A Paranoid Companion to Thomas Pynchon: The Early Stories and Novels
Chapter 4: The Progress of V
The events in the plots of Thomas Pynchon’s novels illustrating the stages in the progress of the V are examples of synecdoche—a term that refers to single, small events that stand for a whole structure. Thus, each event stands as an emblem or symbol for a larger reality. Sometimes Pynchon explains the connection between the part and the whole thing, but sometimes he does not.
The early stages of the V are shown in the progress of the Lady V. traced by Herbert Stencil in the novel V. The Lady V.’s natural habitat is a state of siege. She has an unnatural affinity for violence, decadence, and death. Periods of decadence are tell-tale markers of nodes of power that erupt in violence and death. According to Pynchon’s theory of history, decadence represents “a clear movement toward death or, preferably, non-humanity” (V 301). It is “a falling away from what is human, and the further we fall the less human we become. Because we are less human, we foist off the humanity we lost on inanimate objects” (V 380).
The Lady V. shows up at significant moments of crisis throughout the novel V. As Victoria Wren, she arrives in Egypt in time for the Fashoda Crisis and is in Florence in 1899 for the riots. Deformed by the rush she gets from observing and participating in such events, Victoria Wren begins to be consumed, becoming more and more inanimate: “Victoria was gradually replaced by V.; something entirely different, for which the young century had no name” (V 386). By the time she arrives in Paris from the colonies in 1913, she has become an object. The decadence and inhumanity learned in the colonies under Imperialist rule is visited upon Paris in 1913—sadism, sacrilege, incest—a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. In this Baudelairean world, the Lady V. falls in love with a young girl, Melanie L’Heuremaudit, a dancer who believes she is a mechanical doll. The Lady V. treats Melanie as a thing, a fetish that never needs to be touched. They reinforce each others spiritual inanimateness. Their scene ends with Melanie’s death by impalement, during a performance of her ballet, while “one of the automaton handmaidens” waiting upon Melanie “seemed to run amok” (V 389).
This bizarre, surrealistic scene stands as an allegory of Europe on the eve of World War I. Melanie’s full name means “black the accursed hour.” V.’s growing inaninimateness as a result of her association with Imperialism, Melanie’s belief that she is a mechanism, and Melanie’s death in the presence of automated handmaidens all announce the death of humanity at the hands of the mechanized destruction of what used to be called “the Great War.” The automatons figuratively point toward Darwin and the mechanical model of behavior that leads to the first great triumph of the V—the annihilation of 1914 to 1918.
From this point the Lady V.’s history is one of increasing dishumanity, as mechanical and synthetic parts replace her living flesh. Stencil, Jr. imagines her at 76, “skin radiant with the bloom of some new plastic; both eyes glass but now containing photoelectric cells, connected by silver electrodes to optic nerves of purest copper wire and leading to a brain exquisitely wrought as a diode matrix could ever be.” (V 386)
The Lady V. has become a machine through her alliance with the V, the structures favoring death. Her plastic skin is a foreshadowing of Imipolex G, the vinyl skin created by German scientists in Gravity’s Rainbow and Pynchon’s concern in that novel about the horrors of organic chemistry.
The dramatic bridge between the Lady V. (Darwin, Scientific Materialism, and Imperialism) and the America of Benny Profane in 1956 is of Lieutenant Weissmann, whose career spans the period of German Imperialism in Africa all the way to the development of the V-2 rocket in World War II. Weissman’s legacy is carried into 1950s and 60s America by aerospace king Bloody Chiclitz. Lieutenant Weissman is one of Pynchon’s Elect. He is in on every aspect of the V that pertains to Germany and stands as a symbol for the whole dark business of Germany between the wars. We first see Weissman in German Southwest Africa in 1922, arriving from Munich with Vera Meroving, another incarnation of the Lady V. Weissmann’s story is told retrospectively by his friend Kurt Mondaugen, who now works for Bloody Chiclitz at Yoyodyne.
Mondaugen (whose name means “mooneyes”) tells a voyeuristic tale of hermetically sealed fantasy. Masochism, sadism, and death. He met Weissman at the home of Herr Foppl, who is preparing for a siege waged by the natives of the country. Foppl, whose name means “hoax” or “mystification,” projects a fantasy or hoax upon all the members of the siege party, except for Mondaugen who merely observes the others.
The fantasy Foppl projects on to the group is that of von Trotha, leader of Southwest Africa in 1904. “I loved the man,” Foppl says. “He taught us not to fear. It’s impossible to describe the sudden release; the comfort, the luxury; when you knew you could safely forget all the rote-lessons you’d had to learn about the value and dignity of human life” (V 234). It is European Imperialism, this time in the person of von Trotha, that provides the release from the obligations of humanity. Like the Russian harlequin who worships Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Foppl loves von Trotha, who taught him the secret of the V.
The result of von Trotha’s particular movement toward non-humanity in 1904 was the systematic extermination of the Herero natives of Southwest Africa, resulting in the death of over 60,000 people, eighty per cent of the Herero population. As Pynchon says, “This is only 1 per cent of six million, but still pretty” (V 227). The connections between von Trotha’s genocide, Foppl’s fantasy, and Hitler’s death camps are clear. These events are all rooted in the nihilism and Imperialism of the nineteenth century. However, the scale of death Foppl knew under von Trotha escalated through advances in technology to a level Foppl could imagine only with difficulty, “the engineering design for a world [Foppl] knew with numbing leeriness nothing could now keep from becoming a reality, a world whose full despair he, at the vantage of eighteen years later, couldn’t even find adequate parables for. . . .” (V 254).
Foppl’s siege party is an allegory of post-World War I Europe the way Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain stands for Europe before the war. The siege party represents “a soul depression which must surely infest Europe as it infested this house,” says young Mondaugen (V 258). The falling away from the human in the Imperialist colonies occurs in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. It happens in the USA somewhat later, in post-World War II America. In Benny Profane’s America of 1956, The Whole Sick Crew suffers from the same evil as the members of Foppl’s siege party, “the same leprous pointillism of orris root, weak jaws and bloodshot eyes, tongues and backs of teeth stained purple by this morning’s homemade wine, lipstick which it seemed could be peeled off intact, tossed to earth to join a trail of similar jetsam” (V 276). These are Eliot’s hollow men; this is the waste land.
The “soul depression” that began in the colonies infests all of Europe before it comes to America. In the 1920s, according to Pynchon, one of its nodes of power appears in Germany during the Weimar Republic, in Munich, “a city dying of abandon, venality, a mark swollen with fiscal cancer” (V 219). Munich was Mondaugen’s city and the city of Weissmann and Vera Meroving, the Lady V. It was also the city of Adolph Hitler. At Foppl’s, upon learning that Mondaugen is from Munich, Weissmann asks him,
“Ever been around Schwabing quarter?” On occasion [Mondaugen replies]. “The Brenessel cabaret?” Never. “Ever hear of D’Annunzio?”
Then: “Mussolini? Fiume? Italia Irredenta? Fascisti? National Socialist German Workers’ Party? Adolph Hitler? Kautsky’s Independents?
“So many capital letters,” Mondaugen protested.
“From Munich, and never heard of Hitler,” said Weissmann, as if ‘Hitler’ were the name of an avant-garde play. “What’s wrong with young people.” Light from the green overhead lamp turned his spectacles to twin, tender leaves, giving him a gentle look.
“I’m an engineer, you see. Politics isn’t my line.”
“Someday we’ll need you,” Weissmann told him. (V 224)
The engineer Mondaugen will someday be of use to Nazi Germany and the V. Politics, it seems, must be everybody’s line, whether we like it or not. The portents described in V are realized in The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. By following Weissmann’s career, we can trace the development of the V because Weissmann is in the thrall of whatever forces are bringing inanimateness and spiritual death to the realm of the living.
By 1930, Weissmann had risen to an important position in Hitler’s army. He had also come under the influence of the German cartels whose power derived from developments in organic chemistry. In the late 1920s, these cartels and the German Army became interested in amateur rocketry and its potential development into instruments of mass destruction, as we like to call them today. By 1930 we find Weissmann, in Gravity’s Rainbow, in charge of a rocket research center at Kummersdorf, outside Berlin, along with his acquaintance from Southwest Africa, the engineer Kurt Modaugen. Together they developed the V-1 and V-2 rockets that were fired on London during World War II.
At the end of the war, the Allied powers including the United States, keenly interested in V-2 rocket technology and its future possibilities for mass death, sent representatives to Germany to commandeer as many of the V-2s and their designers as possible. American General Electric’s representative, Major Duane Marvy, was there along with his friend, Clayton “Bloody” Chiclitz, future president of Yoyodyne, who owned a toy factory in Nutley, New Jersey and thought at the time that “there’s a great future in these V-weapons. They’re gonna be really big” (GR 558). While Chiclitz was not able to capture Weissmann, he did persuade Kurt Mondaugen to come to America to help him build an aerospace empire. (Wernher von Braun went to America too, but he worked directly for the US Army at White Sands, New Mexico and Huntsville, Al;abama, building rockets that led to the NASA Space Program.) Thus, America inherited the legacy of Weissman and Nazi Germany, along with the contamination of the V-principle of which the V-1 and V-2 were a part.
In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas in the 1960s encounters the ubiquitous Bloody Chiclitz at his Yoyodyne plant in San Narciso, Orange County, California, while she is on a quest to discover the secret legacy of America contained in the will of the late Pierce Inverarity, her ex-lover and, as she finds out, a co-founder of Yoyodyne. It all connects through Weissmann, beginning with the Lady V. in Southwest Africa and ending with Richard M. Zhlubb in the USA.
Oedipa’s world is a more recent version of the world of Benny Profane, and in California rather than on the East Coast. Her quest to find the secret behind the world she lives in is similar to Herbert Stencil’s quest in V. Hers is a search that promises meaning but turns to nothing as she is constantly led astray into all the pitfalls and blind alleys inherent in modern communication. If her name means anything, like Oedipus, it is herself that she seeks because she and we are part of it now. The key to the mystery is all around her, but she never sees it. The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon’s second novel, is mostly about manifestations of the V, not explanations. The novel begins with the external trappings of modern American life in its purest form—Southern California—which has always been a harbinger of the good life and the really bad news which the rest of us could look forward to.
Pynchon describes white, suburban San Narciso, USA—self-absorbed, self-reflexive, not-quite-real world of Tupperware Parties (parties that are not parties), Muzak (music that is not music), Disneyland (fun that is not fun), Huntley-Brinkley (news that is not news but was pretty good in comparison to what we have now). Oedipa is Rapunzel in the ivory tower, in a neighborhood called Kinneret [Minaret?]-Among-the-Pines.28 Oedipa is a California girl; she doesn’t have a clue. About her world “hung a sense of buffering, insulation, she had noticed the absence of intensity, as if watching a movie just perceptibly out of focus that the projectionist refused to fix. And had also gently conned herself into the curious, Rapunzel-like role of a pensive girl somehow, magically, prisoner among the pines and salt fogs of Kinneret, looking for somebody to say hey, let down your hair” (CL49 10). The “somebody” who, though dead, will lead her out of Lalaland is Pierce Inverarity and his last will and testament, of which she is executor. Oedipa has no idea what force is imprisoning her, but we can guess. Pynchon, using Henry Adams’ historical method, speaks of “lines of force” and “field strength”—terms from thermodynamics. Pynchon detects the operation of the V. Oedipa knows intuitively that the answer lies with Pierce Inverarity’s connection to Yoyodyne, but she becomes distracted by her pursuit of the Tristero, the secret mail service whose symbol is a muted post horn. All the elements necessary for Oedipa to achieve understanding are there: the Tristero, the Scurvhamite sect, John Nefastis and Maxwell’s Demon, and Yoyodyne. Oedipa gets caught up in symbols (the Word) and misses the reality. Perhaps also some of the clues are a red herring, meant to distract her, a plot by Yoyodyne and other forces of the V to mislead her. (You talk about paranoia. Whoa.) She writes in her notebook, “Shall I project a world?” (CL49 59). But the world she projects is not vast enough. It includes the secret mail system W.A.S.T.E. run by the Tristero, which carries on a revolution against the established postal system (and by extension against all other authorized outlets of communication). Pynchon’s notion seems to be broader and deeper. The significance for Pynchon is that alternative means of communication need to be developed (and indeed have developed with the Internet, email, blogs, webcams—something new every day) because the established methods and media of communication are a) bugged b) corrupt and c) disseminating disinformation. When The Crying of Lot 49 came out in 1966, all of this was fun paranoid nonsense because we were all living in Lalaland like Oedipa Maas, but now it’s not so funny because it’s true. Modern communication, symbolized by the muted post horn, keeps us apart rather than drawing us together. The Tristero foregrounds the muted post horn, the thwarting of communication, and establishes its own mail system out of the waste of late-modern society, using the muted post horn as its logo.
Pynchon shows the connection between the death of real communication and the decline of our humanity. He does this the way Shakespeare might have done it, with a little allegory, a play he invents called The Courier’s Tragedy. We might be able to understand it if we look at the play through what Pynchon says about the Scurvhamites, a mad Puritan sect, who were “utterly devoted, like literary critics, to the Word” (CR49 117). When Oedipa applies this kind of slavish worship of the Word to interpret The Courier’s Tragedy, Randolph Driblette, the director of the play, yells at her: “You don’t understand,” getting mad. “You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where that play exists, not in that filing cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for but”—a hand emerged . . . . to indicate his suspended head—“in here. That’s what I’m for. To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares . . . . You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters [in the play] reacted to the Trystero possibility the way they did, why assassins came on, why the black costumes. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth” (CR49 56). I can see Pynchon laughing as I soberly pursue the meaning of his words, just as Oedipa pursues the elusive Tristero. Nonetheless, I’ll keep going, assuming that Pynchon is playing a game, to be taken seriously but not too seriously—not as if it were Holy Writ.29For Oedipa, there was about San Narciso and its leading industry, Yoyodyne, “a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning” (CL49 13). The key Oedipa never understands is John Nefastis and Clerk Maxwell’s Demon. Nefastis’ machine, which is based on Clerk Maxwell’s thought experiment, is the metaphorical link (or allegory) connecting two different kinds of entropy, one having to do with heat engines, thermodynamics, and everything Pynchon associates with power, and the other having to do with communications. In physics these two concerns, Pynchon tells us, “were unconnected, except at one point: Maxwell’s Demon” (CL49 77). Based on a thought experiment (a fiction) of a creature that sorts information within a machine to deal with the forces of entropy that are trying to reduce a system to uniformity and stasis, Nefastis’ machine (another fiction) is significant to Pynchon as a junction between the sources of power in the contemporary world and the manipulation and limitation of communication. Pynchon points out that “entropy is a figure of speech . . . a metaphor. It connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow” (CL49 77). If we apply this little allegorical lesson to Oedipa’s world, we see that the more information flows freely, the more dynamic and varied the system will be; if communication between systems is squeezed to a trickle, everything declines into sameness. Simply speaking, if they can prevent the free flow of information, they can maintain power. It is not just talk. Talk is not necessarily communication. If we use their words, their slogans; if we allow others to frame the debate, our thoughts are not our own. This is the secret Oedipa never learns. She has an intuition, though, that Pierce Inverarity has played a trick on her. (Pierce’s last name, Inverarity, implies such a hoax or untruthfulness.) It is not Pierce but what Pierce represents that is deceiving her because she, like many of us, allowed someone else to frame the questions so that she would never get the right answers.
In The Crying of Lot 49, we are left with questions, but in Pynchon’s third novel we get answers. In Gravity’s Rainbow, we get a new metaphor—Cybernetics, the science of communication and control. Pynchon’s two major concerns, information and power, come together in a new way. Cybernetics, according to Pynchon, yields both the V-2 rocket and the mass manipulation of society. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon leaves the world of Oedipa Maas and plunges back into the past that made her world. Using the principles of Cybernetics, the precursors of Yoyodyne (IG Farben, Krupp, and other international cartels) in league with national governments used communication to control people and things. This can occur as a monolithic structure as in Hitler’s Germany, or as pluralistic media under the control of a monopoly (as in the contemporary USA). Though apparently different, the goal is the same—power. Control the debate, and you control the people.
Pynchon’s symbol for this sort of control of people is the servo-mechanism, an automatic device for controlling large amounts of power (whole populations or the V-2 rocket, for instance) by means of small amounts of power, constantly correcting direction and performance to a desired standard through error-sensing feedback. Although the servo-mechanism is never explicitly mentioned in any of Pynchon’s early novels, this model for the modern communications of control (and control of communications) dominates Gravity’s Rainbow. If we (Pynchon’s Preterite) are seen as automatons rather than as beings with a soul and a will, then the best way for the Elect to control us would be through a mechanistic approach to communication—as if we were machines to be tweaked and corrected by constant feedback, messages to redirect us when we begin to go astray.
Almost at the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow, we see how the control of communications depicted in The Crying of Lot 49 fits into the V-principle. The character who offers the explanation is Roland Feldspath, “a long co-opted expert on control systems, guidance equations, feedback situations for the Aeronautical Establishment,” (GR 238).30 As a youthful enthusiast of cybernetics, he was driven onto control work by the German inflation of the 1920s. At this point, in late 1944 and early 1945, Feldspath is dead. He speaks to us from the spirit world, beyond the Zero of death, at a seance given by medium Carroll Eventyr.
Feldspath the cyberneticist explains that it is all about control: “For the first time it was inside, do you see. The control is put inside. No more need to suffer passively under ‘outside forces’—to veer into the wind. . . . A market needed no longer be run by the Invisible Hand, but now could create itself—its own logic, momentum, style, from inside. Putting the control inside was ratifying what de facto had happened—that you had dispensed with God” (GR 30). Feldspath worked on the guidance and control system of the V-2 rocket, an allusion to which we see in the words “no more need to veer into any wind.” The rocket is controlled from within, by servo-mechanisms and feedback constantly monitoring and correcting its course. The key here is that people may be controlled the same way. If the human mechanism is properly programmed, it self-corrects, self-monitors. Oedipa Maas could not find the forces of the V because she could not allow herself to think the unthinkable. As Pynchon says in Gravity’s Rainbow, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about [the right] answers” (Proverbs for Paranoids 3, GR 251).
Then Feldspath talks about “markets,” which no longer run by the “Invisible Hand” of supply and demand. A marketplace, as we now know, is a place where something is for sale--goods, services, people, ideas, religion, whatever. This means that every place is a marketplace because in a society completely dominated by materialism EVERYTHING isfor sale. Further, Feldspath points out that there is no such thing as a free market. It’s all fixed. Markets are artificially created. Further, all demand is artificially created and put inside the human mechanism. No longer persons or even producers, we have become only consumers. If the communication and control mechanisms work correctly, we buy and eat whatever we are told—whether it be McDonald’s fries or needless wars.
Feldspath has more to tell us, however. He goes on to say that the belief in control is a deadly illusion. V-2 rocket is a ballistic missile, tracing a parabola through the sky, whose ascent is powered and guided (controlled) but whose descent is a free-fall, uncontrolled—and uncontrollable. This is the secret of “gravity’s rainbow.” The rocket’s downward path is part of the natural force of gravity. Thus, one of the meanings of the V-rocket as a symbol is that the rocket, or whatever system the powers-that-be think they control, will eventually go out of control. For Pynchon, the analogy works for politics, economics, revolutions, wars and disasters.
The “rainbow” is the parabola of the rocket and the arc of the Modern Era. The flight path and the “history” inscribed by the downward arc of its parabola are out of human control. The rocket and the history are moving toward the zero point of annihilation, and those in control tell us there’s not even a problem. That this is one meaning of Pynchon’s “rainbow” is revealed when he (or his narrator) says of Katje, the European, and Slothrop, the American, “They must have guessed, once or twice—guessed and refused to believe—that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprises, no second chances, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news as certainly as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children” (GR 209).
The arc of this parabola is described by the calculus of annihilation, as dt (delta t) approaches zero. A pun on the term “dt” from calculus connects all three novels—V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow—in an elaborate comment on the deadly progress of the V. It links the final entropy of Antarctica that is the secret of Vheissu in V to the calculus of death in the rocket’s parabola in Gravity’s Rainbow. The moment occurs in The Crying of Lot 49. It occurs when Oedipa, comforting a sailor dying of the DTs (Delirium Tremens), by a kind of pun, connects the DTs of the sailor to the “dt”s of calculus.31 Oedipa recalls that dt refers to “a time differential, a vanishing small instant in which change had to be confronted at last for what it was, where it could no longer disguise itself as something innocuous like an average rate; where velocity dwelled in the projectile though the projectile be frozen in mid-flight, where death dwelled in the cell though the cell be looked in on at its most quick. She knew that the sailor had seen worlds no man had seen if only because there was that high magic to low puns, because DT’s must give access to dt’s of spectra beyond the known sun, music made purely of Antarctic loneliness and fright” (CL49 95-96). The terminal point of the calculus of the rocket’s parabola, like the end of the sailor’s life and the dream of Vheissu, is the point of annihilation—the vortex of the V—as “events [are brought] to Absolute Zero” in Gravity’s Rainbow (GR 98).
For Pynchon, the impulse behind this movement toward self-annihilation is our illusion of control over a world supposedly governed by cause-and-effect. He has more to say on the subject in a confrontation between Ned Pointsman, the Pavlovian Behaviorist, and Roger Mexico, the statistician who deals with probabilities. Pointsman is an absolutist caught in a mindset of cause-and-effect as he programs people to do his bidding. Roger Mexico does not program outcomes; he examines the odds—the percentages between nothing and something, Zero and One, to see how they play out—no illusion of control, just following the probabilities.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, the probabilities lead him to the coal-tar science of organic chemistry, where he asks himself, What are the odds that all THIS is a coincidence? We are treated to another séance (beyond the Zero again), this time with the spirit of the late Walter Rathenau, the real-life architect of cartelized Germany, and General Director Smaragd, head of IG Farben. (IG stands for Interessengemeinschaft, a fellowship of interests.) This meeting of the Elect on both sides of the divide of death leads Pynchon to comment that “it might almost—if one were paranoid enough—seem to be a collaboration here, between both sides of the Wall, matter and spirit. What is it they [the Elect] know that the powerless [the Preterite] do not? What terrible structure behind the appearances of diversity and enterprise?” (GR 165). The spirit of Rathenau is trying to make Smaragd see the illusions the IG and other “fellowships of interest” are entertaining and what these dangerous assumptions are causing. He begs them to see that they are creating death, from the structures of synthetic molecules to the structures of cartels, but this is not what Smaragd and the others want to hear.
Rathenau connects the development of coal-tar dyes in the nineteenth century (mauve being the first) to synthesized, mind-altering drugs like the fictional Oneirine (a drug pushed by Wimpe, the V-Mann), insecticides and herbicides, and polymer plastics (such as the fictional Imipolex G used to replace human skin). The result, Rathenau says, is an interlocking monopoly of organic chemistry, heavy industry, petroleum, and electronics brought together in an uncontrolled release of energy.
One of Pynchon’s invented characters, Old Tchitcherine, saw in this combination “a conspiracy of carbon, though he never phrased it as ‘carbon,’ it was power he walked away from, flowing wrong . . . he could smell death in it” (GR 351). Gravity’s Rainbow’s main character, Tyrone Slothrop also sees a conspiracy of technology, but Slothrop adds the final paranoid flourish of thinking “they” are out to get him personally. Slothrop, Enzian, and Young Tchitcherine all think the conspiracy revolves around the V-2 rocket. For Pynchon, however, the rocket is the symbolic rather than the literal locus of power. It represents all the out-of-control technological forces destroying the world. The conspiracy of the V-2 rocket that Slothrop takes literally is a misreading—mistaking the vehicle (ha ha) of a metaphor for its tenor, what it actually means.
Pynchon is looking at a broader war than World War II, the ostensible setting of Gravity’s Rainbow. It is the “war” against humanity—the V-principle of death—that the V-rocket stands for. In terms of paranoia, none of the characters’ theories is vast enough!
“The truth is,” Pynchon (or his narrator) says, “that the War is keeping things alive. Things. . . . The real war is always there . . . killing [people] in more subtle ways” (GR 645). This is the secret Paola Maijstral in V. intuitively understands: “The girl lived poper nouns. Persons, places. No things” (V 40). By not admitting things into her life, Paola survives; she represents a universal principle of life affirmation, as she walks away, like Old Tchitcherine, from death in life. We get the same message from Lyle Bland in Gravity’s Rainbow, when he speaks of what he has learned wandering in the spiritual world, about the use of power to create synthetics from coal: “Forget them, they are no better than the Qlippoth, the shells of the dead, you must not waste your time with them” (GR 590).
Like Walther Rathenau, Lyle Bland has gotten beyond the Zero to see another order of being, behind or beneath ordinary reality. He “imagines that he has been journeying beneath history” where he finds Rathenau’s astral IG” (GR 589). He discovers that “Gravity, taken so for granted, is really something eerie, Messianic, extrasensory in Earth’s mindbody . . . having hugged to its holy center wastes of dead species, gathered, packed, transmuted, realigned, rewoven, molecules to be taken up again by coal-tar Kabbalists of the other side, the ones Bland on his voyage has noted, taken, boiled off, teased apart, explicated to every last permutation of useful magic, centuries past exhaustion still finding new molecular pieces, combining and recombining them into new synthetics” (GR 590).
Like a bunch of literary critics extracting the last drop of meaning from the Word, organic chemists have “boiled off, teased apart, explicated every last permutation of useful magic” from dead, organic matter compressed by gravity into coal, making up synthetic compounds and colors. This is another meaning of “gravity’s rainbow,” the spectrum of artificial colors made from coal. Thus, “gravity’s rainbow” becomes the metaphorical link between the death created by the cartels and the death contained in the V-2 rocket—the parts of the larger structure of the V. The character who represents this larger structure is Lieutenant (now Major) Weissmann, who has prepared his final V-2 rocket with a fairing made of Imipolex G.
Weissmann is Pynchon’s archetypal European. A military officer, scientist, politician, and Nazi Party professional, Weissmann is the ultimate Insider. He learned the lesson of European Imperialism in the colonies—that humanity can be lost. (What freedom this gives him!) He returned from Southwest Africa along with Enzian, the Herero leader of the Schwarzkommando, in order to build the V-2. Through Weissmann, Pynchon shows, in symbolic terms, that the rocket was built out of the legacy of decadence and pathology of European Imperialism. Enzian is there as the representative of the remnant of native people in European colonies, to assist Weissmann and White Europe in committing suicide.
Pynchon sees Europe in the first half of the twentirth century as the Kingdom of Death, and Weissmann epitomizes Europe’s insane urge toward annihilation. Pynchon shows the various destructive meanings of Europe, the center of the V, through Weissmann, whose name yields several puns. Weis in German means “wise” or “judicious,” and “Weissmann” is the wise man who embodies European wisdom. Weiß, which is pronounce like weis, means “white.” Weissman is Whiteman, the European. Weis-machen, means “putting something over on somebody,” which we might call “acting like a wise guy.” Thus Weissmann is pulling a hoax, deluding himself and everyone else by projecting his fantasy on the world.
His SS code name is “Captain Blicero,” and “Blicker,” according to Enzian, was “the nickname the early Germans gave to Death. They saw him [Death as] white: bleaching and blankness. The name was later Latinized to ‘Dominus Blicero,” the Lord of Horror. (GR 322).
The rockets were built at Nordhausen (Dora) and Bleicheröde (Peenemunde)—real-life places in the Harz Mountains of Germany where the V-2 rockets were built at an underground factory by slave labor from the Mittelbau Dora concentration camp. What a moment for a paranoid punster: Nordhausen, of course, means “dwelling in the north,” and Bleiche means “bleach, paleness, blankness, or whiteness.” It is the whiteness of the White Man and of death. Bleicheröde was the home of Wernher von Braun while he ran the technical aspects of building the V-2” (GR 237).
Weissmann oversees the production and firing of the V-2. He is portrayed as a man devoid of conscience who carries out any perverted fantasies his mind can invent. Like Victoria Wren and Vera Meroving (incarnations of the Lady V.), Weissmann used to be human but not any more. As a symbol of his evil, he is riddled with decay: “His teeth [are] long, terrible, veined with light brown rot as he speaks. . . . the yellow teeth of Captain Blicero, the network of stained cracks, and back in his night-breath, in the dark oven of himself, always the coiled whispers of decay” (GR 94). This decadent European has surrendered himself to the V--in this instance, to the technology of the rocket. The rocket represents not just power but the power to transcend the ordinary limits of mankind. The V-weapon is the last gasp (along with the A-bomb) of the Romantic spirit in a world in which man is his own God.
Weissmann is preparing to launch his last V-2 with a man aboard, his young lover Gottfried. The rocket, A-4 Schwarzgerät (black instrument) 00000, is to be fired due north, toward the Zero of annihilation. The reader of Gravity’s Rainbow is led to understand that “Europe” includes America, Europe’s chief colony of death. Through Weissmann, Pynchon says that “America was the edge of the world. A message to Europe, continent-sized, inescapable. Europe had found the sight for its Kingdom of Death, that special death the West had invented. Savages had their waste regions, Kalaharis, lakes so misty they could not see the other side. But Europe had gone deeper—into obsession, addiction, away from the savage innocences”; in America, the European “impulse to empire, the mission to propagate death, the structures of it, kept on. Now we are in the last phase. American Death has come to occupy Europe. It has learned empire from its old metropolis” (GR 722). In 1945, America becomes the heir to the structures of death, as V finds a new home.
The hope that has been the promise of America looks as if it has been transmuted into death. We see this loss of innocence in a sunset over the Mediterranean in 1945 that is like a sunset on the American frontier. The genuine sense of loss, presented without irony, is unusual in Pynchon: “This is the kind of you hardly see anymore, a 19th-century wilderness sunset, a few of which got set down, approximated, on canvas, landscapes of the American West by artists nobody ever heard of, when the land was still free and the eye still innocent, and the presence of the Creator much more direct. Here it thunders now over the Meditteranean, high and lonely, this anachronism in primal red, in yellow purer than can be found anywhere today, a purity begging to be polluted . . . of course empire took its way westward, what other way was there but into those virgin sunsets to penetrate and foul” (GR 214). We did our best, and worst, at empire building on the North American continent, but it is not until we inherited, by default some might say, the legacy of Europe at the end of the Second World War that things accelerated toward the V.
To show the process of history in America, Pynchon uses an allusive approach that resembles a time-lapse movie fantasy. It begins with Tyrone Slothrop, who in a drug-induced dream is flushed down a toilet in the Men’s Room at the Roseland Ballroom, in an adventure that resembles in its surrealism Alice’s pursuit of the White Rabbit down the hole in Wonderland.
In Slothrop’s adventure down the toilet of American history, he encounters the symbolic westwardman: “There was only one . . . , and there was only one Indian who ever fought him. Only one fight, one victory, one loss” (GR 67). It was always the same fight. Pynchon goes on to show the white frontiersman as pederast and American history as a poem of victims the white man has fucked. This, of course, is not the US History we learned in high school.
Present in the Roseland Men’s Room of Slothrop’s dream before he embarks on his scatological journey, is Jack Kennedy. Slothrop’s classmate at Harvard. There also is “Red Malcolm,” Malcolm X, shining Kennedy’s shoes as Slothrop enters. Six hundred pages later Slothrop wonders, “Were the three ever lined up that way—sitting, sqatting, passing through? Eventually Jack and Malcolm both got murdered. Slothrop’s fate is not so clear” (GR 688). Slothrop, as it turns out, is also annihilated, scattered over the post-war Zone of occupied Germany.
The summary of American history that Slothrop dreams connects the assassination of John Kennedy to the murder of Malcolm X to show the steep downward direction America has taken. Just as “there was only one fight, one victory, one loss,” so also there was “only one president, and one assassination and one election” (GR 67). Pynchon seems to be saying that events such as assassinations and victimization of vulnerable people by descendents of White Europeans in America are not isolated incidents, individually explainable events of America’s history. They are instead part of a pattern. Although he does not know it, Slothrop is in Europe in 1945 as part of a family reunion, as soldiers from the colonies return to Europe to pay their respects. The patterns begun with Darwin and colonialism have come full circle. But just as American death has come to Europe, so also European death is visited upon the USA. The structure of the V is ready to assume its dominion in the “New World.” Thus, the world whose birth Slothrop is witnessing is the world in which Benny Profane finds himself lost a decade later, and in which Oedipa Maas is equally lost a decade after that.
What began for us in 1945 is a world of power in which the USA has been more or less at war for over half a century. In military strength, the United States is the most powerful country on earth, more powerful than all other major powers combined—but at what cost? We have inherited the structure of the V, with its cartels, its hyper-nationalism, and its domination of foreign policy by the military establishment. We don’t have to listen to Pynchon to know this. Instead, we might listen to President Dwight Eisenhower, who in his final speech to the American people in 1961 said:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence--economic, political, even spiritual--is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
Thomas Pynchon probably thinks Eisenhower spoke too late. Besides, was anybody listening? The world of Gravity’s Rainbow concludes, as in ENDS, in 1972, with the final V-2 rocket landing symbolically on our heads. Our annihilation by the V is inevitable, unless in the dialectic of history a counterforce develops as an antithesis to the structures of death that run the USA: “Dialectically, sooner or later some counterforce would have to arise” (GR 536). As we have seen, Pynchon anticipated the development of the Internet in Tristero and the mail system created out of the military-industrial complex’s “waste.” He also seems to anticipate the growth of the “Greens”: people keep defecting from the structures of death, to the old earth gods, the Titans, “all the presences we are not supposed to be seeing—wind gods, hilltop gods, sunset gods” who once ruled the earth in “an overpeaking of life so clangorous and mad, such a green corona about Earth’s body that some spoiler had to be brought in” (GR 720).
Thus, a paranoid “we” of good guys arises to oppose the bad guys. The problem with the counterforce against the structure of the V is that those who attempt to subvert the structures of death end up incorporated into the very structures they strive to oppose. Besides, most of the actions of the counterforce consist of infantile, futile gestures. For instance, the leader of the counterforce, Roger Mexico, acts against the cartels by storming into the boardroom of Imperial Chemicals International, where various members of governments, military organizations, and coal-tar conglomerates like IG Farben, GE, Shell International, and DuPont are meeting. Mexico proceeds to leap on to the conference room table and begins “pissing on the shiny [surface], on the papers. Members of the counterforce, as the dissident Pirate Prentice eventually realizes, are doomed pet freaks, used by the agents of the V to legitimize the structure, and allowed to live only on “Their terms” (GR 713).
The ridiculous futilty of the paranoid counterforce is epitomized by the movie, The New Dope, made by Gerhard von Göll, who has now joined the counterforce. The movie depicts “a reverse world whose agents run around with guns which are like vacuum cleaners operating in the direction of life—pull the trigger and bullets are sucked out of the recently dead into the barrel, and the Great Irreversible is actually reversed as the corpses come to life” (GR 745). This obscene sort of wishful thinking shows the desperate absurdity in which the counterforce is trapped.
If the counterforce cannot reverse the trend, who or what is left? In Pynchon’s world, the only ones left are the street people like Pig Bodine. This “white-hat in the navy of life” (GR 684) will not be trapped in the paranoid fantasies of his friend Tyrone Slothrop, and he will not participate in the counterforce nonsense of Roger Mexico. Bodine survives by keeping his eyes open, playing the odds, embracing life, not falling in love with things, helping his friends, bypassing the structures of death whenever possible, and occasionally subverting the structures of the V just for the fun of it.
For America, the USA, Pynchon said in 1972 that “it may be too late to get home” (GR 744). When the last V-2 is fired by Weissmann in Germany in 1945, it lands on us in America in the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies, and still it lands. The legacy of the V-rocket and the V-principle are ours now. Pynchon’s rocket in Gravity’s Rainbow landed on Richard M. (Zhlubb) Nixon, but then we had (oh, yeah) Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43. Did any of these guys actually RUN anything, or did the powers-that-be set the agenda? Look at the secondary players; where in the military-industrial complex do they fit in? We, the Preterite, (Surely, we are not as clueless as we used to be, are we?) sit at the movies at the old Orpheus Theater. We’ve “always been at the movies (haven’t we?),” Pynchon asks (GR 760). The V-rocket is fired (It’s only a metaphor. Remember what it stands for?), annihilating reader, narrator, everyone.
28 Pynchon’s essay, “A Journey into the Mind of Watts,” N.Y. Times Magazine, June 1966, asserts that white Southern California is a fantasy land: “While the white culture is concerned with various forms of systematized folly—the economy of the area in fact depending on it—the black culture is pretty much stuck with basic realities like disease, like failure, violence and death, which the whites have chosen—and can afford—to ignore” (35); by contrast Watts of 1966 was no plastic LALALAND but gritty and real. While “the outposts of the [white] establishment drowse in the bright, summery smog ,”(81) at an arts festival in Watts, a sculture made out of the rubble of the riot shows “this old, busted hollow TV set with rabbit ears on top; inside, where the picture tube should have been, gazing out with scorched wiring thread-like electronic ivy among its crevices and sockets, was a human skull. The name of the piece was ‘The Late, Late, Late Show’” (84). As Pynchon shows in Gravity’s Rainbow, for America it may be “The Too Late Show.”
29 As Sir Philip Sidney said in An Apology for Poetry, the last great work of rhetoric and literary theory before Francis Bacon and the Scientific Materialists got hold of the English language, the poet [meaning a writer of fiction] “nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” (123) It is fiction; there is no claim to absolute truth. Pynchon is always at pains to let us know he is dealing in stories, paranoid stories. If some of it rings true, so be it. Edited by Geoffrey Shepherd, Manchester UP, Barnes and Noble Books, 1980.
30 Right after we learn about Feldspath in Gravity’s Rainbow, we find as a clue a reference to Clerk Maxwell’s Demon, the allegory of communication and control in The Crying of Lot 49.
31 The term in Classical Rhetoric for such a pun is syllepsis, in which one meaning slides into another as a person’s thoughts wander in stream of consciousness.