Too Old By Now for Fairy Tales
I remember, when I read 3.11 of Gravity’s Rainbow several years ago, feeling sort of lost. This far into the book, I had absorbed a lot of information and failed to absorb a lot more, and I guess it wasn’t altogether clear to me why Pynchon was laying on me this big section about a so far pretty minor character. I remember being a little puzzled by the bleak children’s theme park and by the shocking and sudden leap to incest for no real reason I could discern. I probably sort of phoned in my reading of it at the time, feeling too fatigued by this time to go off in this direction.
On a second, closer reading, I’ve found 3.11 to be masterful and horrible and gorgeous. Weisenburger and others tell us that this episode is pretty much the heart of the book. It’s probably worth some careful attention and a reread if, like me on my first reading of it, you weren’t dazzled.
One of the things that pops up again and again in this chapter is chess. A few references:
He thought of himself as a practical man. At the rocket field they talked continents, encirclements — seeing years before the General Staff the need for a weapon to break ententes, to leap like a chess knight over Panzers, infantry, even the Luftwaffe.
She’d eaten in the canteen. Major Weissmann had brought her up on the train from Stettin, and they had played chess. Major Weissmann was a slow player, and they hadn’t finished the game. Major Weissman [sic] had bought her sweets…
Hardly any news of Leni. They had been separated, Ilse said, during the winter. She’d heard a rumor that her mother had been moved to a different camp. So, so. Present a pawn, withdraw the queen… Pökler laced up his shoes and calmly enough went out looking for the SS man, cornered him in his office, denounced him… the speech eloquently climaxing as he threw chessboard and pieces all into Weissmann’s arrogantly blinking face….
As the years passed, as they grew more nubile, would Pökler even come to fall in love with one — would she reach the king’s row that way and become a queen-substitute for lost, for forgotten Leni?
Board and pieces and patterns at least all did come clear for him, and Pökler knew that while he played, this would have to be Ilse — truly his child, truly as he could make her.
He has smiled, and drunk toasts, and traded barracks humor with Major Weissmann, while all the time, behind the music and the giggling, he could hear the flesh of pieces moved in darkness and winter across the marshes and mountain chains of the board…
As the years wear on and Pökler cycles through different incarnations of Ilse, he begins to find himself wondering why Weissmann is toying with him, why he’s so important as to merit both the torture and the gift of the time with his “daughter.” It begins to seem very much as if Weissmann is setting up moves far in advance of an end game he’s anticipating, just as an able chess player might do. And of course that does in fact turn out to be what Weissmann is doing.
Interestingly, we’ve learned in a previous chapter about a contact named “Der Springer” who in 3.12 leaves for Slothrop a message with a token in the shape of a chess knight. Slothrop too has from the beginning been the center of an elaborate, game-like setup whose most tortuous machinations unfolded at a casino. So games generally seem to be at play (so to speak) in Gravity’s Rainbow, and even Weissmann’s job is characterized in 3.11 as “coming up with new game-variations, building toward a maximum cruelty.”
A bit earlier, we see (with relief) Pökler resisting the urge to bed Ilse, choosing to allow that she is his daughter — basically for his own sanity and humanity and against his real sense of matters — and he does so in spite of “Their game.” Earlier yet:
Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical place, such as Zwölfkinder.
This to me is an extremely important sentence, for it brings together games and fairy tales, which converge in this chapter on Weissmann. Weissmann is Blicero, recall, and Blicero is Death. It’s Weissmann who fantasizes about tempting children with candy so that he can degrade and rape them, all while gambling that he won’t — not today — be pushed into the oven. It’s Weissmann who creates for Pökler a daughter fantasy that over time veers as if planned toward the incestuous, who sends them to a child’s theme park that stands in stark (but, over time, increasingly less stark) contrast to the labor camp from which some Ilse figure or another is being exported for two weeks a year. And it’s Weissmann who seems to be spearheading the top-secret project to build a rocket that will become the focus of a certain Tyrone Slothrop, also manipulated and used under game-like circumstances and tempted by candy and nubile women.
There it is again — that notion I keep coming back to of temptation. In this week’s reading, Pökler gets the feeling that a dossier has been assembled about his particular sexual temptations (much as Pirate felt early in the novel as he decoded a message with a racy photo and the ensuing ejaculate). Even in a brief digression on Kekulé and the Ouroborean dream origin of the benzene ring structure, we see temptation:
Who sent this new serpent to our ruinous garden, already too fouled, too crowded to qualify as any locus of innocence — unless innocence be our age’s neutral, our silent passing into the machineries of indifference
The Biblical garden comes up late in the chapter as well, with a reprise of an earlier mention of von Göll’s (aka knightly Der Springer’s) lighting trick in Alpdrücken, with the double-shadowing that he intended to symbolize Cain and Abel in the film that precipitated the conception of Ilse.
Games themselves flirt with temptation, for they come with things like victory, which for various reasons (glory, money) serves as temptation enough for many. The dossier-driven moves Pökler imagines to have led him to temptation to have sex with his daughter is described as an evil game, and as I noted above, his resistance to it comes to us in terms of essentially transcending the game.
Perhaps the greater temptation for Pökler is the temptation to indulge in the fantasy that he has a relationship (asexual) with his daughter. For years he has indulged in this fantasy, pretended that the differences in hair color, size, set of the eyes, the impermanence of Ilse’s memory of things from years past — that these things did not add up to the truth that he’s allowed himself to cling to different avatars of a daughter he was never much attached to to begin with until he missed his wife. Ultimately, he resigns himself to accepting the facts of the matter, and when he does so, he does so in terms, again, of a game:
He could not bear indifference from her. Close to losing control, Pökler committed then his act of courage. He quit the game.
And in a lovely but devastating turn, she puts aside her indifference and anger, reaches to this broken man, and shares a moment of humanity.
It strikes me that in the lead-up to this scene, Pökler, suspicous as to why he had been given furlough privileges suddenly, questions whether a girl of Ilse’s age would really even have any interest in a place like Zwölfkinder:
And what was “Ilse” doing here, wasn’t she supposed to be too old by now for fairy tales?
The much older Pökler, of course, has been indulging in a fairy tale of his own.