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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.

  1. DCN
    March 12, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Your comments on Franz watching movies, and the movies themselves, reminds me again of the tension between Roger and Pointsman. Pointsman is about the one or the zero, Roger the space between. With film, you have the distinct images, separated by space–image, no-image. Only by linking the individual frames together does a meaning emerge. That is easy with a movie, but how about Franz? If he misses a swath of the film because of his periodic dozing, what meaning does it have?

    Slothrop too, like Roger, takes seemingly unrelated data points–an octopus, a pie fight, missing ID–and begins to craft a narrative (someone is after him). He sees everything (or has everything presented to him) in terms of slapstick movies of the 30s and 40s.

    Roger, Pointsman, Franz, Slothrop–they are all trying to impose a meaning on potentially meaningless information.

    Or like us: We are given these slivers of story and we begin to impose a meaning and an order. This goes back to the discussion on difficulty we had. We come to novels with some sense of how novels work and what makes a “good” novel. With GR, we try to fit the story into what we anticipate from a story, even a post-modern story, and we start to go a little nuts. Is there a meaning? If there is, are we guessing at that right one? Have we missed frames that would change everything? Are there things between the frames that are being held from us?

    • March 12, 2012 at 10:31 am

      You’ve put much more eloquently what I was trying clumsily to gesture toward in my closing sentence. Thanks!

      • DCN
        March 12, 2012 at 10:42 am

        Yeah, sorry. I didn’t mean to restate what you said. I just got going and got wrapped up in the sound of my own typing. My apologies.

      • March 12, 2012 at 10:43 am

        Oh, no apologies necessary. It was a very nice amplification and a clearer statement of what I was poking at. I’m sincerely grateful.

    • Dennis Fleming
      March 12, 2012 at 8:17 pm

      But Roger is not creating a narrative out of his numbers. That’s where the tension between him and the others emerges. They are just numbers and the dots fall exactly where they are predicted (in a statistical manner). The fact that others see prophetic powers in him are their projections. Look at section V. p54 l22 -57 l 13 where there is a catalog of fallacies and projections that Mexico battles. Instead, he recognizes that it’s just an equation, or, in his words (thoughts): “have I ever pretended to be anything I’m not? all I’m doing is plugging numbers into a well-known equation…”
      The difference between him and Pointsman (the antiMexico, no hyphen) is eloquently stated by Pointsman, himself, V56 ll 15-23 especially: “How can Mexico play, so at his ease, with these symbols of randomness and fright [frighting to Pointsman]? Innocent as a child, perhaps unaware–perhaps–that in his play he wrecks the elegant rooms of history, threatening the idea of cause and effect itself”

      • DCN
        March 13, 2012 at 9:05 am

        I think you are 100% right, but for the sake of argument and talking out loud, what if Roger does have a narrative? It isn’t a narrative of meaning like the others perhaps, but he is still finding a pattern in rocket crashes. He is taking the seemingly separate crashes and showing that they are all linked through some guiding mathematical principle.

        Perhaps Roger, Pointsman and Slothrop are points on a spectrum of meaning. Roger seeks nothing more than the math behind the falling, but applies no larger meaning. Not content with just charting the likelihood that a thing will happen, Pointsman seeks causes and their effects behind those things. Slothrop is at the far end and creates human stories out of the the things that are happening around him filling in the gaps.

  2. DCN
    March 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I’ll plead sleepiness this morning. Too much drowsy!

  3. March 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    What I would say is that Roger lacks a narrative, but the continuum that you note is surely there. The danger for Roger would be a world entirely devoid of interaction, since the power of accident and probability seems to preclude it. The danger exists that mathematics becomes reality and human interaction becomes an emergent property of the mathematics. A similar argument is heard from Edmund O. Wilson who argues that free will is an illusion and that we evolved to believe that we have choices. The War (always in caps, like Empire) works that way.

  4. March 14, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    YES: “…the preterite are people denied access to certain knowledge…which would seem to apply to…the jump-cut narrative of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow.”

    This might be better placed in the favorite quotes section, but I liked the (kinda meta-fictional) bit about “[giant rain asterisks] inviting him [Slothrop] to look down at the bottom of the text of the day, where footnotes will explain all. He isn’t about to look. Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any kind of sense at day’s end.”

    I will say that the last sentence doesn’t bode well for a nice little plot wrap-up [which I never would have expected anyway…] 🙂

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