Friday, June 5, 2009

GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon (Part IV)

Now I'm thinking about the theories of fascism adumbrated in Pynchon's novel. The one he belabors in GR--and which gets him into artistic difficulties--is also probably the weakest: fascism as the deployment of sadomasochism (usually gay male) by powerful elements in society. This is the old pop Freudian Nazism-as-sexual-perversion/anal-sadism theory, and it has a seriously problematic relationship to historical fact. Nazism, far from deploying and/or celebrating non-normative sexuality, punished it severely both in its own ranks and the general society. (Recall the purge of the reputedly sexually 'deviant' SA and the Nazi imprisonment of homosexuals.) The Nazis were, for the most part, deeply conservative, petit-bourgeois resenters who opposed anything that smacked of 'modernism' (hence their cozy relationship with the 20th century's most reactionary pope). Pynchon clearly knows these facts, but he doesn't allow them to get in the way of his theory, a serious aesthetic and intellectual flaw. (And it occurs to me now that it's time to put this mostly bogus theory of fascism to rest by showing it to be an ahistorical postwar back-formation, a reading backwards onto Nazism of postwar sadomasochists' attraction to Nazi regalia as symbols of ultimate evil power--the 20th century's substitute for the Satanism of 19th-century Decadents. This historical fallacy married to then-popular Freudian notions of sadism and anality produces a serious misunderstanding of Nazism's relationship to homosexuality.)

Fortunately, Gravity's Rainbow also contains a more general, more deeply disturbing, and thus more interesting theory of fascism. It comes in the 'icebox exploration' riff (pages 677-8, in my edition), where fascism is troped as "thermodynamic elitism": "...the Grid's big function in this system is iceboxery: freezing back the tumultuous cycles of the day to preserve this odorless small world, this cube of changelessness..." Here, in a parenthetical aside buried in one of the book's silliest moments, is what may be its most explicit and far-reaching theory of fascism. Fascism is 'thermodynamic elitism,' the desire to 'freeze' systems in their present state of fascist control, thus forestalling entropic change, halting the dialectical movement of history. The old Marxist dialectic is an explicit object of Pynchonian satire in the late exchange between Tchitcherine and the drug salesman Wimpe; it is also, of course, implicitly satirized in GR's overall dialectical structure, Force giving rise to Counterforce. But Pynchon isn't just singing that Ol' Time Dialectical Religion to leftist true believers. He's criticizing the dialectic in a shocking and terrifying way. In Gravity's Dialectic, Force co-opts and/or obliterates Counterforce. This is a dialectic of tragedy of the sort outlined by A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy (a book TP might have been forced to read at Cornell). Bradley writes: "Shakespeare's general to show one set of forces advancing, in secret or open opposition to the other, to some decisive success, and then driven downward to defeat by the reaction it provokes." The London Counterforcers end up like Byron the Bulb, knowing exactly how to subvert the System but so enmeshed in and dependent upon the System that they're impotent to act effectively and can only become "pet freaks" of the System, uselessly elaborating dialectical dreams. Make no mistake, at the end of GR (and, by implication, in our world, because our world is the world announced in 1945) fascism has already won. Period. Have a Nice Day in Happyville...

...Or maybe not. Because there is another story told in the last 100 pages of the novel--if we care to see it. Even under Pynchonian technocorporate fascism, a kind of dialectical movement persists. At this fascism's most extreme moment, the obliteration of Hiroshima, Slothrop is not frozen into the hard, reified subject that fascism desires. Rather, he is blown entropically apart, a centrifugal movement that is the dialectical opposite of fascism's rigidly centripetal motion. After the Bomb, we see Slothrop only in fragments. We can create no coherent picture of him, but this may not be because the bombing has obliterated his subjectivity. It may be that Slothrop has gone almost entirely "off the grid." He is living outside the rational categories and structures of power, and power can only detect him when he flits within those structures, always on their margins (an album by an obscure London rock band, disorderly harmonica playing in Nixon-era LA). Interestingly, Pynchon gives 'Slothrop' (we should use quotes when discussing the ritually disassembled 'character' at novel's end) the kind of life the novel's dedicatee, Richard Farina, might have lived: a folkie on the margins of popular music with some shadowy connections to the Sixties counterculture--and oh yeah, there's that novel he wrote back in the Sixties that no one reads anymore, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (the recent Penguin edition has an intro by TP). And this thought leads inevitably, like Robert McNamara's dominoes falling, to the other person Slothrop more than slightly resembles: an American writer of most improbable bestsellers who has scrupulously avoided the mass media Grid for his entire adult life, so that the only pictures of him floating around on the Web are geeky high school yearbook photos and a goofy ID pic from his Navy days. A writer whose avoidance of the media hasn't kept him from leading a full and non-reclusive life--J.D. Salinger he ain't, despite what some have said. Yes, Slothrop's final fragments may be a fanciful self-portrait--and don't hold your breath for a less grainy one. (A few years ago, I saw a photograph of Pynchon walking on an NYC sidewalk ca.1997. My first thought was that the photographer had screwed up and snapped a picture of Kurt Vonnegut. The two writers do kinda sorta vaguely resemble each other in grainy, distant photographs.) So it does appear that authentic life remains a possibility even under the fascism triumphant at novel's end. But it's a life that those interpellated by the ratio (that's us, folks) can't see. So we move through our lives oblivious to it, until by sheer good/bad luck it crashes like a rocket (or a novel) straight into our heads. This may be the deepest meaning of the novel's ending, and its only note of hope--the maybe-not-entirely-illusory pot of gold at the end of Pynchon's Rainbow.

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