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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

After Tragedy: The Thomas Pynchon Scratchpad

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 12/23/06 at 05:50 AM

In this post, I grapple with my own search for a successor to a rather embarrassing interest in Tom Robbins, Jack Kerouac, and Henry Miller—somebody who could complement the problematic works of Hermann Hesse. I am also trying to describe an alternative to the modernist tragedians, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger.

I claim to find this alternative, successor, and complement in Thomas Pynchon, because of The Crying of Lot 49. Included here are some close readings of The Crying of Lot 49 that may remind you to open it again at random, or intrigue you into reading it. Also, given that Against The Day is just out, consider this your Pynchon scratchpad for notes, reminisces, new readings, and speculative ideas.

Tom Robbins created a map for the enjoyable novel, almost after the fashion of some marketer highly placed in the publishing world.

Instead of the heartbreak of Gatsby or Salinger, Robbins substituted seductions and chance encounters taken more or less directly from the world of romance novels.

Instead of the metaphysical quicksand of lost time, or crime and punishment, Robbins substituted an unexplored cosmos of continual possibility. Different cultures and religions jostled alongside each other in friendly fashion, offering up all their myths for the sake of personal wonderment.

Instead of pushing genre to the point of horror and banality, as Poe might have done, Robbins started with banality (a waitress stuck in Seattle, with her dissertation at a standstill) and then started uncorking genre plots like fresh bottles of champagne. There was fantasy (immortality! pagan gods!), mystery (international operators! the hidden body of Jesus!), and stock characters from a bohemian-infused commedia dell’arte.

I still grew tired of the way Robbins retreated into fantasy to prove his metaphysical ideas, and of the superficial relations between his winking, primally prepossessing heroes, and their adventurous but subservient Barbie doll lovers. His endless, showoff sentences began crashing painfully against my temples.

Which means that I have been waiting for about eight years for another author capable of taking Robbins’s place—capable of bringing the open-ended life to life, without losing hold of prose or plotting like Miller or Kerouac tended to do. It is one thing to write about the bohemian experiment as a nonfiction experiment in living—that’s what makes On the Road and Tropic of Cancer so great—and another thing to write from inside the ideas that make it run. Enter Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49, and the word “Tristero.”

Tristero is a reference to the philosopher’s stone, via Hermes Trismegistus, and the allegory of that stone, capable of turning lead into gold, is the allegory for Pynchon of the possibilities of metaphor, “another set of possibilities to replace those that had conditioned the land to accept any San Narciso among its most tender flesh without a reflex or a cry.” This is still the dream he’s hunting down in Against The Day: the task of re-drawing the map of America, and the whole industrialized world, such that many Americas (by which Pynchon would mean something like many undergrounds of different common, intellectual projects) could exist spontaneously, undertaken in freedom.

These connections between people are necessarily coded, and not universally visible; the intimacy of the project or of the love affair demands it (hence the connotation of the secret “tryst” in Tristero).

The symbol of the Tristero is the post-horn, meaning the time after the sounding of the trumpet: “I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ “ (Rev. 1:11). Pynchon makes the parallel explicit: “Passerine spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture; perhaps to a descending angel. The auctioneer cleared his throat. Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of Lot 49.”

It makes little sense to call Pynchon post-modern. The man is post-apocalyptic, on the sworn evidence of his own metaphors, and post-tragic or post-traumatic also. For Pynchon, the apocalypse is the moment where the mechanism, the mechanical in thought and deed, becomes totally ascendant:

Creation was a vast, intricate machine. But one part of it, the Scurvhamite part, ran off the will of God, its prime mover. The rest ran off some opposite Principle, something blind, soulless; a brute automatism that led to eternal death. The idea was to woo converts into the Godly and purposeful sodality of the Scurvhamite. But somehow those few saved Scurvhamites found themselves looking out into the gaudy clockwork of the doomed with a certain sick and fascinated horror, and this was to prove fatal.

If we ask ourselves what alternative exists to this triumph of the mechanical system, in Pynchon’s novel, it turns out to be a curiosity about alternatives. This is curiosity about what the lethal apocalypse has remaindered, exactly in the sense of the remaindered books in Zapf’s Used Books, and in the sense that Oedipa has survived the death of Inverarity ("invariety") and his San Narciso empire. (Also in the sense of the remaindered “zero” I discussed in the post on Paul de Man. “Tristero” of course contains the word zero as a complement to the triad.) It is the purest of intellectual enterprises: the suspension of the self in the name of the search, adventure qua adventure.

In other words, the dead genre-hopping and dead virtuosity of Robbins has been transformed here into the great narrative of curiosity (as it probably always was, with Robbins shamelessly ripping Pynchon off, and both of them stealing from Joyce). What has become of the mystery plot? It has become a plot about how Oedipa constructs meaning, even when she knows that the resolution of the mystery is also a moment of death:

San Narciso at that moment lost (the loss pure, instant, spherical, the sound of a stainless orchestral chime held among the stars and struck lightly), gave up its residue of uniqueness for her; became a name again, was assumed back into the American continuity and crust and mantle. Pierce Inverarity was really dead.

“It’s over,” she said, “They’ve saturated me. From here on I’ll only close them out. You’re free. Released. You can tell me."

But the man to whom Oedipa tells this is already lost. Like the victims of forgetting in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he has been unwilling to move past the completed hermetic circle (sphere) of loss and trauma back the beginning with another love, instead choosing to isolate himself as a member of Inamorati Anonymous. In Pynchon’s world, love and curiosity are the same thing.

What happened to the fantasy plot? It became a plot about the function of metaphor; the catachresis, or original error that brings a metaphor to life, becomes a miracle:

“The Machine uses both. The Demon makes the metaphor not only verbally graceful, but also objectively true.”
“But what,” she felt like some kind of a heretic, “if the Demon exists only because the two equations look alike? Because of the metaphor?”

“You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world’s intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there’s cataclysm. Like the church we hate, anarchists also believe in another world. Where revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless."

So the metaphor is middle term, the third term, between two things: between two specific things, like information and thermodynamics in the case of Maxwell’s Demon, and between the thinking subject (Oedipa) and the impersonal “power spectra” of discourse (as revealed to Mucho Maas in his hallucinatory perfect knowledge of corporate music). Hence Tri-stero, triad. It is the fantasy plot: miracle, alchemy, out of catachresis.

What becomes of Robbins’s seduction plot? It’s there as the first adulterous encounter between Metzger and Oedipa, with its wonderfully comic devolution into Oedipa wearing—supplemented by—every piece of clothing she can wear:

So began, for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of The Tristero. [...] As if the breakaway gowns, net bras, jeweled garters and G-strings of historical figuration that would wall away were layered dense as Oedipa’s own street clothes in that game with Metzger in front of the Baby Igor movie; as if a plunge toward dawn indefinite black hours long would indeed be necessary before The Tristero could be revealed in its terrible nakedness.

In other words, the seduction narrative (the striptease game) turns into the irony of the search for truth, for an unveiling which instead magnetizes an increasing number of objects (clothes) and events to it through unforeseen tunnels of historical figuration. The glittering and uncountable world is the result of the attempt to unveil a truth.

So Pynchon is a Robbins for me, one who is not outgrowable. What he does is certainly not the only possible function of literature. He has merely created a story about the way narrative functions—the interplay of love and curiosity, the irresistible progress forward through revelations, and backwards through meanings, the re-minting of the world by metaphor, the symbolic death of final closure. In other words, he has created a story about the very peculiar and indispensable reason for prose, for teaching, and writing, and reading it.

That returns us to the beginning of this post, and to the antipode of fatalist tragedy. For Fitzgerald, there is nothing after the cataclysm, except perhaps Nick Carraway’s bitter moralism. I remember that I was supposed to write something in defense of sad songs but I never got around to it. I was going to claim that listening to them wasn’t a sad experience, and that reading tragic books isn’t sad either. When I think about that music and those novels, I want to call it the traumatic sublime. The experience of a cul-de-sac, of failure and loss, is a humanising and perhaps inevitable experience. One ought to value tragedy, following the apocalyptic doom-feeling (cf. “The Pit and the Pendulum” or anything else by Poe) to its limit and moment of transformation. One discovers oneself still alive, conscious, albeit in an afterlife of sorts. Think of the sympathy and humility of this cry, recently uttered by Spurious (quoting his odd friend W.):

I keep a mental list of W.’s favourite questions, which he constantly asks me so as to ask himself. ‘At what point did you realise that you would amount to nothing?’; ‘When was it that you first became aware you would be nothing but a failure?’; ‘When you look back at your life, what do you see?’; ‘How is it that you know what greatness is, and that you will never, ever reach it it?’

‘What does it mean to you that your life has amounted to nothing?’, W. asks me with great seriousness.

But there must be an end to such narratives of failure. I would like to undertake a study of the picaresque novel as an alternative to tragedy, leading from Cervantes and Tristram Shandy all the way to Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow. What is so miraculous about the characters in Pynchon is that they live phoenix lives, as people renewed by words and the loves that are circuits of words:

The voices before and after the dead man’s that had phoned at random during the darkest, slowest hours, searching ceaseless among the dial’s ten million possibilities for that magical Other who would reveal herself out of the roar of relays, monotone litanies of insult, filth, fantasy, love whose brute repetition must someday call into being the trigger for the unnamable act, the recognition, the Word.

As I implied in the recent post on Nabokov and the symptom, every cul-de-sac is presumably necessary at the moment Oedipa describes, the moment of saturation. However, it is also the Scurvhamite definition of evil, because at the dead-end thought becomes mechanism, fatalistic and helpless.  At the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49, the failure of the father in Cashiered is followed by the words “The End,” and the beginning of Oedipa’s adventure.

For Pynchon, part of oneself must be capable of dying, of returning to dumb materiality: “Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendental meaning, or only the earth.” The other part of oneself, still alive, contains the seed of a life transfigured. That is how the Restoration comedy of Thomas Pynchon understands Invararity’s death, how Joyce understand’s Rudy’s death, how Sterne and Voltaire comprehend the aftermath of war. As Oedipa guesses, indefinite long black hours are necessary before the past can receive its burial and become “only the earth,” material but out of reckoning, its lacerations eclipsed by other metaphors.


How is Ulysses a picaresque novel?  Or even Don Quixote?

By on 12/24/06 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Strictly speaking, neither novel is picaresque, because the term refers to a novel that uses the adventures of a roguish, lower-class hero to satirize the rich and illustrate the lives of the common people.

However, as the Wikipedia entry notes, “The English-language term can simply refer to an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road.” This broader definition is helpful to us because the novel of travel, frustrated idealism, and comic misadventure has had an important place in English literature for centuries.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/26/06 at 04:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I understand the looser sense of the term, but insofar as the picaresque is supposed to offer an alternative to tragedy, I don’t know that there’s enough to the genre so defined.

What is so miraculous about the characters in Pynchon is that they live phoenix lives, as people renewed by words and the loves that are circuits of words:

As a characterization of a picaresque this sounds wrong to me, at least in terms of the genre’s history--the pícaro never showed much capacity for introspection, or aesthetic sensitivity.  Also, I think that the picaresque only seems to reject tragedy because it doesn’t have room for a vision on that scale.  It’s only concerned to show a picture of a particular society.

By on 12/27/06 at 05:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I was going to wait to comment until I’d read Against the Day, which I got for Christmas.  But it’s dense and large, oh boy is it that; I’ve read 300 pages so far and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

So, very preliminary responses; I’m not so hung-up as I take Wade to be on whether Pynchon is strictly picaresque or not.  There’s clearly some kind of ragbaggy, lots-of-adventures, hundreds-of-characters, all-kinds-of-everything vibe going on in Pychon’s schtick.  Might as well call it ‘picaresque’ as anything.  But I’m more struck by the sentence Joe quotes:

“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendental meaning, or only the earth.”

This is a distinctive Pynchonesqueness, isn’t it, and harder to pull off than you might think.  I mean the ability to do all the burlesque knock-about wink-wink ‘it’s all a metatextual joke, kids’ stuff and yet hint plangently at a transcendental numinous Something, lurking suggestively just out of textual reach.  To do the one, I mean, without diluting or undermining the other.  In Against the Day (or in the first 300 pages at any rate) P. does precisely that brilliantly: as if there is something spinetingling in at the intersection of Aether and dynamite and crystals and elevation and Anarchy and the teeming vortices of human living.  The transcendental quality is intensified by the knowledge that it really could collapse at any moment into the material and quotidian.  Indeed, the tantalising intimations of this revelation are so expertly stretched out across the density and length of narrative that I am, perhaps oddly, rather reminded of Lost.  But then, couldn’t we say that with just a little more humour, a few terrible invented song lyrics, a bit more potty-ish explicit sex and so on, Lost could be a properly Pynchonesque TV experience?

By Adam Roberts on 12/27/06 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: Clever but no. :) The difference being, I think, that in the average TV drama (and Lost is that) no through-composed order is present; it’s rare to find an American serial drama that looks ahead more than a single season, owing to production uncertainty and a decidedly ‘non-literary’ audience. There are shows that do pay off a given setup years down the line, but the references themselves are put in precisely because they’re open-ended; so the ‘dense’ interconnections of backstory on Lost are provisional, kept vague in case the writers decide to alter the story as they go. There’s no specificity to the foreshadowing because on a long enough timescale TV is all first draft - i.e. you can’t revise Season One to deepen some event in Season Five. The experience, at that scale, isn’t laid out with care, it just kinda happens.

That’s why long-running serial dramas - with the occasional exception of something like Babylon 5 which had plenty of other problems - never seem to add up plotwise over the course of years.

I mention this because so much of the suggestion-of-order in Pynchon (at least in the couple books I’ve read) comes from the very precise deployment of echoes and repetition, consistent intimations of a preordained sign system underneath things. TV shows like Lost are too symbolically scattershot to achieve this effect; even a successful drama like Buffy (for instance) has to give itself to fine-grained character logic, setting aside symbolic/plotwise resonances for human truthfulness.

Huh. Dunno what I’m even on about, here. Should get right to work. Will do that now.

By waxbanks on 12/28/06 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wade, you seem to be building towards a theory of the inherent superiority of tragedy here. I would be curious to hear more about why you want to create such a hierarchy. I’m personally very sympathetic to thinkers like Rabelais or Nietzsche, who felt that comedy was actually a more liberating and trustworthy form.

If we are allowing the English novel, and Cervantes, to enter this canon (and we should, in my opinion), then there is no lack of either introspection or aesthetic sensitivity. For example, Joseph Andrews is very much about the search for Andrews’s identity. While the narration in picaresque novels tends to remain somewhat outside the subjective consciousness of the characters, the introspectiveness of the story is achieved through symbolically resonant events.

Adam: Part of what I love about Pynchon is his implicit suggestion that pure materiality is, for the subject, still an interpretation, and very likely a form of illusion. For example, if (in the new novel) Scarsdale Vibe is successful in financing a machine that will counter Tesla’s source of unlimited electrical power, then the darkened, energy-hungry earth will become an effect of human choice.

I like the comparison to Lost, although I haven’t seen the show, and am troubled by the complaints of its most ardent fans. I’m still hoping that the touches of magical realism in Pynchon will not become as nebulous and goofy as, for example, the shapeshifting “monster” in the TV show. Both do hold out the promise of revelation, and intentionally confuse the supernatural and the technological.

waxbanks, perhaps the possibilities for internal consistency are not as limited as they seem. Most fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer find it to be full of meaningful echoes, even though the show was initially less sure of itself, and subject to cancellation. TV writers are fully capable of doing things like turning a character who was originally intended as a minor sidekick, into a treacherous villain, without giving the audience any sign that this was a revision of the original plan.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/04/07 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just thought I’d let you know that there is now a Crying of Lot 49 wiki at Pynchon Wiki:


So feel free to become a contributor, and then contribute. I think you’d have a lot to say.

Best, Tim

By Tim Ware on 03/17/07 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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