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Tannhäuser

In a note to 3.2 of Gravity’s Rainbow, Weisenburger explains Pynchon’s use of the word “Tannhäuserism” as follows:

The tragic error of Tannhäuser — for example, in Richard Wagner’s operatic version of the myth — was to postpone his quest in order to linger for one year of sensual, “mindless pleasure” with the goddess Venus under her mountain called Venusberg.

For further details, I’ve taken the easy route and discovered from Wikipedia (also, Wagner’s version) that legend has knight/singer/poet Tannhäuser discovering Venusberg and lingering there for a while. Venus being the goddess of love, one assumes that he frolics and fornicates a bit, much to the consternation of God and, if I read it correctly, sort of behind the back of one Elisabeth, whose heart he later wins back with a song (just how it always goes, eh?). Further hilarity and songmaking ensue, and poor Tannhäuser goofs up again, praising Venus to the point of basically insulting Elisabeth to her face, when she’s poised to give the winner of what amounts to an old Teutonic rap battle the wish of his choice — which I presume to be a setup for betrothal. Tannhäuser screws it up to the horror of the court and goes looking for the Pope to seek absolution. The Pope replies that it’s more likely that his own staff will  sprout blossoms (I’m going to snicker here for Christine’s benefit) than that Tannhäuser will be forgiven, and Tannhäuser goes back to Venusberg dejected. Three days later he arose from the dead the Pope’s staff in fact blooms, but our venery-seeking poet is gone forever.

The Wikipedia entry adds this:

The legend has been interpreted as a traditional folk tale which has been subject to Christianization where the familiar story of the seduction of a human being by an elf or fairy leads to the delights of the fairy-realm but later the longing for his earthly home. His desire is granted, but he is not happy, and in the end returns to the fairy-land.

Well of course this makes me think back to an earlier post in which I noodle a bit on the costs of succumbing to temptation. You may recall that I considered Pointsman’s temptation alongside Slothrop’s. It turns out that Pointsman also has a subterranean Venusian connection (which I discovered by landing on this pretty much by accident). In 1.13, we find this (emphasis mine):

Surely the volume preceding The Book — the first Forty-one Lectures — came to him at age 28 like a mandate from the submontane Venus he could not resist: to abandon Harley Street for a journey more and more deviant, deliciously on, into a labyrinth of conditional-reflex work in which only now, thirteen years along the clew, he’s beginning to circle back, trip across old evidence of having come that path before, here and there to confront consequences of his younger, total embrace… But she did warn him — did she not? was he ever listening? of the deferred payment, in its full amount. Venus and Ariadne! She seemed worth any price, the labyrinth looking, in those days, too intricate for them…

So, as Pointsman ventured into the labyrinth of science as if at the behest of the love goddess beckoning from under Venusberg, Slothrop too now goes into the tunnels of the Mittelwerke, where he is taunted (though nobody’s actually aware of the fact) by what amount to gnomes singing of a man horny for a rocket. And just as Pointsman’s quest for knowledge has lured him into the confusing labyrinth of his work, Slothrop’s quest for knowledge of Imipolex G has led him underground as well, to the very place where the object of his unwitting affection has been forged.

Interestingly, for Pointsman, the labyrinth is a place to have been avoided. His thoughts as laid out in the quote above suggest regret, a wish that he had heeded the warning not to enter the labyrinth. Slothrop’s view of the underworld seems less — or at least differently — depressive:

There is that not-so-rare personality disorder known as Tannhäuserism. Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations — Venus, Frau Holda, her sexual delights — no, many come, actually, for the gnomes, the critters smaller than you, for the sepulchral way time stretches along your hooded strolls down here, quietly through courtyards that go for miles, with no anxiety about getting lost … no one stares, no one is waiting to judge you … out of the public eye … even a Minnesinger needs to be alone … long cloudy-day indoor walks … the comfort of a closed place, where everyone is in complete agreement about Death.

This poor fellow, who has an increasingly keen and correct sense that he’s been watched all his life, and never more openly or oppressively than as at present, just wants a refuge.

Like Tannhäuser, Slothrop’s had the odd carnal dalliance or two himself, debatably with more outwardly catastrophic consequences (or at least associations). I’m a little ahead in the reading and am in a position to give you the head’s up that the Tannhäuser theme continues to appear. So if it’s a thread that interests you, keep your eyes peeled.

  1. Dennis
    March 29, 2012 at 12:26 am

    Usually, in Aurthurian romances, all of the things that we see as interesting are really distractions from the real purpose. The real purpose would be the grail or, equally, self-discovery. Now that Slothrop is in the Zone he has less chance of such dalliances (well, ok, there was Gelli), but he now moves with purpose and direction. This suggests to me that he will achieve some measure of self-awareness, which he sorely lacked when we first meet him.

  2. Dennis
    March 29, 2012 at 1:02 am

    I wanted to discuss a slightly different motif in the book. I’ve touched on it a bit previously, but I think that it could stand some more depth. That issue is the one concerning the role of science and knowledge. It struck me forcefully in the opening parable of section 3.3, in the _Tales_of_the_Schwarzkommando_. In it Enzian mocks the engineers for finding beauty in the equation and dismaying at their inablility to achieve numbers close to the theory. This attitude is mirrored in Pointsman as he tries to fit the reality of Slothrop to the theory that he gleans from The Book. But we already know, as should Pointsman, that the map’s correspondence is not connected to Slothrop’s sexual proclivity. 1st: there is a 2 day delay in the rocket at Darlene’s quadrant, 2nd: the jolly investgators find no correspondence between the names. Just these alone could be explained by 1: the correspondence is good enough and 2: those guys are boobs and might just be able to find a cantalope in a market, but not much more. But the third instance seals it for at least the reader when Slothrop admits to himself that the names and places were changed or made up.

    I think that much of the book is a diatribe against the smuggness of sure knowledge. There is something of the PoMo tendancy to undermine fixed reference points. I don’t want to get all Derida, but there is something similar to Nietzsche’s division of thought into Apollonian, with its emphasis on order, reason and comprehension, and Dionysian, with its empahsis on ecstatics, direct experience and understanding. And Kaufman’s translations were certainly in vogue during the period Pynchon would be writing.

    To me the difference becomes clear in that same section (3.3) where the feeling of letting loose for the Europeans is envoked (317/15-29). It’s almost as if Pynchon anticipated the tag line: “What happens in the Kalihari, stays in the Kalihari.” The forms proper to Europe are mired in death and decadence. Ergot and agaric are both fungal, but cannibis, opium and coca are floral. The former produce hallucinations while the latter are mood alterers.

    The conflation of science and pre-destiny (a feature of Calvanism) also comes out of Nietzsche, since those systems of belief come out the Apollonian mode of thought and share the same metaphysical basis (the intrinsic belief in the ability to know objectively what can be experienced subjectively). The true vision of the world, for him, comes out of the Dionysian mode. That mode, however, is too frightening for most of us and so we build systems of belief to shield us from chaos.

  3. March 31, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    Reading a bit late this week, but I appreciate the tittering on my behalf at the blooming staff. And the insertion of the Pope in a Grecian myth. And the name Venusberg, which would imply that if she already has her *own* mountain, what could she possibly need with another.

    And now, thanks to Dennis, I’ve moved north. “those guys are boobs and might just be able to find a cantalope in a market” had me giggling.

    Until he brought up Derrida. If I have to reread this book in terms of Deconstruction, I might go subterranean, too.

    • Dennis
      April 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      I’m glad that I that I could make you titter, but I swear it wasn’t an intentional reference to breasts. As for the other point, I don’t believe that you should even try to read through a Deconstructionist mindset, and I don’t believe that Pynchon would want you to. My only point is that Pynchon seems preocuppied with the over-reliance on belief systems. That the re-affirmations of those belief systems often serve to blind the adherants of those system. And so, reading nature, the Calvanists re-affirm their place in the hierarchy of God’s world. Looking at economy the successful Capitolist believes that work and native acumen alone account for his position. The successes of chemistry and classical physics led scientist to believe that they could predict the future, and, in an attempt to replicate those successes in other fields, led to some of the worst of Pavlovian social thinking.

      That is the message of the Enzian’s parable. Mathematics created such potential and enabled the creation of the rocket as a viable weapon. But when the data differed from the expectations of the math, the scientists attempted to force reality into the restrictions of the map. Hence, Enxian’s rebuke.

      Friends don’t let friends deconstruct.

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