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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.

  1. DCN
    March 5, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Well, I’ve been reading furiously and am almost caught up. In fact, I just finished the Blicero/Katja/Gottfried section last night.

    This is a great post: temptation is right. The desire for and satisfaction of fantasy. The novel begins with a fantasy and with Pirate, the man who manages fantasies for people. He himself receives secret messages, readable only because his superiors know his deepest fantasies and desires.

    Temptation is tied to destruction. For Blicero, it is obvious. Not just his extremely violent fetishes, but his desire for Katja, though he knows it might bring the bombs down on him. Compare this to Slothrop’s conditioning. He’s been conditioned to respond sexually to destruction, or as Jessica rightly worries, to bring the destruction because of his desire.

    One thought: We usually consider sex as being linked with life, but that only applies to Roger’s world between zero and one. Here we are Beyond the Zero, in the inverse world, the negative world, where sex becomes death.

    • March 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm

      I hadn’t even thought about Pirate!

    • Dennis Fleming
      March 6, 2012 at 12:50 am

      Joseph Campbell once connected most myths on the advent of procreation with the advent of death, saying either without the other would be disasterous.

  2. Lauren Gallant
    March 5, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Brilliant post, identifying temptation as the central rif in this episode. I was laughing so hard at the image of Slothrop stuffing one disgusting candy after another into his mouth, mitigated only by swallows of the treacherous tea, that I missed this angle entirely. And even within the scene there is fantasy: surely THIS one will remove this horrid taste once and for all.

    One thing (among many) that I am unclear on: does Slothrop connect his scenes of satisfaction to the destruction that follows, or is this observation made only by others? In other words, does he know that his urges lead inevitably to catastrophe, yet follow them anyway?

    • March 5, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      I like what you’ve said here about fantasy within the scene. Surely THIS one indeed!

      I don’t think Slothrop has made the connection about the overlap in the maps of bombs and coitus, and I’m not even sure that he has access to the data about the bomb sites, though I don’t think we’re told explicitly that he doesn’t.

  3. Schnelly
    March 5, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    Great insight! I always thought this scene was Pynchon’s way of adding a little comic relief after burying the reader in the rubble of wartime London. I like where you’re going with the idea temptation. I can see it clearly in Blicero in which temptation and death are one and the same. In Pointsman, the temptation for control is the product of vanity. He is a wannabe Pavlov who desires nothing but respect from his colleagues and fame. Slothrop is where I think the notion of temptation gets fuzzy and I say this only because Slothrop motives are less clear and defined than the aforementioned characters. (maybe not so much Blicero…but definitely Pointsman) Slothrop’s motives seem to lie in shadows around him. In a sense, he has no control over his actions. Yet Oddly enough he is immune to all the danger that surrounds him and this includes the consequences of his so-called temptations (i.e., his sex life). So in the end, do temptations even matter to who Slothrop is as a character? I don’t know. Just some random thoughts…

    • March 5, 2012 at 11:52 pm

      I don’t know that temptation matters a lot to who Slothrop is — more that it matters to who we are. I’ll come back briefly to this in a post on the reading for week four (unless I chicken out). I’m a little hesitant to commit to any sort of assertion that Pynchon was any sort of moralist about things like succumbing to temptation (in fact, I tend to think he’s a pretty free-spirited guy, almost a Big Lebowski type, or at least a couple of characters in some later books would seem to be, and without paying dear prices for the lifestyle). But it is hard to read all of these things that seem to fit a moralistic template cautioning against taking temptation lightly without drawing certain conclusions about what sort of message Pynchon’s trying to send. Maybe I need to elevate my level of thinking past ninth-grade English and the notion that a sort of motif need be thematically significant complete with a lesson about the world.

    • Dennis Fleming
      March 6, 2012 at 12:53 am

      But surely he is not completely immune, since his very appitites are what make him the object of Pointsman’s desire.

  4. Dennis Fleming
    March 6, 2012 at 12:55 am

    Oh, and… brilliant commentary. The candy segment had always been one of my favorites and, as a consequence, was willing to let it stand on its own. You’ve given me too much to ponder now.

  5. March 6, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Even though your post is “about” Slothrop, I’m very interested in what you have to say about Pointsman. Pointsman seemed like a dead character to me…plugging away at saliva tests which couldn’t really produce anything satisfactory. And he didn’t seem to mind it. But now you’ve got me thinking about his temptation towards human brains (said in a zombie voice of course). He acts very pure in his intentions (sure he may kill someone, but it’s all for the good of the answer), but is he just succumbing to the temptation of success, or fame, or even knowledge?

    What kind of cookie was it (I like Samoas best too).

    • March 6, 2012 at 11:21 am

      I definitely had the sense that Pointsman’s not happy wrangling the dogs (I mean, he’s a scientist skulking around in the dark who gets his foot stuck in a toilet — that can’t be what he imagined for himself). And I don’t think of him as pure in his intentions; I see him as downright malignant, and I think he’s on sort of a power trip (this may be reinforced by small things from the reading over the next couple of weeks). Roger sees him as basically evil incarnate too, if I’m remembering correctly, though he oddly enough continues to associate with him, perhaps out of what are the sort of purer motivations you mention.

      The funny thing is that I’m not even sure what kind of cookies they were. They were in a yellow box. The vanilla or lemon flavored sandwich cookies, maybe?

      • March 6, 2012 at 11:27 am

        Yes, I wouldn’t say Pointsman was happy, more like resigned. I forgot about the toilet though, tee hee. He has been recently described as evil and creepy so perhaps he’s due for an explosion.

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