It’s Just the Pynchon in Me

I first became aware of Thomas Pynchon my senior year at Michigan State. One of my housemates, whom we called Bopper (and still do, actually), was reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which at the time had just come out in paperback. One of the first things that caught my eye was the book’s dedication to Richard Farina, the author’s close friend and classmate at Cornell, who had died too young in a motorcycle accident in 1966.

Farina’s name was familiar, as part of a 1960s folk duo whose other half, Mimi, also happened to be Joan Baez’s sister. But for me it had greater significance as Farina was the author of a single novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. For years, Farina’s tale of hipster Gnossos Papadopoulis was part of my back-to-school ritual, the last thing I would read before heading back to campus each fall.

I started reading Pynchon with V., however. And I was immediately taken with the crazed plot lines, the even more crazed characters, and the alternate reality in which they existed. It was even cooler than Kerouac, I thought, the same level of delirium but with more erudition. I dug the yo-yos who aimlessly rode the subway from one end of New York City to the other, and also McClintic Sphere, whom I identified as based on free-jazz master Ornette Coleman. An art student, I endeavored to execute a performance piece modeled on the character Herbert Stencil in which I vowed to speak of myself in the third person for the rest of my days. (Alas, life imitated art for only a week and a half before I abandoned the project.)

Gravity’s Rainbow came later when I was out of school and working an entry-level office job where my responsibilities were such that I could spend half the day reading. The intertextual relationship of V. and Gravity’s Rainbow was of course amusing, not to mention self-gratifying in the pleasure gained from knowing winks on the author’s part to the cognizant reader. Also engaging were the things that were seemingly bizarre yet based on reality, for example, the covert operation of parapsychologists, gathered under the code-name PISCES, who really did work for British intelligence to undermine the Nazi war effort by counter-posing ‘white’ magic to German occult practices. I was dabbling in the hermetic tradition myself as a source for making art and thus found entry into the book’s deeper meaning through that channel.

I re-read Gravity’s Rainbow a little more than a decade later when my stepdaughter gave me Steven Weisenberger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion for Christmas, still arguably the best aid to negotiating Pynchon’s labyrinthine opus. (Although there is an error that to my knowledge has never been corrected, namely, on page 152 where Weisenberger notes the numerological symbolism of tetragrammaton as signifying the eight-lettered name of God in Judaism when the prefix ‘tetra’ means four in Greek and refers to the four Hebrew letters Yod-He-Vau-He from which the Old Testament word Yahweh is derived.) But it was on the third time through just a few years ago that I believe I uncovered some heretofore-unnoticed elements of my own.

Two of them relate to Gravity’s Rainbow’s major theme of what sociologist Max Weber terms the ‘disenchantment of the world’ by modernity, the supplanting of religious cosmological systems by technological apparatus under the rule of rationalism. These are revealed when the episodes are arranged in cumulative order.

The first is the eleventh episode of Part Three, which cumulatively is the fortieth episode. Placed at the center of the book, the apogee of its trajectory, it is also the longest. While the episode opens on or about July 9, 1945, much of the narrative is a genealogy of the German rocket program back to its origins in the Society for Space Travel. But, the episode is more importantly an allegory, which doubles the narrative onto American history a generation later.

In Judeo-Christian symbolism, the number 40 is one of fulfillment: The Great Flood lasted for forty days and forty nights, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years after escaping Egypt, and Christ’s temptation lasted for forty days. And so it is that Episode 40 of Gravity’s Rainbow is also one of fulfillment–of the landing on the moon by Apollo 11 in July 1969 in fulfillment of the dream of the Society for Space Travel. In explaining the dream to his daughter, Ilse, the rocket scientist Franz Pokler uses a map of the moon to help her visualize it. Ilse chooses a spot in the Sea of Tranquility where she would like to live when people are able to go to the moon. And it was a spot near the crater Maskelyne B in the Sea of Tranquility where the Lunar Expeditionary Module set down when Neil Armstrong took his historic ‘giant leap for mankind’. (It’s also significant to note, as Weisenberger does, that the author of the Gravity’s Rainbow’s opening epigraph, Werner von Braun, directed both the Apollo 11 project and the German rocket works at Peenemunde where Pokler is stationed.)

The other episode that gains resonance in this manner is Episode 21 of Part Three, cumulatively Episode 50. Fifty is the number of days after Easter that the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ’s disciples. The Pentecost, also known as “whitsunday” or White Sunday, is an important date to Gravity’s Rainbow’s narrative. In 1945, Pentecost fell on May 8, which was V-E Day, and also the birthdays of occulist Madame Blavatsky and US President Harry S. Truman. It was Pynchon’s own eighth birthday as well. Thus, the date is an harmonic convergence of narrative trajectories: the end of the war in Europe, the occultic other of Judeo-Christianity, the opening of the door to the Atomic Age, and the author who would tie it all together.

But, the fiftieth episode is also a kind of worldly Pentecost for the character Enzian the Herero. In the spirit of the giving of tongues, Pynchon writes: ‘There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away–there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding.’ In the pages that follow, Enzian articulates the grammar of War and Technology, which are the lingua franca of global capital unto the present day.

While these two examples show how a cumulative reading of the episodes can amplify an existing understanding of Gravity’s Rainbow, there’s another trope that flows through the text to which I believe the novel’s dedication provides a clue.

Weisenberger takes note of the importance of the number 9 to Gravity’s Rainbow’s narrative development, in particular as a number of incompletion–the interrupted countdown of the rocket launch, the lack of closure of the book’s nine-month-long narrative, etc. In addition to setting the time span in months of the narrative overall, nine is the number of days that transpire during the novel’s first part. The first nine episodes are a unit when the structure of Episodes 1 and 9 are compared: Both episodes begin with their main characters dreaming. Both begin and end with rocket attacks. Their openings are similar in terms of meter and have virtually the same number of syllables. This Gnostic cosmology of world inside world, like the layers of an onion, inaugurates a narrative thread that unfolds in Gravity’s Rainbow through factors of the number 9, beginning with the tenth episode.

The tenth episode seems to come out of nowhere. To be sure, Weisenberger refers the time of Episode 10 as ‘unspecified’ and characterizes it as ‘grossly surreal’. However, a trope is introduced in Episode 10 that carries throughout the book and constitutes an essential subtext to the novel. To see this, we must go outside the text, but not very far. As noted earlier, Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to Pynchon’s friend from his college days. And I would argue that the reference is as much an elegy for the unfulfilled spirit of 1960s counterculture as it is for the bright young man who tragically died before his time during that decade.

In Episode 10, the Dionysian impulse of the 1960s, a charismatic eruption against the Apollonian demiurge of rationalist society, is unleashed. In the episode, Tyrone Slothrop journeys down a toilet in search of a lost harmonica. In the 1960s, soldiers in Vietnam referred to the battlefield as being ‘in the shit’. The 1960s are further personified in the figures of Malcom X (the bathroom attendant, Red, encountered by Slothrop) and JFK (referred to as ‘Jack Kennedy, the ambassador’s son’), both of whom were assassinated in the 1960s. This eruption of the carnivalesque, the counterculture of the 1960s, was very much a factor in the political and cultural landscape of the time of Gravity’s Rainbow’s writing, ultimately leading to what Pynchon elsewhere terms the ‘Nixonian repression’. This theme runs through Pynchon’s later, much-underappreciated novel, Vineland, where speaking of the character Brock Vond he writes: ‘Any sudden attempt to change things would be answered by an immediate misoneistic backlash not only from the State but from the people themselves–Nixon’s election in ’68 seeming to Brock a perfect example of this.’

Episode 10 also begins a mathematical formula that ties seemingly unrelated episodes of Gravity’s Rainbow together. This can be expressed in the formula, ‘E = N x 9 + 1’ with ‘N’ functioning as a geometric progression. (10 = 1 x 9 +1, adding an ‘isotrope’, as it were, to the molecular structure of incompletion.)

The next episode to pick up the trope is Episode 19 in Part One (19 = 2 x 9 + 1). Set in pre-Hitler Berlin, the episode is ostensibly concerned with Franz and Leni Pokler’s discussion of Western science. The narrative’s focus is more on Leni, making the second expression of the trope feminine. (In numerology, the number 2 is feminine.) This episode is permeated with language of the 1960s and early 1970s, which is anachronistic in the context of a narrative that until then has been consciously periodized. (The extensive research Pynchon undertook into period slang and colloquial usage of the 1940s in writing Gravity’s Rainbow is well documented.)

The first is the term ‘détente’, which began to be used during the Nixon administration to describe its policy toward the Soviet Union. Next is the reference to a fictional leftist magazine, Die Faust Hoch (‘the raised fist’), a reference to the controversial incident in the 1972 Munich Olympics in which American athletes were stripped of their medals for raising their black-gloved fists in salute to Black Power during the award ceremonies. There is reference to the ‘Revolution’ and the fact that ‘AN ARMY OF LOVERS CAN BE BEATEN’. The ‘President’ is quoted as saying, ‘I’m sending all the soldiers home’, which was Nixon’s second-term campaign pledge. Finally, the utopian image of the 1960s Dionysian release is set against the vision of ‘a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority’.

The trope is again picked up in Part Three, Episode 8, or Episode 37 (37 = 4 x 9 + 1). This episode also appears to interrupt the narrative flow and concerns a group of Argentine anarchists who plan to make a film of the epic poem Martin Fierro. The scene takes place in a harmonica factory, recalling the action of Episode 10. There is a western film being shown, and in the film, the horse Snake appears, the same mount of Crutchfield the Westerner who also first appeared in Episode 10. Pynchon mentions a character, Shetzline, which refers to David Shetlzine, a contemporary American novelist and friend of Pynchon and Farina from Cornell. In the epic of Martin Fierro, the protagonist gaucho initially resists colonial control of the pampas but ultimately sells out, a metaphor of the demotic thrust of the 1960s counterculture, which even by the time of Gravity’s Rainbow was being commercially co-opted. But, the most compelling reference closes the episode: ‘It took the Dreyfus Affair to get the Zionists out and doing, finally: what will it take to drive you out of your soup kettle?’ By the time of Gravity’s Rainbow’s publication, The New York Times had published the Pentagon papers and The Washington Post had broken the Watergate scandal, which eventually concluded with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

The trope culminates along with the novel in Part Four, Episode 12, or Episode 73 by the cumulative measure (73 = 8 x 9 + 1). Contemporaneous references include the cryptic statement in Weissman’s Tarot: ‘If you’re wondering where he’s gone, look among the successful academics, the Presidential advisors, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors. Look high, not low’, an obvious allusion to then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The figure of Nixon is again evoked, this time by the character Richard M. Zhlubb, ‘fiftyish and jowled, with a permanent five-o’clock shadow (the worst by far of all the Hourly Shadows) and a habit of throwing his arms up into an inverted “peace sign”’.

When set against the circular structure Weisenberger erects for Gravity’s Rainbow’s plot line, the cyclical time of the ancients, the formula of countercultural references can be seen as a offering up a cautionary tale of resistance to modernity in general, which though defeated for the time being might hold out the hope of eternal return. The notion of progress shatters in Gravity’s Rainbow as the narrative splinters into fragments, an index of the differentiation of social forms in rational society as understood by Weber, fellow sociologist Emile Durkheim, and others. Like a rocket it explodes in a charismatic festival to revert to the cycle of time immemorial (the multiplier 8 of the last episode in the formula is the numerological sign of eternity). Weissman’s Tarot presents The World as his future card; the number of The World in the Major Arcana is 21, which is the number episodes in Part One of Gravity’s Rainbow, bringing the end back to the beginning.

Hence another thread of meaning is woven into the fabric of Gravity’s Rainbow. Or is Carducci just being paranoid?

Vince Carducci has written on art and culture for many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Eye, Logos, PopMatters, and Radical Society. Contact:

2 comments to It’s Just the Pynchon in Me

  1. Douglas Lannark says:

    Great research, excellent numerical combinations and an illuminating read yet, for the record, one (binary) necessary correction. May 8th (1891) was Madame Helena Blavatsky’s date of death and not her date of birth (August 12th 1831). It was still celebrated by her followers in 1945 as mentioned on p. 269.

    Looking forward to future articles…


  2. vince carducci says:

    Thanks for the correction. I’ll make a note of it for the future. VC

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