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.
Between the dreams inside your head.
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.
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.
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.
I may be dim, but both times I’ve read this far into Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ve been puzzled by the scene in which, chasing tail after his discharge from the abreaction ward, Slothrop lands himself in an old lady’s flat eating nasty candy. It’s a funny enough scene, but it always seemed sort of out of place amid the pretty serious stuff surrounding it.
It took a return to exercise after a lapse and the subsequent temptation of a box of Girl Scout cookies to open my eyes to what’s going on here. There it lay on the dresser, not even my favorite kind (Samoas win that title), but open, by gar, and all but leaping into my mouth as I dismounted the exercise machine and wiped away my sweat. Heart still pounding from exertion, I casually inspected the nutritional information printed on the box of cookies. Seven grams of fat and 170 calories in a serving; one cookie would cost me 2.3 grams of fat and 57 calories. As I did a little cost-benefit analysis, the connection struck me.
Blicero and Katje and Gottfried enact over and over again a fetishized game of Hansel and Gretel, and just a few pages later, Slothrop finds himself invited into an old crone’s house to feast on candy. Slothrop’s little confectionary adventure is a light-hearted callback to and dramatization of the folktale that Blicero appropriates. And the lesson in that folktale (bad parenting exemplum aside) and in Pynchon’s dual retelling of it has to do with temptation and its payoffs.
Blicero succumbs to the temptation of bedding a woman he suspects may be working for the British. Although he knows he’ll finally be given a push from behind into some oven or another, he’s certain it won’t come in the form of an air raid thanks to betrayal by Katje. But then she does leave, and he prepares for the worst, paying for his temptation in two, somewhat paradoxical, ways — he is, first, convinced that he was wrong to trust Katje after all and, second, denied the consummation of the betrayal he fears. Accustomed to controlling his playthings, he is now stripped altogether of control, and even of the illusion of making of his fate a sort of gift (a form of control in its own right, if what one reads about the rules in a sadomasochistic partnership is accurate — ie, that control of a situation is always just a single safe word away for the person being subjugated).
Slothrop’s temptation too comes at a cost, for we learn in 1.17 that the abreaction ward from which he has just been discharged has been bombed, and with it poor Spectro, who back in 1.8 shared a tense moment with Pointsman in which he tried to steer the behaviorist away from the temptation to try to experiment on Slothrop. Dipping his wick after entering that candy-strewn apartment costs lives, including that of a rare ally. (Of course, it’s not at all clear whether coitus is the cause or the effect here; still, I think the point is worth considering.)
Pointsman too confronts a great temptation. He’s tired of collecting the spit of dogs and isn’t terribly interested in studying the octopus Grigori, no matter how big and smart he is. He wants a man to poke and prod, and he wants in particular the man whose secret all the scientists paranormal and otherwise also covet. As 1.17 closes, we find Pointsman constructing rationalizations for designing an experiment around Slothrop, suffering be damned (“the man will suffer — perhaps, in some clinical way, be destroyed”), and he has his eye on the Nobel. It’s not just the shiny trophy he has his eye on, though; there’s something Faustian about Pointsman, and the connection Pynchon makes between his quest for knowledge and Theseus’s triumph in the labyrinth seems telling, for like Theseus, in order to win, Pointsman must destroy the creature that lies at the center of the labyrinth once he’s wended his way through it. Pointsman’s fall to temptation comes at the ultimate cost, in other words, of what scrap of humanity he may have left.
(It also occurs to me that like Theseus with his yarn, Hansel and Gretel leave breadcrumbs behind to help find their way out of their peril.)
Candy. Quim. Fame. Knowledge. Girl Scout cookies seem pretty insignificant as I ladder up that list, but it’s still hard not to feel a little satisfaction at having resisted.