A Paranoid Companion to Thomas Pynchon: The Early Stories and Novels
Chapter 3: Pynchon's Allegory of the V as Paranoid History
Thomas Pynchon is obsessed with paranoia. As a way to approach the paranoid aspect of Pynchon’s novels, I begin with an article on paranoia from the Seventies that mentions Pynchon’s works specifically as both a manifestation of and commentary on the importance of paranoia in our culture. Authors Hendrik Hertzberg and David C. K. McClelland make a distinction between clinical paranoia and paranoia as a social phenomenon, the paranoid tendencies of more or less ordinary people (51).18 In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter defines social paranoia as a belief in “the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.”19 This sort of paranoia, say Hertzberg and McClelland, “is a recent cultural disorder. It follows the adoption of rationalism as the quasi-official religion of Western man and the collapse of certain communitarian bonds (the extended family, belief in God, the harmony of the spheres) which once made sense of the universe in al its parts. Paranoia substitutes a rigorous (though false) order for chaos, and at the same time dispels the sense of individual insignificance by making the paranoid the focus of all he sees around him—a natural response to the condition of modern life.” (52)
In his early novels, Thomas Pynchon uses paranoid plots as his fictional plots. He foregrounds the false nature of plotting, perhaps to call attention to the artificiality (or falsehood) of the plots of conventional novels. His major characters are paranoid, but they may not be wrong. As the old saying goes, “Just because I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us.” Suspicion can be a protective mechanism. In his novels Pynchon plays with the possibilities of paranoia. He shows us a world without meaning; he shows us a world drenched in significance where everything is a clue to the vast conspiracy; he shows that people prefer paranoid fantasy to emptiness. In V, Herbert Stencil finds evidence of the V everywhere. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop believes the V-2 rocket and its agents are out to get him personally (much like Yossarian in Catch-22). In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas begins to see the symbol of the secret Tristero everywhere she looks. If I see evidence of a conspiracy everywhere, I must be wrong, right? I must be making it up. Still, when you look at the evidence, it seems overwhelming. This is how Pynchon’s novels operate. If you don’t see the clues, you’re not paying attention—or you must be in on the plot.
Pynchon himself exhibits the paranoid tendencies of his characters, or perhaps it is all a fiction, and it is only his narrators and characters that are obsessed. Either way, the novels are fixated on the decline of the human world into sameness, a world in which even kinkiness takes on a generic quality. The stories show that people are not quite human any more (or that we have become inhuman in a new way). The comic book quality of the characters reflects the cartoon emptiness of the world we live in. Sometimes this is presented as the natural progression of a set of ideas—an excessive rationalism, as Hertzberg and McClelland suggest, and perhaps an obsessive materialism, in all its manifestations. According to one way of looking at it, Pynchon shows us, this sort of process is simple physics. Plug in a certain equation, and the result is inevitable. This is the calculus of “gravity’s rainbow,” the arc of the V-2 rocket as a metaphor for the Modern Age, taking off with Galileo, Francis Bacon, accelerating with Newton, coming into its prime with Darwin in biology and the anonymous contributors to chemistry, and finally Einstein and Oppenheimer—the progress of modern science. Do we still believe in progress of this sort? Pynchon does not. I suspect that if Thomas Pynchon’s consciousness moved into a Post-Modern world view at about the same time as that of many of the rest of us in American society, it would have been sometime between 1968 and 1972. Prepared by the assassination of John Kenndy in 1963, the turn of mind, sometimes called metanoia, began with the killing of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968 and the Watergate fiasco of Richard Nixon in 1972. Of course, since Pynchon wrote his early novels, the pattern of the V he describes has only gotten worse.
Under the assault of events, one’s mind may break down into the Manichaeism of paranoia. Pynchon’s characters look around for someone to blame. It becomes the good guys versus the bad guys. Pynchon creates tension when, on the one hand, he shows that characters’ conspiracy theories are merely delusions while, on the other hand, he gives historical details that are really true, daring the reader to believe. If we do go along with the plot, we become like the characters—Herbert Stencil, Oedipa Maas, Tyrone Slothrop (as well as Greta Erdmann, when paranoid meets paranoid in Gravity’s Rainbow). They interpret these facts, or random events, that Pynchon provides, by incorporating them into their own paranoid delusional structure.
The result is that the reader must weigh, as the characters must weigh, the multi-voluminous evidence Pynchon provides to interpret what is going on. As another reader once said, Pynchon’s novels are “a cosmic detective story alternating between epistemology—how do I know what the facts are?—and metaphysics—what do these facts mean?”20 At the end of each of Pynchon’s early novels, we are left with the question: is any of this true, or is this just a game? We know it is fiction, but is Pynchon on to something? What we have is a kind of binary mathematics, the One and the Zero of Boolean Algebra; either the switch is on or it is off—the One and the Zero of a computer circuit. Either everything fits, and it’s all true, or it’s all a Zero, and I’m just paranoid. This is Oedipa Maas’s thinking in The Crying of Lot 49: “. . . It was now like walking among the matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balance mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. . . . Ones and Zeroes. . . . Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of true paranoia, or a real Tristero.” (136-137)21
Either everything means nothing (Zero), or it is drenched in meaning (One). Full-blown paranoia is a rush, as Oedipa Maas discovers. The reader of V and The Crying of Lot 49, like Benny profane in V, may have to say “offhand I’d have to say I haven’t learned a goddam thing” (V 428). It is not until Gravity’s Rainbow that Pynchon’s paranoid history of the V becomes clear. Insights in Gravity’s Rainbow allow the reader of all three novels to see perhaps what Pynchon at least tentatively believes and what the three novels are about. If we follow the historical process, set forth in the previous chapter, of following the nodes of power wherever they lead, we can look beyond the paranoia of his characters to see Pynchon’s history of the V. Corresponding to this insight is another—the self-reflexive, Post-Modern understanding that he, and we, are products of the culture we seek to analyze and judge.
Pynchon begins his investigation of what went wrong with America in his first novel V in a depiction of 1956 America, the colony of Europe, as he sees it. There he presents the fictional present of Benny Profane. The novel shows America a decade after World War II, when the damage done by the downward spiral of the V is pervasive. Benny Profane’s name gives a clue to his condition. Benny lives in a profane world; there is no spiritual world for him. He deals strictly with the world as it exists—the world that is the case.22
V opens with Benny’s story. It is Christmas Eve, and a sailor is urinating into the gas tank of a parked car. Into this scene walks Benny Profane, half Catholic, half Jew, adrift on the Street of the twentieth century. Bummed out by life on the surface, he decides to go underground, to work in the sewers where he feels safe. But the work in the sewers (killing alligators) ends, and he is back on the Street. He gets a job at Anthro-Research Associates, a division of Yoyodyne, where he again runs into signs that the world has somehow gone wrong. He does not know it, but he is about to encounter symptoms of the V. At his new job, Benny meets SHROUD, a robot with the skeleton of a human being—all the rest of him is synthetic.
Benny carries on an imaginary conversation with SHROUD:
[Benny] “. . . You ought to be junked. Not burned or cremated.”
[SHROUD] Of course. Like a human being. Now remember, right after the war, the Nuremburg war trials? Remember the photographs of Auschwitz? Thousands of Jewish corpses, stacked up like those poor car-bodies.
Schlemihl: It’s already started.”
[Benny] “Hitler did that. He was crazy.”
[SHROUD] “Hitler, Eichmann, Mengele. Fifteen years ago. Has it occurred to you there may be no more standards for crazy or sane, now that it’s started?” (V 275).
Benny does not know what has started, at least not consciously. He cannot see the V. He can only see the signs. All around him he encounters people in love with the inanimate. His aversion is visceral; his fear of inanimate objects is the instinctive response of the schlemiel, the Chaplinesque victim who is always stumbling into or over physical objects. He knows something is wrong with the people he sees, but he will never understand what is happening.
The evidence is everywhere. His friends The Whole Sick Crew, are rootless wanderers with no cultural or ethnic ties to give them strength to find their own humanity, epitomized by “Fergus Mixolydian the Irish Armenian Jew and universal man” (V 45), who is, likewise, nowhere man. The Crew’s favorite pastime is “rollicking,” and one of the frequent forms it takes is “yo-yoing.” Riding back and forth indefinitely on the subway is one form of yo-yoing. This parody of purposeful movement is a symbol of modern life and art. Yo-yoing is the kind of meaningless motion that precedes the final stasis of the V, when everything becomes the same thing.
Benny is clueless, but other characters in the three novels would be happy to tell us what it is, “now that it’s started.” Sidney and Herbert Stencil in V, Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, and Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow each see part of it, and each forms his own paranoid theory of what is going on. The Stencils, Sr. and Jr. look at events of the nineteenth century and see the cause as the Lady V. and a grand cabal for which she is responsible. Oedipa Maas looks at the 1960s and finds the Tristero and the W.A.S.T.E. mail system countering the military-industrial complex represented by Yoyodyne and a conspiracy to silence all dissent, as shown by the symbol of the muted posthorn. Tyrone Slothrop looks at a third part of Pynchon’s chronology and sees a conspiracy involving the V-2 rocket. None of the characters sees everything, and all have their own particular paranoid hobby horses they like to ride.
Readers tend to have difficulty in interpreting Pynchon’s novels when they assume that paranoid theories of the leading characters are the same as those of the author. This confusion is particularly apparent when readers attempt to identify who or what V is. One critic insists that V is Stencil, Jr.’s mother.23 Stencil, Jr. believes it, and the Lady V. even saw herself as embodying a feminine principle of death, but it may be true only in a metaphorical sense. As a metaphor it is possible to see the force of the V as the cause of the Lady V., and thus as the “mother” of Stencil, Jr. This is one of Pynchon’s games—perhaps his favorite game—making characters and some readers take literally what ought to be seen figuratively.
In Gravity’s Rainbow the V is a calculus of destruction, as delta T approaches zero, the point of annihilation. Here the symbol is not gendered, but characters look at the V-2 rocket, and the gender symbolized is pretty apparent. One character, Enzian, personifies the V-rocket in this way, saying that “beyond simple steel erection, the Rocket was an entire system won, away from the feminine darkness, held against the entropies of lovable but scatter-brained Mother Nature” (GR 324). When we see the V-principle and the Lady V. as being the same, or if we confuse the V-principle with its symbol, the V-2, rocket, we make a mistake. Pynchon thinks that in our culture we habitually confuse symbols with the reality they are supposed to represent—like mistaking a medal of achievement for the deed itself, or an A on a report card when you cheated for the honest work it might have stood for, or a map for a country, or a movie for a true experience, or history for reality.
Pynchon has a deep suspicion of words, or “the Word,” as he says in Gravity’s Rainbow. It must be true because I read it in a book. No, it’s a book, Pynchon would say; it’s not Holy Writ, not even if I wrote it, or especially if I wrote it. In his novels, his plots are parodies of plots, not like plots of real novels, but busy and messy and dumb--sort of like life. Pynchon’s history of the V is not corroborated by consensus reality, which is O.K. with him because most of what we are told is true is clearly nonsense--and often dangerous nonsense, to ourselves and others.
In trying to make sense out of his life and ours, Pynchon places himself in the position of his paranoid characters as he develops his own, private history of the Modern Age. But it is not his paranoid characters he most resembles; it is Pig Bodine, who says to his friend Tyrone Slothrop, the paranoid hero of Gravity’s Rainbow, “Let’s not get any more paranoid than we have to” (GR 601). When Slothrop suspects a plot, Bodine says, “Everything is some kind of plot, man” (GR 603). Though only temporarily, Slothrop realizes for the first time “that the Zone can sustain many other plots besides those polarized on himself . . . that these are the els and busses of an enormous transit system here in the Raketenstadt more tangled even than Boston’s—and that by riding each branch the proper distance, knowing when to transfer, keeping some state of minimum grace though it might often look like he’s headed the wrong way, this network of all plots may yet carry him to freedom” (GR 603). The key to reading Pynchon, I think, (and perhaps the key to reading our own lives these days) is to follow the theories as far as they take you without getting caught up in them— but always, as Henry Adams suggested, following the nodes of power.
To change metaphors, I shall invoke a cliché: we have here the horns of a dilemma. We have to avoid the void of meaninglessness (the Zero), and we have to avoid the all-meaning of paranoia, or revelation as some might say (the One). As to how he suggests he (and we) are to avoid the horns of this dilemma, Pynchon gives a hint about his methodology in Gravity’s Rainbow, chapter one, which is called “Beyond the Zero.” It might well be called “Between Zero and One,” which is the realm of probabilities. From this perspective, Pynchon can move beyond absolutes of all-meaning versus meaninglessness, of revealed truth versus satanic falsehood, to a tentative understanding of what probably is the case—in light of a vast weight of circumstantial evidence. Here, we leave the Modern Age and enter the Post-Modern World.24 If we follow Pynchon and Henry Adams (and Pig Bodine), pursuing the nodes of power and reminding ourselves not to ride any character’s hobby horse too long, we may be able to create a chronological history of V. It will be a paranoid history because, in a way, it is a conspiracy. The problem is that almost all of us are involved.
What follows is an intuition, or imagining, of the V, derived from Pynchon’s early novels. We begin at the end of the novel V when, in the Epilogue, Sidney Stencil wonders aloud if “sometime between 1859 and 1919, the world contracted a disease which no one ever took the trouble to diagnose because the symptoms were too subtle—blending in with the events of history, no different one by one but altogether—fatal” (V 433). His friend Mehemet replies with a more rationalistic explanation: “Is old age a disease? . . . The body slows down, machines wear out, planets falter and loop, sun and stars gutter and smoke. Why say a disease? Only to bring it down to a size you can look at and feel comfortable? (V 433). Stencil, the repetitive patternmaker his name implies, seeks a cause for the events of his last sixty years, while Mehemet, the product of a different culture, sees only the natural process of a dying world. Both agree, though, that something has been set in motion since 1859.
The question of what happened in 1859 marks the first sign or manifestation of something that had been inchoate since the beginning of the Modern Age, in the seventeenth century. 1859 saw the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The complete title is The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. To Pynchon, the publication of Darwin’s great work in 1859 provides the scientific and philosophical basis for the two motifs that gave rise to the V and the history of power in the twentieth century. The first is the emergencein the mid-nineteenth century of Realpolitik, which followed no principles but adapted politics to expediency, admitting no obligation to ideals. The public face of power might appeal to all kinds of “isms” to move the unknowing masses, but the reality was to be raw power. It was to be Machiavelli for the nation-state. The second motive force is Scientific Materialism, which arose with Francis Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth century, gained momentum with Newton at the end of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century, and came to dominate with the mechanistic theory of evolution introduced by Darwin in 1859. Scientific Materialism is a belief that concentrates solely on the material world, denying that there is a spiritual aspect to life. Darwin’s advocacy of natural selection provided a mechanical explanation for the march of evolution, effectively excluding God from His universe. Sounds like religious fundamentalism, right? The fundamentalists are the folks who object. It’s not just that good religion means bad science, which is true enough; it is also that science tends to become (if we follow the progress of the V) a religion of its own, precluding spirituality and negating religion. With Darwin, the machine—the great model of thought and analogy from the time of Newton onward—gained powerful new life as the metaphor for the human body and mind, for society, and for the universe. This analogy, as Pynchon likes to point out, ceased to be a metaphor and became reality because everyone believed it implicitly, forgetting that it is just a figure of speech. According to the mechanical conception of reality dictated by Scientific Materialism,
Only what was “positive” (i.e., material) held a presumption of being real and true. The same reasoning produced a school of social Darwinists who saw war between nations and economic struggle between men as beneficent competition leading to the survival of “favored races”—another phrase from Darwin’s subtitle. And by a final twist of logic, Materialism reinforced the gloom of the period by casting doubt on both the permanence and the validity of all that was being defined as “really real.” For on the one side, the second law of thermodynamics guaranteed the cooling of the sun and the pulverization of the cosmos into cold and motionless bits of matter; and, on the other, orthodox “machine-ism” brought its leading prophets . . . to consider men and animals as automatons moved as helplessly as atoms and plants.25
Rampant materialism, entropy, automatons: if you think this is Thomas Pynchon’s paranoia, think again. It is The Encyclopaedia Brittanica.
As Pynchon sees it (and even the Britannica agrees), Darwin’s work, through the Social Darwinists, was the primary justification for European Imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the struggle for survival of the fittest, the White Race, obviously “favored” since it was the white man’s theory, subdued all other races. Here lies the theoretical importance of Pynchon’s depiction of scenes of British Imperialism at Khartoum, Fashoda, and Suez, as well as German Imperialism in Southwest Africa.
The effects of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Scientific Materialism, through denial of a spiritual dimension and the analogy of the machine for all life, account for the dehumanization and inanimateness of Pynchon’s fictional world, as shown in people such as the Lady V., Slothrop, and Tchitcherine, and automatons like Melanie, Bongo-Shaftsbury, and SHROUD.
The second law of thermodynamics, an important aspect of Scientific Materialism as secular religion, provides the cause of the decline of human society—the law of entropy.
In philosophy, Scientific Materialism led to logical positivism, the belief that philosophy needs to be based on what can be positively identified by empirical science. In politics, Realpolitik embraced a cynical pursuit of power, displacing whatever small place morality and idealism had in decision-making. Those who gained power, the Elect (in Pynchon’s parody of the Calvinist religious term for those predestined to go to heaven), were those who understood and fully embraced the tenets of Darwinism and Materialism, while the masses, whom Pynchon calls the Preterite (literally, those living in the past or those who have been passed by), remain clueless in the safe assumptions of the past or lost on the Street of the present.
The romantic yearning for the transcendent is thwarted by Scientific Materialism and becomes perverted, bent toward patriotism and nationalism, like the crooked cross of the swastika of Nazi Germany. In the absence of God, the individual achieves identity by “worshiping” the State, leading directly to totalitarianism and two world wars. This sort of skewed Romanticism explains Pynchon’s distaste for Beethoven, whose music, he seems to feel, makes a good musical score for the suicidal death wish of the masses encouraged by the V. Pynchon may be like his character Säure Bummer in Gravity’s Rainbow, who prefers Rossini’s celebration of love and the individual to Beethoven, who makes you feel like “going out and invading Poland” (GR 440).
The progress of the V from the middle of the nineteenth century onward began gradually to sap the meaning from life. Writers in the early twentieth century described the spiritual emptiness. Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness calls one of his characters a “papier maché Mephistopheles.” T.S. Eliot writes his poem, “The Hollow Men” with an epigraph from Heart of Darkness, “Mistuh Kurtz, he dead.” The fictional Kurtz was a European idealist who went to the Congo to enlighten the natives and stayed to prey upon and kill them. The archetypal Imperialist, Kurtz lost his soul in the jungle, just as Eliot’s Hollow Men lost their souls back home. In V Thomas Pynchondepicts the return of these hollow men from exploiting Africa to inflict their horror on Europe in 1914 and 1939.In the twentieth century, private fantasies of annihilation are projected on to the world at large, wreaking destruction and death with the technology developed through faith in Scientific Materialism. “When the private nada,” as Robert E. Golden calls this spiritual emptiness, “of the nineteenth century becomes the public property of the twentieth, romanticism reaches its ultimate conclusion—now the entire world is threatened with annihilation.”26 The private nada Golden refers to in V is shown in the imaginary country of Vheissu, a place of shifting colors like the skin of a chameleon or the feathers of certain birds. The problem of this lovely land is that it has no soul. Hugh Godolphin, one of the characters, learns the secret of Vheissu during his trip to Antarctica (Entropyland)—that Vheissu is a gaudy dream of annihilation” (V 190). Only the material world is real; beneath the gaudy skin there is nothing.
Many years after Hugh Godolphin’s trip to Antarctica and his private dream of Vheissu, Vera Meroving, the 1922 incarnation of the Lady V., says to Godolphin, during Foppl’s party while they are under siege:
“Don’t you see? This siege. It’s Vheissu. It’s finally happened.” Godolphin is beyond such romantic daydreams of death:
Godolphin laughed at her. There’s been a war, Fraulein. Vheissu was a luxury, an indulgence. We can no longer afford the likes of Vheissu.”
“But the need,” she protested, “its void. What can fill that?”
He cocked his head and grinned at her. “What is already filling it. The real thing. Unfortunately. [. . .] Whether we like it or not that war destroyed a kind of privacy, perhaps the privacy of dream. Committed us like him to work out three-o’clock anxieties, excesses of character, political hallucinations on a live mass, a real human population.” (V 230)
What began with Darwin as justification for racism and Scientific Materialisms becomes, through the externalization of perverted fantasies, the reason for Hitler, Eichmann, and the V-2. These real nightmares fill up the void of modern man without a soul and make life meaningful for those who commit atrocities.
The extremes of the Hothouse of ivory tower intellectualism and the Street of the mob that divide the world of Pynchon’s story “Entropy” and his novel V are resolved in V as hothouse fantasy is projected on to the street of ordinary existence. The result of this mass insanity is the technological, cartelized destruction of World War II depicted in Gravity’s Rainbow and the inheritance of this legacy of annihilation in America in The Crying of Lot 49, as America of the 1960s—Yoyodyne and the rest of the military-industrial complex--becomes the enemy it defeated in 1945.
The metaphorical projection of fantasies on to the real world, depicted in V, becomes literalized as cinema in Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. In The Crying of Lot 49, we see a picture of the child movie star “Baby Igor” Metzger alongside the living adult Igor, Oedipa’s lawyer. We see the “real” Mickey Rooney in Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as references to Dr. Caligari’s gloves, film cowboys Bob Steele and Johnny Mack Brown, S. Z. Sakall, Basil Rathbone, and the midget from the movie Freaks. There are also numerous references to “the Kenosha Kid,” whom Richard Poirier identified as Orson Welles, born in Kenosha, Wisconsin.27
Gravity’s Rainbow also shows two examples of film fantasy becoming reality. Both are connected to Gerhard von Göll, a movie director. One film contains a fantasy of Black Storm Troopers. This film fantasy inexplicably becomes realized in the Schwarzcommando, Black men who are rocket technicians in the German Army. The archetypal White fear of Blackness takes shape also in Pynchon’s references to the movie King Kong, which Pynchon thinks is not about an ape at all but about White fear of colonial and other subjugated people rising up and annihilating them.
The other instance of film fantasy becoming reality is von Göll’s Alpdrücken, which means “nightmare.” The film’s heroine, Greta Erdmann is raped, both in the movie and in reality, and bears a child, Bianca. The movie created a fantasy so powerful in the viewers that the individuals and couples watching went home, or wherever, and recreated the movie fantasy in reality. The movie is thus responsible for the creation of millions of babies—“shadow children father on Greta Erdmann” (GR 397). Among these children of fantasy are Leni and Franz Pökler’s child Ilse and Lieutenant Weissmann’s young friend Gottfried. Greta Erdmann imagines (or is it real) that she can see in such children the image of her own daughter Bianca, as “ghostly as a double exposure” (GR 484).
The connection of film fantasy to the V is that film can be the tangible expression of a paranoid vision projected on to a mass audience by technology. The connection to Nazi Germany is obvious. The link between paranoia and film, of course, is the word projection. Hitler projected his private paranoid fantasies on Germany just as a film maker literally projects his fantasy upon a screen and into the minds of his audience. The truly scary part is that, in film as in fantasy, the projection, if successful, has a mirror quality, reflecting the fantasy back upon itself--as reality.
In the nineteenth century, Europe took its fantasy of White superiority abroad and subjugated the world’s population. Monopoly capitalism of the late nineteenth century, operating under the dog-eat-dog code of Social Darwinism, gobbled up small banks and corporations and fused them into big banks and cartels, creating a powerful and influential economic and social elite that pressured governments for exclusive control of colonies and protectorates to create higher profits. Pynchon provides a parable of the destructive power of Imperialism and monopoly capitalism. It is the story of Tchitcherine’s sidekick, Chu Piang, victimized by British Imperialism:
[Chu] is a living monument to the success of British trade policy back during the last century. This classic hustle is still famous, even today, for the cold purity of its execution: bring opium from India, introduce it into China—howdy Fong, this here’s opium, opium this is Fong—ah, so, me eatee!—no-ho-ho, Fong, you smoke, smoke, see? Pretty soon Fong’s coming back for more and more, so you create an inelastic demand for the shit, get China into a couple-three disastrous wars over the right of your merchants to sell opium, which by now you are describing as sacred. You win, China loses. Fantastic. (GR 346).
The facts Pynchon cites are true. The rest of the story is that England used opium sales to China to offset its huge trading debt with China created by the British demand for tea. I wonder if the United States should try that with China. No? I guess not.
The story of Chu Piang illustrates two aspects of European Imperialism that Pynchon identifies with the V.: one is a cynical drive for profits, and the second is the immorality and inhumanity inherent in the Social Darwinist struggle of the races.
Pynchon sees Imperialism as much more than a struggle for racial supremacy. To return to the realm of fantasy, colonies offered an opportunity for Europeans to give vent to subconscious desires they could never get away with back in Mother England or the Fatherland of Germany. Pynchon calls colonies “the outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit . . . . Christian Europe was always death . . . death and repression. Out and down in the colonies, life can be indulged, life and sensuality in all its forms, with no harm done to the Metropolis, nothing to soil those cathedrals, white marble statues, noble thoughts . . . No word ever gets back. The silences down here are vast enough to absorb all behavior no matter how dirty, how animal it gets” (GR 317).
This passage from Gravity’s Rainbow refers directly to the treatment of the Herero natives of Southwest Africa by German colonists, featured in V. Here Pynchon calls up once again the image of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Joseph Conrad’s warning that mankind’s humanity is not a given. Just because we walk and talk and look like human beings does not mean that we are human. By our actions we could show ourselves to be beasts, or worse than beasts. The actions of white European imperialists in their colonies came home to roost. For Pynchon, the term “colonies” includes the USA.
Closely related to his concern with Imperialism is the final aspect of Pynchon’s historical theory, which allies the forces of monopoly capitalism and imperialism with the forces of science and technology. In making this connection, Pynchon attributes to the development of giant cartels the great breakthroughs in organic chemistry in the late-nineteenth century. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon says that organic chemistry provided “a basis for new compounds, new arrangements, so that there would be a field of aromatic chemistry to ally itself with secular power and find new methods of synthesis, so there would be a German dye industry to become IG” (GR 412).
International cartels like IG Farben functioned in a moral, legal, and spiritual void, like governments but without borders, run according to the cynical realism of Realpolitik that Social Darwinism and Scientific Materialism fostered. Such cartels, motivated only by an interest in their own proliferation and profits, became bigger than Imperialist nations, not multi-national but super-national in scope. They accelerated the theft of natural resources of the entire world and helped cause the mechanization of humanity by replacing the natural with the synthetic.
Pynchon tells the story of the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé’s study of benzene and his dream of the structure of the benzene molecule, the benzene ring, which appeared to him as a serpent with its tail in its mouth. Pynchon finds in organic chemistry the serpent cause of “our age’s neutral . . . silent passing into the machineries of indifference” (GR 413). By the end of the nineteenth century the structures of power were in place, and the V was fully in motion. From that point, it was only a matter of time.
18 Hendrick Hertzberg and David C.K. McClelland, “Paranoia,” Harper’s , (June 1974), 51.
19 Richard Hofstadter, TheParanoid Style in American Politics, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 14.
20 Joseph W. Hunt, “Cosmic Escape and Anti-Vision: The Novels of Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon,” in Adversity and Grace, ed. Nathan A. Prescott, Jr., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968, 108.
21 Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, (New York: Bantam Books, 1966), 137-137.
22 Benny Profane’s world is that which is described by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus; “DIEWELTISTALLESWASDERFALLEST: the world is all that the case is” (V 259). Another reference to Wittgenstein appears ten pages later when one of Benny’s friends sings,
If the world is all that the case is
That’s a pretty discouraging basis
On which to pursue
Any sort of romance. (V 269)
23 Stanley Edgar Hyman, “The Goddess and the Schlemiel,” in Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time, (New York: Horizon Press, 1966) 138. R.W.B. Lewis suffered the same confusion. He sees the Lady V. as “‘the dark lady of the apocalypse, the Whore of Babylon’ who causes the progress toward inanimateness.” Trials of the Word,(New Haven: Yale UP, 1965), 230.
24 It is worth noting, even though it is not the subject of this study but of other work I have pursued, that what Pynchon is up to in a Post-Modern way is very much like something Pre-Modern: the topical logic of Classical rhetoric, which dealt with the probable/possible and did not presume to venture into the One and the Zero of absolute truth or absolute falsehood. Thus, pre-Modern methods reassert themselves, perhaps.
25 European Culture Since 1800,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, Vol. VI, 1074.
26 Robert E. Golden, “Mass Man and Modernism: Violence in Pynchon’s V,” Critique, XIV, ii (spring 1974), 8.
27 Richard Poirier observed that “film is everywhere in Gravity’s Rainbow.” “A Literature of Law and Order,” Partisan Review, 36 (1969), 60 and 62.