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One Lemming

This week I head down another minor rabbit hole (or should I say Roseland Ballroom toilet?) after another weird association the text suggested to me that’s probably entirely irrelevant.

Poor little Ludwig’s lemming has gone missing, and Slothrop asks him in italics, in 3.25, “One lemming, kid?”

Years ago in a college class on the avant garde theater, I watched a documentary about a production by The Open Theater entitled The Serpent, which opened in 1969. With a subtitle labeling it a “ceremony,” The Serpent treats of what has emerged as my pet theme for this read of Gravity’s Rainbow — temptation — by dramatizing at times pretty obliquely that first of all temptations in the Garden of Eden. Filled with stylized movements and chanting, the play lives up to its subtitle, and vignettes like an autopsy complete with technical jargon and procedure resonate both with the notion of the ceremonial and with a certain fetish for the technical that runs through Pynchon’s novel.

The play is very weird, but also really mesmerizing, enough so that it has stuck with me for a long time now and set alarms flashing when I got to GR 3.25. As it turns out, Slothrop’s question to Ludwig is a repeating line lifted from a Gertrude Stein-ish section of the play, of which I’ve lifted an excerpt sourced from here:

God: Henceforth shall you thirst after me.
And now shall come a separation.
Accursed.
Between the dreams inside your head.
Accursed.
And those things which you believe to be outside your head
And the two shall war within you…
Second Woman of the Chorus: I’ve lost the beginning.
Third Woman: I’m in the middle.
Fourth Woman: Knowing neither the end nor the beginning.
Second Woman: One lemming.
Third Woman: One lemming.
Fourth Woman: One lemming…
First Woman: I went to a dinner.

That cluster of women approximates the old Greek convention of a chorus, and as I recall, they interrupt one another rhythmically and repeat that line many times throughout the play with an inflection that I can still hear (though the video I link above doesn’t reproduce it, alas).

The Serpent seems to be concerned with the idea of ceremony, and with its Biblical theme and the old instructive miracle plays in mind, I find it hard not to turn my thoughts to Pynchon’s preoccupation with the divide between the Elect and the Preterite — a divide that The Open Theater was in some ways working to close within the theater (it’s interesting to read some of the intro matter for the play here, though since it’s not all available, I don’t feel comfortable quoting it or working on a more involved thesis).

As I said at the outset, this is a bit of a rabbit hole, and not likely a very rich one to plumb any further. The emphasis Pynchon puts on the phrase seems odd (how often does he resort to italics in the book, I wonder?), and the dramatic work certainly shares some themes with Gravity’s Rainbow, but that’s hardly enough to hang an assertion of an intentional reference on.

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