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Alchemy

In section 2.7 of Gravity’s Rainbow, we see a number of things that might be considered sorts of alchemy. Slothrop is converted into Ian Scuffing, who goes on a quest to learn about Imipolex G, a quest that requires the conversion of capital into information. Then of course there’s the conversion of molecules into plastics like Imipolex G. Earlier, we saw some of the history of such processes as we learned that the nasty (base?) substance coal-tar was discovered to be of great use in creating beautiful dyes in the purple/mauve family (royal colors, note). Coal-tar derivative indole, which Pynchon mentions by name, is also used to convert chemicals into the mind-altering drug LSD, which also comes up. Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest a sort of alchemical interchangeability between the (mind-altered?) nuts and the keepers who emerge in the silly chorus line number that describes Slothrop’s experience with information traders in Zürich, but the transmogrification of air into diamonds within that episode seems alchemical enough. Even the baking of bread — a conversion of flour, water, yeast, and a few pinches of salt and sugar into a delightful, aromatic loaf of sustenance — struck me as being something of a nod to alchemy. But the kicker is Pynchon’s mention of an alembic, which Weisenburger describes as “the sealed vessel in which the adept seeks to achieve a conjunction of all opposites to produce gold.” Although I do not herewith propose a debt on Pynchon’s part to renascence dramatist Ben Jonson, I also couldn’t help thinking of the social climbers in his great play The Alchemist and of Pynchon’s persistent references to the preterite (and by implication the elect). As is often the case, I have no great thesis here — just a few observations.

  1. March 21, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    I would also argue that the description of the creation of the topsoil on the top floor of the maisonette in the first section follows the schematic of alchemical change. Mind-altering is the original force of alchemy with attempts to gather literal gold only taking force around the 16th century with chemistry’s advances. Pynchon seems to treat drugs in a much more recreation form, however. I think immediately of Osbie Feel in section 14 creating magic mushroom powder to smoke. There is nothing of the transformative power there. But for Slothrop there is definite transformation from an innocent to counter-conspirator and beyond.

    An alembic is the tube on a pot distiller that captures the essences (alchohol or essential oils).

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