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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.

Christine Stole My Title

March 11, 2012 4 comments

(The longer this continues, the more I think we’re cosmic brain twins.)

A tsunami of work blew up in my face this week and sucked all the time right out my lungs, but like Carlotta Campion, I’m still here (skip ahead to 24:36 if you must).

Wow, we had a doozy of a reading for this week. I feel like I have so many things to say that they’re almost fighting for my attention and my words. It’s like Three Stooges Syndrome (illustrated at right), only with thoughts instead of germs. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that we’ve got some very dense sections this week. There’s so very much that I know I’ll leave out something I had planned to cover. One of the benefits of being Jeff-come-lately, though: Daryl and Christine have already covered some of it.

I want to look mostly at the Katje section (1.14), although the points that interest me the most also come up in the Christmas section (1.16). Okay but first, on the level of pure plot: The message that Pirate Prentice, um, revealed in 1.11—that was the order to extract Katje, right? Or, since rockets ostensibly launched from the occupied Netherlands would make for an awfully inefficient way for the Allies to transmit orders among themselves, was it instead a request from Katje herself? (If this is a spoiler thing, just tell me as much; I can be patient.)

I’ve called it the Katje section because she bookends it (being secretly videotaped for some kind of conditioning experiment on an octopus?), but it’s really got a number of centers of gravity: the S/M-drag-kinky-Hansel-and-Gretel setup with Blicero, Blicero’s own experience in Südwestafrika, Gottfried, and Frans van der Groov and the dodos. Like I said, too much going on, so I want to focus on the thread of expansionism that runs through the whole thing. I actually sideswiped at this idea in my first post, and then this week it jumped up at me.

It took me a couple times through to figure this out, but the house where Katje, Gottfried, and Blicero play out their little game is in the Netherlands (it’s just outside the Hague, near Wassenaar and the Duindigt racecourse). Katje thinks of how to behave “in a conquered country, in one’s own occupied country.” The whole explanation for their setup—from her end, anyway—is that it’s about “formalizing” (better, say stylizing) the experience of extralegal subjugation as a way of coping through control. As Christine and Daryl both discuss, Blicero’s getting something else from it, and Gottfried seems to need the domination (incidentally, from what I’ve been able to find about conscription in the Wehrmacht at the time, Gottfried’s probably 17—not the child I originally thought), but for Katje it’s explicitly a strategy of living through military expansion into her home country.

As for Blicero, much of how he now relates to the world seems to have been formed by “his own African conquest.” The mere existence of German South-West Africa is obviously tied to colonialism, but more specifically, imperial Germany’s treatment of the Herero offers a premonition of Nazi policies toward the Jews. Rape, slave labor, and confiscation of land and property led the Herero to revolt; Germany’s response was the first genocide of the twentieth century, complete with concentration camps, corporate collusion, and medical experimentation. Blicero visits twenty years later and…falls in love? There’s obviously a huge amount of exploitation built into the situation (look for the narration calling Blicero “the white man” and “the European,” not to mention the likely pedophilia), but Blicero gives the boy a German name (power play, like renaming the towns and cities) from his beloved Rilke and calls him “Liebchen.” And then plays out the pattern again, but debased (further?), with Gottfried and his “doubleganger” Katje.

And then Frans van der Groov. I was boggled by this bit at first. (Love your reaction, Daryl, because it’s so close to mine.) But it turns out to be another story about expansionism, exploitation, and genocide. The Dutch went to Mauritius and found a strange bunch of birds with the audacity to not fear them. The dodos apparently deserved what they got because they were stupid, ugly, and not very tasty. Obviously they ought then to be extinguished. And for what? Nothing, as it turned out: “The enterprise here would have lasted about a human lifetime.” That’s a horrible enough story (and I found it surprisingly affecting that Frans forbore firing on the egg he found, but it didn’t make a difference since the dodos all died anyway), but then Frans turns it into a religious fantasy about bringing all the natives of wherever to God (“It is the purest form of European adventuring”), and suddenly it ties back to Enzian’s asking Blicero to make Ndjambi Karuna.

I was also going to talk about the Jamaican countertenor in 1.16, but it’s dinner time on Sunday; I think I’m late enough as it is. So let me just remark this:

These are not heresies so much as imperial outcomes, necessary as the black man’s presence, from acts of minor surrealism—which, taken in the mass, are an act of suicide, but which in its pathology, in its dreamless version of the real, the Empire commits by the thousands every day, completely unaware of what it’s doing. . . .

Seems to me to say that imperialism programs its own death the same way that Blicero looks to act out a story that inevitably ends with his.

Temptation

I may be dim, but both times I’ve read this far into Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ve been puzzled by the scene in which, chasing tail after his discharge from the abreaction ward, Slothrop lands himself in an old lady’s flat eating nasty candy. It’s a funny enough scene, but it always seemed sort of out of place amid the pretty serious stuff surrounding it.

It took a return to exercise after a lapse and the subsequent temptation of a box of Girl Scout cookies to open my eyes to what’s going on here. There it lay on the dresser, not even my favorite kind (Samoas win that title), but open, by gar, and all but leaping into my mouth as I dismounted the exercise machine and wiped away my sweat. Heart still pounding from exertion, I casually inspected the nutritional information printed on the box of cookies. Seven grams of fat and 170 calories in a serving; one cookie would cost me 2.3 grams of fat and 57 calories. As I did a little cost-benefit analysis, the connection struck me.

Blicero and Katje and Gottfried enact over and over again a fetishized game of Hansel and Gretel, and just a few pages later, Slothrop finds himself invited into an old crone’s house to feast on candy. Slothrop’s little confectionary adventure is a light-hearted callback to and dramatization of the folktale that Blicero appropriates. And the lesson in that folktale (bad parenting exemplum aside) and in Pynchon’s dual retelling of it has to do with temptation and its payoffs.

Blicero succumbs to the temptation of bedding a woman he suspects may be working for the British. Although he knows he’ll finally be given a push from behind into some oven or another, he’s certain it won’t come in the form of an air raid thanks to betrayal by Katje. But then she does leave, and he prepares for the worst, paying for his temptation in two, somewhat paradoxical, ways — he is, first, convinced that he was wrong to trust Katje after all and, second, denied the consummation of the betrayal he fears. Accustomed to controlling his playthings, he is now stripped altogether of control, and even of the illusion of making of his fate a sort of gift (a form of control in its own right, if what one reads about the rules in a sadomasochistic partnership is accurate — ie, that control of a situation is always just a single safe word away for the person being subjugated).

Slothrop’s temptation too comes at a cost, for we learn in 1.17 that the abreaction ward from which he has just been discharged has been bombed, and with it poor Spectro, who back in 1.8 shared a tense moment with Pointsman in which he tried to steer the behaviorist away from the temptation to try to experiment on Slothrop. Dipping his wick after entering that candy-strewn apartment costs lives, including that of a rare ally. (Of course, it’s not at all clear whether coitus is the cause or the effect here; still, I think the point is worth considering.)

Pointsman too confronts a great temptation. He’s tired of collecting the spit of dogs and isn’t terribly interested in studying the octopus Grigori, no matter how big and smart he is. He wants a man to poke and prod, and he wants in particular the man whose secret all the scientists paranormal and otherwise also covet. As 1.17 closes, we find Pointsman constructing rationalizations for designing an experiment around Slothrop, suffering be damned (“the man will suffer — perhaps, in some clinical way, be destroyed”), and he has his eye on the Nobel. It’s not just the shiny trophy he has his eye on, though; there’s something Faustian about Pointsman, and the connection Pynchon makes between his quest for knowledge and Theseus’s triumph in the labyrinth seems telling, for like Theseus, in order to win, Pointsman must destroy the creature that lies at the center of the labyrinth once he’s wended his way through it. Pointsman’s fall to temptation comes at the ultimate cost, in other words, of what scrap of humanity he may have left.

(It also occurs to me that like Theseus with his yarn, Hansel and Gretel leave breadcrumbs behind to help find their way out of their peril.)

Candy. Quim. Fame. Knowledge. Girl Scout cookies seem pretty insignificant as I ladder up that list, but it’s still hard not to feel a little satisfaction at having resisted.

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