existed, Roger Mexico is the man’ (p. 55)—because Mexico, who works with ‘probability', can exist and operate in those ‘excluded middles’ that in Pynchon represent the area of unforeseen possibilities and diversities. One passage makes this clear:

But in the domain of zero to one, not-something to something, Pointsman can only possess the zero and the one. He cannot, like Mexico, survive anyplace in between. … But to Mexico belongs the domain between zero and one—the middle Pointsman has excluded from his persuasion—the probabilities

(p. 55)

It has the effect of keeping open a gap in the systematized and systematic thinking of the System. That thinking can only accept cause-and-effect thinking, because that makes possible a fantasy of total control (‘We must never lose control’, thinks Pointsman, p. 144); but Mexico can see further:

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.

(p. 89)

Striking off at ‘some other angle’ would involve recognizing and accepting ‘probability', ‘indeterminacy’ and ‘discontinuity’ in the ‘curve of life’ (p. 664). All these modes of thought are enacted in the text itself (we are seldom confronted with zero/one choices; more often we find ourselves groping away in the forgotten richness—and darkness—of those excluded middles). But whether they are sufficient to act as a counterforce is less clear.

It might be asked if there are any other hints of effective positives—counterforces—in the book. Roger Mexico is one of the very, very few figures who experience a genuine kind of ‘love’ (with Jessica), based on real feeling, mutuality, loss of ego, true sensuality. But their love episode is, as it were, a furtive piece of borrowed time during the war; it does not survive, and Jessica turns to the Establishment figure of Jeremy as ‘safer’. There is indeed very little love in the book: perversion and betrayal (the children especially suffer) seem to dominate, not to mention various forms and degrees of extermination and mutilation. Religious hope is teasingly glimpsed at. During the truly astonishing passage describing the Christmas vespers attended by Roger and Jessica, with reference to the magi Pynchon writes:

Will the child gaze up from his ground of golden straw then, gaze into the eyes of the old king who bends long and unfurling overhead, leans to proffer his gift, will the eyes meet, and what message, what possible greeting or entente will flow between the king and the infant prince? Is the baby smiling, or is it just gas? Which do you want it to be?

(p. 131)

The text suddenly flashes a half-ironic choice at us—to leave us unsettled between miracle and technology. But it hardly suggests any coming kind of salvation or true transcendence. Indeed, most of the figures in the book are somewhat like Barnardine in Measure for Measure (to turn again to what is obviously an important play for Pynchon), ‘insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal’ (iv. ii). After the Advent service Roger and Jessica long for

another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw.

(p. 135)

But they find no such ‘clear way home’ and have to look for ‘the path you must create by yourself, alone in the dark’ (p. 136). And that is the situation of most of the figures in the book. There are some traces of decent human feeling: strangers occasionally help, and among the ‘Humility’ there are still ‘a few small chances for mercy’ (p. 610). Kindness is mentioned—‘kindness is a sturdy enough ship for these oceans’ (p. 21)—but is insufficiently practised. Positive, generous, good human feelings and hopes and aspirations have not entirely vanished, but they are everywhere in retreat, and the attrition rate among them is dire. The counterforce (or counterforces) may have some kind of vestigial or underground existence. But it is not to be counted on.

There are recurring dreams of ‘freedom'—never realized—but if there is any hope it seems to reside in ‘the Earth’: Enzian dreams that ‘Somewhere, among the wastes of the World, is the key that will bring us back, restore us to our Earth and to our freedom’ (p. 525), and in a late section headed ‘Streets’ that hope is again inscribed: ‘But in each of these streets, some vestige of humanity, of Earth, has to remain. No matter what has been done to it, no matter what it's been used for’ (p. 693).

This perhaps desperate faith in the regenerative powers of ‘the Earth’ accounts, I think, for a rather strange episode which follows immediately after the opening scene of the book. Pirate Prentice (the first named figure in the book, and of distinct importance) holds one of his Banana Breakfasts. Up on the roof of his maisonette in London there is a heap of old earth (and dead leaves and vomit and other decaying bits of organic life)—‘all got scumbled together, eventually, by the knives of the seasons, to an impasto, feet thick, of unbelievable black topsoil in which anything could grow, not the least being bananas’ (p. 5). So, in the midst of the destruction of war, growth, willy-nilly, continues. The Banana Breakfast is a fairly chaotic, farcical affair, but the bananas themselves—an unlikely enough presence in wartime London—signal a crucial phenomenon.

Now there grows among all the rooms … the fragile, musaceous odor of Breakfast: flowery, permeating, surprising, more than the color of winter sunlight, taking over not so much through any brute pungency or volume as by the high intricacy to the weaving of its molecules, sharing the conjuror's secret by which—though it is not often Death is told so clearly to fuck off—the living genetic chains prove even labyrinthine enough to preserve some human face down ten or twenty generations … so the same assertion-through-structure allows this war morning's banana fragrance to meander, repossess, prevail. Is there any reason not to open every window, and let the kind scent blanket all Chelsea? As a spell, against falling objects …

(p. 10)

The banana—a comic enough ‘spell’ to set against the rocket—is nevertheless evidence of that endless generative power of the earth, that ‘assertion-through-structure’ which is the one real hope—perhaps the only genuine counterforce—against ‘Their several entropies’ (p. 302), and that accelerating movement towards death which seems to mark so many areas of the book.

The book moves to a climax that is a sort of terminal fusion of many of the key fantasies and obsessions in the book. It takes place in the American West (‘of course Empire took its way westward, what other way was there but into those virgin sunsets to penetrate and to foul?’; Pynchon's book follows), and it should be noted that the last section as a whole becomes extremely difficult—impossible—to ‘follow’ in any way at all, as though the book demonstrates how any kind of narrative that seems to link together fragments and images is becoming impossible. The warning has been sounded earlier on: ‘Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any kind of sense at day's end’ (p. 204)—or a book at book's end. Indeed, we are systematically juggled out of sense (any recognizable sense, at least), not allowed that repose and reassurance that any sense of completed narrative can bring. Yet the very last moment seems clear enough—and sufficiently disturbing. The opening page of the novel evokes the evacuation of London, with a crucial interposed comment: ‘but it's all theatre’. On the very last page we are back in a theatre. We are waiting for the show to start; as Pynchon comments, we have ‘always been at the movies (haven't we?)’. The film has broken down, though on the darkening screen there is something else—‘a film we have not learned to see’. The audience is invited to sing, while outside the rocket ‘reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre’. It is falling in absolute silence, and we know that it will demolish the old theatre—the old theatre of what is left of our civilization. But we don't see it because we are in the theatre trying to read the film behind the film; and we won't hear it because, under the new dispensation, the annihilation arrives first, and only after ‘a screaming comes across the sky’.

To argue on behalf of Pynchon's importance as a writer would be supererogatory. Placing him in a larger context is more difficult. More difficult, because he seems aware of all the literature that preceded him as well as the writing that surrounds him. From one point of view, he emerges from that extraordinary proliferation of experimentation in the novel which so deeply shaped the direction of American fiction during the 1960s and 1970s. Thus he takes his place in a period of American writing that includes such authors as William Burroughs, Joseph Heller, John Hawkes, John Barth, Robert Coover, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Ishmael Reed, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and many others. The aesthetic funds alive at this time were various, but in particular I believe he was affected by the work of William Gaddis, whose novel The Recognitions (1955) exerted a general influence that has yet to be fully traced. This generation of American writers was in turn influenced by many European and South-American writers—in particular, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov, but also Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Günter Grass. That list could be extended; but suffice it to say that Pynchon was writing his novels during an extraordinarily rich time of ferment and innovation in the contemporary novel, and quickly became one of its essential voices.

However, looked at from another angle, Pynchon's work takes its place in that line of dazzlingly daring, even idiosyncratic American writing which leads back through writers like Faulkner to Mark Twain and Hawthorne, and above all to Melville and Moby-Dick. And, taking yet another view, we might want to cite Tristram Shandy as an earlier experimental novel that lies behind him; but then Sterne points us in turn back to Rabelais, and both bear the mark of Don Quixote (as does Pynchon)—which is, in a manner of speaking, where the novel as we know it in the West began. Few major modern writers have not in some fashion returned to these origins, and thus we can see Pynchon continuing that series of radical shifts and innovations in fictional technique which was started by Conrad and James, and continued by Joyce—all of whom are more or less audible in his work. Which is all to say that he is both creatively eclectic and unmistakably original. From one point of view, the novel from its inception has always been a mixed genre with no certain limits or prescribed formal constraints; Pynchon, then, is in no way an ‘eccentric’ novelist, for the novel has no determined centre. Rather he is a key contemporary figure in the great tradition of those who extend the possibilities of fiction-making in arresting and enriching ways—not in this or that ‘Great Tradition', but in the great tradition of the novel itself.


  1. I was sent a very interesting essay on ‘indeterminacy’ in Gravity's Rainbow by Melvin Ulm and David Holt at Ohio State University, in which they suggest the relevance of the work of W. V. Quine—in particular, Word and Object—in considering what Pynchon is doing in the novel. To my knowledge the essay has not been published, but it does contain some fruitful ideas which merit attention, and I wish to acknowledge that I profited from reading it.


Works by Thomas Pynchon

Short fiction

‘The Small Rain’. The Cornell Writer, 6 (March 1959).

‘Mortality and Mercy in Vienna’. Epoch, 9 (Spring 1959).

‘Low Lands’. New World Writing, 16 (1960).

‘Entropy’. Kenyon Review, 22 (1960).

‘Under the Rose’. Noble Savage, 3 (1961).

‘The Secret Integration’. Saturday Evening Post, 237 (19 December 1964).

‘The World (This One), The Flesh (Mrs Oedipa Maas), and The Testament of Pierce Inverarity’. Esquire, 64 (December 1965).

‘The Shrink Flips’. Cavalier, 16 (March 1966).


‘A Journey into the Mind of Watts’. New York Times Magazine, 12 June 1966.


V. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott, 1963. London: Cape, 1963.

The Crying of Lot 49. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott, 1966. London: Cape, 1967.

Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Viking Press, 1973. London: Cape, 1974.


Herzberg, Bruce. ‘Selected Articles on Thomas Pynchon: An Annotated Bibliography’. Twentieth Century Literature, 21, 2 (May 1975).

Weixlmann, Joseph. ‘Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography', Critique, 14, 2 (1972).

For more recent bibliographical information, see Pynchon Notes, ed. John M. Krafft and Khachig Tölölyan, obtainable from Khachig Tölölyan, English Department, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT 16457, USA. Six issues have appeared to date.

Selected Criticism of Thomas Pynchon


Cowart, David. Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.

Levine, George, and Leverenz, David (eds). Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1976.

Mendelson, Edward (ed.). Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Pearce, Richard (ed.). Critical Articles on Thomas Pynchon. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall, 1981.

Pétillon, Pierre-Yves. Le Grand'route: espace et écriture en Amérique. Paris: Seuil, 1979.

Plater, William. The Grim Phoenix. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Siegel, Mark. Creative Paranoia in Gravity's Rainbow. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1978.

Slade, Joseph. Thomas Pynchon. New York: Warner Paperbacks, 1974.

Selected articles

Abernathy, Peter L. ‘Entropy in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49’. Critique, 14, 2 (1972).

Davis, Robert M. ‘Parody, Paranoia, and the Dead End of Language in The Crying of Lot 49’. Genre, 5 (1972).

Friedman, Alan J., and Puetz, Manfred. ‘Science and Metaphor: Thomas Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow’. Contemporary Literature, 15 (Summer 1974).

Golden, Robert E. ‘Mass Man and Modernism: Violence in Pynchon's V.’. Critique, 14, 2 (1972).

Kermode, Frank. ‘The Use of the Codes’. In Seymour Chatman (ed.), Approaches to Poetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

Kodony, Anette, and Peters, Daniel J. ‘Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49’. Modern Fiction Studies, 19 (Spring 1973).

Ozier, Lance W. ‘Antipointsman/Antimexico: Some Mathematical Imagery in Gravity's Rainbow’. Critique, 16, 2 (1974).

———‘The Calculus of Transformation: More Mathematical Imagery in Gravity's Rainbow’. Twentieth Century Literature, 21, 2 (May 1975).

Patteson, Richard. ‘What Stencil Knew: Structure and Certitude in Pynchon's V.’. Critique, 16, 2 (1974).

Redfield, Robert, and Hays, Peter. ‘Fugue as Structure in Pynchon's “Entropy”’. Pacific Coast Philology, 12 (1977).

Richter, D. H. ‘The Failure of Completeness: Pynchon's V.’. In Fable's End: Completeness and Closure in Rhetorical Fiction. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Sanders, Scott. ‘Pynchon's Paranoid History’. Twentieth Century Literature, 21, 2 (May 1975).

See also the critical articles in Pynchon Notes (see above, ‘Bibliography', for details).

Kathryn Hume (essay date December 1988)

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SOURCE: Hume, Kathryn. “Views from Above, Views from Below: The Perspectival Subtext in Gravity's Rainbow.American Literature 60, no. 4 (December 1988): 626-42.

[In the following essay, Hume correlates a perspectival rocket subtext—either a view from above or a view from below—to the organization of Gravity's Rainbow in terms of philosophical questions, technical issues, and the relationship between reader and text.]

With “a screaming comes across the sky,” Gravity's Rainbow wrenches us into the world of The Rocket. Just so, the V-2 magnetically draws the novel's characters into that same world, its fields of force generating the major actions and informing the images. Time and again, the rocket imposes its code on elements of the story: Tyrone Slothrop becomes Rocketman; marriage turns into union with a rocket; orgasm corresponds to launching; towers and chimneys are called stationary rockets; a graffito-mandala proves to be a schematic of a rocket seen from below; future urban life is invoked as Rocket-City. …

Out of this nexus of the ballistic missile and everything associated with it, especially the bombs, a rocket subtext crystallizes. Forty times, or every nineteen pages in this mega-novel, Pynchon works another variation on his basic elements, which consist of an aerial force of destruction, the targeted city, and the cowering creature awaiting annihilation. Significantly, the image-complex is not rendered from the sidelines, from the distanced perspective of bystander or artist. Rather, readers experience these views as if from above and below, mostly directed down toward or up from within a city. Not all the elements of the image-complex are present in each manifestation of the subtext, but in the course of the novel, these vertiginous vantages and labyrinthine cityscapes cumulatively cohere into an icon outside of space or time. We ultimately experience the viewpoints of rocket and victim through dual or simultaneous vision.

This subtext is central to the organization of Gravity's Rainbow in at least three fashions. (1) In philosophical terms, it sheds light on the hotly debated values of the novel. Intrinsic to these aerial views of the city are answers to such questions as “what kind of action is open to individuals?” or “why does humanity not change the behavior that imperils its existence?” The individual's relationship to history, as seen by Pynchon, emerges through these perspectival images.

(2) In terms of technique, the subtextual variations articulate Pynchon's chief method of multiplying levels of reality: the code attaching to any one character colors descriptive passages that occur while that character is foregrounded. In the case of the subtext, each successive character who experiences the icon re-codes it, influences its expression in basic ways. Furthermore, the mise en abyme and ekphrastic functions of this vital image cluster, as we shall see, constitute another of Pynchon's means of multiplying the levels of reality in his fictive cosmos.

(3) Because this subtext attaches to so crucial a concern as the rocket, we can explore the implications of Michael Riffaterre's assertion that a subtext must “actualize the same matrix as the whole narrative, or a matrix structurally connected with that of the encircling text.”1 Exposing the effects (and therefore the existence) of such a matrix is far more difficult for a novel than for a short poem, and the complexity of Gravity's Rainbow makes it an interesting limit-case. A matrix for this novel would be an interesting object for contemplation, and a possible starting point for a new relationship between readers and this text.


We cannot recognize a subtext at first appearance, so let us start with a sensitizing second appearance. Over the space of nine pages Tyrone Slothrop emerges as a man suffering anxiety about destruction from above. He fantasizes about soundless V-2s directed at him. He associates the destructive aerial force with a gigantic beast, a monster, even with God. His dossier notes his “peculiar sensitivity to what is revealed in the sky,” thus crediting him with an ability also attributed to his Puritan ancestors.2 To him, a great fire seen in infancy, the aurora borealis, and the London rockets are all variations on “the great bright hand reaching out of the cloud” (p. 29), a traditional icon for God speaking.

Embedded in Slothrop's obsessive and sometimes fantastic world, we find many references to London (pp. 22-26), a “wintering city,” a “big desolate icebox,” and the “secular city.” In one passage, made vivid by “the enormous gas ruin of the sun among the smokestacks,” Pynchon characterizes the city's features in terms of smoking chimneys and of streets, “long concrete viaducts” that channel the flows of traffic.

Some readers may recognize the similarities between these pages introducing Slothrop and those earlier introducing Pirate Prentice; Prentice had fantasized (pp. 6-7) about the rocket's falling directly on his skull, and he had looked down over the city, focusing on its power station, gasworks, smokestacks, and towers. Other readers will need more exposures to the image-complex for the parallels to seem significant, but eventually the repetition of destructive force above and smokestacked and towered city below will emerge as versions of a basic relationship.

The next variation on the subtext features Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake (pp. 53-60). The looming presence of Slothrop's beast or God appears to them as monster and angel. Slothrop's channeled flows of city traffic become Roger's mathematical image of the grid, and Roger's personal code amusingly generates the presence of dogs in his version of the vision.

“Something's stalking through the city of Smoke—gathering up slender girls, fair and smooth as dolls, by the handful” (p. 53). This Grendel-like ogre fits the folktale motif associated with Roger and Jessica. Angels enter through Roger's mathematics. “Roger has tried to explain to her the V-bomb statistics: the difference between distribution, in angel's-eye view, over the map of England, and their own chances, as seen from down here” (p. 54). Roger's making angels in the snow (p. 57) and his later response to the “mock-Angel” singing the Advent Service (pp. 127-36) show how Pynchon lets fragments of the vision seep into the interstices of his characters' lives.

Since Roger had helped Pointsman capture dogs for laboratory experiments, they become part of Roger's code, and—the pun would not be beyond Pynchon—they dog him in his other activities. After a near-miss, he and Jessica cower in a cottage near an otherwise gratuitous picture that shows a hunting dog “alerted by the eternal scent, the explosion over his head always just about to come” (p. 58). After the nearby detonation, the lovers “sit still as the painted dogs” (p. 59). An ekphrasis is one art form embedded in another, here a picture in a novel. This ekphrasis—dog awaiting explosion overhead, the painted subworld thus echoing the reality experienced by Roger and Jessica and the subject of the central subtext—illustrates Pynchon's liking for creating correspondences between planes of reality by means of a mise en abyme, a miniaturized replica of a large structure set within the larger version. Also important is the effect of this scene applying closure to this variant, because of the perspective assigned to the lovers. Having enjoyed more than one version of the view from above, they suffer the anxieties of victims down below, thus forcing readers to assimilate both perspectives as part of the subtext.

Pointsman's form of the vision also reflects his association with dogs, and introduces sexuality as a recognizable element in the image complex. Pointsman's recurring nightmare sends him running through a labyrinthine city at whose heart waits the Minotaur. A sinister hound pursues him, their trail preserved on “the map of a sacrificial city, of a cortex human and canine” (p. 142). We can deduce that the dreamscape is under aerial attack because of the “pillars of smoke far away over the spidery city” (p. 143). At the heart of the labyrinth, his dream takes an orgasmic turn: “Each time, each turning, his own blood and heart are stroked, beaten, brought jubilantly high, and triggered to the icy noctiluca, to flare and fusing Thermite as he begins to expand, an uncontainable light, as the walls of the chamber turn a blood glow, orange, then white and begin to slip, to flow like wax, what there is of labyrinth collapsing in rings outward, hero and horror, engineer and Ariadne consumed, molten inside the light of himself, the mad exploding of himself” (p. 143). Pointsman's role as heartless pavlovian investigator of cortices, canine and human, accounts for his nightmare hound. The orgasmic explosion introduces into the image-complex the reminder that we may desire the violence as well as fear it, whether through death-wish or through sexual engagement with technology.3 This lurid fusion of sex with explosion affects our readings of the sex enjoyed by Roger and Jessica and by Slothrop just after rocketfalls.

We find the strands of this vision coming together in two passages midway through the novel. One is Galina's dream of “some dainty pasteboard model, a city-planner's city, perfectly detailed, so tiny her bootsoles could wipe out neighborhoods at a step—at the same time, she is also a dweller, down inside the little city, coming awake in the very late night, blinking up into painful daylight, waiting for the annihilation, the blows from the sky, drawn terribly tense with the waiting, unable to name whatever it is approaching, knowing—too awful to say—it is herself, her Central Asian giantess self, that is the Nameless Thing she fears …” (p. 341). Galina's important addition to the subtext is the suggestion that destroyer and victim are one and the same. Her giant self is clearly another variant on the monster or angel, and also a poetic equivalent to an air raid. To Kurt Vonnegut down in the subterranean slaughterhouse, the firebombing of Dresden sounded like “giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked.”4

The other central passage is Pökler's experience with street riots. He narrowly avoids injury from a descending truncheon. “Crowd hydrodynamics” (metaphorically its channeled flows, and sylleptically the movements resulting from the use of firehoses) force him thankfully into a protective doorway.

He couldn't go out in the street. Later he thought about its texture, the network of grooves between the paving stones. The only safety there was ant-scaled, down and running the streets of Ant City, boot-soles crashing overhead like black thunder, you and your crawling neighbors in traffic all silent, jostling, heading down the gray darkening streets. … Pökler knew how to find safety among the indoor abscissas and ordinates of graphs: finding the points he needed not by running the curve itself, not up on high stone and vulnerability, but instead tracing patiently the xs and ys, P(atü), W(m/sec), Ti(°K), moving always by safe right angles along the faint lines. …

(P. 399)

The grid of graphs, the jargon of rocket engineering: these elements of his code haunt his vision. Insofar as ants represent a lower plane of reality, he looks from above; insofar as he identifies with the ants, he is below, worried about the destructive blow from above, truncheon or bootsole or bomb.

In simplest terms, we find repeated views from above, achieved by humans or by supernatural or technological forces. We also experience views from below, whether as people in target cities or as diminutive projections of humans such as ants, awaiting the blow from above. And we see the city itself, locus for the explosion which, when it occurs, is destructive but at times also orgasmic. The city is characterized primarily by its labyrinthine channeled flows, and secondarily by its towers and chimneys. As the next step, I examine the way Pynchon uses the elements of the image cluster, paying particular attention to the relationship between the elements and Pynchon's levels of reality, for it is partly through his manipulation of the central image that he creates and projects such levels.


Clearly cities intrigue Pynchon. Courtesy of Rilke, he offers us Pain City but also its drug-cheered counterpart, Happyville (p. 644). In addition, we find the secular city (p. 25), Mother City (p. 76), a sacrificial city (p. 142), the City Paranoiac (p. 172), an insect city (pp. 173-74), the City Sacramental (p. 372), Ant City (p. 399), the City Dactylic (p. 566), Hund-Stadt (p. 614), a city whose towers are hairs about to be cut (p. 655), Hexes-Stadt (p. 718), and The City (p. 735), among others, including the shadowy Rocket-Cities or Raketen-Städte and London, Lübeck, and Los Angeles. However, of the many attributes of cities, Pynchon chooses to actualize only two.

Streets full of pedestrians and traffic would be a normal enough association, but Pynchon generalizes traffic to include many kinds of flow—even roof tiles in Lübeck—and multiplies the kinds of channel for such currents. One kind of channel, grooves, characterizes several cityscapes. Leni Pökler talks about slipping into grooves during street riots and during one riot, her husband Franz notes the grooves between paving stones as the streets of Ant City. The grooves in the fingerprint of Tchitcherine's monstrous, hallucinated digit “might well be an aerial view of the City Dactylic, that city of the future where every soul is known, and there is noplace to hide” (p. 566). Tchitcherine's codes as Russian and secret agent dictate the oppression and fingerprint unique to his vision, and the drug producing it helps motivate Pynchon's multiplying the levels of reality. We segue from the world in which Tchitcherine hallucinates to the world of a giant, to that of a city existing within that giant's finger-whorls. The grooves form the correspondences that permit our passage from one world to the next.

With Katje, Pynchon also shows that the city and its flows operate at different levels of existence. Descending into her mind, we find that a symbolic city forms the center of her experience, “something beyond even the center of Pan's grove, something not pastoral at all, but of the city, a set of ways in which the natural forces are turned aside, stepped down, rectified or bled to ground and come out very like the malignant dead: the Qlippoth [. …] a city-darkness that is her own, a textured darkness in which flows go in all directions, and nothing begins, and nothing ends” (p. 661). Here we find something relevant to Pynchon's other uses of cities: the organization necessary to urban life is labelled a distortion of natural forces and a means of controlling flows. One of Pynchon's futuristic vignettes, a city based on extreme verticality and on elevators, dwells indirectly on the control and repression necessary for such a brave new world to exist (p. 735).

A variant on grooves for channeling flows is the grid. When Hiroshima is superimposed on a haircut, the hairs are “modulations on the perfect grid of the streets” (p. 655). Sylleptically, Byron the Bulb is subject to the tyranny of the electric power grid of Europe. We also find “grooves of the Raketen-Stadt's street-grid” (p. 674). The bomb sites are charted onto Roger Mexico's gridded map. In Pökler's dreams the rocket merges with the city, and he quests not for a literal rocket but for “a street in a certain small area of the grid” (p. 400).

Like the city, the grid has a counterpart in our minds. Mondaugen's Electromysticism admonishes us to “think of the ego, the self that suffers a personal history bound to time, as the grid. The deeper and true Self is the flow between cathode and plate. The constant, pure flow. Signals—sense-data, feelings, memories relocating—are put onto the grid, and modulate the flow” (p. 404). Within Slothrop's mind, in his fantasies, we find that “the Grid's big function in this System is iceboxery: freezing back the tumultuous cycles of the day to preserve this odorless small world, this cube of changelessness” (p. 678)—in other words, the grid controls natural forces and processes and imposes an orderliness that permits them to be used by those who control the grid.

Yet another variation on gridded streets and grooved flows is the image of the maze or labyrinth. In the fantasized city of the Floundering Four we find people likened to ants, and streets to a labyrinth (pp. 679, 681). That Pointsman's nights should have him coursing through labyrinths is only fair; during the day, he imposes this activity on rats. In the behaviorist's laboratory, Pynchon uses the maze image to transpose levels of reality; “from overhead, from a German camera-angle,” the lab itself is a maze in which behaviorists run patterns and are rewarded with successful experiments. “But who watches from above, who notes their responses?” (p. 229). In the subsequent rat fantasia, another change in level in which rats are human sized, the rodents sing of their maze as a city, and the nostalgic Beguine ends, “Nothing's left in Pavlovia, / But the maze, and the game” (p. 230).

In addition to the city attribute of controlling channels Pynchon develops one other associated idea in detail: tall vertical structures. Pirate Prentice's early morning view of the city is rendered as “crystals grown in morning's beaker, stacks, vents, towers, plumbing, gnarled emissions of steam and smoke” (p. 6). Such structures are given prominence by the eerie proleptic comment of Walter Rathenau's spirit, who remarks on the proliferation of chimneys and notes that these structures can survive any explosion, “even the shock wave from one of the new cosmic bombs” (p. 167). In Pynchon's disquisition on the Tarot card called “The Tower” (p. 747), we are given many significations, including ejaculation. He stresses one, however, by asserting that “we” know it: the structure is also the Rocket. The professional interests of Ölsch make him code rockets as architecture (p. 301). When Pynchon refers to Hiroshima through sunsets exotically colored by bomb debris, he equates hairs on a head to towers in a city about to be shortened by the great shears form the sky (p. 655). The final lyric in the book speaks of “the Light that hath brought the Towers low” (p. 760). Naturally, in most variations on the tower, there are phallic overtones, including fantasms of emission and castration. Whereas the grid image permits Pynchon to add levels of reality by linking cityscape to his characters' mindscapes, the tower makes a generalized bodyscape another such superimposable level of reality.


Views from above are always appropriate for satiric comments on culture: the height permits both the joining of things normally experienced separately, and their incongruous dwarfing. Pynchon, however, seems less concerned with this traditional use of loftiness than with implicating readers in the perspective of destroyers and rulers.

Some viewers reach the vantage without visible means of support, as, for example, the daguerreotypist who captured the mandala layout of Raketen-Stadt from a height “topographically impossible in Germany” (p. 725). Examples of other such visions from supranatural, hallucinated, imagined, or ballistic heights include Tchitcherine's City Dactylic, the haircut city of towers, Galina's model city, and Pökler's Ant City.

An exchange between Enzian and Katje sheds light on the moral implications for humans who soar to such heights. Enzian, would-be savior of the Hereros, describes Raketen-Stadt seen from above, and she interrupts:

“All this will I give you, if you will but—”

Negative. Wrong story. I would say: This is what I have become. An estranged figure at a certain elevation and distance …” who looks out over the Raketen-Stadt in the amber evenings, with washed and darkening cloud sheets behind him—“who has lost everything else but this vantage. There is no heart, anywhere now, no human heart left in which I exist. Do you know what that feels like?”

(P. 660)

The temptation of Christ, drawn into the subtext by Enzian's messiah code, may be present only through negation, but the allusion nonetheless reminds us of that famous view from above—and of Satan's offer of control. For humans lesser than Christ, the view leads to estrangement, loss of everything but the distanced vantage, loss of life within the human heart.

This spiritual damage is further explained in Slothrop's rocket's-eye view of Raketen-Stadt: “this Rocket-City, so whitely lit against the calm dimness of space, is set up deliberately To Avoid Symmetry, Allow Complexity, Introduce Terror (from the Preamble to the Articles of Immachination)—” (p. 297). Pynchon's term immachination signifies man wedded or welded to the machine, unable to live independently of it. For Franz and Ilse Pökler, space travel is the subject of happy daydreams, but most reliance on machinery in Gravity's Rainbow promises no such joy: the rocket limericks, soon to be heard by Slothrop, cheerfully recount the disasters of mating with machinery, and Rocket City will designedly “Introduce Terror.” In this scene, Slothrop imagines or hallucinates himself in a futuristic space helmet where implanted mechanisms replace human jaws and nose, and learns that “what you thought was a balanced mind is little help” (p. 297). Loss of humanity, eventual loss of sanity, death—these are the damaging corollaries of humans rising to such heights by means of technology.5 Slothrop and Enzian make us aware of this; so does Gottfried. His literal wedding to the rocket offers him a godlike view, but his life as immachinate man will be as short as that of the cowering victims below in the targeted city.


Pynchon establishes the view from below as the stance of the victim, and shows it internalized for several characters. The threat of a descending rocket saturates Slothrop's entire mental outlook when we first meet him, well before the correspondence between his sexual encounters and the rocketfalls has been established. Even after ceasefire, he scratches a graffito which he considers emblematic of himself, and “only after he'd left it half a dozen more places did it dawn on him that what he was really drawing was the A4 rocket, seen from below” (p. 624). Roger Mexico also internalizes the descending rocket: Jessica ultimately despairs of their relationship because she “knows she can never protect him as much as she must—from what may come out of the sky” (p. 58).

Franz Pökler has most cause to internalize the descending rocket. He is planted on the intended target at a test site, given a pair of binoculars, and told to try to observe the problem causing so many of the rockets to explode prematurely. As a result, “inside Pökler's life, on no record but his soul, his poor harassed German soul, the time base has lengthened, and slowed: the Perfect Rocket is still up there, still descending. He still waits—even now, alone at Zwölfkinder waiting for ‘Ilse,’ for this summer's return, and with it an explosion that will take him by surprise” (p. 426). Waiting for the rocket, for him as for Mexico and Slothrop, has become a permanent habit of mind. The novel, of course, encourages readers to internalize this fear of downward-plunging death, for it opens with rockets, and ends by addressing us as members of the audience in the theater, whose film is the book we have just read, and we are told that the rocket is descending upon us, now only delta-t away from impact.

Those who look fearfully upward see not only rockets but also monstrous entities, some of whom are not overtly hostile but most of whom enjoy some symbolic equivalence to rockets in their shared potential for destruction. For Roger and Slothrop, the gigantic being is a monster. When a bomb falls near the theater where Roger and Jessica are watching a Hansel and Gretel pantomime, Gretel stops the stage business and sings: “It's big and it's nasty and it's right over there, / It's waiting to get its sticky claws in your hair!” (p. 175). The rockets for Roger are like the monster in the sky that Slothrop senses, “this beast in the sky: its visible claws and scales are being mistaken for clouds and other plausibilities … or else everyone has agreed to call them other names when Slothrop is listening” (p. 241).

For Galina, Tchitcherine, and others, it is angel or giant. Galina's Central Asian giantess self is such a being, and her vision includes a quotation from Rilke's Tenth Elegy that describes an angel trampling the market place: “O, wie spurlos zerträte ein Engel den Trostmarkt.” The bootsoles Pökler fantasizes crashing down on Ant City belong to the feet of another such entity—human in stature, but monstrous-seeming to ants. The angel over Lübeck merely watches, but its eyes and face reflect the fiery violence going on at ground level (p. 151). Though even less belligerent, the angels in the Riviera sunset are nonetheless linked to the Lübeck vision (p. 214). Tchitcherine sees not a whole giant, but a giant finger of a size appropriate to such immense creatures as these angels; Slothrop sees both the “stout rainbow cock” and the newsflash photo of the dangling white cock of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima (pp. 626, 693). In most of these guises, giants and angels are poetic variations upon rockets and bombs, in addition to any more celestial roles they play.

Pynchon causes views from above and below to coalesce by rapidly changing the perspective. With Tchitcherine we look up at the finger, but as its whorls become streets of a city, we find ourselves looking down. Through Pavel's hallucinations, we look down on microscopic fungus pygmies, but we then see above him a hallucinated water giant, “a mile-high visitor made all of flowing water who likes to dance, twisting from the waist, arms blowing loosely along the sky” (p. 523). We look down on a city of bugs in the straw of the Bethlehem manger: “they stumbled, climbed, fell glistening red among a golden lattice of straw that must have seemed to extend miles up and downward—an edible tenement-world.” However, “the crying of the infant [Jesus] reached you, perhaps, as bursts of energy from the invisible distance, nearly unsensed, often ignored” (pp. 173-74). Like the bugs, Londoners celebrating Christmas (described just after this bug fantasia) can ignore the bursts of energy: “The last rocket bomb was an hour ago, somewhere south. Claire got a golliwog, Penelope a sweater” (p. 174).

Note the “you”—“the crying of the infant reached you”—Pynchon's frequently used invocation of the reader to make the reader accomplice to or participant in some of these perspectives. With that one word, Pynchon causes levels of reality to intersect; “you” equates bugs and humans. Not only do we loom like monstrous angels over such bugs, but we are also the bugs themselves. He also collapses time frames: Bethlehem at the Nativity, and a London Christmas at the end of the war. We are fleetingly present at both events, and we identify ourselves, through perspective, with both those inflicting violence and with its victims.


According to Riffaterre, a fundamental subtext such as this one should “actualize the same matrix as the whole narrative, or a matrix structurally connected with that of the encircling text.” But what kind of matrix might a 760-page novel have? Granting that short poems can be shown to have such a generative idea, what do we find behind this novel? What kind of matrix does this subtext indicate and is it plausible to propose it for the novel as a whole?

Matrices tend to be disconcertingly banal, but then the idea behind most poems is much simpler and less interesting than the artistic elaboration. “My poem will immortalize you” dismays us when we compare it to “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments.” Hence, one should not be surprised to find as a first approximation of the matrix something as simple as “we are simultaneously the aerial destroyer and the victim.” Delving further into the image-complex, one might frame it as “we are doing this to ourselves through our lust for technology and control.”

The elements of the matrix generating the subtext are “we,” “doing this to ourselves,” “lust,” and “control/technology.” First, the presence of that “we” in the hypothesized matrix needs to be justified. Pynchon uses the second person “you” far more frequently than “we.”6 “You are doing this to yourselves,” however, would imply an author standing outside the arena, and the subtext does not permit such privileged bystanders. We experience views from above and below rather than a distanced coign of vantage.

The perspectives from on high and down beneath derive from the “doing this to ourselves” in the matrix. Pynchon demands that we learn to identify with both, for if we select one, we lose either the warning of responsibility or that of danger. In this, Pynchon parallels his own techniques in other structures of the novel. He encourages an “and/and” response to many oppositions, a cultivated ability to hold both possibilities in mind and not let them obliterate one another. Only through putting oneself at Ground Zero and through realizing one's responsibility for the destructive aerial perspective can there be any hope for changing the situation, however slender that hope may be.

Our involvement with control is reflected in the cityscapes, with their grids, grooves, and labyrinthine channels. Control and the presence of Them are visible in the architecture, the towers and smokestacks and steeples that reek of death. The channels and grids recur emblematically within the human mind, warnings of control's deep roots in our nature. The rocketry and the feared explosions, by contrast, have orgasmic, bodily overtones. Slothrop experiences a sexual spasm as being launched in a rocket, and Gottfried marries one of the last V-2s. The carnal attractions of the explosions are first established clearly by Pointsman, but Slothrop, and Roger and Jessica also respond voluptuously to the detonations. In a prosopopoeia of London (p. 215), even the city craves the sensual violence of an air raid. These subtextual variants all point to a matrix that factors in our lust for technology and control.

To offer point by point support for the argument that this matrix is a sufficient first cause for the whole text would demand a book, and the result might carry little more conviction than the present evidence. The proposed matrix is certainly more powerful in accounting for the text than are suggestions that the novel is about the rocket, or salvation, or the disappearance of the individual, and nothing in the text, at least as I read it, contradicts the possibility. If this matrix is accepted as the impulse behind the text, then, significantly, the text stems from a coherent, analytic statement, not from the deconstructive drive envisioned by many critics. Moreover, if we are willing to entertain the possibility of a matrix and this matrix in particular, then we can draw on its meaning and accusatory element to illuminate the vexed question of values in the novel as a whole. Since those values are elaborately reflected in the subtext, I return to it and look at the implications of the entire image-complex.


The centrality of this subtext emerges in new ways when we see what it implies about Pynchon's mythological cosmos and about his philosophy regarding human action and history. What kind of action is possible? What hope remains? What values can be upheld?

The feature of the subtext that illuminates these questions is the pattern of perspectival exaggeration or diminution. Huge giants, angels with miles-high eyes, monstrous white fingers, and penises on the scale of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud loom at one end of the spectrum. At the other are ants—or people as ants—and inhabitants who dwell in cities whose size implies equivalence between humans and the mites that could live on hair or in digital whorls. The forces of destruction are huge; their victims, minute or even microscopic. Although Pynchon invokes many sentient life forms smaller than humans—Elves, Dwarves, Munchkins, rats, insects, skin-cells—man is not the biblical lord of creation, little lower than the angels. Humans are appallingly diminished compared to the monsters of the aether or angels, and are equated with mites and cells and bacteria.

Given the dwarfed stature attributed to humans in Pynchon's mythological cosmos, we should not be surprised to see that Pynchon envisages us as individually too small to make much difference to the course of history. Pynchon does suggest outside this subtext that there are nodes or cusps at which cultures have taken wrong turns, thus implying that right turns may have been possible, but such cusps do not emerge as vivid or well marked in his mythological history of Western civilization.7

Important, too, is Pynchon's belief in the impossibility of individuals uniting to create a force for “good” powerful enough to be effective. All the actions Pynchon marks as positive in the novel are individual, minor, and personal: be kind; don't try to control others; don't fret about your personal future; be open to the Other Side. He shows no concerted heroic social action.8

The lack of positive organized action stems from the nature of control. Pynchon never shows any form of control to be good; even in the narrow slice of the cosmos represented by aerial views, he almost always marks control as negative. He appears to agree with the old saw that power corrupts, and acknowledges that organization demands unequal distribution of power and control. Hence, social groups can work together, but only toward evil ends. Enzian's invocation of Christ's temptation reminds us that dominion is a gift of the devil (in another mythology) and not detachable from its source. The grooves and grids seen in the aerial views are systems of control at work in the cities and in human nature. Individuals may achieve freedom as Slothrop does, outside of society, but freedom within society seems excluded by the organization necessary to society. At best we can hope for Zonal anarchy and the flexible exchanges of the black market.

But if Pynchon gives small hope for man as social animal, he does proffer something which, if not quite hope, is a mystical broadening of our universe, a statement that the possibilities are not as limited as we may assume. He invests the act of looking into perspectival abysses with values that transcend the mere act of seeing. The vertiginous vantage often features an intensified vocabulary suggesting illumination and the sacred. The impossible daguerreotype shows a mandala structure. Lyle Bland's astral journeys permit him to see Earth's eerie Messianic mind-body (p. 590). Tchitcherine is held on the edge of revelation when he sees the City Dactylic, but the existence of revelation is suggested.9 Prentice in a plane looks down at a gigantic, fantasized windmill-mandala (pp. 620-21). Slothrop on the Brocken and in the balloon is close to revelation, as is signalled by the god-shadows, haloed shells, and colors accompanying these experiences. Views from below reveal angels, the rainbow vision, and the mandala-shape of a descending rocket.

In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon gives us another aerial cityscape.10 Oedipa Maas looks from a hilltop down onto San Narciso and sees what looks like a transistor circuit-board (variant on the grid or maze), in which she intuits “a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning … an intent to communicate.” She views the city from within an “odd, religious instant” in which she detects the voice in the whirlwind but cannot tune her limited senses to its frequencies. Viewing the city, she feels, would tell her something, were she only able to understand. The cities of Gravity's Rainbow similarly point toward meaning.

The glimpse of the sacred in some of these visions is partly explained when Pynchon describes the City Sacramental (pp. 372-73) as an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual illness or health.” Using the cancellations and substitutions of the ruin topos, Pynchon gives us corpses and death as foundation for the eviscerated buildings of Berlin, and suggests that the inside-out nature of these structures reflects what our civilization has become spiritually and will become physically. Part of his assessment of spiritual illness rests on Norman O. Brown's argument that fear of death has warped Western civilization into death-seeking patterns of activity.11 Showing us our spiritual devastation mirrored in the city permits Pynchon to present his message on more than one level of reality. His visions of cities are not just aerial pictures; they are revelations.

I have examined this perspectival subtext at such length because it functions as nerve center for the entire novel, creating as well as merely expressing values and meaning. We can better understand the mechanics of how Pynchon generates his charged and interactive world when we see how he alters this subtext in each of its manifestations. Character codes provide some of the richness. So do his variations on components of the vision. The grid, for instance, develops analogues in multiple planes of reality: World War II cities have street grids, but grids also emerge in human psychology and the cortex, in human sexuality and the body, in daydream worlds, hallucinated worlds, the world of ethics and spiritual health, future worlds, subhuman cities of ants or bugs or fungi, and super- or supranatural levels peopled by gigantic entities. Pynchon transports us from one to another level through the mise en abyme correspondences and ekphrastic windows set up by such elements in this image-complex.

This subtext is also crucial to the mental world of the story. More than any other aspect of the novel, it actually generates the suprahuman mythological beings who people Pynchon's cosmos, and obtrudes them upon our notice. Insofar as the subtext is an analytic statement with negative implications, even an accusation, it counters the radical skepticism of Pynchon's many deconstructive techniques, and implies that he does support some values. If everything is as unknowable as the fragmentations and contradictions sometimes suggest, there would be little reason for Pynchon to have wrought so mighty an edifice; the matrix gives us an underlying justification for his art. The subtext also establishes the diminution of human status within this cosmos, an important point if one is trying to establish any intrinsic values for interpreting actions in the story. The universal relevance of the rocket to all threads of the story makes it an appropriate locus for the matrix that generates the entire work of art.

Some readers may be willing to accept my analysis as a New Critical scrutiny of an image-cluster, but may balk at the semiotics of subtexts and matrices; they doubtless feel that my looking for the novel's matrix is as misguided as Faust's quest for the Mothers, matrices of cosmic form. However, Goethe's Faust is very much present in Gravity's Rainbow,12 and Pynchon's parodic comment on that scene is curiously apropos. Slothrop meets Marvy's Mothers, the bigoted avatars of the aggressive, technological country whose policies will serve as matrix for post-war history. What he hears from them are the rocket limericks, insanely cheerful celebrations of immachination. Although these Mothers do not understand their own message, their message is the matrix. Their words make plain that we risk destroying ourselves through our lust for technology and control.13


  1. Riffaterre defines subtexts as “fragments of the larger text, immersed in it and mirroring the whole,” derived from metonymies. See “Trollope's Metonymies,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 37 (1982), 278. He analyzes several subtexts in “The Intertextual Unconscious,” Critical Inquiry, 13 (1987), 371-85. A matrix is the hypothetical structure that generates a text, a sentence or idea whose impress can only be deduced from its variant actualizations. See Riffaterre, The Semiotics of Poetry (London: Methuen, 1978), esp. pp. 6, 13, 19.

  2. Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 26. Ellipses points within square brackets indicate a shortening of the quotation; those not bracketed are present in Pynchon's text.

  3. Another author who depicts our addiction to technology as quasi-sexual is Russell Hoban in Riddley Walker; Kurt Vonnegut describes the literally sexual effect of a rocket launch in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (New York: Delta, 1975), p. 270.

  4. Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Delta, 1969), p. 152.

  5. Pynchon's V. concerns a cognate concept—the transformation of the animate into the inanimate. Pynchon's continued concern with hybrids of man and machine shows in the following m/antic prediction: “If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come—you heard it here first—when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge” (“Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times Book Review, 28 October 1984, p. 41).

  6. For a discussion of Pynchon's many uses of the second-person pronoun, see Brian McHale, “‘You used to know what these words mean’: Misreading Gravity's Rainbow,Language and Style, 18 (1985), 93-118, and Linda A. Westervelt, “‘A Place Dependent on Ourselves’: The Reader as System-Builder in Gravity's Rainbow,Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 22 (1980), 69-90, esp. pp. 82-85.

  7. Marcus Smith and Khachig Tölölyan call attention to such cusps in “The New Jeremiad: Gravity's Rainbow,” in Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. Richard Pearce (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), pp. 169-86. Man's potential for free will is discussed by James W. Earl in “Freedom and Knowledge in the Zone” in Approaches to Gravity's Rainbow, ed. Charles Clerc (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 229-50.

  8. For the rules limiting the counterforce, see Raymond M. Olderman, “The New Consciousness and the Old System,” in Approaches to Gravity's Rainbow, pp. 199-228.

  9. The many failed attempts to break through to revelation are discussed as the dominant trope of Gravity's Rainbow by Molly Hite in Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 21-32. Pynchon's mysticism has received attention from Dwight Eddins, “Orphic contra Gnostic: Religious Conflict in Gravity's Rainbow,Modern Language Quarterly, 45 (1984), 163-190; Thomas Moore, The Style of Connectedness: Gravity's Rainbow and Thomas Pynchon (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1987); and Kathryn Hume, Pynchon's Mythography: An Approach to Gravity's Rainbow (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1987).

  10. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1967), p. 13.

  11. See Lawrence C. Wolfley, “Repression's Rainbow: The Presence of Norman O. Brown in Pynchon's Big Novel,” PMLA, 92 (1977), 873-89.

  12. For Pynchon's uses of the Faust story, see Pynchon's Mythography, pp. 143-53, esp. p. 150.

  13. In the New York Times Book Review of 10 April 1988, Pynchon reviews Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. He singles out for special appreciation a passage describing a balloon trip and the view from above it affords of a ruined Indian city. Evidently views from above intrigue him even in the fictive worlds of others.

Christine Turier (essay date summer 1992)

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SOURCE: Turier, Christine. “Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.Explicator 50, no. 4 (summer 1992): 244-46.

[In the following essay, Turier identifies the artistic and scientific sources of the octopus Grigori's attack on Katje in Gravity's Rainbow.]

The bizarreness of the image of the octopus Grigori's attack on Katje in Gravity's Rainbow, together with the orchestration of that attack by the mad Pavlovian Pointsman, stamps it with a typically “Pynchonian” uniqueness. Yet it is not the singular product of an eccentric imagination but another example of Pynchon's extreme eclecticism. For the octopus combines two radically different sources: one, that of early Japanese art; the other, the field of neurobiology. The image of a woman being “attacked” by a giant octopus is, in fact, not uncommon in early Japanese art.1 It is best known in the West through the rendition of Katsushika Hokusai. Reproduced as “The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife”2 in Lucie-Smith's Eroticism in Western Art, it is also widely represented in texts on Japanese Ukiyo-e, especially those concerned with Hokusai, in the West the best known of the Ukiyo-e school. Hokusai's rendition portrays a naked woman swooning in the arms of “twin incubi”3 between rocks and sea. Her lower torso is enveloped by the “giant” octopus, and the tentacles of the smaller octopus encircle her neck.

What is most notable about this image, besides its eroticism (certainly not out of place in Pynchon's text), is the ambiguity of the woman's reaction to the “attack”; does she swoon from terror or ecstasy? It is an ambiguity also present in Pynchon's portrayal of the scene; is Katje truly afraid or a knowing and willing participant in the “attack”? It is not her scream that is heard on the beach but that of “one of the dancers” (186).4 She thanks Slothrop afterward, with “[n]ot a tremor in the voice” (187). Yet, during the attack we see her “… already half in the water, … trying to cry out, but the tentacle, flowing and chilly, barely allows her windway enough to breathe.” Slothrop becomes mesmerized by her hand clutching his shirt, causing it to furrow “in tangents to her terror” (186). As well, we know as readers that it was the film taken secretly in Osbie Feel's kitchen (92) that was used to condition Grigori (113). Paradoxically though, and in contrast to Slothrop's reaction to Grigori—“wow it's a big one, holycow” (186)—her comments betray a cool detachment bordering on familiarity with the octopus—“They are very optical aren't they. I hadn't known” (188)—as well as a genuine surprise that it should attack her: “It saw me. Me. I don't look like a crab” (188). Nevertheless, as with Hokusai's print, which exudes eroticism, not terror, the intuition comes out in favor of the woman's participation. The ambiguity of Katje's response is not lost either on Slothrop: “Structure and detail come later, but the conniving around him now he feels instantly, in his heart” (188).

In relation to Pynchon's use of the octopus, however, it is not only this image which has antecedents. The suggestion that Pointsman might find the available Grigori a more suitable subject for experimentation than either Slothrop or the more conventional canine ones has, as does much of Pynchon's reference to science, a sound empirical base. Spectro's summary of the advantages of octopi as subjects (“… docile under surgery,” survival of “massive removal of brain tissue,” and the reliability of their unconditioned response) is in fact extremely accurate. His assertion that there is “[n]o limit to the things you can teach them” (52) is more than just the punchline to a parodic joke at the expense of psychological research (not to mention Pointsman himself). Joke though it is, the octopus has often been used in research into the structure and functioning of the brain. British anatomist J. Z. Young, during the late fifties and early sixties, pursued extensive research into brain function using cephalopods. His book A Model of the Brain5 documents the results of his work. Young used in his research both trained (that is, conditioned) and untrained octopi. His subjects also “stuffed” themselves “with crab meat” (189); their learned tasks also involved attacking “strange moving figures.”6 Besides the attributes outlined by Spectro, the structure of the cephalopod's nervous system makes it an ideal subject for the study of the brain. Octopi have limited sensory inputs—they are very “optical.” In addition to vision, they have only chemo-tactile receptors in the arms. They are entirely without hearing or an effective sense of smell. They possess a limited response range, that is, to attack or not to attack. These attributes, together with the size of their nerve fibers, make the study of brain function in cephalopods a much simpler task than it is in the more complex vertebrates, while the similarity of their optical system to that of vertebrates (including humans) makes the comparison of brain function a viable one.

The similarity between Young and Pointsman, however, does not end here. Pavlov and Pointsman's search for the mechanical/physiological root of behavior is echoed by Young: “I believe that it will be possible to find some changes in certain specific places after each learning occasion” (29). Some 230 pages later, he acknowledges that “there is still no definite knowledge of what this change is” (267) but goes on to speculate on where it might be found. Young states, “Whatever process operates in learning it seems likely that it involves the choice between two or more possibilities. It is usually assumed that this choice is made by some form of facilitation [my emphasis] in the pathway that has been excited” (282). Young, however, finds preferable the idea that “learning occurs by the elimination [my emphasis] of the unused pathways” (285), a hypothesis that bears a strong resemblance to Pointsman's idea of “spot's of inertia” (90).

One further point of significance, which links both sources of the octopus in Gravity's Rainbow, is the observation by Young that because the “octopus's central nervous system is less completely centralised than that of vertebrates” it “might be said to ‘think with its arms'” (100-101). The idea of the octopus as “all brain” is certainly reinforced in Hokusai's image. That science and technology (“the brain”) represent central thematic concerns in Gravity's Rainbow is well documented. Yet the implications of the assault upon the female by “the brain” are an area that has so far been completely overlooked.


  1. Tom Evans and Mary Anne Evans, Shunga: The Art of Love in Japan, New York: Paddington Press Ltd., 1975, 249.

  2. Edward Lucie-Smith, Eroticism in Western Art, New York: Praeger, 1972, 255.

  3. Evans and Evans, note 1 above, 249.

  4. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, Picador, 1975. All subsequent references will cite page numbers parenthetically in the text and will refer to this edition.

  5. J. Z. Young, A Model of the Brain, London: Oxford UP, 1964.

  6. Young, note 5 above, 79. Subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text.

Jeffrey S. Baker (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Baker, Jeffrey S. “Amerikkka Uber Alles: German Nationalism, American Imperialism, and the 1960s Antiwar Movement in Gravity's Rainbow.Critique 40, no. 4 (summer 1999): 323-41.

[In the following essay, Baker considers Gravity's Rainbow by situating the text within the dual contexts of 1960s American radicalism and 1940s German imperialism.]

Across Pynchon's body of writing, there is an abiding concern with the radical democratic politics of 1960s America. That concern manifested itself as early as “Entropy,” Pynchon's self-professed “Beat story” (Slow Learner 14), in which the reader is left, finally, with two distinct and contradictory images: On the one hand, we see Callisto's ineffectual paralysis, as he holds the dead bird and stares at the window that Aubade has just shattered; on the other hand, we see the image of Meatball Mulligan attempting to “try and keep his lease-breaking party from deteriorating into total chaos” by giving wine to the sailors, separating the morra players, introducing the fat government girl to Sandor Rojas, helping the girl in the shower to dry off and go to bed, and calling a repairman to fix the refrigerator (97). As Tony Tanner recognized, Pynchon's story provides a metaphor for a classic epistemological dichotomy as old as Plato and the Sophists. Tanner writes:

In that composite image of the pragmatic man [Meatball] actively doing what he can with the specific scene, and the theorizing man [Callisto] passively attempting to formulate the cosmic process, Pynchon offers us a shorthand picture of the human alternatives of working inside the noisy chaos to mitigate it or stand outside, constructing patterns to account for it. Man is just such a two-storied house of consciousness, and in the configuration of that shattered window and Callisto's paralysis, Pynchon suggests the peril of all pattern-making.


Tanner's analysis points up a radically pragmatic political agenda for social change (as reflected in the Beats' anarchic rhetoric), as well as a pragmatic suspicion of the theoretical and an affirmation of the experiential or particular. Both of those impulses embody a radically democratizing Emersonian politics that characterizes nearly all of Pynchon's major writing. The Beats' criticism of “Moloch” eventually gave way to the hippies' indictment of both “the system” as represented by the American government and an American middle class status quo. Similarly, Pynchon's writing has progressed from the relatively mild accusation in “Entropy” of Callisto-like American complacency to a more radical indictment of such countercultural concerns as two separate and unequal “Americas,” revealed in The Crying of Lot 49 by means of Oedipa's odyssey through the labyrinthine W.A.S.T.E. system.

In Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon echoes an escalating countercultural critique of the Establishment's repression at home and murderous imperialism abroad. That work reveals the pragmatist's idealist tradition as a European “death-structure” identified with Nazi imperialism and “planned society”—a formulation that Pynchon clearly connects with America's Cold War rhetoric and war economy in the Vietnam era. Finally, in Vineland, Pynchon's radical impulse is reduced to an almost wistful recollection of the radical and anarchic mentality of the 1960s. That book portrays a Reagan-era fascism not only accepted but embraced by the American middle class. It points up that 20 years later society demonstrated the limited success of 1960s radicalism.

Pynchon, then, is a writer of and about the 1960s; and most of his writing, from “Entropy” to Vineland, is caught up in the egalitarian and democratic ideals of the radical countercultural movement. Eric Meyer has written that, on rereading Gravity's Rainbow today, with the benefit of critical distance, “it is possible to see […] how much it is a product of its particular historical situation.” For Meyer, the novel is “a text of ‘The 60's,’” not only because it is “about that now mythic period,” but also because its many themes reflect the same “anxieties of an America at War both at home and abroad” as prevailed during that troubled period in American history (81). Across his body of writing, Pynchon has advocated turning away from recognized authority and affirming a democratization of power based on the individual's intrinsic worth, the same ideas that drove 1960s coalitions such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Philosophically, SDS based much of its politics and ideology on the pragmatic writings of C. Wright Mills, William James, John Dewey, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although few scholars have attempted to trace the influence of Dewey and the pragmatists on 1960s radicals in the United States, there is no question that the pragmatists had great influence on the radicals' “revolution.” Tom Hayden, one of the founders of SDS, had written his master's thesis on Mills, and the influence of the pragmatic strain of American thought on the first SDS manifesto, the “Port Huron Statement,” is clear. As Stewart Burns has recognized, protopragmatist Emerson, pragmatist Dewey, and Dewey's pupil Mills were seminal influences on the democratically based old guard of SDS, whose early manifesto became a rallying point of radical democracy for a generation of demonstrators and activists (57).

Similarly, as most critics who have addressed the issue agree, Pynchon's writing aims toward a kind of “activism.” Edward Mendelson has written, “Gravity's Rainbow is a book which hopes to be active in the world, not a detached observer of it. It warns and exhorts in matters ranging from the ways in which the book itself will be read, to the way in which the whole surrounding culture operates” (10). Mendelson's notion that “Pynchon's book tries to fulfill a public function” (5) is reiterated by Craig Hansen Werner's insistence that “Pynchon forces the resolution [of conceptual] modes off the page and into our lives, where it belongs” (191). Similarly, Marcus Smith and Kachig Tololyan insist that “It is the extraordinary ambition of GR [Gravity's Rainbow] to help its readers toward […] freedom” (152), and J. S. Hans writes that the goal of Pynchon's novel is “to get us so actively involved in the view that we cannot escape the recognition that it is our world, the one in which we fully participate, and the one for which we share full responsibility” (278). Mendelson's point that the text of Gravity's Rainbow means to be active highlights one of the many convergences between Pynchon's politicized aesthetic and the emphasis of the 1960s radicals on active political involvement. Like Meatball attempting to work within the chaos that surrounds him, both the pragmatists and 1960s radicals favored action within the tangled, muddy, and complex world over the platonic theorizing that characterizes Callisto's modus operandis. Thus the “activity” that Mendelson attributes to Pynchon's novel is in keeping with an American pragmatism in which the aesthetic, situated as it is within culture as well as human activity and experience, is always political; art is always either reinforcing or challenging (as do “Entropy” and Gravity's Rainbow) the cultural values and practices that help produce it.

Because much of the radical Left in the United States during the 1960s relied on the writings of American pragmatists for its democratically oriented ideological underpinnings, it seems appropriate to base any reconstruction of that radical critique in Pynchon's work at least partially on the work of those pragmatists. In examining their “idealist tradition” (from Blicero's romantic quest ideology through Dewey's critique of Nazi idealism during World War II), I place Blicero's obsession with his “Destiny” and the Nazi affinity for destiny, as expressed in the imperialistic notions of Weltpolitik and Lebensraum, in the same context. Looking at the analogies that the 1960s radicals made between American imperialism and brutality at home and abroad and the German Reich's earlier imperialism and brutality through Dewey's critique of German idealism, helps to place Pynchon's novel in the context of that time and that ideology.

We learn in Gravity's Rainbow that Major Weissman, while at Nordhausen serving the Nazi as “Schutzhäftlingsführer” at the Rocket works, is “enchanted” by the name of the adjoining town—Bleicheröde. That name, as Enzian recognizes, mimics the early German word for death, “Blicker” (GR 322). The early Germans saw death as “bleaching and blankness.” Enamored of that signification, Weissman assumes it as his SS code name, later Latinized to “Dominus Blicero.” Blicero's “love for the last explosion,” his nihilistic pleasure at the prospect of even his own possible annihilation (GR 96), points up his death obsession and the aptness of the name that he takes as his own. In the context of the novel, Blicero's fascination with a transcendent “Destiny” and his increasingly self-centered maneuvers to realize that destiny represent both the death-directed idealist tradition in European thought and the German romanticism that can be associated with the Nazis' own imperialistic weltanschauung.

The romanticism of Major Weissman-Captain Blicero is best understood in terms of his affinity for the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, especially the Duino Elegies, and what Richard Locke has called the “German Romantic echoes in Nazi culture” (2). In Blicero's mind, Rilke's impassioned “Want the change. O be inspired by the Flame” becomes tied to the Germans' own great “Destiny” (GR 97). Blicero's interpretation of Rilke's Tenth Elegy reflects the underlying imagery of the quest narrative: “Of all Rilke's poetry it's this Tenth Elegy he most loves, can feel the bitter lager of Yearning begin to prickle behind the eyes and sinuses at remembering any passage of […] the newly dead youth, embracing his Lament, his last link, leaving now even her marginally human touch forever, climbing all alone, terminally alone, up and up into the mountains of primal Pain, with the wildly alien constellations overhead. […] And not once does his step ring from the soundless Destiny. […] It's he, Blicero, who climbs the mountain, has been so climbing for nearly 20 years, since long before he embraced the Reich's flame” (GR 98).

Blicero's obsession with Rilke is representative, in a larger sense, of a German Romanticism associated with Nazism, as critic Charles Hohmann has written:

Pynchon's account of pre-war Germany, although pushed to extremes, is not unwarranted considering the way Rilke was read during the days of National Socialism. While a minority of anti-Nazi Germans read Rilke's poetry as a solace in their inward emigration, Nazi readers of Rilke either reinterpreted his life and works in terms of party guidelines, attributing what they considered his weaknesses to fin de siècle decadence or, having overcome their enthusiasm for his poetry, rejected it as degenerate thus rationalizing their initial rapture as a necessary transitional phase on the road to their ideological commitment to the party.

In his portrait of Cpt. Blicero, alias Major Weissman, Pynchon recreates the prototype of a German Rilke adept who evolves through the successive phases of unconditional mystical adoration, national socialist appropriation and inward emigration.


Hohmann's association of Blicero's romanticism with the Nazi proclivity for an ideology of romantic quest in the name of a transcendent moral and nationalist teleology echoes Dewey's earlier association of National Socialism with the idealist tradition in European thought. In “The One-World of Hitler's National Socialism,” Dewey wrote in 1942 that “Hitler's philosophy, or world outlook, is that the identity of the ideal with hard fact may be effected here and now, by means of combining faith in the ideal to which destiny has called the German people with force which is thoroughly organized to control every aspect of life, economic, cultural, artistic, educational, as well as military and political” (430). Robert Westbrook has written that the point of Dewey's discussion, “while not minimizing the distinctiveness of Hitler's ideology, was to link Nazism to the idealist tradition Dewey had held substantially accountable for German militarism during World War I. […] Although Hitler glorified brute force and one could not overlook this aspect of his regime, Dewey stressed Hitler's own emphasis on the need to subordinate force to ‘spiritual’ ideals” (522).

H. R. Kedward reinforces Dewey's notion of the Nazi regime as one invested in high-flown “spiritual” ideals; he argues that part of the Nazis' attractiveness to the German volk rested in their appeals to a mythic German past “as rediscovered by the German Romantics from Herder to Wagner; to myths of past and present—the Jewish ‘plot’ and the supremacy of the Aryan race; and to myths of the future—the creation of a New Order in Europe. Hitler and his colleagues were the Teutonic heroes reborn, and Germany was seen as determined by its history to be the agent of a new and greater European civilization” (225). Relying on the ideas of Alfred Rosenberg, the “self-appointed philosopher of the Nazi movement,” who argued that the German's task of the century was to “create out of a new myth of life a new type of man,” Hitler and his followers hoped to conquer Europe in the name of this mythic folk consciousness—a spiritual and cultural ideal that was seductive to Nazis and their sympathizers.

In John Dewey and American Pragmatism, Westbrook stated that in Dewey's view the German idealistic philosophy “played an indispensable ideological role in German politics by allowing the nation's elites to pursue Realpolitik under the banner of ‘an unconditional obligation to fulfill an historic mission as organ of the Absolute,’ hence freeing them from the need to justify their actions in terms of consequences. ‘The prevalence of an idealistic philosophy full of talk of Duty, Will, and Ultimate Ideas and Ideals, and of the indwelling of the Absolute in German history for the redeeming of humanity,’ Dewey observed, ‘has disguised from the mass of German people, upon whose support the policy of the leaders ultimately depends for success, the real nature of the enterprise in which they are engaged'” (200).

A large part of that “enterprise” was the Nazis' will for empire in the name of the various “ideals” by which they justified their imperialistic juggernaut and the savagely brutal methods they employed to fulfill Hitler's dream of European, even global, domination. Enzian describes Blicero as a man “in love with empire” (GR 660), and that love of conquest is reflected in the Nazi drive toward imperialism.

The concepts of Weltpolitik and Lebensraum, which encompassed the German will to empire, had been decades in the making, dating from at least the Wilhelmian era. The Nazis subsumed those concepts into their own ideology, but crucial circumstances strengthened the Nazi ideology over that of the Wilhelmian era and Weimar republic: German economic instability during the 1920s and early 1930s, which helped the Nazi cause inestimably, and a devastatingly effective Nazi propaganda machine that linked the concepts of German imperialism with both idealist German folk myths and a growing anti-Semitism (Smith 52, 83-84, 232-33).

Like the hegemonic, exploitative uses of the “system” in Pynchon's novel, the Nazis relied on the “idealist” tradition in the form of a cultural Absolutism to gloss over and justify the self-serving ends of their imperialism. Pynchon reinforces the relationship between the Nazis' “idealist” or “transcendent” posturings and Weissman-Blicero's own obsession with his “Destiny” by describing the colonel's form of “transcendence” in terms of the cruel spectacle of the “Oven,” represented by the Rocket 00000, which constitutes the “Flame” that might enable him to “transcend.” Yet that Destiny shows itself to be the only kind of transcendence that the Rocket can give—that is, transcendence in the form of death. “It's been going on for much too long, he has chosen the game for nothing if not the kind of end it will bring him, nicht wahr? too old these days, grippes taking longer to pass, stomach too often in day-long agony, eyes measurably blinder with each examination, too ‘realistic’ to prefer a hero's death or even a soldier's. He only wants now to be out of the winter, inside the Oven's warmth, darkness, steel shelter […]” (GR 99). Thus, just as the Hereros Enzian and Ombindi come to see the equation between “transcendence” and death, so Blicero's primary desire at the end of his life is to “escape the cycle of infection and death” through the “transcendence” that the Rocket system offers (GR 724).

Blicero launches the 00000 from the Lüneberg Heath, with Gottfried (with his own dreams of transcendence) as its payload, on or about Easter 1945. Through Pynchon's narrative prolepsis-analepsis, the 00000 appears to be the same Rocket that is converging (its payload “magically” transformed into a nuclear warhead) on the Orpheus Theater in Los Angeles, circa 1970. The Rocket thus travels, through Pynchon's narrative technique, across the span of twenty-five years, “over” the self-satisfied American 1950s and their increasing ideological and technological proliferation of Cold War mentality and military sword-rattling, past the more hopeful days of the early Kennedy administration, and into the heart of Nixon's America at the height of the anti-Vietnam war sentiment and the mass demonstrations that accompanied it. Few satisfactory critical speculations have arisen regarding Pynchon's narrative “bridge” between those two eras. Yet Blicero himself offers a significant clue to Pynchon's intentions in a speech that he delivers to Gottfried immediately before the 00000 is launched:

“America was the edge of the World. A message for Europe, continent-sized, inescapable. Europe had found the site for its Kingdom of Death, that special Death the West had invented. Savages had their waste regions, Kalaharis, lakes so misty they could not see the other side. But Europe had gone deeper—into obsession, addiction, away from all the savage innocences. America was a gift from the invisible powers, a way of returning. But Europe refused it. […]

“In Africa, Asia, Amerindia, Oceana, Europe came and established its order of Analysis and Death. What it could not use, it killed or altered. In time the death-colonies grew strong enough to break away. But the impulse to empire, the mission to propagate death, the structure of it, kept on. Now we are in the last phase. American Death has come to occupy Europe. It has learned empire from its old metropolis.”

(GR 722)

In Blicero's anachronistic view, the United States has come to represent the same impulse toward death and imperialism that was embodied in the “structures” of the idealist European tradition. Those “European lies-against-time” employed by the Nazis to gain and justify their power are now used in the name of an American imperialism that has adopted its “old metropolis'” death-directed ideology. The connection between the imperialism of Nazi Germany and that of the United States in the Nixonian era is reinforced by Blicero's “Tarot” near the end of the novel. Steven Weisenberger's reading of Blicero's cards suggests that the Two of Swords signifies “a slide into conformity, equipoise, and business. The narrator's comment is particularly striking: ‘If you're wondering where he's gone, look among the successful academics, the Presidential advisors, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors’ (V749.9-12). […] Weissman's Tarot points up the end of his romantic desire and its translation into business, into conformity, into the cartelized state of postwar, into the threat of nuclear winter. Recall that Weissman survived the April apocalypse and was seen as late as May. This effectively underwrites the denouement of GR, where the prolepsis to Los Angeles and the Nixon epoch infers a new transmogrification of Weissman's apocalyptic desire. Blicero slips out of the Zone, but his spirit presides over contemporary America” (309-10).

As Weisenberger recognizes (15), von Braun's ascension to the directorship of NASA points up the grim irony of Pynchon's having chosen von Braun's remarks that preceded the July 1969 Apollo moon launch as the epigraph to part one of Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon, thus, has connected the idealist tradition that helped to inspire the Nazi rocket program with the military motivations for the accelerated development of the American space program during the 1960s.

Perhaps to reinforce the connection between the Nazi regime and American repression at home and imperialism abroad during the 1960s and early 1970s, Pynchon also allows us a glimpse of Slothrop's Tarot. Slothrop's “future” is not so desirable: we are to look for Blicero among the successful wielders of power, but for Slothrop we should look among “the Humility, among gray and preterite souls” (GR 742). In setting up this dichotomy between the “Elect” such as Blicero, and the “Preterite” like Slothrop, Pynchon has established the same distinction between what he would later call (in the Introduction to Slow Learner) “the succession of the criminally insane who have enjoyed power since 1945” and “the rest of us poor sheep” (18-19) who live at the mercy of the controlling elite in contemporary America.

The comparison between the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust and the later “police action” of Vietnam may seems glib, but such comparisons were being made by the so-called “radical counter-culture” that helped to spearhead the antiwar movement. Looking back on that phenomenon, antiwar activist and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) member Todd Gitlin describes the comparison from his point of view as a child of the 1950s:

[T]o me and the people I knew, it was American bombs which were the closest thing to an immoral equivalent of Auschwitz in our lifetimes. When the time came, we jumped at the chance to purge ourselves of the nearest thing to the original trauma. And then atrocities committed by innocent America rang the old alarms—even if the parallels were drawn too easily, overdrawn, with crucial differences obscured.


Although the comparison between Nazi Germany and American involvement in Vietnam may have been exaggerated, nonetheless, to place Gravity's Rainbow within its historical context, it is necessary to understand how many antiwar radicals were led to draw that analogy. It is that America, at war at home and abroad, which helped to shape Pynchon's novel. In that light, much of the narrator's commentary on both “the War” and the development of multinational corporations (or cartels), assumes a significance that points to what those 1960s radicals would call, in an all-encompassing denunciation of its capitalistic imperialism and its repressive domestic policies, “Amerikkka.”1

In 1965, 25,000 American troops were stationed in Vietnam; in 1966, that number rose to 385,000; by June 30, 1967, the total was 448,000. In 1969 alone, nearly 10,000 Americans died in Southeast Asia. By the time the war was over, the conservative toll of Vietnamese casualties showed more than 850,000 “enemy” dead, 400,000 civilians dead, and 1 million wounded (Gitlin 220, 378, 435). At the time of those final totals, the United States had dropped “twice the bomb tonnage on Indochina as in World War II and Korea combined. Nixon had ordered over half of it—four million tons” (Burns 114). During a seven-month period beginning in February 1973, Nixon ordered 250,000 tons of bombs dropped on Cambodia, “50 percent more than the tonnage dropped on Japan in all of World War II” (Gitlin 437).

By introducing the historical figure of Nixon, in the form of “Richard M. Zhlubb,” at the end if his novel, Pynchon has called up a host of counter-cultural bugaboos that the symbol of the ill-fated president would automatically be associated with, particularly in 1973. Not surprisingly, Pynchon's portrayal of him (in Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland) is anything but flattering. Aside from the goofy-sounding name with which Pynchon endows him, “Zhlubb” has chronic adenoid problems that account for his stuffed-up speech (“I'b dot afraid to dame dames”). Because of that particular affliction, his “friends and detractors alike think of him as ‘the Adenoid'” (GR 754). Readers will recall from Pirate Prentice's description the “lymphatic monster [that] had once blocked the distinguished pharynx of Lord Blatherard Osmo” (GR 15) terrorizing London at the beginning of the novel. “The Adenoid,” grown to monstrous size, attempts to execute its “master plan” by swallowing up “certain personalities useful to it” (GR 15)—a megalomaniacal obsession that Pynchon obviously wants us to associate, here at the end of the novel, with Nixon's own machinations.

“Zhlubb,” who drives a “Managerial Volkswagon,” is obsessed with the repression of subversive individuals like “Steve Edelman,” who, attempting to “play a chord progression on the Department of Justice list” on his harmonica, is arrested for “Attempted Mopery with a Subversive Instrument,” and is, at the time of narration, “currently in Atascadero under indefinite observation” (GR 755). The “Manager's” obsession with control and repression is in his reaction to the “freaks” who are running amok on the Santa Monica Freeway. But Nixon-Zhlubb has a plan for them, too: “Relax,” he tells the narrator, who is riding with Zhlubb in his Volkswagen, “There'll be a nice secure home for them all, down in Orange County. Right next to Disneyland” (GR 756). Zhlubb's reference here to this “nice secure home” is echoed in Vineland, where DL is explaining to Prairie the significance of Federal Attorney Brock Vond's invasion of Zoyd and Prairie's home: “‘In the olden days we called it the last roundup,’ DL explained. ‘Liked to scare each other with it, though it was always real enough. The day they'd come and break into your house and put everybody in prison camps. Not fun or sitcom prison camps, more like feedlots where we'd all become official, nonhuman livestock.” At this point in the explanation, Prairie is shocked: “‘You've seen camps like this?’” And DL answers: “‘Yep, I've seen ‘em, your mom was in one, you'll recall, but better than us reminiscing and boring you, go to the library sometime and read about it. Nixon had machinery for mass detention all in place and set to go” (264).

If there is a chilling echo of German “work camps” in this Nixonian America, it is ascribable to the counter-culture's view of Nixon, especially during the last years of the Vietnam War; Pynchon's portrayal of him reflects this viewpoint and is consistently negative. In Vineland, the Nixon presidency is referred to variously as the “Nixonian reaction” (239), the “Nixonian Repression” (71), and the “Nixon Regime” (210). There is also reference to FBI infiltration of the radical community (Vineland 24), as well as their COINTELPRO operations (within whose files the subversive Weed Atman's name appears) (210), all of which occurred under the Nixon administration. Real-world evidence of Nixon-sanctioned counterintelligence operations bears out this Pynchonian paranoia. Todd Gitlin writes that “it was widely—and, as it turns out, accurately—surmised that the FBI, military intelligence, and Police Red Squads in cities like New York and Chicago, were busily tapping phones, recruiting informers, and occasionally planting dope on activists. Rumors began to fly that the government was going to prepare—had prepared?—concentration camps for use in a hypothetical national emergency” (314). This same theme of the Nixon administration's determination to snuff out the radicals' “movement” is reflected in Stewart Burns's Social Movements of the 1960s:

The climate of intentional violence, much of it instigated by government provocateurs, was just the rationale Nixon needed to intensify the surveillance, harassment, and prosecution of black and white activists, culminating in the notorious Huston Plan, which lifted restrictions on wiretapping, mail opening, surreptitious entry, and other illegal measures and provided for direct White House control over the jumble of federal intelligence units. It was never officially approved because J. Edgar Hoover balked at losing FBI autonomy, but most of it was carried out informally.


To place Gravity's Rainbow in its historical context, it is essential to recall how the war divided the country during the 1960s and early 1970s. Moreover, the administration's self-satisfied attitude toward its (often violent) repression of antiwar activism only served to exacerbate the radicals' sense of outrage at what they perceived to be government hypocrisy and even fascism.

For example, the killing by National Guard troops of four college students who were demonstrating against the war at Kent State, Ohio, on May 4, 1970 caused the radicals to speculate, as Gitlin writes, that “Perhaps, then, the political power of the Nixon administration—its power to compel acquiescence if not campus enthusiasm—ultimately grew out of the barrels of its guns? Techniques of repression and intimidation were by now profuse” (413). Radicals and demonstrators alike could only conclude from such governmental and military deployments against them that “the government is willing to shoot you” to maintain control (Gitlin 414).

The Kent State killings were among a series of events in the course of the antiwar movement that led the radicals to associate the increasingly brutal and repressive Johnson and Nixon administrations with the fascism of Hitler's Nazi Germany. During the “siege” of the Pentagon on October 21, 1967 (which Norman Mailer immortalized in his “novel as history” Armies of the Night), the non-violence that antiwar activists demonstrated was offset by the brutality of United States military personnel and U.S. marshals on the scene for crowd control. “The MPs and U.S. marshals had beaten and arrested people sporadically all evening, but late at night, with the TV cameras gone, the troops formed a flying wedge and fiercely attacked their unarmed foes, thrashing them with clubs and rifle butts. Women were singled out for the cruelest treatment” (Burns 82).

In Grand Central Station, on March 22, 1968, fifty New York policemen, “quivering in formation,” rushed a crowd of demonstrators, “smashing people with nightsticks.” As Gitlin describes the scene, “People fell trying to run the gauntlets; cops kicked them where they sprawled. A soda bottle flew out of the crowd; five cops grabbed one seventeen-year-old—the wrong one, according to a reporter eyewitness—and started beating him with their sticks—an action which elicited the cries of Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! from the crowd” (238). In the wake of a student takeover of a building at Columbia University on April 23, 1968 “the Underground paper The Rat published a picture of a “swastika'd helmet resting on a colonnaded building,” with a headline that read “HEIL Columbia” (Gitlin 308).

Perhaps the most egregious examples of violence were during the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 25-30, 1968. As Burns has written, “For many radicals the lesson of Chicago was that from now on violent tactics would be a legitimate recourse to meet the ‘fascism’ of the enemy …” (90).

The murder of James Rector and the wounding of at least a hundred others at People's Park in Berkeley only confirmed the “establishment's” willingness to go to any lengths in its determination to maintain control over civilians who disagreed with its policies. Fully a year before the killings at Kent State, many radicals felt that their cause had become unwinnable: the government's tactics had become too brutal, and its firepower too persuasive, to overcome. At home and abroad, the hypocrisy of the Nixon administration was clear to the radicals (Gitlin 361). “Even as he [Nixon] and his friends were shaking their heads over our violent language, condemning permissiveness and loose morality, celebrating law and order and the virtues of civilized restraint, they were killing and horribly maiming millions of people abroad, and systematically violating the rights of millions more—of all of us—at home. The continuing Watergate/ITT/Berrigan/Camden/Gainesville stories, among others, suggest that the radicals of the '60s, for all their riotous rhetoric, tended to behave with a touching propriety and probity—while the official guardians of law and order were capable of anything” (qtd. in Howard 500).

In light of this common (by 1968-69) perception of the Federal government and of the North American status quo, Gravity's Rainbow can be read as a kind of parable, in which Blicero's launching of the 00000 from a Nazi rocket works into Nixonian America is tantamount to the analogy that so many radicals made between Nazi Germany and the “fascist” Johnson and Nixon administrations. It is fitting that Blicero, in the bitterest of Pynchonian ironies, comes to characterize the United States as the site for Europe's “Kingdom of Death”: for as Blicero's romanticism can be seen to represent the idealist tradition that the Nazi war machine employed as justification for its goal of world domination, so the treatment of war in Gravity's Rainbow comes to be seen as critical of the American war machine and the interests that kept American men and women in Southeast Asia for nearly two decades. Any reading of Pynchon's novel that would attempt to place it within its time must recognize the metaphorical quality of these war critiques, which in great measure only ostensibly address the Second World War and, in a larger sense, the phenomenon of war. When Pynchon refers in Vineland to “the war, the system, the countless lies about American freedom” (195), it is necessary to understand that he is, ultimately, a writer from and of the American 1960s, championing the antiwar, antifascist position of the radicals. When in Vineland he refers to the Vietnam war as “murder as an instrument of American politics” (38), he reflects the radicals' view of the hypocrisy and lies of a government that had betrayed their trust.

That same feeling of betrayal is visible in a somewhat cryptic passage near the end of Gravity's Rainbow. Earlier in the novel, Pynchon had written that “The War” expedites “barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity […]” (GR 130-31). Inserting that passage after my discussion of the Vietnam era obviously makes one question what war Pynchon was writing about. The answer, I think, is clear in the following passage taken from the end of the novel:

[Yes. A cute way of putting it. I am betraying them all … the worst part of it is that I know what your editors want, exactly what they want. I am a traitor. I carry it with me. Your virus. Spread by your tireless Typhoid Marys, cruising the markets and the stations. We did manage to ambush some of them. Once we caught some in the Underground. It was terrible. My first action, my initiation. We chased them down the tunnels. We could feel their fright. […] Two of them got away. But we took the rest. Between two station-marks, yellow crayon through the years of grease and passage, 1966 and 1971. I tasted my first blood. Do you want to put this part in?]

And, a bit later.

[The true sin was yours: to interdict that union. To draw that line. To keep us worse than enemies, who are after all caught in the same fields of shit—to keep us strangers.

We drank the blood of our enemies. The blood of our friends, we cherished.]

(GR 739)

That passage, which has usually been referred to in the context of Pynchon's metafictional concerns and the rhetoric surrounding the “cause-and-effect” binary systems referred to elsewhere in the narrative, also points up a very specific historical context (1966-1971). Pynchon's earlier assertion that “The War” serves to divide and separate individuals is clearly repeated in this authorial aside in reference to the radical counterculture “movement” (the “Underground”) of the 1960s. In that context, the “yours” whose “true sin” was to interdict the union between the “friends” whose blood was “cherished” must refer to the biggest enemy the “movement” faced—the United States government, whose repressive brutality at the Pentagon, in Grand Central Station, in Chicago, and in People's Park eventually served to demoralize and separate the radicals from their cause, as well as from each other. Pynchon's cryptic question, “Do you want to put this part in?” addressed apparently to those “editors” whom he claims to know so well, is appropriate in the sense that “this part” shifts the focus of the entire novel from its apparent setting of World War II to one that transforms Gravity's Rainbow into a political tract that rails against the American government of the Vietnam-Nixon era.

Ostensibly, the involvement of the United States in the decades-old Vietnamese civil war was, as Mailer has written, the result of an “intellectual troth” that had been pledged by “the most powerful middle-aged and elderly Wasps in [post-World War II] America,” who had “sworn with a faith worthy of medieval knights that Communism was the deadly foe of Christian culture. If it were not resisted in the postwar world. Christianity itself would perish” (Armies 204). Thus to defend this “ideal,” to make the world “safe for democracy,” those in power argued, the Communist threat of Red China had to be stopped at all costs. The “domino theory,” which insisted that Vietnam was but a stepping stone for the Reds into the rest of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, then Australia, Japan, and India, made it clear that such global expansion had to be stopped at its very beginnings—that is, in Vietnam. It is essential to note that the overarching reason for American participation in the “Vietnamese conflict” was idealistic in nature. The defense of democracy, indeed of Christianity itself, hung in the balance, so the argument went. However, as the war continued to escalate through the early 1960s and into the second half of the decade, many antiwar radicals became increasingly convinced that there were other, more economically oriented motives. That suspicion of the radicals finds its way into Gravity's Rainbow in the form of Pynchon's complex “history” of the development of multinational capitalism. Pynchon's critical “history” also reveals the greatest misuse in the novel of the “idealist” tradition as it is used to defend the exploitative practices of a self-interested elite.

For example, the following passage from Mister Information, who is explaining “The War” to Skippy, reveals much in the way of this “history,” and much, too, in the way of Pynchon's critical approach to it:

“Yesyes, Skippy, the truth is that the War is keeping things alive. Things. The Ford is only one of them. The Germans-and-Japs story was only one, rather surrealistic version of the real War. The real War is always there. The dying tapers off now and then, but the War is still killing lots and lots of people. Only right now it is killing them in more subtle ways. Often in ways that are too complicated, even for us, at this level, to trace. But the right people are dying, just as they do when armies fight. The ones who stand up in Basic, in the middle of the machine-gun pattern. The ones who do not have faith in their Sergeants. The ones who slip and show a moment's weakness to the Enemy. These are the ones the War can't use, and so they die. The right ones survive. The others, it's sad, even know they have a short life expectancy. But they persist in acting the way they do. Nobody knows why. Wouldn't it be nice if we could eliminate them completely? Then no one would have to be killed in the War. That would be fun, wouldn't it, Skippy?”

(GR 645)

Mister Information's chilling gaiety, as he describes a totalitarianism in which all of the uncooperative, subversive elements of this society have been eliminated completely, reflects the fears of radicals like Gitlin who foresaw in the move to demoralize the counterculture movement an “impending fascism” that would go to any lengths to eliminate dissension. Moreover, the notion that the war is “keeping things alive” also implicates an American corporate liberalism that many radicals felt was the underlying (economic) motivation for American involvement in Southeast Asia, despite the Cold War rhetoric of “democracy” and “freedom” that was used to justify the American presence.

In a speech in Washington on April 17, 1966, SDS president Paul Potter admonished the New Left to “name the system” that was driving American involvement in Vietnam. “We must name it” he said, “describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it. For it is only when that system is changed […] that there can be any hope of stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam” (qtd. in Gitlin 184). The “system” that radicals would eventually identify (with regard to American imperialism overseas) had been foreseen decades earlier by pragmatist William James, when he wrote, “Every up-to-date dictionary should say that ‘peace’ and ‘war’ mean the same thing, now in posse, now in actu. It may even reasonably be said that the intensely sharp competitive preparation for war by the nations is the real war, permanent, unceasing; and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the ‘peace’ interval” (Writings 663). James is referring to the development of a permanent war economy, which Pynchon would echo years later in Mister Information's speech to Skippy.

This highly cynical (and paranoid) “conspiracy-theory” of War is evident as well in the much-quoted passage of Gravity's Rainbow in which the narrator describes Enzian's realization that the War “was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, 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, ahh more, more […] (GR 521). Revealing the idealistic justification (in the form of nationalism) for a materially oriented enterprise, Pynchon here reflects the same insight as the pragmatist C. Wright Mills displayed in “Culture and Politics”: that in the “Modern Age” of national and corporate economies the two had become tied to warfare. In that essay, Mills wrote,

The power structure of this [American] society is based on a privately incorporated economy that is also a permanent war economy. Its most important relations with the state now rest upon the coincidence of military and corporate interests—as defined by generals and businessmen, and accepted by politicians and publics. It is an economy dominated by a few hundred corporations, economically and—politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decision. These dominating corporation-hierarchies probably represent the highest concentration of the greatest economic power in human history, including that of the Soviet Union. They are firmly knit to political and military institutions, but they are dogmatic—even maniacal—in their fetish of the “freedom” of their private and irresponsible power.

(qtd. in Howard 79)

Implicit in Mills's essay is the name of the system, which Potter had encouraged members of the New Left to identify; and it came to be known as American corporate liberalism, or, as Pynchon would later characterize it in Vineland, a “Christian Capitalist Faith” that has been passed from generation to generation of “ruling elites,” “living inside their power, convinced that they're immune to all the history the rest of us have to suffer” (232).

In that sense, the “Interregnum” that develops in Pynchon's “Zone,” in which Russian, British, and American “high-level tourists” (GR 295) scuffle for the best leftovers of German Rocket technology in the Mittlewerke, can be viewed as a phase in America's ascent to its position as an imperialistic world power. This development, or “history,” begins with German bureaucrat Walter Rathenau, who was “prophet and architect of the cartelized state” (GR 164). The narrator describes Rathenau's contribution to the development of Germany's “cartelized state” during World War I:

From what began as a tiny bureau at the War Office in Berlin, he had coordinated Germany's economy during the World War, controlling supplies, quotas and prices, cutting across and demolishing the barriers of secrecy and property that separated firm from firm—a corporate Bismarck, before whose power no account book was too privileged, no agreement too clandestine. His father Emil Rathenau had founded the AEG, the German General Electric Company, but young Walter was more than another industrial heir—he was a philosopher with a vision of the postwar State. He saw the war in progress as a world revolution, out of which would rise neither Red communism nor an unhindered Right, but a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority—a structure based, not surprisingly, on the one he'd engineered in Germany for fighting the World War.

(GR 164-65)

Laying the philosophical groundwork for what would come to be known as the planned society, Rathenau was the first to develop and implement a structure of state that Pynchon in Vineland associated with a succession of power brokers beginning with Hitler and Roosevelt, and including Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover, Reagan, and Kissinger, who led the United States along the same path that Rathenau had begun in World War I Germany (Vineland 372). Fredric Jameson, in Postmodernism or, The Culture of Late Capitalism, concurs with that historical dialectic that associates the Rathenau-based, cartelized state of Nazi Germany with Roosevelt's New Deal, both of which include “(1) a tendential web of bureaucratic control […] and (2) the interpenetration of government and big business (‘state capitalism’) such that Nazism and the New Deal are related systems […]” (xviii).

That association between the “planned society” of Rathenau and FDR's New Deal policies is continued by the fictitious American Lisle Bland (whose involvement with Hugo Stinnes, the “Wunderkind of European finance,” begins to expose the way in which the multinationals had already begun to transcend political and even national allegiances long before the second World War). Aside from Bland's “un-American” investments, which suggest a disregard for national boundaries even in wartime, his character also allows Pynchon to demonstrate the calculated “control” of American big business over a generally unsuspecting American population and to suggest the ideological affinities of both business and government leaders for the “planned society” of Rathenau. The narrator reveals American big business's manipulation and control of the people through “the Bland Institute” and “the Bland Foundation,” which (we're told) were responsible for sitting on the patent for the “100-mile-per-gallon” carburetor, as well as for the great “Killer Weed advertisement campaign of the thirties,” working hand-in-hand with the FBI (GR 581). Psychological studies become Bland's “specialty,” and he employs those studies both to predict and manipulate the behavior of the American people, an activity that appears to culminate in what the narrator calls FDR's “election.” Once again pointing up the imbrication of the New Deal with the Nazi cartelized state, the narrator tells us,

Though many of his colleagues found a posture of hatred for FDR useful, Bland was too delighted to go through the motions. For him, FDR was exactly the man: Harvard, beholden to all kinds of money old and new, commodity and retail, Harriman and Weinberg: an American synthesis which had never occurred before, and which opened the way to certain grand possibilities—all grouped under the term “control,” which seemed to be a private code-word—more in line with the aspirations of Bland and others. A year later Bland joined the Business Advisory Council set up under Swope of General Electric, whose ideas on matters of “control” ran close to those of Walter Rathenau, of German GE.

(GR 581)

Although Bland is a fictional character, it is nonetheless clear that Pynchon would have us associate his high-level machinations with a collusion between the federal government and big business that bore the fruit of FDR's New Deal policies. Thus Jameson's view, that the Nazi system is cut from the same cloth as that of the New Deal, while perhaps heretical to American ears, is nonetheless anticipated by Pynchon here in Gravity's Rainbow. Further, Pynchon's novel also anticipates Jameson's view that “late capitalism” is characterized by a situation in which “nation-states” are secondary entities to the capital that has outgrown them (412). For example, Slothrop found many agreements between ICI (Imperial Chemical, Inc., a British firm) and the IG (IG Farben—Germany's largest cartel during the 1930s) dated before 1939: a situation that suggests that the two cartels were preparing for World War II and its aftermath before England had even entered the war (GR 250). Another example of the multinationals' independence of national or political boundaries occurs in the novel: the narrator tells us that the American Shell Oil Corporation is loyal to “no real country, [and takes] no side in any war” (243).

The collusion between government and big business is reinforced in the novel with the arrival in the postwar Zone of Clayton “Bloody” Chiclitz, the American industrialist who “dreams of generations of cannon fodder, struggling forward on their knees, one by one, to kiss his stomach while he gobbles turkey legs and ice cream cones and wipes his fingers off in the polliwogs' hair” (GR 558). Pynchon's unsavory portrayal of the industrialist reflects an animosity toward the American big business tycoons who, like Bland, manipulate and control the preterite “cannon fodder,” as well as the connection between big business and governmental military development. For when Chiclitz declares that “there's a great future in these V-weapons. They're gonna be really big” (GR 558), it is essential that we read his prophecy as part of the “history” of American ascension to the status of world power. Thus, a few pages later, when Tchitcherine declares that “a State begins to take form in the stateless German night, a State that spans oceans and surface politics, sovereign as the International or the Church of Rome, and the Rocket is its soul” (566), we must consider that the multinational capitalism that Tchitcherine foresees is led, by the time of Nixon, by none other than the United States and manifested in both Cold War nuclear proliferation, as well as in an economic-military imperialism best symbolized by American involvement in Vietnam.2

The ideological motivation for German imperialism in World War II differed significantly from the American decision to participate in that debacle and to defeat Hitler's National Socialism. Nonetheless, Pynchon would have us recognize that the United States of the Vietnam era, through a historical process in which big business and government cooperated in the creation of the most powerful war-based economy that the world has ever seen, is not so far removed in either structure or intent from Hitler's imperialistic Nazi Germany. The same “planned society” that the Nazis coordinated, based on Walter Rathenau's World War I German model, has been connected, in Pynchon's novel, with Roosevelt's New Deal policies and the business-government collusion that culminated in the development of the war-based economy of the Vietnam era. Moreover, the same “idealistic” tradition that fueled the Nazi war machine, in the form of a Nationalist consciousness that relied on folk myths and a supremacist rhetoric of hatred, can be seen in the American justification for the Vietnam War in the form of a Cold War ideology that insisted that the evil Communist threat of Red China threatened both “Democracy” and the Christian way of life and therefore had to be stopped before it spread like a cancer throughout the rest of the civilized world. However, in both cases, the idealist tradition that is employed to justify the actions of the imperial powers only masks a more materially oriented enterprise: for Germany, the mythic folk consciousness was used, finally, to cover a megalomaniacal imperial impulse toward global domination. In the United States, the high-flown rhetoric of the Cold War simply glossed over the material interests of a military-industrial complex whose war-based economy would benefit greatly from the war in Southeast Asia.3

Thus, in a most ghastly and unspeakable way (1960s radicals would have argued), the “ideals” of both Nazi Germany and Vietnam-era America were employed to rationalize and justify the inconceivable slaughter of millions of people in the name of “god and country.” If the historical context of Pynchon's highly complex novel is to be comprehended, then his analogy between Hitler's Nazi Germany and Vietnam-era United States must be understood in the light of the comparison between these two imperialist nations that SDS and other antiwar radicals were making throughout the profoundly troubled late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States.


  1. Gitlin's analysis of 1960s radicals, written from a kind of “new ethnographic” standpoint, asserts that this characterization of “Amerikkka” stemmed, in large measure, from the carnage witnessed each night in living rooms across the United States. “Look at TV, Newsweek or Time: Interspersed between the ads for the American way of life, here was this child seared by napalm, this subject tortured by our freedom-loving allies, this village torched by Marines with cigarette lighters, this forest burned to the ground […] a seemingly endless procession of pain and destruction. So much punishment inflicted by one nation against another: the sheer volume of it seemed out of line with any official, self-contradictory, incomprehensible reasons of state. There had to be something radically, irredeemably wrong at the dark heart of “America” (245-46).

  2. Jameson, in fact, associates the entire culture of late capitalism with this American military and economic imperialism. He writes: “Yet it is at this point that I must remind the reader of the obvious: namely, that this global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror (5).

  3. In 1966 alone, the cost of the war reached $20 billion (Gitlin 301). There can be little doubt that much of the impetus for the Vietnam War was economic, particularly in light of the collusion between government and big business that characterizes our culture of late capitalism.

Works Cited

Berman, Marshall. “Faust in the '60's.” Howard 495-504.

Burns, Stewart. Social Movements of the 1960's: Searching for Democracy. Boston: Twayne, 1992.

Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. New York: Dover, 1958.

———. The Quest for Certainty. In The Later Works of John Dewey, 1929-53. Vol. 4, Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988.

Dickstein, Morris. “‘Black Humor and History’ from Gates of Eden.” Howard 272-92.

Docherty, Thomas. Introduction. Postmodernism: A Reader. Ed. Thomas Docherty. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Gitlin, Todd. The 1960s: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam, 1993.

Hans, James S. “Gravity's Rainbow and the Literature of Renewal.” Essays in Literature 15.2 (1988): 267-84.

Hohmann, Charles. Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Howard, Gerald, ed. The Sixties: Art, Politics and Media of Our Most Explosive Decade. New York: Paragon, 1991.

Hume, Kathryn. Pynchon's Mythography: An Approach to Gravity's Rainbow. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

James, William. The Writings of William James. Ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1977.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or, The Culture of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Kedward, H. R. Fascism in Western Europe 1900-45. New York UP, 1971.

Locke, Richard. Rev. of Gravity's Rainbow. New York Times Book Review, 11 March 1973.

Madsen, Deborah. The Postmodern Allegories of Thomas Pynchon. New York: St. Martin's P. 1991.

Mailer, Norman. The Armies of the Night. New York: Penguin, 1968.

Mendelson, Edward. Introduction. Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Meyer, Eric. “Oppositional Discourses, Unnatural Practices: Gravity's History and the 60's.” Pynchon Notes 24-25 (1989): 81-104.

Mills, C. Wright. “Culture and Politics.” In Howard. 74-84.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Harper, 1966.

———. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.

———. Slow Learner. Boston: Little, 1984.

———. Vineland, New York: Penguin, 1990.

Smith, Woodruff D. The Ideological Origins of Nazi Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.

Smith, Marcus, and Kachig Tololyan. “The New Jeremiad: GR.” In Thomas Pynchon. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 139-55.

Tanner, Tony. “V. and V-2.” Mendelson 16-55.

Weisenberger, Steven. A Gravity's Rainbow Companion. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1988.

Werner, Craig Hansen. “Recognizing Reality. Realizing Responsibility.” Thomas Pynchon, Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1986. 191-99.

Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Pragmatism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Patrick McHugh (essay date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: McHugh, Patrick. “Cultural Politics, Postmodernism, and White Guys: Affect in Gravity's Rainbow.College Literature 28, no. 2 (spring 2001): 1-28.

[In the following essay, McHugh examines Pynchon's construction of white male identity in Gravity's Rainbow.]

You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him.

(Barthelme 1975, 179)

Published in 1973 and steeped in the politics of altered states and alternative consciousness, Gravity's Rainbow foregrounds the political question central to debates in the 60s between the counterculture and the New Left: Does alternative cultural practice lead to change in social history? Can culture transform patriarchy? Capitalism? Western civilization? In the years since its publication, Gravity's Rainbow has become canonized in the academy as a classic postmodern novel because its disrupted narrative conventions, its indeterminate epistemology, and its countercultural politics anticipate, indeed, influence later theories of postmodernism. However, Gravity's Rainbow does not live by cultural politics alone. More ambitiously, it focuses on the emotions of cultural politics. Both a comedy of radicalized consciousness and a tragedy of that radicalized consciousness's inability to change an unjust political and economic system, it engages the joy and the terror of cultural resistance to social injustice. In contrast to prevailing conceptions of postmodernism, Gravity's Rainbow articulates a complex, historically resonant, and surprisingly intense affect.

More specifically, Gravity's Rainbow articulates the affect particular to white male postmodernism. The white male characters of the novel occupy a uniquely conflicted position within the cultural politics of resistance. In one way, these white guys are victims like everyone else of the forces of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Yet unlike everyone else, of course, the forces of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism grant privilege to white guys. Moreover, the patriarchal ritual of succession happens precisely through (oedipal) resistance. Thus the question of cultural politics for white guys in the novel, especially the naive young Ivy Leaguer Tyrone Slothrop, is how to resist without this resistance itself becoming a form of complicity and perpetuation. Again, Gravity's Rainbow clarifies this by now familiar postmodern conflict, but more remarkably clarifies the emotional experience of this conflict. The white male characters of the counterculture, especially Slothrop, move between the pleasures of a hippie-style resistance to “The Man” and the paranoia that such “resistance” is yet another manifestation of the power of “The Man.” In terms of later debates on postmodernism, Gravity's Rainbow's white male characters help clarify the emotional experience of liberation and its limits proper to postmodern critiques of representation.

Gravity's Rainbow's innovative narrative form re-creates this emotional experience for its readers. It explores cultural politics within a multi-layered, discontinuous collection of narratives that are often boisterous, preposterous, and slapstick. The novel always retains concrete historical reality as its referent, but it presents history in grotesque characterizations and cartoonish allegorical plots punctuated by disruptive digressions and an often-playful mocking narrative voice. Thus the terrors of history, specifically of the Cold War, get displaced by the pleasures of the narrative. The political implication is that culture can transform history, indeed that pleasure can transform history, which echoes credos from the 60s and from postmodernism. Yet Gravity's Rainbow also signals in Marxist fashion the material limits to this cultural politics. Thematically, it marks the complicity of the cultural resistance of its characters, again specifically its white male characters, with the forces of capitalism and patriarchy. Structurally, it reminds its readers of the concrete historical and political limits to such cultural pleasures as reading.


Gravity's Rainbow is in large part organized around the question of countercultural politics. Virtually all the zany plots and subplots involve the issue of how cultural practice shapes material reality. From fairy tales to pornographic films, from drug-induced hallucinations to the experience of other people's fantasies, from the lessons of games and toys to the magical spell of the words “fuck you,” the novel explores forms of language, discourse, and culturally determined significance. The issue is power. Which ones can shape material reality? Which ones cannot? What are the social consequences of this play of power? And how can that play be changed in order to save the world from apocalypse? During the 60s, listening to different music, wearing different clothes, or doing drugs not only defied cultural norms, but heralded an altogether new order of being. Flowers or free love would stop the missiles by changing the consciousness of the missile makers. With affiliations to Heideggerian ontology and connections to the cultural politics of postmodernism, 60s radicalism sought social change not through political activism alone but also through cultural revolution. Thus the novel's incessant forays “beyond the zero” into the more intangible and spiritual dimensions of cultural practice serve to emphasize its concerns with cultural politics.

This cultural politics, of course, like the cultural politics of resistance in the 60s and in postmodernism, presents with the clarity of a melodrama the contours of its central conflict. On one side, an oppressive and hegemonic “System” serving an elite or “Elect” “They” is coercing the entire planet toward military apocalypse. On the other side, a victimized, mostly powerless, and likeablely human “preterite” “us” attempts in varying ways and with varying degrees of manic euphoria and desperate futility to counter the apocalyptic momentum of the System. This melodrama is, of course, historically recognizable. Referring generally to the terror of the Cold War, it conveys the resistance of the radicalized 60s to the status quo, especially to the nuclear madness of U.S. military policy. Despite its WWII setting, then, the indisputable central conflict is not between Allied and Axis powers. Nor, despite the obvious Cold War tension, is it between NATO and the Eastern Bloc. Nor even, despite the exploration of African, Asian, and Latin American politics of liberation, is it between Eurocentric peoples and those they colonized. The significant conflict happens “elsewhere,” between the “System” and those of all stripe and affiliation who choose to resist it.

This melodrama features a villain familiar to the 60s and even more familiar to postmodernism: White men in power, or more especially the discourse that establishes and maintains that power. On “Their” side, Nazi rocket science and its Cold War legacy evoke a familiar version of totalitarian evil. In Gravity's Rainbow, this “evil” comes across as originally a cultural phenomenon: the historical determination of a way of thinking deeply rooted in the traditions, the institutions, and the individuals of western patriarchal society. This cultural context is most clear with the Nazi director of the rocket program, Weissmann or “white man,” also known as Blecheröd or Blicero, the “bleacher” who turns everything white. He is dressed out with an assortment of features consistent with the more strident postmodern analyses of the western metaphysical tradition. His idea of uniting the German people is depicted, especially in the plight of the scientist Franz Pökler, as an exercise of power achieved through a subjugating discourse of coercion and exclusion. Weissmann's use of science to foster destruction suggests a postmodern critique of the ontological and epistemological violence of the Enlightenment. His enactment of the Hansel and Gretel story as a sadistic sex game and his sadistic sexual history with Enzian of the colonized African Herraros indicate a phallocentric European sexuality unconsciously fixated on domination, pain, and cruelty. Above all, Weissmann's desire for transcendence through the destructive flight of the Rocket itself indicates a configuration of discourse and desire whose trajectory is apocalyptic. In short, through Weissmann, Gravity's Rainbow develops a 60s/postmodern critique in which social inequities and the threat of global annihilation point to the patriarchal discourse and desire of the White Man.

The Allied opposition to the Nazis is similarly governed by a culture of domination. As Virginia Woolf put it before the war, the Allies in the novel “out-fascist the fascists.” White guys from Britain and the U.S. in particular are, in Gravity's Rainbow, driven by a flattened technological version of the Enlightenment whereby the earth and its people are resources to be used for the purposes of those in power. Here Pointsman is Weissmann's counterpart. The real power at “The White Visitation,” he directs the research at PISCES (Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender) by manipulating funding, patients, colleagues, and assorted employees. A devotee of Pavlov, he sees the world through a binary logic of stimulus and response, on and off, cause and effect, the logic of western metaphysics reduced to the precise calculations of machines. Moreover, for Pointsman and PISCES, this science of the psyche, this Enlightenment faith that the order of numbers lies behind not only nature but also human nature, seeks less to explain than control. Indeed, the object at PISCES is to discover and master the “control inside.” Thus Pointsman exemplifies the approach to social control prevalent in capitalist democracies. Unlike the overt coercion of Weissmann and the Nazis, also unlike the Big Brother supervision that Tchitcherine, Franz Pökler's Russian counterpart, suffers from his Soviet superiors, Pointsman pursues “hegemony” in the Gramscian sense. In Western countries, people are led to choose their own repression, mistaking mass social-psychological manipulation as the exercise of personal and political freedom. Like Weissmann, then, Pointsman desires control; but he has none of Weissmann's Germanic passion for metaphysical transcendence, and his means of control is not fascist coercion. Rather, he exemplifies a more Anglo-American, pragmatic, hegemonic, capitalist desire for the “control inside.”

This focus on the “control inside” is most evident in Pointsman's treatment of the American counterpart to Pökler and Tchitcherine, Tyrone Slothrop, who is the closest thing in the novel to a main character aside from the Rocket itself. In this allegorical story line, what draws Pointsman is Slothrop's strange secret connection to the Rocket. As Pointsman and PISCES discover, the map of London indicating places where the Rocket has landed corresponds exactly to the map of London on which Slothrop indicates with stars the places of his sexual liaisons (real or imagined). What's more, as the narrative eventually reveals, the infant Slothrop was the object of secret research at Harvard. Lazlo Jamf, a visiting German scientist, in collusion with Slothrop's father and uncle, conditioned, in classic Pavlovian manner of stimulus and response, the infant Slothrop to get an erection in the presence of a newly developed plastic, Imoplex G. This same plastic turns out to be the key element in the Rocket's guidance system. Aware of Slothrop's history, Pointsman focuses on the apparent reversal of cause and effect, stimulus and response, Slothrop's sexual response before the arrival of the plastic-guided Rocket. Pointsman marshals considerable institutional resources in an elaborate scheme to unlock and master the potentially awesome power of Slothrop's apparent capacity to control the Rocket.

Both Weissmann and Pointsman follow in the tradition of European discourse, particularly of the Enlightenment, which is the prime target in Gravity's Rainbow of its cultural politics, not least because Enlightenment discourse has demonstrated its power to shape material reality.1 Like many dystopian critiques of Enlightenment, though in a decidedly cartoonish Luddite melodrama, Gravity's Rainbow presents the nightmare of a hyper-technological society made possible by a discourse concerned only with calculation and control, the empty purity of number, the mechanical certainty of binary thought. The novel presents the “materiality” of Enlightenment discourse in at least four crucial ways, each reflecting Luddite perceptions of technology. 1) Pavlovian conditioning indicates the power of Enlightenment discourse to control human behavior, including something as ostensibly natural as sexuality. 2) The centrality of plastic indicates the power of human discourse to shape material reality at the molecular level, transforming natural carbon arrangements into something not only artificial but also malleable and manipulable. 3) The political form of this technological vision is rationally organized social oppression, the apotheosis of which is of course the Nazi death camps, whose historical reality haunts the novel. 4) More immediate in the novel is the Cold War terror of nuclear apocalypse. Enlightenment discourse has gained the power to transform material reality at the sub-atomic level and as a result to destroy all life on the planet with the simple, binary, on/off push of a button.


Through Slothrop's efforts to escape Pointsman's control and uncover for himself his connection to the Rocket, Gravity's Rainbow explores a number of forms of cultural resistance that could be considered postmodern, from avant-garde transgression and its “liberation ontology” to an exploration of the culture of various “others.” In each of these explorations, Slothrop sets the oedipal pattern for white guys, in which every attempt to escape or resist is either evidence of the White Man's control or, worse, complicity with the White Man's power. Other white guys in the novel, notably Roger Mexico who joins the “counterforce,” further solidify this pattern of necessary but futile resistance. More powerfully still, this pattern in the novel is not restricted to white guys. Despite exclusion from and victimization by the patriarchal power exemplified by the Rocket, its technology, and its underlying sexuality, none of the non-white or non-male characters has any more success than Slothrop in resisting the Rocket. Gravity's Rainbow shows both the possibilities for freedom opened by cultural resistance, but also the limits to freedom and resistance. That is, in the end, no form of countercultural politics in Gravity's Rainbow escapes the limits of critique and complicity.2

At the outset in his fight against “The Man,” Slothrop seeks freedom through a countercultural politics of rebellion and pleasure, pleasure in rebellion, transgression. Always a bit of a rogue, he becomes explicitly rebellious, indeed AWOL, when he confirms his paranoid suspicions that he is the object of “Their” experiment for control of the Rocket. Assigned to the Casino Hermann Goerring on the French Riviera, told to study plans of the Rocket, and presented with the beautiful Katje, Slothrop is observed by Pointsman's crew who seek to unlock the secret of the link between the Rocket and Slothrop's sexuality. Learning of the experiment, Slothrop takes off at the earliest opportunity, donning a zoot suit, 40s symbol of rebellion, and heading off into the Zone to escape “Their” control. Soon learning of “Their” earlier patriarchal programming of his infantile sexuality, he decides to discover for himself the truth about his penis and the Rocket. Thus Slothrop sets out on a mock quest for freedom and self-knowledge, which exemplifies what Andreas Huyssen calls 1960s avant-garde postmodernism (1986). It is avant-garde in its challenge to conventions, postmodern in its embrace of the popular, and recognizably 60s in its effort to take its countercultural politics into the public sphere.

Throughout his quest, Slothrop enjoys the pleasures of avant-garde cultural resistance to social authority by exploring the forbidden delights of the Zone outside “Their” control. A Massachusetts hipster in the post-Hitler German Zone, Slothrop hooks up with revolutionaries, drug dealers, smugglers, and others living in the seams of power. He trades his zoot suit first for the garb of “ace reporter” Ian Scuffling, then for the uniform of Rocketman, daring superhero of the cultural revolution, who facilitates drug deals, trades in contraband and counterfeit cash, and “Leaps broad highways in a single bound!” (Pynchon 1973, 380). A major part of Slothrop's pleasure in the counterculture is of course libidinal frenzy. Slothrop encounters all manner of women ready and willing to take him into their bed (or wherever). He moves from one sexual encounter to another across the Zone, ending up finally in an orgy on board the Anubis, ship of decadence sporting pornographic movie stars, European royalty, and all manners of sexual combinations. Thus Slothrop's sex and drug trek combines pleasure and transgression acted out in the fashion of the postmodern avant-garde, in the public sphere, at times in direct confrontation with the authorities.

In Gravity's Rainbow, however, this countercultural politics has limits. Slothrop's antics challenge “Their” authority, but may not really escape “Their” control. Everywhere in the murky Zone, he encounters possible signs of “Their” continued control, not least his unexplained ability to evade “Their” control. Even his quest may be “Their” idea:

he knows as well as he has to that it's the S-Gerät [the Rocket] after all that's following him, it and the pale plastic ubiquity of Lazlo Jamf. That if he's been seeker and sought, well, he's baited, and bait. The Imoplex question was planted for him by somebody, back at the Casino Hermann Goerring, with hopes that it would flower into full Imoplectique with its own potency in the Zone—but They knew Slothrop would jump for it. Looks like there are sub-Slothrop needs They know about and he doesn't. …

(Pynchon 1973, 490; ellipsis in original)

Though the extent of “Their” control may be the effect of Slothrop's rampant paranoia, the narrative nonetheless opens the possibility that Slothrop's quest for freedom and knowledge may be just part of “Their” plan, his Rocketman pleasures the effects of “Their” programming of desire, his very resistance the form of “Their” control. Caught in the oedipal contradictions of this 60s paranoia, Slothrop becomes less a figure of countercultural resistance than a figure for hopes shattered and revolutions failed.

Again anticipating Huyssen's map of the postmodern, Gravity's Rainbow pursues this exploration of 60s cultural politics into its ontological dimension. Slothrop appears next in the novel reborn as a “crossroad,” dispersed across the Zone, and engaged, it would seem, with a new more spiritual sexuality:

now, in the Zone, later in the day he became a crossroad, after a heavy rain he doesn't recall, Slothrop sees a very thick rainbow here, a stout rainbow cock driven down out of the public clouds into Earth, green wet valleyed Earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural. …

(Pynchon 1973, 626; ellipsis in original)

Here Slothrop is a figure of the “liberation ontology” of countercultural politics. Rather than playing “Their” game, rather than defining himself through the pleasures and paranoia provided by “Their” power, Slothrop retreats into an existence untouched by “Them.” Fragmented, dispersed, disengaged from patriarchal oedipal processes, he seems to have accomplished the purpose of oppositional cultural politics: an alternative consciousness, a re-coded identity (or non-identity), a new way of being, no longer “Their” tool either as victim or victimizer. Thus dropped out, purified, tuned in with his miraculously found harmonica, and in the natural groove, Slothrop exemplifies hippie alternative consciousness. Thus fragmented, deterritorialized beyond the oedipal pale, and open to the sublime workings of Desire, Slothrop also exemplifies, again from Huyssen's map of the postmodern, the liberation ontology of poststructural versions of cultural politics.

In Gravity's Rainbow, however, the ontology of cultural politics is highly uncertain. Slothrop's paranoid efforts to be free, pure, unvictimized and unvictimizing, along with any such aspects of 60s cultural revolution or postmodern cultural politics, is like the Christianity of Slothrop's Puritan ancestors, who sought to establish God's shining city on a hill, a heavenly kingdom on earth, a beacon of righteousness to the world. On one hand, it is an inspiring example of redemption, as indeed Slothrop's example inspires the counter-force. His Christ-like sacrifice of self, his God-like dispersal across the Zone, and his born-again hippie saintliness work like martyrdom to inspire the preterite cause of transforming the world. On the other hand, rather than being born again, Slothrop is more likely dead. Or, as those in the counter-force recognize, he is incredibly naive, the typical naive American. If he doesn't give up the ghost entirely, Slothrop never gives up the ghost of his own innocence, acting throughout as if some pure sinless existence were possible. His dispersal across the Zone and his disappearance from the world of the novel suggest that no such utopia is possible, which is also the common pronouncement about hippie alternative consciousness. Moreover, Slothrop's appearance later in the novel, staring uncomprehendingly at a “wirephoto of a giant white cock, dangling in the sky straight downward out of a white public bush” (Pynchon 1973, 693), associates his born-again sexuality with the mushroom cloud at Hiroshima. Finally, as a re-coded white male identity with a pronounced preference for perfect innocence, Slothrop's hippie saintliness and messianic message evoke the defensive inoffensiveness and alternative piety typical of political correctness, which, as Slovoj Zizek has said, is the last bastion of metaphysics.

More than an inability to escape the patriarchal power of the Rocket, Slothrop also faces evidence that he is complicit with that power. This complicity is especially evident in the unintended but nonetheless real violence of his programmed sexuality. Back in London, pondering the significance of the matching maps of Slothrop's desire and the Rocket's landings, Jessica Swanlake asks Roger Mexico nothing about poor Slothrop's sexuality or victimization or liberation, but rather, “What about the girls?” (Pynchon 1973, 87). What happens to the women Slothrop desires after he leaves and the Rocket arrives? This question also applies to Slothrop's libidinal frenzy in the Zone. Following the orgy on the Anubis, Slothrop has sex with twelve-year-old Bianca, whose spanking by her mother sparked the orgy, and whose life is likely threatened by such “Anubian” pleasures. She seduces him in an explicit appeal for his help in escaping the Anubis and her apparently murderous mother. But Slothrop has only one thing on his mind, and when he's done, he's gone. “So when he disentangles himself, it is extravagantly. He creates a bureaucracy of departure, inoculation against forgetting, exit visas stamped with love bites … but coming back is something he's already forgotten about” (471; ellipsis in original). Even after he finds, apparently, Bianca's dead body on the lower decks of the Anubis, he continues his piggish course. The narrative details his transformation from zoot-suited rebel to Rocketman to chauvinistic pig, a swine-hero in a pig costume which “seems to fit perfectly. Hmm” (568). Though he's sickened and haunted by Bianca's death, he goes on following his programmed sexuality, taking off his pig costume for “an hour's game of hammer and forge” with a fatherless teenager, “fair, a young face, easy to hurt” (571).

To be sure, throughout all his sexual adventures, Slothrop never forces the situation. He is an object of female desire as much or more than a slave to his own programmed desire. He is just playing a part for which he, and the women and girls too, perhaps, are culturally programmed, all victims/perpetrators of the Rocket sexuality dominating the world of the novel. But Slothrop's innocence is nonetheless culpable. The narrative makes this clear by connecting Slothrop's American innocence to the ugliest of Americans, Major Marvy. In some ways, Marvy is Slothrop's opposite, “Their” willing organ who chases Slothrop through the Zone, the object of countercultural pie-throwing, the avatar of abusive power. He is, moreover, avowedly racist and misogynist, fully and unabashedly consumed by the sexuality of violence, as his response to a whore dreaming of home shows.

He'd rather not look at her anyhow, all he wants is the brown skin, the shut mouth, the nigger submissiveness. She'll do anything he orders, yeah he can hold her head under water till she drowns, he can bend her back, yeah, break her fingers like that cunt in Frankfort the other week. Pistol whip till blood comes. …

(Pynchon 1973, 606; ellipsis in original)

With none of Marvy's explicit malevolence, Slothrop is nonetheless at the same whorehouse engaged at the same time in the same activity. Moreover, when the MPs raid the place looking for Slothrop in a pig suit, they grab Marvy instead who's donned the suit in lieu of his lost uniform and its 2[frac12] vials of cocaine. Finally, when Pointsman's proxies remove Marvy's testicles and plop them into alcohol instead of Slothrop's own more coveted pair, the narrative both spares and condemns Slothrop, indicating both that Marvy's malevolence is far more worthy of castration, but also that Slothrop is not so different from Marvy. In this secret-sharer connection, Slothrop is evidence of a common analysis of hippie life and especially free love as just another flavor of male vanity and power. More broadly, Slothrop becomes a figure not just for revolutions failed but revolutions betrayed.

The complicity of Slothrop's resistance is again evident as Gravity's Rainbow explores one more version of counter-cultural politics familiar from the 60s and from the postmodern critique of white male discourse: Multiculturalism. In a comic book story/fantasy late in the novel, Slothrop assembles the “Fabulous Four,” a mod squad comprised of Slothrop, Maximillian, Myrtle Marvelous, and Marcel—one white, one black, one woman, and one machine. Echoing in even more mocking tones the countercultural agenda in the novel as a whole, this team is on a mission to “rescue the Radiant Hour, which has been abstracted from the day's 24 by colleagues of the Father” (Pynchon 1973, 674). In addition, the “FF” is hampered by Slothrop's “Pernicious Pop” who orchestrates random attempts to kill his prodigal son. This multi-countercultural team has various cross-dressing adventures and other opportunities for members to demonstrate their unique “Fatal Flaws,” but ultimately it succeeds not in defeating the Father and rescuing the Radiant Hour but only in surviving. As Slothrop's own fantasy of multiculturalism, the “Fabulous Four” mission poses two familiar possibilities for the relation between white guys and multicultural politics. Perhaps Slothrop's movement toward the “other”—he last appears in the fantasy wearing a dress—suggests the figure of a white male transformed through some process of identification, or guilt, or consciousness raising, into a new identity and way of being equal to and in solidarity with those marginalized and victimized by The Man. Or Slothrop's fantasy of the “Fabulous Four” is subject to his white male middle-class paranoid obsessions, messianic delusions, and likely failure. In this latter case, Slothrop is a figure of white male colonization of the “other.”

The possibilities and limits of Slothrop's various identities sharpen the novel's question about white guys. Unquestioned in Gravity's Rainbow is the need for white guys to change. The White Man's identity and sexuality, his way of thinking and being, and his domination of the “other” involve sundry terrors personal and political, spiritual and apocalyptic. Thus the cultural discourse that grounds the identity and political hegemony of white men needs to be altered, displaced. What is in question in the novel is the material possibility and the material limits of this change. Can white male discourse change or be changed? Can the discourse of the preterite overcome not only the material momentum of History but also its own complicity and messianic delusions in order to transform what needs transforming? A white guy with a Harvard education as an infant and an adolescent, Slothrop is a figure of what needs changing. As a rebellious young man, he is willing to change, actively trying to change, for his own survival, freedom, and psychic health, and perhaps also in solidarity with other preterite. Yet his efforts to counter the white male legacy and escape into the margins of the oppressed may be an extension of white male legacy. Everything poor paranoid Tyrone tries raises the question of complicity and futility.3

This uncertainty about getting outside the critique and complicity dynamic of countercultural politics extends beyond Slothrop to the “counter-force” that Roger Mexico, Slothrop's British counterpart, joins. As Mexico discovers, Pirate Prentice, Osbie Feel, and others have long been working both sides of the “Them/us” melodrama, the middle ground excluded by Slothrop's puritan naiveté. Gravity's Rainbow explores here a disruptive cultural politics less obsessed with purity and innocence. Since no pure revolutionary outside is possible, the task of resistance is to fight the dominant discourse from within. For example, though Pirate Prentice performs his function as an intelligence officer, even living other people's fantasies so they can focus on their soldierly duty to kill more efficiently, he also works to create an effective oppositional agency, a “we-system” to counter the “They-system.” As he explains to Mexico, this is a version of cultural politics, a representational system aimed at resisting “Their” system of oppression. Prentice calls it “creative paranoia.” It functions counterculturally. In Osbie Feel's words: “‘They're the rational ones. We piss on Their rational arrangements'” (Pynchon 1973, 639). Echoing Kerouac's On the Road and Mexico's own disruption of one of Pointsman's meetings, this cultural politics aims to disrupt “Their” discourse, open up other possible arrangements, but not to establish a new system of authority or new codes of identity and desire. In Huyssen's map of the postmodern, this would be 70s and 80s postmodernism, or as he sometimes indicates postmodernism proper. After the failure of the cultural revolution of the 60s, which is also in Huyssen's analysis the last gasp of avant-garde modernism, postmodern forms of representation remain critical of the institutions and discourses of power but no longer evoke in avant-garde style a revolutionary or redemptive outside.

While celebrating this cultural politics, Gravity's Rainbow also marks its limits. The novel undeniably creates sympathy for the counterforce and its cause. Yet the novel presents the possibility that the counterforce's creative paranoia, no less than Slothrop's politics of pleasure, fails to alter material reality. Mexico succeeds in disrupting a meeting and a dinner party but doesn't himself hold much hope of disrupting much more. Moreover, it indicates that the counterforce, no less than Slothrop, is in complicity with “Their” power, even if that complicity is located in a different part of the anatomy. In the terms of Mexico's paranoia, “The Man has a branch office in each of our brains …” (Pynchon 1973, 172). The novel also indicates that perhaps the counterforce, like Slothrop, has its own messianic tendencies. The paragraph immediately following the description of creative paranoia suggests that, as a cultural politics, it may be like the dubious fanatical spiritualism of Nora Dodson-Truck, who is an easy mark for “seances that wouldn't fool your great-aunt” (639), who echoes creative paranoia in “true messianic style” with her belief that “I am Gravity. I am that against which the Rocket must struggle, to which the prehistoric wastes submit and are transmuted to the very substance of History” (639; emphasis in original). In other words, perhaps the belief that an oppositional “we system” will actually affect material history is a full-fledged messianic delusion. Furthermore, Gravity's Rainbow also opens the possibility that, rather than opposition to the system, countercultural politics may in the end support it. Gravity, after all, is not only that against which the Rocket must struggle, but also that which brings the Rocket back to earth: Gravity's Rainbow.

Gravity's Rainbow's exploration of white male resistance to “The Man” anticipates much of Huyssen's map of postmodernism, from avant-garde excess, transgression, and indeterminacy, through poststructural liberation ontology, on to the affirmation of the culture of the “other.” Yet unlike Huyssen, who seeks to distinguish weak or ineffective postmodern cultural politics from “resistance postmodernism,” Gravity's Rainbow explores the possibilities of and especially the limits confronting each of these efforts to resist patriarchal power. In this sense, the novel anticipates another well-known theorist of postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon, who elaborated the idea that postmodern cultural politics is both critical of and complicit with the dominant discourse (1989). Thus Slothrop's antics expose the workings of power, including especially how the White Man's discourse of Enlightenment leads to concrete institutional practices of subjugation and control. Yet his own cultural politics of resistance to the White Man's power may be controlled by that power, or, worse, may in fact be a version of that power. Hutcheon goes on to argue for a necessary “second-stage operation” for cultural politics. After the postmodern critique of representation has exposed the workings of power in discourse, cultural politics must re-code identity and sexuality to redress power inequities. This is Hutcheon's claim for discourses of the “other,” such as certain feminisms, which are able to get outside the oedipal frame that contains Slothrop and the white guys of Gravity's Rainbow. However, a countercultural politics of women and minorities that escapes the dynamic of critique and complicity is, in Gravity's Rainbow, uncertain at best. No doubt the countercultural situation is decidedly different for the nonwhite/nonmale “others” in Gravity's Rainbow. This is most evident with Greta Erdmann, Weissmann's female counterpart. Her identity and her pleasure come not from wielding the power and control represented by the Rocket but from being its victim; and unlike Slothrop, whose “victimization” is evidenced by his wielding Rocket power, Greta, Bianca, Enzian, Katje, and a host of others are victims because they are not only subject to but excluded from Rocket power. Yet none of the nonwhite/nonmale characters do any better than Slothrop in countering “Their” Rocket power.

The female characters are generally victims of the Rocket, willing or not. Greta, Bianca, and who knows how many of Slothrop's “girls” seem hopelessly lost. Other female characters pursue paths of resistance and redemption, and some hold out genuine possibility, but all are subject to the limits of Gravity's Rainbow. Leni Pökler's courageous activism has even less change against the Nazi machine than Slothrop does against Pointsman. Geli Tripping succeeds in putting a love spell on Tchitcherine, and raises the possibility of women's magic redemptive love resolving the ancient enmity and violence between brothers, though how long Geli's trip will last or what good it is against the Rocket is unclear at best. Some female characters indicate not only ineffectiveness but also their own form of complicity. Jessica Swanlake, whose love with Roger Mexico may hold the promise of freedom and redemption, betrays that promise when she retreats into the bourgeois security of her Jeremy's world. Most of all Katje, who like Greta and Jessica chose to play her role as “Their” tool and target, who loved Weissmann and worked for Pointsman, in the end seeks redemption for playing “Their” game. She wants to help save Slothrop. But as her final conversation with Enzian shows, she finds it hard to escape her own conditioned reflect to please men by being what they want her to be, and she may also find it hard to escape her own desire for the Rocket.

The “third world” characters of Gravity's Rainbow also offer critique and resistance, ineffectiveness and complicity. Squalidozzi and the Argentine anarchists long to bust open the confining Borgesian labyrinths of their homeland, tear down the “Fences of Property,” and open again “that anarchic oneness of pampas and sky” (Pynchon 1973, 264). But they seem doomed to the material confines of their stolen U-boat and the secret labyrinths of espionage. The New Turkic Alphabet seems to give the peoples of central Asia a weapon to avenge their ancestors murdered by Russian settlers, as “the magic that the shamans, out in the wind, have always known, begins to operate now in a political way” (356). But in the novel nothing comes of it. More central to the novel is the plight of the African Herraros. Brutally colonized, cut off forever from their traditional tribal ways, they exist in the tension between national suicide and the Schwarzcommando quest for Rocket power, as if their two chances for political freedom were death or obtaining for themselves the White Man's terrible power. On a personal level, Enzian is devoted to his people's struggle and brings special intelligence and wisdom and a scholar's desire to understand life in the Zone. Yet central to his understanding is that his identity, like Katje's, is indelibly marked by his own love for and masochistic sexual history with Weissmann. The implication is that postcolonial struggle will not liberate some precolonial and thus pure, whole, or redemptive identity or culture. Rather, their liberation, like Slothrop's, is a struggle against the material effects of the discourse of the White Man both geo-politically and spiritually, and that transforming the White Man's discourse and its material effects faces limits ranging from ineffectiveness to complicity and perpetuation.

In the end, no form of countercultural politics in Gravity's Rainbow escapes the limits of critique and complicity. The final scene is telling. A Nazi Rocket shot in 1945 is descending in 1970 upon a movie theater, its audience, and its manager, Richard M. Zhlubb. In allegorical terms, the fascist legacy at the origins of the Cold War looms apocalyptically while the preterite are contained, manipulated, and anaesthetized by the culture industry and its politicians. In this theater, cultural politics meets the material limits Marx and Engels delineated for ideology: In the context of material history, cultural ideas have about as much substance or reality as a ghost. Thus countercultural politics is figured in the novel as so much mysticism “beyond the zero” and appears in the end like the pious moral teachings of Slothrop's long dead Puritan ancestor, whose preterite prayer the narrator offers to the audience and exhorts them to sing along as the Rocket “reaches its last immeasurable gap above the roof of the old theater” (Pynchon 1973, 760).

However, the novel remains undecided about the question of cultural politics. The Rocket's Cold War momentum favors apocalypse but it remains uncertain, and while it is still up in the air the cultural revolution may yet have material effect. To be sure, Gravity's Rainbow offers no decisive affirmation of uncertainty or indeterminacy, as if uncertainty of apocalypse were itself a guarantee of salvation. Here the apocalypse is uncertain, but infinitely more uncertain is the effectiveness of cultural resistance. The uncertainty, the lack of closure, the “last immeasurable gap” indicates the possibility and, quite powerfully, the limits of countercultural politics.


Gravity's Rainbow clearly sympathizes with the cultural politics of resistance. But this sympathy takes form not as an affirmation but as an exploration of the experience of cultural politics. Familiar from the 60s and often repeated in postmodernism, this experience involves what it feels like to engage the possibilities and the limits of the effort to change history. That is, unlike Huyssen and Hutcheon and other theorists of postmodernism, and unlike academic readers of Gravity's Rainbow, who seek to decode, dismiss, or otherwise judge what cultural politics is or should be, the novel itself seeks to explore the emotional experience of cultural politics. More specifically, it explores the euphoria of the desire for liberation embedded in a cultural discourse that opens real historical possibility and, at the same time, the paranoia of that same desire as it confronts real historical limits.

This emotional experience, which Gravity's Rainbow both explores through its characters and recreates for its readers, stands in stark contrast to the “warning of affect” Fredric Jameson describes (1991). In this highly influential Marxist reading of postmodern culture, which includes perhaps the only explicit analysis of the postmodern “structure of feeling,” Jameson identifies a shift from the profound existential anguish of modernist alienation to the surface euphoria of postmodern fragmentation. This waning of affect reflects uncritically the processes of late capitalist society. Thus for Jameson, postmodernism is significant not because it provides resistance or opposition, but because it articulates the logic of commodity production and consumption leading to the “world space of multinational capital.” Only Marxism, through a process Jameson dubs “cognitive mapping,” can provide critical perspective on current conditions and thereby orient thought and action to material history. The affect of Gravity's Rainbow, however, with its combined euphoria and paranoia, defies Jameson's claims about a “waning of affect.” Indeed, the novel explores a very similar affect to the one that permeates Jameson's own position—not his repudiation of a largely punchless postmodernism, nor his celebration of the rebellious 60s, but the position he elucidates in The Political Unconscious. There he seeks, just as Gravity's Rainbow, to preserve the value of the desire for liberation while at the same time mark its worldly limits. Thus, he declares, “History is what hurts.” But whereas Jameson is decidedly modernist in his secure if melancholy faith in the Marxist cognitive map he argues is the one best way to navigate through history on the great Sisyphysean course of liberation, Gravity's Rainbow is postmodern in its manic and paranoid leap of renunciated faith in maps and in liberation.

The “Story of Byron the Bulb” from Gravity's Rainbow thematizes this conflicted affect. Focusing on the potential for resistance of alternative intellectual and cultural practices, the story is an allegory of the conflicts of discourse and power that the novel as a whole explores more fully and historically. In the story as in the novel, the focus is on the politics but also the emotional experience of the politics. Moreover, as a mocking cartoonish allegory with a deeply conflicted theme of melodramatic righteousness and historical impotence, the story, like the novel, wraps its anxiety in a delightful textual structure, thus reproducing for the reader the affect it thematizes.

“Byron the Bulb” begins with the political promise of what Adorno and Horkheimer called the “enlightenment of the Enlightenment.” Early on, while Byron is still in “Bulb Baby Heaven,” he knows that he will soon enter an oppressive society run by a faceless and deceitful corporate bureaucracy motivated only to preserve its power and profit. Though ostensibly committed to the Enlightenment, to bringing light into the world, uncovering truth, empowering freedom and justice, Phoebus, the maker of bulbs, is no more than a cog in a vast cooperate cartel that uses Enlightenment as a ruse in service of social control: “these bulb folks are in the business of providing the appearance of power, power against the night, without the reality” (Pynchon 1973, 647). Thus the Enlightenment, along with the knowledge and technology it enables, serve a repressive social system that co-opts truth into deception, the potential of empowerment into the power of big business, the promise of freedom and justice into the pursuit of corporate profit. Born as a tool of this repressive business, a bulb engineered to serve it as its agent of false Enlightenment, just as Slothrop was conditioned to serve the forces of patriarchy, Byron is from the beginning enlightened to the ruse of Enlightenment and sets out on a life of resistance. He is, then, a figure for the dissident intellectual enabled by his position in the social system to perceive the repressiveness of the system and dedicated to transforming his role from cultural agent of repression to cultural agent of freedom.

As a young bulb, Byron, like his namesake, takes a Romantic view of his dissident role. Believing in revolution, solidarity, violence, he dreams of

hatching some really insane grandiose plan—he's gonna organize all the bulbs, see, get him a power base in Berlin … 20 million bulbs, all over Europe, beginning to strobe together, humans thrashing around the twenty million rooms like fishes on the beaches of Pure Energy. … So Byron dreams of his guerrilla strike force. …

(Pynchon 1973, 648-49; ellipsis in original)

As Byron discovers, of course, such romantic revolutionary fervor is naive. A single lowly bulb has no chance against the vast multi-national corporate cartel, in which Phoebus is partner to the power-producing Grid and enforcer of the order of light. Thus, in the way of the realistic Bildungsroman, Byron matures; still resistant, he nonetheless discovers his limits and finds his place among the ordinary bulbs. He puts aside his quest for a revolutionary world order and focuses on the possibilities of life within his given world.

In time, Byron develops a more properly modernist cultural politics. He survives a series of near-fatal encounters with Phoebus hitmen out to destroy him because his increasingly evident immortality undoes planned obsolescence and thus threatens corporate profits. Along the way, he experiences the essential existential confrontation with his own death and the nothingness that is the condition of bulb existence, “the structureless pool from which all glass forms spring and respring” (Pynchon 1973, 651). As a wise consequence, Byron accepts his own finitude and withdraws into the anonymity and alienation of his own agonized but still resistant consciousness. Like Ellison's Invisible Man, Byron survives in the forgotten underground aporias of the power structure, still plugged into its power, draining the system, hastening its collapse in anticipation of an altogether new and unimaginable order of being. He explores the limits of thought and language, prophetizing a revolution in consciousness and perception.

Whenever he can, he tries to instruct any Bulbs nearby in the evil nature of Phoebus, and in the need for solidarity against the cartel. He has come to see how Bulb must move beyond its role as conveyor of light energy alone. Phoebus has restricted Bulb to this one identity. “But there are other frequencies, above and below the visible band. Bulb can give heat. Bulb can provide energy for plants to grow, illegal plants, inside closets, for example. Bulb can penetrate the sleeping eye, operate among the dreams of men.

(Pynchon 1973, 653)

Like the avant garde modernist artist, whose unique vision opens the possibility of a more profound cultural revolution, Byron pursues and articulates the possibilities for new identities, new ontological realms, and a new meaning of freedom, not limited to some rational utopia but heretofore unimagined planes of existence. Here the angst of the artist alienated from a repressive and narrow world is redeemed in the possibility of some new order of being.

This leads Byron directly to postmodernism because, of course, modernism too is a failure. Byron succeeds in exploring new identities, new frequencies, and learns “how to make contact with other electrical appliances” (Pynchon 1973, 684). No longer restricted to a single, unified, integrated Bulb in solidarity with other Bulbs, he is liberated to a multiple, fragmented identity. But, as is the fundamental lesson of postmodernism, Byron learns that each mode of identity is still plugged into the Grid, still produced and controlled by Phoebus. Each of the multi-identity possibilities is still subject to the same capitalist conditions of existence, each a form of consumption. The fragmentation of identity does not disrupt or escape corporate capitalism; the multiplicity of signifying practices is always contained by a pervasive, powerful, and flexible political economy. In short, Byron learns that there is no outside to the system, no material and no cultural outside. Yet through it all, Byron maintains his original and abiding commitment to resistance. Through his immortality, he gains historical consciousness and can thus see more clearly the pattern of repression in its full breadth, with no horizon of freedom. Yet he continues to resist, risking his life preaching against Phoebus, to explore the potentialities of difference.

This postmodern cultural politics leads Byron into its own special realm of affect. The longer Byron lives, the more he understands the system's extent, and “the grander and clearer it grows the more desperate Byron gets. Someday he will know everything and still be as impotent as before” (Pynchon 1973, 654). Rather than remaining in the modernist angst of this infinitesimal freedom gained by this melancholy knowledge, however,

on Byron will be visited an even better fate. He is condemned to go on forever, knowing the truth and powerless to change anything. No longer will he seek to get off the wheel. His anger and frustration will grow without limit, and he will find himself, poor, perverse bulb, enjoying it. …

(Pynchon 1973, 655; ellipsis in original)

Still inside the system, still dependent upon it for his very sustenance, still unable to alter it even as he survives in its aporias, still full of the anger his historical knowledge of oppression engenders, and still full of the frustration that such knowledge does not lead to freedom, Byron goes further, into the realm of postmodern affect, enjoying his anger and frustration, enjoying the pleasure of impossible resistance. Byron knows, and feels the pain of knowing, that the power of the multi-nationals is inescapable; yet he himself has eluded that power. His potential liberation and his pleasure rest not with his knowledge of the truth derived from historical consciousness, which teaches him only about powerlessness. Rather, potential liberation rests with his own futility and frustration. His continued oppression is the indication of his potential freedom, his failure the ground for his hope, his anger and frustration the condition of possibility for his perverse pleasure.

Thematically, this conflicted affect of Gravity's Rainbow pertains in the first instance to rebellious white guys. The nonwhite/nonmale characters of Gravity's Rainbow that resist the System are subject to the critique and complicity dynamic of countercultural politics, but their emotional experience of this dynamic appears to be different. Some join in the fun, like Commando Connie, “loose khakied newshound and tough-talking sweetheart to every GI from Iwo to Saint Lô” (Pynchon 1973, 714), who follows Roger's lead and contributes her “vomit vichyssoise,” “hemorrhoid hash,” and “bowel-burgers” to the posh dinner party. Some feel the pangs of ineffectiveness and complicity like Katje and Enzian. But the dynamic is different because on one hand the experience of victimization is on the masochistic rather than sadistic end of Rocket power and sexuality. For example, politically aware and active Leni Pökler ends up as the prostitute “Solange,” whom Slothrop in his Major Marvy phase engages. She and Slothrop are similar, both dreaming out of futility about the safety of Bianca/Ilse. But Slothrop's pleasure, his relative freedom, and even his inability to protect Bianca except in his dreams point to his secret link to Rocket power, whereas Leni's pleasure if any as a prostitute, her relative lack of freedom and choices, and her inability to protect Ilse except in her dreams point to her powerlessness in the face of the Rocket. On the other hand, the experience of cultural politics and social change is more sober and perhaps more optimistic for nonwhite/nonmale characters. In their conversation near the end of the book, Katje and Enzian are both fully aware of the difficulty of their chosen paths of resistance and potential redemption, but they have nonetheless both made some progress on their respective paths. Unlike the comic-book oedipal frame of Slothrop's quest, which leads to the disintegration of his identity, Katje's and Enzian's quests for self-knowledge and liberation seem to hold out the possibility, along with ineffectiveness and complicity, of coming into their own.

The white male characters of Gravity's Rainbow that resist the System have no access to this modernist, Sisyphysean liberation narrative. Rather, like the male European Byron the Bulb, rebellious white guys can project no authenticity to quest after, no future to narrate, except in terms of the pleasures of futile resistance. Even Slothrop, who remains dazed and confused throughout the novel, captures a comic-book glimpse of this conflicted affect in his “Fabulous Four” fantasy.

Any wonder it's hard to feel much confidence in these idiots as they go up against Pernicious Pop each day? There's no real direction here, neither lines of power nor cooperation. Decisions are never really made—at best they manage to emerge, from a chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations and all-round assholery. This is less a fighting team than nest full of snits, blues, crochets and grudges, not a rare or fabled bird in the lot. Its survival seems, after all, only a matter of blind fortune groping through the marbling skies one Titanic-Night at a time. Which is why Slothrop now observes his coalition with hopes for success and hopes for disaster about equally high (and no, that doesn't cancel out to apathy—it makes a loud dissonance that dovetails inside you sharp as knives).

(Pynchon 1973, 676; emphasis in original)

Because of his white, male, class privilege, his Harvard training as both infant and adult, he has readier access than, say, Katje or Enzian to the pleasures of resistance. At the same time and because of the same privilege and training, Slothrop is more paranoid about “Their” power to control him or kill him, as well as more paranoid about his own complicity with “Their” destructive power. Operating exclusively within the oedipal frame of his resistance to patriarchy, Slothrop seems to recognize here something of the limits to that resistance and, consequently, to feel something like Byron's perverse pleasure in futile resistance.

In a narrative frame somewhat more complex than Slothrop's comic book melodrama, Roger Mexico is another rebellious white guy feeling the emotional dissonance of counter-cultural politics. His social status as an officer and a gentleman gives him access to “Their” meetings and posh dinner parties which he disrupts, Dada-like, with scatological bad taste. His social standing also, however, leaves him open to the paranoia of becoming “Their” complicitous pet. Moreover, his countercultural activity works against his love for Jessica, which complicates and intensifies the emotional dissonance of manic resistance and likely futility.

“Fungus Fricassee!” screams Roger the Rowdy. Jessica is weeping on the arm of Jeremy her gentleman, who is escorting her, stiff armed, shaking his head at Roger's folly, away forever. Does Roger have a second of pain right here? Yes, sure. You would too. You might even question the worth of your cause. But there are nosepick noodles to be served up buttery and steaming, grime gruel and pustule porridge to be ladled into the bowls of a sniveling generation of future executives, public popovers to be wheeled onto the terraces stained by holocaust sky or growing rigid with autumn.

(Pynchon 1973, 716)

The pleasure of Roger's countercultural politics and its small success conflicts not only with despair for its overall ineffectiveness but also grief for its emotional cost.

Gravity's Rainbow re-creates this dissonance of pleasure and pain for the reader by combining comic distance and delight with tragic pity and terror. The narrative provides tons of textual fun, the satisfaction of siding with the hippie good guys, the turn-on of rebellion and transgression, the textual pleasures of indeterminacy, and of course laugh-out-loud hilarity. At the same time, the narrative draws the reader into the pain of history, the terror of the Cold War, the fear of victimization, the guilt of complicity. Structuring a remarkable balance between comic and tragic affects, the novel leaves the reader emotionally strung between the manic euphoria of cultural revolution and the absolute terror of nuclear night.

The comedy is perhaps more apparent, as in the “Story of Byron the Bulb,” a mocking allegorical cartoon about an immortal light bulb pitted against the evil empire of Phoebus and the Grid. Similar fun abounds in the novel at large. There's the sheer energy of the overstuffed plot: plenty of sex and drugs and jazz, a surfeit of wildly imaginative skits about giant adenoids and trips down the toilet, slapstick scenes replete with pillows and seltzer water and cream pies, numerous witty rhymes, silly songs, and “Rocket Limericks” mockingly celebrating the dark side of the fun.

There was a young fellow named Crockett,
Who had an affair with a rocket.
If you saw them out there
You'd be tempted to stare—
But if you ain't tried it, don't knock it.

Then there's the playful, mischievous, erudite, often obviously delighted narrative voice, fooling around with language “a-and” mocking the characters with wry editorial interjections—“seems to fit perfectly! Hmm”; “Leaps broad highways in a single bound!” Moreover, the novel's many unresolved uncertainties—like the ultimate material effect of cultural politics—also indicate textual pleasures of the proper French theoretical sort, disrupted narrative and epistemological conventions, supplemental signifiers leaking out of the profuse narrative, the epidemic of ellipses indicating the trace of meaning escaping the shackles of language and reason. In short, Gravity's Rainbow functions comically to distance readers from its disturbing tales and themes. Its energy, its humor, its indeterminacy, all structure for the reader feelings of escape, possibility, future life, potential redemption.

At the same time the narrative draws the reader into its pathos. Beneath its cartoon silliness, the “Story of Byron the Bulb” is about terror and futility and frustration. Elsewhere in the novel, the reader is more obviously drawn into this pain. Some of the bizarre anecdotes are agonizing, like the vision of the desperate and doomed evacuation that opens the novel, or the story of Frans Van der Groov's “purest form of European adventurism” (Pynchon 1973, 111), the dogged and self-destructive annihilation of the entire “race” of harmless and hapless dodo birds with a primitive musket one by one for years on end. The narrative voice, too, its mocking tone and epistemological uncertainty intact, can be almost as pained and accusatory as a Greek chorus, as in this comment on Bianca addressed, perhaps, to the reader, particularly the male reader, who may have enjoyed Slothrop's sexual adventurism, including his S/M pleasures and nymphet fetish, just as Franz Pökler and others enjoyed watching Bianca's conception during an orgy filmed by Max Schlepzig.

Of all her putative fathers—Max Schlepzig and masked extras on one side of the moving film, Franz Pökler and certainly other pairs of hands busy through trouser cloth, that Alpdrücken night, on the other—Bianca is closest, this last possible moment below decks here behind the ravening jackal, closest to you who came in blinding color, slouched alone in your own seat, never threatened along any rookwise row or diagonal all night, you whose interdiction from her mother's water-white love is absolute, you, alone, saying, sure I know them, omitted, chuckling count me in, unable, thinking probably some hooker … She favors you, most of all. You'll never get to see her. So somebody had to tell you.

(Pynchon 1973, 472; ellipsis and emphasis in original)

Finally, of course, is the Cold War nuclear terror of the Rocket itself, which remains, disruptive narrative pleasures notwithstanding, an undisturbed referent throughout the novel.

Gravity's Rainbow structures its conflicted affect for all readers, even if at times it addresses specifically its white male readers. This is evident in the novel's frequent use of the pronoun “you.” Since grammar affords many possible referents from no one to everyone,4 readers of any hue or gender can consider the “you” a figure of speech or narrative convention that bears no reference to them, or they can consider themselves addressed and perhaps included in some way in the events, observations, or emotions narrated in the novel. For example: the “you” in “a loud dissonance that dovetails inside you sharp as nails” is probably most readily read as nonspecific and impersonal, a substitute for “one” or “a person,” but it could also be a reference to similar feelings in the reader regardless of race or gender. Or again: “Does Roger have a second of pain here? Yes, sure. You would too.” While all the grammatical possibilities remain, here the “you” is more readily read, or performed, more personally, as an invitation to the reader, probably regardless of race or gender, to empathize with Roger. Put another way, then, the use of “you” works in support of the novel's combination of comic and tragic affects, simultaneously distancing readers from and drawing them into the narrative.

Yet a novel about the material effects of the discourse of the White Man, which is centered if anywhere on the struggles of a white guy to escape the control of the White Man, and which is written by a white man, unsurprisingly addresses itself at times more directly to a white male reader. Such a reader may identify more readily with Slothrop, and thus have readier access to his pleasures, his paranoia, and what might be his guilt. Moreover, some uses of “you” in the novel appear more directed toward a white male reader: “Of all her putative fathers … Bianca is closest … to you. …” The indeterminacy of the pronoun reference, not to mention the obscurity of the passage, affords the possibility for the reader to remain distant, not close to Bianca, not implicated in her fate. But the passage may also be performed as a direct address to the reader. Here the reader, particularly he who is eligible to be among the “putative fathers” like the white guys mentioned in the passage, is told that Bianca is closest to him, that he is perhaps implicated in her fate.5

In the end, however, just as the nonwhite/nonmale characters of Gravity's Rainbow are included in the critique and complicity dynamic of cultural politics, so the dissonant affect of pleasure and angst is not restricted to white male readers. The final scene is again telling. The song and the context of singing it in the movie theater under the descending Rocket structure for all readers the novel's perverse pleasure in apocalyptic terror. Through the use of the pronouns “us” and “we,” the narrator suggests that the audience in the theater includes also the readers of Gravity's Rainbow. “The screen is a dim page spread before us … old fans who've always been at the theater (haven't we?) …” (Pynchon 1973, 760; ellipses added). This passage refers to the novel's well-developed film motif, in which characters' lived experience is mediated and influenced by films they see. Franz Pökler being moved by the S/M images of Alpdrücken to sire his Ilse is one of the more evident examples of film's capacity to affect material history. As an instance of the novel's general concern with the material effects of culture, the film motif echoes the novel's melodrama of cultural conflict, in which many characters, including some white guys, find it necessary and perhaps impossible to counter the culture of the White Man. Bringing readers into the theater and under the Rocket thus implicates readers, white guys or not, in the terrifying material effects of white male discourse.

By involving its readers in the experience it narrates, Gravity's Rainbow is a postmodern novel in the sense that it re-creates the experience of postmodernity. Its self-reflexivity focuses its readers on a world of experience already narrated by a decentered and indeterminate profusion of information, images, stories, yet a world still dominated by a discredited white male discourse. It also reminds its readers that reading, like film-going, is a cultural activity, and thus it implicates readers in the critique and complicity dynamic of cultural politics. For all its pleasures, the insights it provides, the consciousness it alters, reading is of the mind and spirit and its material impact has limits. In this way, Gravity's Rainbow re-creates for all its readers the perspective and experience of an age when the project of modernity as defined by male Europeans to transform human existence in the image of reason has succeeded too terrifyingly well. Yet further transformation by reason is just more of the same, and transformation by some discourse from beyond seems unlikely at best.

Gravity's Rainbow is postmodern in one further, crucial sense: it involves itself in the experience it narrates. The narrator, too, is in the theater, contained like the rest of “us” by the culture industry, anticipating the Rocket's descent, and encouraging us to find pleasures while we can. The implication is that Gravity's Rainbow may offer insight, even a form of countercultural resistance, to its readers, but only within the same limits it explores thematically. Its countercultural insights may be revelatory, transformative, even liberating for readers, yet they still may be ineffective against the Rocket and the materiality of the discourse that produced it. It is, after all, only a novel, and we are only reading. Or the novel's material impact may simply be to perpetuate the System no less than any other commodity. It is, after all, bought and sold. Unlike modernist self-reflexivity, then, which focused readers on the creative processes of the art work or the creative vision of the artist as the source of potential redemption and transformation, Gravity's Rainbow implicates itself in the dynamic of critique and complicity. In the end, the novel mocks itself, as if its countercultural politics were mere amusement, opiate for the masses, as well as a kind of messianic delusion, a puritan preterite prayer offered up by the narrator playing the role of a TV show host.

As readers, then, we are all invited to imagine ourselves in the theater of postmodernity, to feel the terror of containment and control in a world already narrated by a patriarchal tradition whose final apocalyptic chapter is looming, and to feel also the desire for an effective countercultural politics that remains possible, but highly uncertain, not visible on the screen, perhaps “a film we have not learned to see,” perhaps “beyond” the final page of the novel, perhaps in our own material reality. Effective cultural politics may lie in our own altered consciousness, the insights we take away into power and discourse and desire. Yet the existence of such a cultural politics of reading seems powerless to stop the Rocket or the System that produced it, ghostly spirit against material history, like singing while the Rocket descends. And even if the novel gives us insight into the repressive and destructive course of history, even if it offers possibilities of countercultural resistance, and even if that resistance has a chance of material effect, the novel like a film can offer its possibilities only as images, fodder for the culture industry that contains the novel, its images, and us. Still, we read the novel; and the fact of our reading, the reality of our insights into the mechanism of power, the continued existence of our preterite frustration and terror, belies the impending apocalypse. So the narrator's self-mocking invitation in the novel's last line to join the preterite song, like Zarathustra playing Lawrence Welk, encourages us to celebrate and enjoy, perversely, our desperate and terrifying existence, because in that desperation and terror is possibility.


  1. Especially relevant as a critique of enlightenment thinking is Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1979), whose ideas enjoyed wide currency in the 60s through the work of Herbert Marcuse and others.

  2. Critics of Gravity's Rainbow are often, perhaps even always, concerned with resistance to established power, though none has framed this concern directly as an issue of countercultural politics. Raymond M. Olderman (1983) comes close by delineating Gravity's Rainbow's conflict as the 60s dichotomy between “freak” and “straight” consciousness; but he doesn't address the issue of whether alternative consciousness is materially redemptive or effectively resistant. Though he shows how the characters combine elements of both “freak” and “straight,” he implies that “freak” consciousness is de facto spiritually redemptive and socially transformative, like—to borrow the novel's metaphor—God's grace, if only it were possible for humans to be wholly “freak.” In short, Olderman doesn't recognize the novel's critique of “freak” consciousness.

    In this sense, Olderman is typical of critics generally, who focus on Gravity's Rainbow's critique of establish power and seek the novel's view of the most effective form of political resistance and/or spiritual redemption. Even when accounting for the novel's ambiguity or uncertainty, as most critics do, most nonetheless choose one path of resistance and/or redemption as the one best chance. For example, Olderman chooses Geli Tripping's witchly love, and many others in the Christian and humanist traditions choose love in one form or another as, again in the novel's metaphor, the way, the truth, and the life. A more recent critical camp emphasizes the novel's epistemological indeterminacy as the ground for resistance and liberation, as in Judith Chamber's straightforward proclamation: “Our salvation is in our willingness to tear away the illusion and live in the uncertainty we have exposed” (1992, 169). Leo Bersani (1989) argues that Gravity's Rainbow presents and undermines such alternatives as love and indeterminacy (or “anarchy”) and offers true if incomplete redemption and resistance only in the ontological alternative represented by Slothrop's eventual dispersion of identity. Others offer more idiosyncratic readings of redemption. George Levine (1976) suggests an existential path with his injunction to follow Leni Pökler and “penetrate the moment.” Douglas A. Mackey (1980) sees an affirmation of excess. Robert D. Newman (1986) understands an uncomplicated call for unity of the preterite under heaven and on earth. Still others find a rejection of the possibility of redemption and thus, like Tony Tanner (1982), declare an apocalyptic vision in Gravity's Rainbow.

    In contrast to this critical approach, which demands the presence (or absence) of a “redemptive vision,” I argue that Gravity's Rainbow frames its concern with resistance/redemption specifically as cultural, explores the Marxist question about the material possibilities and material limits of each and every of its many forms of cultural resistance and redemption, and is ultimately concerned with the emotional experience of possibilities and limits.

  3. The history of criticism on Gravity's Rainbow shows an increasing willingness to acknowledge the novel's critique of masculine identity. Early on, critics tended to dismiss this critique. David Leverenz writes: “To the Pynchon who throws shit in my white male established American face and calls it mine, I respond first with confused intimidation, even guilt, and then with annoyed dismissal, both to what he preaches and to that he preaches” (1976, 248). Less defensively, Marjorie Kaufmann writes at about the same time: “Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, as a whole, can be read as a thinly disguised treatise written in support of radical feminism and its analyses of ‘patriarchal history’ and ‘patriarchal society'” (1976, 225); but she dismisses this reading as wrong and reductive, preferring instead a humanist vision of Gravity's Rainbow as a world of failed love.

    More recent critics take as a matter of course the critique of patriarchy, but only Wes Chapman (1996) places it at the center of his reading. He focuses on the novel's exploration of the oedipal conundrum of males resisting masculine identity. He argues that Gravity's Rainbow presents an anti-essentialist resolution of the oedipal conundrum, whereby masculinity is written so large as to be obviously both socially constructed and dangerously flawed. However, Chapman goes on to criticize Gravity's Rainbow for the inadequacy of this resolution.

    Gravity's Rainbow shows, I think, the limits of a pro-feminist politics based too exclusively on anti-essentialist theories. Simply to disperse one's identity throughout the cultural fabric, as Slothrop does in the end of the novel, is not a viable alternative; nor is it adequate simply to gesture to the complicity of one's identity in oppressive structures. Ultimately, pro-feminist men need to work toward positive subjectivities which neither co-opt feminism nor revel masochistically in self-abasement, but reconcile self-fulfillment with recognition of women as subjects.

    (Chapman 1996, 6.3)

    My contention is that Gravity's Rainbow is itself centrally concerned, especially through Slothrop, not only with the critique of masculinity, but also the material limits to that or any other cultural critique. In this light, Chapman's desire for a wholly reconciled masculine identity is not unlike Slothrop's desire for a pure sinless existence: admirable, even necessary, but a tad naive in its unexamined faith in the power of thought to transform material reality, and its attendant unconscious alternative piety and messianic heroism.

  4. Brian McHale (1985) itemizes the various possible referents for “you,” though he argues that the one impossible referent is the reader. John Capecci (1989) validates McHale's analysis of multiple referents but talks about them as multiple possibilities for “performing” the second person. Thus Capecci opens the possibility of not just an epistemological but also an affective response to the novel. He also corrects McHale's view that “you” cannot be performed as a direct address to the reader.

  5. Critics have engaged in a mini-debate over the “putative fathers” passage, indicating that it is a crucial passage in the novel, especially for reading the novel's critique of white male identity. Marjorie Kaufmann (1976) argues that the text implicates all readers in Slothrop's responsibility for Bianca's death. Bernard Duyfhuizen (1991) labels this a “misreading,” a falling into the “reader-trap of Bianca,” in that the text's indeterminacy renders Bianca's death, Slothrop's culpability, and especially the reader's involvement uncertain and ultimately beside the epistemological point. Wes Chapman (1996) argues that insofar as the passage is addressed to all readers, it typifies the novel's marginalization of women who could never be accused of the sentiment, “probably some hooker.”

    It seems to me that the passage is sufficiently indeterminate to allow for a number of possibilities, including perhaps most readily the possibility that the narrator is directly addressing its white male readers and mockingly, tauntingly provoking us to examine our own response to Slothrop's pleasures. In short, this passage and others like it draw the reader, especially the white male reader, into the critique and complicity dynamic of countercultural politics and thus into the conflicted affect of postmodernism.

    In this context, Michael Bérubé's analysis of pornography in Gravity's Rainbow is interesting (1992). He argues that, in the novel, pornography is a discourse not about transgressive liberation ala Sade or carnivalesque resistance ala Bakhtin; rather, it is a discourse about power and control. Bérubé shows how the novel's exploration of pornography is like the novel's exploration of paranoid hermeneutics, how they are both discourses concerned with power and control. Moreover, Gravity's Rainbow presents pornography straight, as pornography, as a discourse designed to engage its readers in its pleasures; at the same time, the novel criticizes the play of power and control inherent in the discourse. In other words, Gravity's Rainbow's treatment of pornography involves complicity and critique for itself and its readers. Bérubé writes:

    If Pynchon's pornography self-consciously implicates itself, and us, in the problematics of representation and nostalgic reunification, we need to ask in turn what it represents, and to read Pynchon's pornography not as the locus of transgression and disturbance, nor as the limit and instance of popular resistance and discursive carnival, but as the enactment and exposure of strategies of power, domination and control—which are what imaginary, totalizing unities always seek to establish.


    In this displacement to a hermeneutics of power and control, Bérubé's analysis of the novel's “enactment and exposure” of pornography thus avoids more deftly than I exploring any reference pornography may have to sexuality, male identity, or the “us” it implicates.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., and Horkheimer, Max. 1979. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. London: Verso.

Bartheleme, Donald. 1975. The Dead Father. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Bersani, Leo. 1989. “Pynchon, Paranoia, and Literature.” Representations 25: 99-118.

Bérubé, Michael. 1992. Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Capecci, John. 1989. “Performing the Second Person.” Text and Performance 9.1: 42-52.

Chambers, Judith. 1992. Thomas Pynchon. New York: Twayne.

Chapman, Wes. 1996. “Male Pro-Feminism and the Masculinist Giganticism of Gravity's Rainbow.Postmodern Culture: An Electronic Journal 6.3.

Duyfhuizen, Bernard. 1991. “‘A Suspension Forever at the Hinge of Doubt’: The Reader-Trap of Bianca in Gravity's Rainbow.Postmodern Culture: An Electronic Journal 21.3.

Hutcheon, Linda. 1989. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge.

Huyssen, Andreas. 1986. “Mapping the Postmodern.” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Andreas Huyssen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

———. 1991. “Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” In Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kaufmann, Marjorie. 1976. “Brünhilde and the Chemists: Women in Gravity's Rainbow.” In Mindful Pleasures, ed. George Levine and David Leverenz. Boston: Little Brown.

Leverenz, David. 1976. “On Trying to Read Gravity's Rainbow.” In Mindful Pleasures, ed. George Levine and David Leverenz. Boston: Little Brown.

Levine, George. 1976. “Risking the Moment.” In Mindful Pleasures, ed. George Levine and David Leverenz. Boston: Little Brown.

Mackey, Douglas A. 1980. The Rainbow Quest of Thomas Pynchon. San Bernadino: Borgo Press.

McHale, Brian. 1985. “‘You Used to Know What these Words Mean’: Misreading Gravity's Rainbow.Language and Style 18.1: 93-118.

Newman, Robert D. 1986. Understanding Thomas Pynchon. Columbia: South Carolina University Press.

Olderman, Raymond M. 1983. “The New Consciousness and the Old System.” In Approaches to Gravity's Rainbow, ed. Charles Clerc. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Pynchon, Thomas. 1973. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Viking.

Tanner, Tony. 1982. Thomas Pynchon. London: Methuen.


Thomas Pynchon Long Fiction Analysis


Pynchon, Thomas (Vol. 11)