“A Screaming is in heaven …”
With the sentence, Pynchon begins rainbow severity infamous work. . . of the most controversial, most debated more, and often began-and-then-put-down of the twentieth century. It is difficult to bear the weight of letters and bring out the rainbow in your group. I also found the mere mention of the iron line in a tacit academic joke: “Oh, so you see, oh oh oh …. huh?” More than any other, in addition to the work of Finnegans Wake, Rainbow has the weight of the writer – at the moment to say quietly, to avoid the terror of a man – a rumor. The circumstances surrounding the creation of his suspiciously like hagiography: Saint Pynchon sequestered himself in a room, writing a new hand, filling sheet after sheet of paper with a detailed script of F itself. Stack of papers, was perched on top of this little offering to the Muse, the Totem of magic invocation: the caterpillar pen-type “were (a kind of scale in the package corkscrew) with a pin in nose, and re-formed paper clip serving as a launching pad. “The working title of the project was its pleasures MAD, a new phrase appears twice in the last, and when published in 1973, the Trustees of the Pulitzer Prize reversed the decision of judges to award the coveted prize, and no work of fiction, he received the Pulitzer Prize this year.
Oh, yes, and critical?
“A picaresque, apocalyptic, absurd novel that creates a complex mythology to describe our situation … our world.” (New York) “I was like day and night of the pages, looking at her fingers black ink, bleeding from paper cuts, reading rainbow Gravity. I went to a forest to make paper for the new blade. Not to cry for the trees, read the book. “(Geoffrey Wolff, San Francisco Examiner) “Rage, he fall into the river, Pandora evil incarnate!” (Publisher Name) “Our more literary text with Ulysses.” (Tony Tanner) “Thomas Pynchon brilliantly demonstrates … the driving force behind the seemingly irrational convulsions of the 20th century …. A book that serves as an introduction mainly for Outer Space Migration ….” (Dr. Timothy Leary) “If it can not be banned by the next day, and the five books of the moon, it would be.” (The New York Times) “Rainbow Gravity bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted … . ” (Richard Locke, The New York Times Magazine)
|“A screaming comes across the sky. . . “|
With that sentence, Pynchon begins his infamous work Gravity’s Rainbow . . . one of the most controversial, most discussed, most debated, and most frequently started-and-then-put-down works of the twentieth century. It is hard to bring up Gravity’s Rainbow in literate company and not elicit some sort of a response. I have even found the mere mention of it to be like the punch line in some tacit academic joke: “oh, so you’re reading that, eh? heh heh heh. . . .” More so than any other work besides Finnegans Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow has — now say it quietly, so as not to alarm anyone — a reputation. Even the circumstances surrounding its creation sound suspiciously like an hagiography: Saint Pynchon sequestered himself in a room, writing the novel out by hand, filling sheet after sheet of graph paper with the precise script of an Engineer. Perched atop this stack of papers was his small offering to the Muse, a totem of invocative magic: a rocket formed from “a pencil type eraser (the kind from which you peel off the corkscrew wrapper) with a needle in its nose, and a re-formed paper clip serving as a launching pad.” The working title of his draft was Mindless Pleasures, a phrase which occurs twice in the final novel, and when it was published in 1973, the trustees of the Pulitzer Prize overturned the judges’ decision to award it the coveted prize, and so no work of fiction received the Pulitzer Prize that year.
With the exception “dull” and “cold,” I find this last description a reasonably good commentary on Gravity’s Rainbow, and one that no doubt has added to its reputation: it is a modern Ulysses. It is profane, bloated, and muddled. It is a perfected work of inspired genius. It is a sprawling, impossible to read monstrosity that should be burned on a pyre of Updike novels. It is the Great American Novel come at last, a postmodern masterpiece. It is . . . all of these things. And none. It is a literary black hole, a star so dense that it’s surrounded by an ever-expanding accretion disk of mythology, a swirling of rumors, essays, papers, annotations and companions, tumbling in orbit, attempting to penetrate its interior . . . but it sheds no light on itself; it dares the reader to traverse its scholarly event horizon and plunge into its gravity well unaided by any beacon from within.
Gravity’s Rainbow is one of my favorite novels. While it certainly requires an attentive reading, it is nowhere as “difficult” as its reputation suggests; indeed, it is one of the most pleasurable, witty, humorous, and touching books I have ever read. First of all let me stress this immediately: you can pick up Gravity’s Rainbow and start reading without annotations, companions, or any prior knowledge of Pynchon. Just do it. There is no reason in the world why you won’t understand the book and enjoy it thoroughly. . . . However, there is no avoiding the fact that you may find your enjoyment of the novel enhanced considerably by some preparation. Also, many first-time readers are intimidated by Pynchon’s prose and the structure of the novel’s plot, and so I will address some of these issues at the very beginning.
To begin with, Pynchon’s writing is extremely convoluted and dense. This is quite evident in the first section — a fact that has caused many people to abandon the book in despair after the first hundred pages or so. True, Pynchon’s prose may be daunting at first, but a wonderful adventure awaits those who are not immediately frightened away. His thoughts twist and turn delightfully and rarely conclude where you were expecting, and the sheer inventiveness with which he forces the text to express his ideas is marvelous. I would say this to the first-time reader: stick with him. Do not be afraid to read and re-read passages that strike you; and if his meaning still eludes you, by all means move on. Most people agree that it is impossible to comprehend the totality of a work like Gravity’s Rainbow the first time through — but a close reading with pauses for reflection and re-reading will make for a very rewarding experience.
Another thing that tends to discourage first-time readers is the plot structure. The book begins with a clear narrative direction, but soon the plot begins to fragment very rapidly. Flashback-filled meditations act to dislocate the plot from linear time, and an ostensibly endless series of digressions tend to send it reeling through space as well. After a while, you may wonder if there really is a plot, and then you’ll think you’ve got it figured out, and then you’ll be wrong — repeat cycle as needed. You may also begin to wonder if the cast is as large as a Cecil B. DeMille picture — but again, don’t worry. You will find, surprisingly, that you’ll remember all the characters quite well enough when the time comes. But still, it doesn’t hurt to take a few notes. Listing the characters and briefly sketching out their interactions with each other may prove useful. There is also a myriad of organizations, departments, and corporations in the novel, and I found that keeping track of their histories and diagramming their structures and interrelationships clarified what initially seemed like a hopeless tangle of names, acronyms, and unconnected facts. Eventually things start converging, and you will notice that all the threads of the plot are eventually gathered and woven together with great skill and subtlety.
If you really want to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow with all guns loaded, a few weeks of preparation may prove to be quite valuable. I would recommend reading some earlier Pynchon, particularly the short stories “The Low-Lands,” and “The Secret Integration,” as well as his first novel, V. Although this not necessary, some of the characters used in Gravity’s Rainbow make their first appearances in these works. “The Low-Lands” marks the debut of Pig Bodine, the irrepressible sailor with a thousand sea stories. Slothrop’s home town is featured in “The Secret Integration,” which also mentions his father and his brother Hogan. And V., besides hosting the further adventures of Pig Bodine, contains a long chapter which details the early lives of Mondaugen and Weissmann in German-controlled Southwest Africa. Other works of literature that may provide a useful foundation for a greater appreciation of Gravity’s Rainbow include Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, Goethe’s Faust Part I, Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the Argentine saga of Hernandez, Martín Fierro. (Of all these, the Rilke is by far the most important.) A little bit of history might be helpful as well, so it won’t hurt to brush up a bit on the end of WWII, the V-2 bombardment of London, the allied occupation of Germany, and the consequences of the V-2 Rocket program. The history of German industry plays some importance, and it always helps to be a little conversant with some elementary science. Random subjects that merit at least a trip to the Encyclopedia Britannica include Pavlovian psychology, the Kazakh people of the Russian steppes, coal tar derivatives, and some basic parapsychology. Some knowledge of the Qabalah and the Tarot will be extremely useful, as well as a little Teutonic mythology. The movie King Kong is referred to quite frequently, and I would advise renting some Fritz Lang movies to get a feel for prewar German film making. In the sphere of music, it may help to know a little bit about Beethoven, Rossini, and Webern, as well as having a passing familiarity with Wagner’s Tannhäuser opera. But before you feel suddenly exasperated, let me remind you that none of these things are by any means necessary; a reader’s guide such as Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion or the HyperArts Guide makes finding all this information quite easy. It all depends on what level you wish to approach the novel and how much you want to get out of it.
For the Truly Obsessed
For those dedicated — and perhaps slightly deranged — readers who wish to go to some of the “original sources” consulted by Pynchon, the following list provides works he directly consulted for various plot devices and atmospheric touches. (Thanks to Weisenburger for these.)
Gravity’s Rainbow is often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, and for some very good reasons. Both are often considered works of genius, both convey a sense of sprawling density, both juxtapose the vulgar and the sublime, both adopt a “hidden” organizational structure, and both share a playfulness and experimentation with the English language. It is this unique writing style that has the ability to both attract so many people and to confound them as well.
Gravity’s Rainbow is a large and ambitious book. Accordingly, a vast number of themes, topics, and ideas are explored in the novel. Every reader will sort through a wide range of motifs and ideas and focus on the ones which are most important to him; as the book says, “Each will have his own personal Rocket.” I shall endeavor to discuss a few that I personally find the most important.
The Preterite vs. the Elect
Perhaps one of the most thoroughly developed themes, and certainly one that Pynchon has explored before, is that of the struggle between the “preterite” and the “elect,” or the traditional dichotomy between the “common” classes and the “anointed” classes. (The former terms hail from his family’s Puritan background.) As Pynchon himself puts it, the preterite, while “in theory capable of idiocy, are much more apt to display competence, courage, humanity, wisdom, and other virtues associated, by the educated classes, with themselves.” This class distinction acts as a tangible dehumanizing force, permitting us to see each other as objects to be hated, feared, scorned, demonized, exploited, or manipulated. And it’s not just his characters who embody these roles — the whole novel seems to be impregnated with a sinister force, a Presence that hovers between the two classes like a malignant angel (or a malevolent version of Maxwell’s Demon?) carefully at work maintaining the illusionary divisions between one human and another. This sense of sentient division is not just reserved for the traditional targets (organized religion, the military, corporate entities, intelligence and security agencies, various racist groups, u.s.w.) but, through the hypnotic power of Pynchon’s prose, is extended to include speculations that our whole material world is somehow involved in the conspiracy. Falling rockets, the growth patterns of cities, and even the forces that govern the laws of molecular bonding are all subjected to the manipulations of this force. Linked with the actions and inactions of the characters — each with their own personal agendas, delusions of control, and hidden networks — this pervasive sense of paranoia gives rise very quickly to a clear distinction between Us and Them. “Us,” or “We,” are the preterite, the common, the vulgar: possessed with a certain Foolishness, for sure, but also endowed with the ability — if We want to — to see through Their systems of death and decay, Their artificial distinctions and forces of normalization, vectors that force Us into the compromise of a thousand little deaths. . . . When organized (and that itself is always risky, ephemeral) We can form a potent Counterforce. But that takes a very intricate knowledge of control, of hope, of love, and of laughter — the ability to cry out Joyce’s most emphatic yes! to counterbalance the Burroughsian schlupp! of vampiric absorption. “They” are the classic Masters, hung up on control systems, worshipers of the Northern Death Cults — from SS officers to mad Pavlovians, believers in the Granfalloon, inhabitants of corporations and governments, rendered faceless by the sheer multiplicity and interchangeability of Their bland servants. . . . They are, as Burroughs might have it, running the Mayan scheme, the classic Mind Control Game. And the most frightening thing of all is not that They can control Us; but that it’s so very easy for Us to simply — and slowly, one decision at a time — become Them. In Something Wicked this Way Comes, Ray Bradbury asks of evil: “What will they look like? How will we know them?” Looking nervously at each other, his characters suddenly apprehend the answer: “Maybe, said their eyes, they’re already here.”
“An army of lovers can be beaten.”
Love. So simple and yet incalculably profound . . . what great works fail to grapple with “love’s bitter mystery?” For Pynchon, love is a vital force, a transforming essence that runs through his work like a scarlet mesh of life-giving arteries. Pynchon is not afraid to proclaim Love a transcendent power, a mystical state that elevates us from the chaos and filth of the world and which has the capacity — even if only for a fleeting moment — to transform us into radiant beings. Like Gabriel García Márquez, whom Pynchon admires, he is not afraid to stand at the edge of the abyss of his irony and cynicism, turn his back to its well-brooded depths, and reach out for a holy flame, as if to say, well, yes, I see what my back is against, but hey! this makes a difference. . . . Love is something that even They can experience despite Their attempts to bring it under control; something that may even offer Them a brief glimpse of redemption. It is something that We can also experience — indeed, something that We must. Love is omnipresent in Gravity’s Rainbow; but not just spiritual love, or carnal love, or romantic love . . . the prism of Gravity’s Rainbow refracts the whole spectrum contained in the white light of this central enigma, from the infrared heat of carnal lusts to the yellows of jaded decadence to the unseen ultraviolets of Satoric communion. . . . There is room for all: soul love, divine and painful in its flaming intensity; erotic sorcery, green and verdant as the Spring equinox; physical love, painful in its immediacy, the unexplainable wiring of the flesh to the aching heart; the broken love that binds together dysfunctional systems of mutual need; casual but tender couplings that affirm life and stave away the night; Freudian desires that rake the heart with talons confused guilt . . . even the simple touch of one stranger to another in the dark, to reassure, to say that I am not alone. . . . If the dynamic between Us and Them provides Gravity’s Rainbow with a polarized tension, love is the current that flows mysteriously between both systems — sometimes binding, sometimes destroying — but always electrifying. To quote one of Gravity’s Rainbow‘s most memorable — albeit warped — characters: “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. . . .”
“Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation.”
Transformation, transfiguration, transubstantiation, metamorphosis — all modulations of this leitmotif may be heard in Gravity’s Rainbow to varying degrees, ranging from the comically vulgar to the sublime. One of the most powerful manifestations of this theme is that of the mundane or the vulgar being translated to a higher level of being, whether it be acts of sex into acts of communion, the Rocket into a vehicle of Salvation, or coal tars into iridescent dyes: “We passed over the coal tars. A thousand different molecules waited in the preterite dung. This is the sign of revealing. Of unfolding. This is one meaning of mauve, the first new color on Earth. . . .” Occasionally these transfigurations are satirically inverted, as in one unforgettable scene where brutal acts of sexual domination are mapped onto the Qabalistic ascent to the throne of God. Everything is subject to transfiguration, even death — but understanding the nature of these transfigurations, comprehending their meaning — there lies our dilemma, and a source of much delusion. When the whole world becomes an open text, a Torah whose letters may be permutated and recombined into new meanings, “always unfolding,” where can we locate an immutable Holy Center? If, indeed, one even exists, and is not merely a mirage formed by the unconscious projections of our desires onto an insouciant reality. Does ultimate meaning exist? Or are we forever locked into our own permutations, unable to grasp the secret name of God, unable to ever apprehend the Word? Pynchon is silent on any answers — indeed, he even takes pains to unmask our uncertainty even farther by serving up purposeful ambiguities. Through the clever placement of ironic transformations and satirical inversions, there are several focal points throughout the work where two opposing images exist simultaneously, setting up an ironic dissonance — the fact that Hiroshima occurs on the Feast of the Transfiguration, for example, or that Easter Sunday corresponds to April Fool’s Day. Is there a message in such a dissonance? Which image contains the greater truth, or is the truth to be found in the juxtaposition itself? Or do we truly dwell in an observer-created reality, where the only meaning we are allowed is what we create from the primal chaos, where all connections we see are fictions, imposed by us upon the universe in order to maintain an illusion of understanding, a ghost of control. . . .
“All these things arise from one difficulty: control.”
The issue of control is another theme which Gravity’s Rainbow spends a good deal of time exploring from several angles. What is the nature of control? How does this power spring into being? How can it shift from one locus to another? Can a person or a group really possess this power, or is control itself another illusion, another case of humans foisting egocentric assertions upon a chaotic universe? Almost every character in the book seems to have a different perspective on control, and this includes even the dead — whose often cryptic pronouncements from beyond the grave seem to indicate that the living misunderstand its nature entirely. For some, the need for control becomes a point of obsession, and for others, a point of possession — a vampiric hunger to force their will onto other beings. Images of control and its consequences are numerous throughout the book. Statistical equations force characters to confront their utter lack of influence over events that may permanently change their lives. Private lives are dissected in order to find any defect in the soul; any flaw, addiction or psychological fault line where another may insert hooks, binding wires and puppet strings. (As Weisenburger eloquently states, “a person’s profoundest nightmares are colonized and used for purposes of control.”) There are many points in the narrative at which a character’s development hinges on how they deal with this issue. Each must come to an understanding concerning his or her locus of control; and the resolution of this realization often marks a turning point in the character’s development. Like everything else in Gravity’s Rainbow, control is seen from two often contradictory angles. On one hand, Pynchon seems to be saying that you have the willpower to shift your locus of control to yourself, and by removing it from the grip of others, a new level of self-awareness and maturity is reached. On the other hand, perhaps the very idea of control itself is an illusion. Like a rocket at the point of Brennschluss, the point at which its engines cut off and it surrenders to the immutable Law of Gravity, we may be bound to laws and systems we can barely perceive. And at first, these seem to be mutually antagonistic perspectives. But what if these two opposing states have a resolution at a higher energy level — at least the dead seem to hint at such. There is a certain terrible beauty to this idea of complete surrender, a paradoxical freedom found only in the complete dissolution of the ego. So what are the consequences of surrendering control? Perhaps it depends on the nature of the surrender. Those who have never pulled their locus of control inward in the first place are at risk of losing their soul, in danger of becoming one of the Qlippoth, the “shells of the dead” to forever wander souless and blank. But what of those who have internalized their locus of control, and, through the alchemical transformation of a higher understanding, have made the decision to voluntarily surrender it — not to Them, evil motherfuckers that They are — but rather to the flow of universe itself? Is this the path to Satori, the key that allows us to “become the crossroads,” to enact a mystical transformation to a higher evolutionary state?
“It’s been a prevalent notion . . . Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation.“
In the beginning there was the unbroken truth, a divine Unity, the Limitless Light of the Godhead — a time when all was One. But perfect symmetry is sterile, and holds only limitless Potential. The symmetry must be broken for diversity to bring forth life. The very pressures of Divine Being forced a breaking of this Unity. In order for Creation, there must be a Big Bang, a breaking of symmetry . . . the Word must be spoken and the Godhead must fall down in a fertilizing shower of divine sparks. This destruction and materialization of pure energy into a cascade of creation — this splintering of the One into the Many — is a Gnostic and Qabalistic notion that Pynchon has used before, and one which provides the book with a background suffused with an Edenic sense of loss and an almost instinctual hope for return. Many of his characters — including even a curious contingent of body cells! — are vested with an intuitive sense of fragmentation, of mystical yearning, of impending near-revelation. There is a sense that his characters are drifting between two metaphysical shores, with a haunting awareness of spiritual disconnection on one side and an almost epileptic near-apprehension of the Word on the other, but tragically unable to fully comprehend either. . . .
In closing, I would like to reaffirm my belief in the open text — I am not suggesting that my interpretations are somehow definitive, comprehensive, or even correct. Pynchon’s work is so large, so encompassing, that to claim I know all his intentions, themes, and meanings is quite foolhardy. I am sure that I have neglected some things that a few of you find very important, just as I hope that I brought to light some interpretations that might be worth considering. My favorite metaphor for reading Gravity’s Rainbow is that old story about the student who rushes to his Zen master, filled with enthusiastic questions, meanings, relationships — only to be whacked on the head with a stick. Gravity’s Rainbow is that cheerfully disruptive Zen stick. In spite of this whacking, however, if I had to select one “message” learned from the book to stand as the most important, I would probably let Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake speak for me:
“They are in Love. Fuck the War.”
— Allen B. Ruch
Here is a list of the sources I used in writing this introduction
Crowley, Aleister. The Book of Thoth. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1969.
Fortune, Dion. The Mystical Qabalah. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1984.
Leary, Timothy. Neuropolitique. Scottsdale, AZ: New Falcon Press, 1991.
Weisenburger, Steven. A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988
21 May 2000