Signs and Symptoms
I couldn’t help noticing in this week’s reading (1.19 – 2.3) that Pynchon writes a whole lot about things beneath the surface, including most notably the machinations leading to the theft of Slothrop’s identity so that, stuck, he can be manipulated and monitored as part of Pointman’s great experiment. Much has been choreographed with the intention — failed — of hoodwinking Slothrop without letting him know he’s being hoodwinked. Weisenburger points out that section 2.1 is very theatrical and that Katje pulls something of a magician’s stunt by covering Slothrop with a red cloth so that his identity can be made to disappear. And of course it’s worth noting that the epigraph that opens part 2 references a movie about an animal that captures a woman, much as the octopus Grigori somewhat comically captures Katje. Movies, of course, also attempt to dupe you into believing the stories they put before you, so the epigraph does more than simply prefigure the Grigori scene; it telegraphs something about the understanding that creeps along beneath the surface of at least the opening chapters of the section: that there’s the way things seem and there’s the manipulation being carried out to make them seem that way.
But it starts before we even get into part 2. Consider this exchange between Franz and Leni Pökler in 1.19:
She even tried, from what little calculus she’d picked up, to explain it to Franz as Δt approaching zero, eternally approaching, the slices of time growing thinner and thinner, a succession of rooms each with walls more silver, transparent, as the pure light of the zero comes nearer….
But he shook his head. “Not the same, Leni. The important thing is taking a function to its limit. Δt is just a convenience, so that it can happen.”
What Leni sees as a way of understanding something about the way the world works Franz brushes aside as a convenience. A scientist, he sees the way things operate under the surface, while Leni tries to use a mathematical metaphor to explain to him her outward perception of the world. In other words, it’s as if he sees what lies beneath while she sees only the surface; he seeks cause while she’s stuck with effect.
He was the cause-and-effect man: he kept at her astrology without mercy, telling her what she was supposed to believe, then denying it. “Tides, radio interference, damned little else. There is no way for changes out there to produce changes here.”
“Not produce,” she tried, “not cause. It all goes along together. Parallel, not series. Metaphor. Signs and symptoms. Mapping on to different coordinate systems, I don’t know…” She didn’t know, all she was trying to do was reach.
We learn next that Franz can’t stay awake during films (and how filmlike that description of sliced time), and that he watches them “nodding in and out of sleep,” as if his experience of movies mimics the way moving pictures themselves worked, stills spliced together but always with gaps in between. Leni wonders how “did he connect together the fragments he saw while his eyes were open?” Moreover, he’s unable simply to enjoy films, picking at technical points because he’s more tuned in to the mechanisms of the films than the feelings they evoke. Yet we find him pasting up advertisements for a film and finally attempting to attend the film only to find the theater empty. This misadventure brings him to the rocket, which ignites in him a passion for the work, though at the cost of his partnership with Leni. The cause-and-effect man indeed.
This is all of course in the past. Jumping back to the present of the novel and all its obfuscations, we find the American Slothrop forced to go about confusingly in a British uniform, speaking with Dodson-Truck about signs and symbols and their hidden meanings, trying to grok schematics whose symbols are reversed as if to camouflage them, growing one of many possible types of mustache that could provide different cues about what type of person he might be. As he encounters the somewhat chameleonish Katje in the Himmler-Spielsaal room and ponders the roulette wheel, he thinks of “the game behind the game.” Within a page or so, we learn that Slothrop knows of some room in his past he doesn’t have access to, some horrible hidden thing that Katje seems to know about that he doesn’t. Later, as Dodson-Truck confides in Slothrop, we read again of this “terrible secret.”
Then we move into a séance and learn that the medium Eventyr, who channels the control Peter Sascha, doesn’t even have access to the very information he channeled, that he gets only the censored (read: manipulated) transcripts after the fact. He thinks of his “hidden life” and mentions “acrostics” — a sort of poetry but also a sort of crude code in which one message is buried within another. And this very notion of a person with access to some other plane hidden to most seems related to the concept of things being other than they seem.
It took delving into the chemistry of coal-tar to produce from an unlikely nasty substance a whole dye industry that made beautiful things.
And, finally, there is Slothrop’s unpleasant feeling that everybody around him seems to know something that he doesn’t. Is it paranoia if it’s true? He has access to the facts as they seem, but the machinery driving the great theater of his capture is a little off-kilter, a little bit too funhouse maybe, and he’s aware dimly that something fishy’s going on, though he lacks the hidden knowledge he’d need to have in order to understand just what.
Several times now, we’ve seen this funny little word “preterite,” which before reading Gravity’s Rainbow I had encountered only as it pertained to verb tense. Pynchon uses the word to mean something like “common people,” but there’s also the more specific meaning (rare according to the OED) “a person not elected to salvation by God.” In other words, the preterite are people denied access to certain knowledge/salvation/whatever that the elect do have access to, which would seem to apply pretty well to poor Slothrop, as, with less dire ramifications, to those of us consuming the shuddering frames a film is edited down to, or the jump-cut narrative of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow.