Heikki Raudaskoski, University of Oulu, Finland
It is mid-July 1945, and at the same time it is some time after March, l973. The readers of Gravity's Rainbow (those still aboard) have just passed halfway. A bunch of Argentine anarchists -- having hijacked a German U-boat in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and trying to make it to Luneburg Heath near Hamburg, in order to make there a film version of Jose Hernandézs epic poem, Martin Fierro, their anarchist gaucho saint -- have been forced to launch a torpedo (Der Aal, the eel in German submariner slang) against the U.S. war vessel John E. Badass. The narrator continues: "Der Aal's pale tunnel of wake is set to intersect the Badass's desperate seasquirm about midships " (389)
But something surfaces, a new drug to tell the truth, one called Oneirine. Seaman "Pig" Bodine, this profane picaro, who stubbornly keeps popping up in many of Pynchon's texts, has apparently spiced the war vessel's coffee grounds with a massive dose of this celebrated new intoxicant. What are we to think of the Bakhtinian chronotopes, the space-time combinations peculiar to narratives, where we are told:
The property of time-modulation peculiar to Oneirine was one of the first to be discovered by investigators. 'It is experienced' writes Shetzline in his classic study, 'in a subjective sense .. . uh ... well. Put it this way. It's like stuffing wedges of silver sponge right, into, your brain! So, out in the mellow sea-return tonight the two fatal courses do intersect in space, but not in time. Not nearly in time, heh heh. (389)
Here we have Bakhtin describing one of his main concepts: "The chronotope is the place where knots of narrative are tied and untied." In this case, however, readers deal with a 20th century chronotope. This chronotope illustates Heisenberg's undecidability principle in a self-inflicted, hallucinogenic way typical of the 1960s. As is widely known, Werner Heisenberg postulated in 1927 that it is impossible to determine both the position and the velocity of a nuclear particle at the same time: the more accuracy is used in specifying one, the more indeterminacy results in stating the other quantity. The knots of narrative are never completely tied or untied, readers never know exactly where and when the crucial events take place in the narration. Or?
Sticking to knotting: on its first page Gravity's Rainbow makes a possible commentary on itself, as many have noticed: "[T]his is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into [...]." (3) Will all the threads of the text, its myriad storylines, then, get into an unsolvable tangle? Or will they instead finally integrate into one final plot, which would lead to the final chronotype, to the literally and/or metaphorically final time and place? As so often in Pynchon's big novel, these very questions seem to be overtly thematized at the end of the same Oneirine episode:
Now what sea is this you have crossed, exactly, and what sea it is you have plunged more than once to the bottom of, alerted, full of adrenalin, but caught really, buffaloed under the epistemologies of these threats that paranoid you so down and out, caught in this steel pot, softening to devitaminized mush inside the soup-stock of your own words, your waste submarine breath? It took the Dreyfus Affair to get the Zionists out and doing, finally: what will drive out of your soup-kettle" Has it already happened? Was it tonight's attack and deliverance? Will you go to the Heath, and begin your settlement, and wait there for your Director to come? (389-390)
"Will you go to the Heath?" -- a crucial question that points in many directions, not all of which could possibly be named. As first time readers in the middle of Gravity's Rainbowmight not know, the Luneberg Heath, Luneburger Heide, is most possibly a place of central importance in the novel. It is just there that the Faustian Nazi-figure Captain Blicero apparently launches his special 00000 rocket, sending his sado- masochistic object, the pale Gottfried, to die in space. What is more, at the very end, the same rocket (or is this a knot again?) seems to have transformed into a missile that is nearing the roof of the Orpheus Theatre in L.A., where "we", a diegetic "audience" of the novel, have been watching a movie, perhaps carrying the name Gravity's Rainbow. On the other hand, in the novel's first episode a V-2 rocket has been launched from the Continent toward London, while "Pirate" Prentice is dreaming how a "screaming [does it roar only inside his head, I wouldn't be so sure] comes across the sky." (3)
As the critics haven't failed to notice, the rocket's parabolic arc presents itself as the whole novel's dominant structural metaphor. In connection with Gravity's Rainbow it is probably most adequate to talk about the Rocket as Their plot -- a "plot" with all its connotations -- that is threatening the paranoid characters in the novel. Many of the deterministic and pessimistic readers of the 1970s especially, saw it literally as the novel's totalizing deep structure. The protagonist Tyrone Slothrop's journey makes a shadow image of the parabola of V-2 rockets: from London via Southern France to Northern Germany. Thus there might well be a closing correspondence between parabola and parable. To speak in terms of the Russian Formalists: the syuzhet of the text would be completely at the service of its underlying fabula, the discourse at the service of the plot. Pynchon's masterpiece would indeed be a vast apocalyptic jeremiad about the fall of Western civilization. It would show itself to be, in Bakhtin's sense, the representative, fatalistic epos of our times, the Book to end them all. That's how many reacted to it when it came out. "Madness spews forth in torrents, Pandora's evils incarnate!" wrote Publisher's Weekly.
"Will you go to the Heath?" might be a question pointed also at the book itself, which might turn out to be, not a "novel" at all, but a monological epic. The transcendental connection between signs and referents would, indeed, be established at the end of Gravity's Rainbow. This would be the end, the ceasing to be, of both the book and its readers, well, those of "us" in the Orpheus Theatre, at least. It would be the ultimate chronotope, where time and place vanish. Those of "you" that the narrator has been addressing, would melt together with Them, the carriers of the hostile plot.
Just before the end the narrator notifies: "There is still time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs..." (760) Some time remains, as if as an open question -- in the present tense, in the tense future. Even the diegetic "us" will not, inside the novel, reach the terminal closure. And as long as there is still an even minute barrier between "you" and the final end: as long as one cannot reach the final presence which in this context would mean total absence, possibilities for novelness, something new, remain.
As Michael Holquist puts it, chronotope is not, after all, a purely formal category, but "the total matrix that is comprised by both the story and the plot of any particular narrative." Keeping this in mind, what can we say about this kind of chronotopicality in Gravity's Rainbow? Does this mean that if there is no deep structure, no unifying closure, in the novel, it must hopelessly become a vast array of scattered storylines, a legion of separate "soup-kettle" submarines and solipsistic consciousnesses drifting in the labyrinthine ocean of entropy? Is the paragraph I quoted at length really a metaphor of a world, where isolated, low-feeling units stray like never-arriving messages in the bottle, never-arriving since there's nobody "out there" to receive the message? As one of the characters, Enzian, finds himself pondering:
Separations are proceeding. Each alternative Zone speeds away from all the others, in fated acceleration, red-shifting, fleeing the Center. Each day the mythical return Enzian dreamed of seems less possible. [...] Each bird has his [sic] branch now, and each one is the Zone. (519)
Is this the way it has to be? I will postpone my answer. Instead I will ask again:
"Will you go the the Heath?" The question remains unanswered in the end; something remains to be on the way. As long as there are some of "us", there is a moment left, even if it were only as thick as the "the gnat's ass or red cunt hair"(664), as one of the jack-of-all-trades narrator's similes goes. Still, the question remains important. The least meaningful part in the question is not the second person pronoun it contains. Brian McHale has shown the crucial importance that this little mercurial three-letter- word has in the novel in transgressing narrative categories. "You" is doomed to endless oscillation between tinier and larger audiences, and it is hard to imagine that the movement could be anywhere carried out more intensely than in Gravity's Rainbow.
At the moment I will ask: who are these "you" anyway, to whom the narrator refers on this occasion? What are the chronotopes of these people and/or things called "you"? What kind of a dialogue is this that surpasses the limits of a "normal" closed conversation and, by containing disquieting surpluses, often confuses subject-object positions? I have already regarded this as a metafictional device; I had the feeling I caught the text talking to itself. Under the umbrella of "you", the text is forcing itself also on some of its diegetic and extradiegetic narratees, each passively waiting inside her/his own "steel pot" and "devitaminized", mushy "soup-stock" of his/her own words (or the words s/he gets from the novel). These narratees, some of "us", (or some parts of us), find themselves in a topsy-turvy situation, where it is rather the text that is reading them than vice versa. You don't necessarily need drugs to get into Gravity's Rainbow's hallucinogenic dialogics.
Perhaps it is, after all, most secure to come to the conlusion that, in the first place (let's pretend that there still is a "first place" somewhere), the question: "Will you go to the Heath" is aimed at these Argentine anarchists in their submarine. This, of course, may also go for the other obsessive paranoids in the Zone, who try, inside the text, to make it to the Luneburg Heath, or keep on the move, at least. Here you are: the American Tyrone Slothrop, who wants to know why there certainly seems to be an intense connection between his penis and V-2 missiles; Enzian with the other Schwarzkommando, the representatives of the nearly destroyed Southwest-African Herero tribe, who are probably looking for the Luneberg V-2 launching site to launch their (holy?) counterpart 00001 to Captain Blicero's Rocket of Death; the Soviet spy Tchitcherine trailing his black halfbrother Enzian, in order to revenge himself on the injustices he has had to live through during Stalin's reign; the Pavlovian psychologists whose mentor Laszlo Jamf has presumably conditioned Infant Tyrone's penis to have a hardon in the presence of some enigmatic stimulus that might be connected to the mysterious compound Imipolex G, which is presumably used in Captain Blicero's rocket; the double agents Katje Borgesius and Captain "Pirate" Prentice, who may embody the narrator's hypothesis that, had History taken another turn, there might "have been fewer crimes in the name of Jesus, and more mercy in the name of Judas Iscariot? (556); and witches, movie stars and directors, scholar-magicians, freaks, black market dealers, sensitives, rocket scientists, lemmings, outcasts, whole central European peoples; all in all, almost everyone among the Zone's ordinary paranoid hepcats.
Almost undoubtedly the narrator is addressing the focalizer of this episode, the Argentine Graciela Imago Portales, who is in charge of the submarine's periscope. Or are we eavesdropping her speaking to herself? Before the war Graciela had been the harmless "urban idiot" of Buenos Aires, friends with everybody across the spectrum, from anarchists to Catholics, but particularly within literary circles. The war may have, in a way, driven her "out of the soup-kettle", "out and doing". Before the war, Borges is said to have dedicated a poem to Graciela: "El laberinto de tu incertidumbre/ Me trama con la disquietante luna..." (381) ("The labyrinth of your uncertainty/ Detains me with the disquieting moon") Especially when translated into English, these lines can also be seen to refer to these more general "you" I have been talking about: the labyrinthine uncertainty of "you" causes anxiety. The uneasiness is accentuated by the fact that it is the traditional relation between a gazing male subject and gazed female, "lunatic" object that has started to hover here. Who are you, Graciela Imago Portales, your middle and last names equaling "window image" in English? Is it so that you really don't know who you are, or what is is that you are doing -- no longer a clear object, not yet a subject -- so you have to keep asking? You do now the watching, deep down there, instead of being the watched one. Will you be up with your male fellow travelers, and will you all get "out and doing", perhaps outdoing Them? Or will you finally output as one of Them, after the Director you have been waiting for has come?
Anxiety prevails. "You" begin to break out of your more specific contexts, even when coming back in tense oscillations to those you have touched -- even if you were talking to yourself. "You" start moving your reckless potentials, much like the "diquieting moon" -- itself a metaphor par excellence of alterities -- in the quoted, apparently pseudo-Borgesian lines. This is, however, not the first time in Gravity's Rainbow that Borges is mentioned. Tyrone Slothrop comes across Francisco Squalidozzi, the anarchists' contact person, when Slothrop is living through his phase as Ian Scuffling, a British journalist in Zurich. Squalidozzi tells him:
"It is our national tragedy. We are obessesed with 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. Look at Borges [...] Beneath the city street, the warrens of rooms and corridors, the fences and networks of steel track, the Argentine heart, in its perversity and guilt, longs for a return to that first unscribbled serenity ... that anarchic oneness of pampas and sky..." (264)
It surely seems that there are some kinds of binary oppositions in the making: on one hand there is a cluster of concepts like openness-anarchy-activity-fearlessness- energy-oneness and on the other their opposites closedness-hierarchy-passivity- fearfulness-exhaustedness-fragmentation. It is precisely the open anarchic possibilities of the German Zone just at the moment of the war's end that attract these Argentine radicals:
In ordinary times" he [Squalidozzi] wants to explain, "the center always wins. Its power grows with time, and that can't be reversed, not by ordinary means. Decentralizing, back toward anarchism, needs extraordinary times ... this War, this incredible War -- just for the moment has wiped out the proliferation of little states that's prevailed in Germany for ahtousand years. Wiped it clean. Opened it. [...] It won't last, of course not. But for a few months...[...] We want it to grow, to change. In the openness of the Zone, our hope is limitless." Then, as if struck on the forehead, a sudden fast glance, not at the door, but up at the ceiling -- "So is our danger." (264-265)< p>Hope and danger, both limitless in the Zone. No wonder the readers find the narrator (perhaps ventriloquizing Graciela Imago Portales) contemplating some one hundred pages later: is there possibly anything at all that "will drive you out of your soup-kettle", all of you, above all these South American characters, particularly Graciela Imago Portales herself, "buffaloed under the epistemologies that paranoid you so down and out, caught in this steel pot"? (389-390) Or do we have a story like, say Dreiser's An American Dream or Dos Passos's U.S.A., where the prevailing mood consists of determinism, pessimism, and disablement?
At this point, it is high time to notice that the inhabitants of the novel do have a high time, in the midst of the narration, time and again. This doesn't refer solely to drugs. This high time is characteristically low time, too. I'm referring to those not infrequent passages in Pynchon's texts that have caused trouble to Frank Kermode, among others: "[T]hose terrible pop-song lyrics Pynchon has always enjoyed inserting in his narratives [...] are terrible." Precisely: one can't avoid the feeling that it is the musical in its varous forms that could be the most intensive narrativew metaphor for Gravity's Rainbow, "Pynchon's Great Song" as Thomas Schaub has named it. At times one is struck by the notion that it is just these Dionysiac thickenings here and there in the text that act as counterbalances to those passages, where the narrator laments over loss, exhaustion, fragmentation, and suffering in the world. These bursts of energy tend to take the characters by surprise, too. This is what happens to "Pirate" Prentice, when he has got into some kind of a carnivalistic Hell for double agents:
Ah, they do bother him , these free women in their teens, their spirits are so contagious,
I'll tell you its' just --out, --ray, --juss, Spirit is so --con, --tay, --juss Nobody know their age-s... Walkin' through bees of hon--ney Throwin'away --that --mon, --ney Laughin' at things so --fun --ny, Spirit's comin' through --to, --you! Nev --ver, --mind, whatcha hear from your car, Take a lookit just --how --keen --they are, Nev --ver --mind, --what, your calendar say, Ev'rybody's nine months old today! Hey, Pages are turnin' pages, Nobody's in --their, --ca, --ges, Spirit's just so --con, --ta, --gious-- Just let the Spirit --move, --for, --you! (538-539)
Nobody's in their cages, because the spirit is just so contagious. Might there really be a possibility to get out and doing, to be moved by the spontaneous Spirit? In his essay, "Entertainment and Utopia", Richard Dyer writes about the utopian sensibility of the musical. He lists the main characteristics of the musical as follows: energy, abundance, intensity, transparency, and community. By energy Dyer means 'capacity to act vigorously, realized human potentiality'; by abundance 'conquest of scarcity and enjoyment of sensuous material reality'; by transparency a quality fo relationships (e.g. true love and/or sincerity); and community means 'togetherness, sense of belonging'.  All these characteristics are to be found, or so it strongly feels, in the verbal performance above -- as if the possible sly-ironic overtones would be overwhelmed by these all- embracing, excessive characteristics.
In Dyer's view these features of entertainment explain why entertainment works: "It is not just left-overs from history, it is not just what show business, or "they" [sic], force on the rest of us, it is not simply the expression of eternal needs -- it responds to real needs created by society." Here we have those binary oppositions again: energy/exhaustion, abundance/scarcity, intensity/dreariness, transparency/manipulation, and community/fragmentation. One can't help noticing that the first parts of these pairs characterize, at least ostensibly, lots of passages in Gravity's Rainbow. (And so do their opposites, to be sure.) Each and every passage like this is invariably contaminated by some form of "popular" or "mass" culture. What are the numerous chase scenes in the novel, if not tireless indicators of energy? This is all the more true when some episodes become hybrids of various popular genres.
Think about Slothrop's adventure in the balloon, with the vengeful Major Marvy in his airplane chasing him and singing ominous "Rocket Limericks" with his staff (e.g. "There once was a fellow named Ritter/ who slept with a guidance transmitter/ It shriveled his cock/ which fell off in his sock/ and made him exceedingly bitter". (334)). What else could be the only effecient weapon, or preferably the only available energetic popular genre, but throwing pies right at the antagonist's face and the engine of his plane? (335-336) Bakhtin knew it already: the great heroes of literature and language "turn out to be first and foremost gnres" . One experiences the mixing of the genres of aviation movies and comics, chase adventures, obscene army humour, limericks, and silent farces, to name a few.
There are also moments of unexpected abundance. In the behaviorist Pointsman's laboratory the rats and other test animals suddenly seem to grow human-size (as big as the somewhat stunned "focalizer" Webley Silvernail himself) and begin their beguine:
PAVLOVIA (BEGUINE) It was spring in Pavlovia-a-a, I was lost, in a maze... Lysol breezes perfumed the air, I'd been searching for days I found you, in a cul-de-sac, As bewildered as I-- We touched noses, and suddenly My heart learned how to fly! So, together, we found our way, Shared a pellet, or two ... Like an evening in some cafe, Wanting nothing, but you ... Autumn's come, to Pavlovia-a-a, Once again, I'm alone -- Finding sorrow by millivolts, Back to neurons and bone. And I think of our moments then, Never knowing your name -- Nothing's left in Pavlovia, But the maze, and the game ... They dance in flowing skeins. The rats and mice form circles, curl their tails in and out to make chrysanthemum and sunburst patterns, eventually all form into the shape of a single giant mouse [...]. (229-230)
The passage expresses some kind of tension between scarcity and abundance, to say the least. Even the gnawers may bear withing themselves potentials to get out of their "soup-kettles" and change into sparkling dancers in a 1930s music spectacle. "Nobody's in their cages, the spirit is just so contagious", as the readers were told in the previous song.
This is, however, a more explicit parody of the musical genre as well; the contrast between "the real social tensions" and their "utopian solution" in entertainment is exposed and estranged too plainly. Subaltern groups, like women (as in the first song), gay men, and black people have played a central role in the history of the musical, but laboratory rats express their oppressed status, even in the representation of an excessive genre like this, a bit too clearly. The song becomes ambiguous; there is an undoubted feeling of -- at least momentary -- abundance and energy, but one cannot say the same about intensity, transparency, or community. Direct emotional experiencing, transparent relations between characters, or the sense of togetherness are all surely implied in this verbal performance. Still, the impression is mixed --"bewildered" as the animal protagoniast themselves -- when compared with the purity of entertainment. "Spirit's just so contagious"; 'contagious' carries here many meanings: it is 'catchy' and 'contaminating' at the same time.
"Nothing's left in Pavlovia, but the maze, and the game". Perhaps this is not
completely true: something might well be left to remind the inhabitants and readers of
Gravity's Rainbow of the utopian potentials of popular culture. This vulgar
sensibility is one of the things that distinguishes Pynchon from one of his mentors
and another labyrinth builder, the intelligent Borges. It is much easier to find remnants
of that sensibility in Kafka, a mentor of Borges. Borges himself was conscious of
retrospective lines like this, when he wrote about Kafka and his precursors: Zeno, Han
Yu, Kierkegaard, Robert Browning, etc. If you ask me, the most memorable lines in this
essay of Borges run as follows: "The fact is that every writer creates his [sic]
own precursors. His [sic] work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the
It is obvious that Pynchon's labyrinthine carnivalism (there we have it) brings together at least two generic traditions. And since, as Bakhtin insists, "it is precisely the chronotope that defines genre and generic traditions" , it may be concluded that the novel brings together two kinds of chronotopicalities as well. The first is that of maze spinners: in this repect the whole of Gravity's Rainbow is a huge bundle of overlaping labyrinths with centers missing: everyone is "always already" in quest in the middle of something without a clear point of origin or a tangible telos. The situation is emphasized, when, on his Tannhauserian trip to the German rocket factory inside a mountain (its name is tellingly Mittelwerke, Middle Factory), Slothrop paradoxically feels the presence of an absent center:
[A]mazing perfect whiteness. Whiteness without heat, and blind inertia: Slothrop feels a terrible familiarity here, a center he has been skirting, avoiding as long as he can remember -- never has he been as close as now to the true momentum of his time: faces and facts that have crowded his indenture to the Rocket, camouflage and distraction fall away for the white moment, the vain and blind tugging at his sleeves it's important ... please ... look at us ... but it's already too late, [...] and the blood of his eyes has begun to touch the whiteness back to ivory, to brushings of gold and a network of edges to the broken rock ... (312)
Does it have to follow, when the centers are not to be found, that the only
possibility left is "softening to the devitaminized mush inside the soup-stock of your
own words", as we have heard it surmised?
Possibly this is not the case. Outbursts of "utopian sensibility" (to cite Dyer's words) are capable of breaking loose every now and then. It is, after all, no wonder that many critics in the 1970s were blind to anything meaningful in Gravity's Rainbow's energetic and plebeian "breeding ground". Bakhtin's breakthrough has helped us to see the novel's popular cultural aspects as belonging to the very core of carnivalistic "novelness". This holds true especially for Pynchon's "poetry": the incorporation of lyrical pieces is an age-old feature of Menippean, hybrid novelness. In addition to these pieces the novel turns out to be an encyclopedia of popular culture and subcultural discourses (gaining both forms of representation and material from them): jokes, genres of billingsgate, detective and spy ficction, comic books and strips, science fiction, horror stories, fantasy, pulp magazines, pornographic literature, various forms of cinema, black English, Hispanic slang, street speech, underworld cant, regional dialect, military slang, parapsychology, children's lore, etc.
There are no reasons, however, to identify Pynchon's carnivalistic motifs with Bakhtin's reading of Rabelais and thus essentialize carnival. To begin with, both the Catholic Church and high sophisticated tradition in literature were distinct dominating centers, which carnival and the carnivalesque literature could antagonize with ridicule. Besides, it seems clear that Bakhtin's carnivalistic interpretation bears heavy marks of organiscistic, transindividualistic communalism based on agriculture. Bakhtin's carnival does have an angle to it: it is that of the folk, of down-to-earth people. It is from that unifying ethical position that noble truths are put into degrading motion, where oppositions ceaselessly melt into jolly hybrids. Carnival is an open chronotope like the Argentine pampas, but it has got fences around it, relative to both time and place. No wonder many have considered it as a form of reproduction, of controlled rebellion, which ultimately helped the medieval and early modern centers to consolidate their positions.
Inside Pynchon's carnival one can never be sure what the powers above are like. There is, of course, a strong feeling of oppressive structures beyond the visible. A legion of centripetal, monlogical, deterministic "grand narratives" present themselves in Gravity's Rainbow. Among them are the Pavlovian psychology, pre-Einsteinian sciences (especially chemistry), technocracy, ballistics, Puritan religion, patriarchalism, multinational capitalism, Nazism, Bolshevism, growing bureaucracy outlined by Weber, some uses of Rilke's poetry, etc. The big question is: do these monological threads ultimately entrangle into a total grand narrative, which might be most intensely symbolized by the parabolic arc of rocketry, by "gravity's rainbow". Yet the Rocket, connecting paranoid activities, may not at all be What Is Really Cooking. Enzian feels this:
[...] yes and now what if we -- all right, say we are supposed to be the Kabbalists out here, say that's our real destiny, to be the scholar-magicians of the Zone, with somewhere in it a Text, to be picked to pieces annotated, explicated, and masturbated till it's all squeezed limp of its last drop ... well we assumed -- naturlich! -- that this holy Text had to be the Rocket, orururumo orunene the high, rising, dead, the blazing, the great one ("orunene" is already being modified by the Zone-Herero children to "omunene", the eldest brother) ... our Torah. What else? Its symmetries, its latencies, the cuteness of it enchanted and seduced us while the real Text persisted, somewhere else, in its darkness, our darkness ... (520)
Instead of being enchanted by the totemic Rocket, Enzian insists that the preterite people of the Zone should "look for power sources here, and distribution networks we were never taught, routes of power our teachers never imagined, or were encouraged to avoid ... we have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function ... zeroing in on what incalculable plot?" (521)
This sounds much like the "cognitive mapping" that Fredric Jameson has been
promoting during the last decade. Yet unlike Jameson, nobody in the Zone, not even
Enzian no matter how much he tries, let alone any of the readers to my knowledge, is
able to find out how all aspects (in what might be the most heteroglottic text of all
times) could really be united into some "incalculable plot", some totalizable dialectic, Hegelian phase in History. Things get all too kinky for the critters of the Zone to make up anything like that: "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." (582) The paranoid feeling of
an all-encompassing secret network no doubt resembles what Jameson (modifying
Lyotard) calls "the postmodern sublime". Still in regard to Gravity's Rainbow
one is deemed to be Preterite, fallen from grace, grace that can also mean the Marxist
self-confidence about the course of history. Grace belongs to Them, the Elect, in every
version of Their Western Puritan Grand Narratives.
Bakhtin writes: "Dialogue and dialectics. Take dialogue and remove the voices (the particular voices), remove the intonations (emotional and individualizing ones), carve out abstract concepts and judgements from living words and responses, cram everything into one abstract consciousness -- and that's how you get into dialectics." Perhaps it is not needless to add that this "one abstract consciousness" refers to the white, masculine, western selfsameness -- and the logic of Hegelian "Aufhebungs" can only produce junior variations on the theme of that selfsameness. If History is one big story about the emancipation of humankind, people should be ready to die for this better future. However, Tchitcherine the Russian is asked: "Marxist dialectics. That's not an opiate, eh? [...] Die to help History grow to its predestined shape. Die knowing your act will bring a good end a bit closer. Revolutionary suicide, fine. But look: if History's changes are inevitable, why not not die?" (701) Bearing Bakhtin's heavy words about dialectics in mind, it may be good to remember that they apply also to anti-Hegelian, entropic, and "Kulturepessimistische" theories of complete collapse of civilization. Gravity's Rainbow presents both of these totalizing alternatives self-reflectively and overtly.
On the one hand, there is paranoia, the "discovery that everything is
connected, everything in the Creation" (703); on the other, there is "antiparanoia,
where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long."
(434) It is fruitful to keep in mind what Michael Berube says about Pynchonesque
paranoia: it is not only rage for order and immobility, but also a sensitive form of
imaginative activitity. N. Katherine Hayles has indicated that "antiparanoia" or "entropy"
contains potentials for both exhaustion and multiplication.
What comes out of the struggle between these centripetal and centrifugal forces that always already, even internally, show themselves to be conflictual? The centrifugal low elements may well be as such, as the working title Pynchon and for the novel goes, "mindless pleasures"; uncontrollable plebeian here-and-now desires. Anyway, these forces are seldom alone or pure in the novel: they are set against centripetal elements. What is more, They-systems seem to be oozing through into every We-system: as Derrida has written, it is impossible to get totally outside of the logocentric metaphysical tradition. What can you possibly make of it?
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White insist that the division between carnival and normal life was internalized from the "early modern" period on. From the "licenced event" that was distinguished from normal life carnivalesque changed into the low suppressed area within four symbolic domains: psychic forms, the human body, geographic space, and social order. Pynchon's Zone can be seen as a 20th century version of the carnivalesque market place, where the suppressed low elements of bourgeois, modern, "realistic" subjectivity keep surfacing in constant motion, blurring boundaries between these four symbolic domains when doing so. There is no hope getting back distinct, autonomous categories, which, most probably, never existed in the first place. (Still, borderlines are not canceled once-for-all; how could they, tense traffic between insides and outsides growing continuosly?) The late Allon White writes directly about Pynchon elsewhere:
The "high" languages of modern America -- technology, psychoanalysis, business, administration and military jargon -- are "carnivalized" by a set of rampant, irreverent, inebriate discourses from low life [...] In Gravity's Rainbow history is referred to as a 'St. Giles fair' [sic], and the symbolic pig, the carnival animal par excellence, wallows everywhere in Pynchon's writing as the foul-mouthed but irrepressible subvert of prissy WASP orderliness. [Pynchon] produces a dialogic confrontation whereby power and authority are probed and ritually contested by these debunking vernaculars.
The low symbolic pig wallows everywhere in Pynchon's writing all right, but it often
gets hybridized with high elements within the subjects of the novels. Among
Gravity's Rainbow's approximately 400 characters you may run into one "Andre
Omnopon, of the feathery Rilke mustaches and Porky Pig tattoo on stomach" (711), who
is, moreover, going to play a hybrid, apocryphal classic with his Counterforce chamber
orchestra: the Haydn Kazoo Quartet in G-Flat Minor -- 'kazoo' being this fart-sounding
mouth harp that provides cheap thrills.
Stallybrass and White stress that one ought to be careful not to regard carnival as a transhistorical form of activity. White himself seems to forget this when claiming that Pynchon's texts differ from the positive carnivalism of Joyce's Ulysses. "[Pynchon's] heteroglossia becomes immobilized into a cold war without positive issue, absurd and terrifying at once." My intention is by no means to underestimate the carnivalistic elements -- like the numerous parodies of Catholic discourses -- in Ulysses. Still, in my view the novel encourages the reader to build up a transhistorical order from the allusions to high culture contained in it. High canon is capable of achieving dominance, of solving the puzzle. It is not that Pynchon's characters wouldn't search for an order like that. The traditional carnivalistic novel gained much of its strength from the way it ridiculed stable centers and high canonic traditions. When easily distinguishable centers are missing, one is left with labyrinths instead of parodies.
Stallybrass and White emphasize the ways, in which the low elements are suppressed and pushed underground in the making of bourgeois identity. The inhabitants of Pynchon's Zone have it the other way round: these vigorously popular cultural creatures are trying to find the missing high, centripetal forces (also those within the characters themselves) beneath the visible. This makes them readers of a kind, and, what is more, rather peculiar readers as it were: one character "reads", interprets, other characters according to how they shiver, another reads them according to how they roll cannabis reefers (641). There is a strong centripetal urge to find the lost, epic oneness: "Somewhere, among the wastes of the World, is the key that will bring us back, restore us to our Earth and to our freedom." (525) These, Enzian's, words appeal, but it seems that even for the African Herero tribe the mythical return to pure epic time is no longer possible. They are, like all the others, doomed to wallow in the mess of contemporary global culture. They stay impure, each of them, but not all the same: it is impossible for them to keep just the same as before, or same as the others; they keep making aching differences. Anyway, they keep on, at least some of them.
The urge to find the all-explaining center betrays also a dialogic sensitivity toward people and things, as I already indicated. The multitudinous "lyrical" passages in Gravity's Rainbow, where the narrator and/or characters feel low after striving for high unities, can never be "jollily relativized" , as in the carnivalistic novelistic tradition. The Zone becomes an ambiguous chronotope: open and secret, jolly and sore, spontaneous and paranoid -- a labyrinthine marketplace, where is is hard to be in the right place at the right time. It is as if the narrator would like to gather "all of you" together, but the novel lacks that kind of community, a joint chronotope, which would bring "all of us" together. (One problem, not the least, is that even the frequently nostalgic narrator is not one, but many -- fragmentary or heterogeneous, hard to say. And is anyone of "us" any one?) All in all, these interrogative, passionate, quasi- transcendental passages make dialogic thrusts.
On the other hand, the popular cultural elements are not automatically
emancipatory, even though there seems to be open, democratic energy contained in
them. You really may feel high, when you experience the low. The novel becomes an
unsettling and tension-filled, dialogic but post-dialectic arena of centralizing and
marginalized discourses. The low elements act as supplements to the "sophisticated",
high canonic tradition, where Gravity's Rainbow bastardly and subversively
belongs. However, the labyrinthine features in the novel estrange the carnivalistic
tradition in their turn. The acts of reading (by both characters and their "acting" readers)
from oscillating thrusts to open up a field of possibilities of act/ion and pass/ion together.
The reading acts, as passible activity and activable pastime, may subvert here the
essentializing dichotomy between activity and passivity.
Likewise the Zone itself subverts the opposition between war and peace. The open, systematic acts of martial violence may have ended, but there is no peace yet that would make it possible to escape into a petty-bourgeois stability. Consequently the nature of dialogism in the Zone is not that of a harmonious, consensual intersubjectivity; rather "dialogic" refers here to an inequal and ceaseless field of struggle, where tensions cannot be swept under the carpet. In many ways Gravity's Rainbow is a "war baby"; according to Steven Weisenburger the novel's chronology unfolds according to a carefully drawn circular design that takes nine months, like pregnancy. There was this song: "Never mind what your calendar say, ev'rybody's nine months old today!" (538) Perhaps something is being born into the Zone -- a holy child? a monster baby? -- but we will never know the outcome, the tensions remain unsolved and in the air, open and secret at the same time.
The energy required to keep this vast magnetic field going is provided by the rich humus of popular culture. In order to maintain the dialogic state between war and peace -- to prevent readers from taking refuge in harmonic, peaceful interiorities -- Pynchon's novel recruits all the myriad (high and low, literary and extraliterary) genres and discourses it possibly can cram into itself. This is, I gather, also to show that there are no pure, autonomous extradiscursive positions outside the noisy intertextual arenas of the novel. And We, whoever we are, have to operate in the same impure fields as Them: it seems impossible for any of "Our Folks" to find some -- private or public -- space and time that would not be at least slightly contaminated by Their readerly stories, Their glorious marches and sad lullabies, Their Western grand narratives.
Yet simultaneously Their plottings seem to lose their transcendence, drawn as they are form Their monological unities and heights into the bewildering field of the narration, into this labyrinthine carnival -- and don't we have here the novel telling about itself?:
Well, there is the heart of it: the monumental yellow structure, out there in the slum-suburban night, the never-sleeping percolation of life and enterprise through its shell, Outside and Inside interpiercing one another too fast, too finely labyrinthine, for either category to have much hegemony anymore. The nonstop revue crosses its stage, crowding and thinning, surprising and jerking tears in an endless ratchet: (681)
Within this mercurial interface, this kaleidoscopic narrative Zone (which is also a Bakhtinian zone, the sphere of dialogic influence) both Their centric transcendence, and a transcendence that would sanctify any of Our suppressed marginalities, prove impossible. Between these conflictual impossibilities there unfolds a tense and dialogic matrix of possibilities. (T)here They and Their centers multiply, which necessarily doesn't make Them less dangerous. We and Our marginalities won't cohere into one emancipatory subject, which necessarily doesn't make any of Our different clusters less capable of anything, at least less so than the previous antagonistic forces in history, whoever we might be. It is a violent matrix, for sure -- there are no cutely negotiable, Rortyan ways out of it. But perhaps it is only in a Zone-like matrix, in a staggery boundary-crossing network, with modern illusions of closed autonomies melting into air, that those who (who?) have been kept out of time and out of space could possibly start getting themselves heard. Perhaps.
Gravity's Rainbow remains in a state of warlike peace, where power and resistance don't make dialectically reducible opposites. As the novel wants to sing a "counterforce traveling song" to you all, and perhaps to itself, too:
They've been sleeping on your shoulder They've been crying in your beer, And They've sung you all Their sad lullabies, And you thought They wanted sympathy and didn't care for souls, And They never were about to put you wise But I'm telling you today, That it ain't the only way, And there's shit you won't be eating anymore -- They've been paying you to love it, But the time has come to shove it, And it isn't a resistance, it's a war. (639-640)
Life during wartime is, however, hard work. To intervene in the dynamics of the Zone means that you have to throw yourself (or your selves) there without guarantees and safe positions. The traveling song has to keep traveling -- and "you" have to become deterritorialized, and reterritorialized, time after time, all along. When the division between inner and outer spheres is collapsing, you may feel like Nora Dodson- Truck, a psychic medium in mental disorder, in the preceding episode: "[S]he will go staggering into her own drawing-room to find no refuge even there, no, someone will have caused to materialize for her a lesbian elephant soixante-neuf, slimy trunks pistoning symmetrically in and out of juicy elephant vulvas, and when she turns to escape this horrid exhibition she'll find some playful ghost has latched the door behind her, and another's just about to sock her in the face with a cold Yorkshire pudding ..." (638) Sometimes it feels insurmountable to survive the true, tense, and hybrid serio-comicality of the Zone...
1. Bakhtin 1981, 84.
2. Throughout, ellipses are Pynchon's, except when enclosed in brackets.
3. ibid., 250.
4. E,g, Strehle, 192. Strehle's aim is to trace the influence of modern physics on some contemporary writers.
5. Cf. for instance Hendin and Sanders.
6. On the novel as a jeremiad, see Smith & Tololyan.
7. See Bakhtin's "Epic and novel", Baktin 1981, 3-40.
8. According to Weisenburger, 1.
9. Holquist 1990, 113.
10. McHale, 95-114.
11. Translated by Weisenburger, 187.
12. In addition to the general condition of Bakhtinian dialogism (see Holquist 1990, 14-66), this, of course, bears similarities with Derrida's critique of closed and transcendental contexts in "Signature event context" and "Limited Inc.", both in Derrida 1988.
13. Weisenburger (187) has not found these lines in Borges's Obras Poeticas.
14. Kermode, 3.
15. Schaub, 43.
16. Dyer, 20-24.
17. ibid., 24.
18. Bakhtin 1981, 8.
19. The best essay on relations between Borges and Pynchon is probably Castillo.
20. Borges, 236.
21. Bakhtin 1981, 85.
22. See Molly Hite for the significance of "the trope of absent center" in Pynchon, esp. Esp. 21-32.
23. This list owes much to the one that Weisenburger has offered (6).
24. Bakhtin 1973, 102-103.
25. E.g. Stallybrass & White, 13-15.
26. The concept is, of course, Lyotard's. He seems to think that Their grand narratives have lost all validity and legitimacy, and we are left with Our local and democratic "small" narratives. Pynchon takes the grand "project of modernity" much more seriously, I think.
27. Jameson, 51-54. Accidentally, after writing this essay, I came across Steven Best's article, where he states precicely that Gravity's Rainbow can be read as a useful instrument, halfway stop, en route to total understanding of the Hegelian, all- homogenizing stage of global late capitalism. Still, accroding to Best, Pynchon finally [shortfallingly, preteritely, one could say] lacks the true information to find his place in the cognizant vanguard.
28. Jameson, 34-36.
29. Bakhtin 1986, 147.
30. Berube, 220-221.
31. Hayles, 111-112.
32. Derrida 1972, 21. Linda Hutcheon finds it equally impossible to break away from traditional narratives. What presents literary postmodernism to her, works of historiographic metafiction, first inscribe themselves in traditions, and only this done feel able to subvert these traditions. (224.) In my view this is close to Pynchon's strategies.
33. Stallybrass & White, 2-3.
34. Actually this happens in V., Pynchon 1975, 307. In Gravity's Rainbow the War is "Night's Mad Carnival" (133).
35. White, 135.
36. ibid., 136.
37. Bakhtin 1973, 102.
38. In Dialogics of the Oppressed Peter Hitchcock also emphasizes the latter definition of dialogism at the expence of the former.
40. Holquist 1981, 434.
41. And thus total manipulation of Us proves impossible, too. The Foucauldian view (at least in Discipline and Punish) of Their all-powerful control and Lyotardian view of Our nice new freedom seem to make together a neat logocentric binary opposition. Pynchon's novel takes these totalizing opposites into the same immanent field and ultimately shows that they cannot be thought about and talked about one without the other.
42. This notion is very close to the view of Jim Collins in his bathbreaking study on postmodernism and popular culture.
Bakhtin, Mikhail 1973: Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. R.W. Rotsel. Ann Ardis: Ardis.
__________ 1981: Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas Press
__________ 1984: Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana U Press.
__________ 1986: Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas Press.
BÚrubÚ, Michael 1992: Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon and the Politics of the Canon. Ithaca and London: Cornell U Press.
Best, Steven, 1992: "Creative Paranoia: A Postmodern Aesthetic of Cognitive Mapping in Gravity's Rainbow." The Centennial Review 36(1): 59-87.
Borges, Jorge Luis 1976: Labyriths. Ed. and trans. Donald A. Yates and James E Irby.
Castillo, Debra 1991: "Borges and Pynchon: A Tenuous Symmetries of Art." In O'Donnell 1991, 21-46.
Collins, Jim 1989: Uncommon Cultures. Popular Culture and Post-Modernism. London and New York: Routledge.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix 1988: A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: The Athlone Press.
Derrida, Jacques 1972: Positions. Entretiens avec Henri Ronse, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Louis Houdebine, Guy Scarpetta. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.
__________1988: Limited Inc. Trans. Samuel Weber. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern U Press.
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