"Thomas Pynchon on Totalitarianism: Power, Paranoia, and Preterition in Gravity’s Rainbow" by Robert J. Lacey
Robert J. Lacey is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY (USA). He teaches political theory, and his primary area of interest is American political thought. He is the author of American Pragmatism and Democratic Faith (Northern Illinois University Press, 2008). Email:
Many critics consider Thomas Pynchon to be one of the best American writers of the twentieth century, and often praise his magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, as a towering novel that stands beside Ulysses for its stylistic invention, intellectual sophistication, and breathtaking prose. He has deeply influenced generations of writers over the last four decades, and it is only a small exaggeration to suggest that the landscape of American literature would look entirely different if he had not come on the scene in 1963 with the publication of V., his groundbreaking first novel (Howard 2005). Scholarship on Pynchon’s work has grown into a cottage industry, especially in literary studies. But, up to this point, Pynchon has failed to attract any serious attention from political theorists, even though he is arguably the most important novelist writing in English today about the organization of power in the postmodern world.
On the one hand, the unwillingness of political theorists to tackle Pynchon is understandable. A scholar trying to identify any meaning in his works faces many pitfalls. Riddled with word games, obscure allusions and byzantine allegories, his novels are only accessible, if at all, to the most committed and patient of readers. There is no guarantee that the undaunted few will make their way through the dense thicket successfully and find a coherent political theory. It may even be the case, as literary critic James Wood suggests, that Pynchon playfully constructs intricate, multi-layered allegorical edifices, which seem to reveal insights about his political and philosophical orientation, only to raze them before the reader can find meaning or truth in them (Wood 1997 & 2007). It is quite possible that behind the intimidating prose and convoluted narrative structure, behind the indirection and obfuscation, behind the bewildering references to science and other arcane subjects, resounds nothing but the echoes of Pynchon’s nihilistic mirth.
On the other hand, the reluctance to take on Pynchon is puzzling given the attention that other challenging writers, including writers of fiction, have received from political theorists. Indeed, political theorists have found it worthwhile to examine the works of many great writers in the Western canon who defy straightforward interpretation and stray far from traditional philosophical discourse. Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Gilles Deleuze—to name just a few—are the subjects of endless fascination among political theorists. Scholars of American political thought, especially in recent years, have paid particular attention to writers of fiction and poetry, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Don DeLillo (Alvis 1996; Dobski and Kleinerman 2007; Frank 2007; Mattessich 2002; McWilliams 2007; Zuckert 1989). An acclaimed novelist who has constructed over the last four decades an elaborate fictional universe with explicitly political themes, Pynchon merits similar consideration.
The underlying assumption of this article is that Pynchon can be read as a more traditional writer than most critics understand him to be. Distracted by his postmodern playfulness, most readers do not recognize Pynchon as a novelist of ideas with deep political concerns. His fiction warns us about a creeping totalitarianism that since the Enlightenment has slowly deprived human beings of their dignity and freedom. Mainly through the use of allegory, he teaches his readers about the modern organization of power and its terrible inhumanity; about the insidiously subtle encroachments on individual freedom; about the history behind this tragic, though hardly inevitable, turn; and about the choices that remain available to us, despite our increasing vulnerability to conditioning and other forms of social control. The complex and unstable narrative form that he employs, while admittedly frustrating to the reader, reflects the uncertainties and alienating effects of the postmodern world. Literary scholars have offered great insights into the form and style of his works. But all the breathtaking pyrotechnics on display in Pynchon’s fiction should not prevent interpreters from mining his works for some kind of stable meaning.
This is where the political theorist may be helpful. Additional light can be shed on Pynchon’s intellectually rich work once he is brought into a larger conversation with political thinkers in the Western canon, especially those who have written about totalitarianism. In his portrayal of organized power in the modern world, Pynchon clearly draws on Hannah Arendt’s analysis of conditioning and total domination in The Origins of Totalitarianism. He is able to stretch Arendt’s conceptual framework, which she develops from the experiences of Nazism and Stalinism, and apply it to the world he sees emerging in the second half of the twentieth century: a world that provides fewer and fewer opportunities for spontaneous action or political resistance to existing power arrangements. In suggesting that totalitarianism, albeit in a subtler form, has permeated Western democracies since the mid-twentieth century, Pynchon also anticipates the work of Václav Havel, the Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, and president. Havel’s discussion of “post-totalitarianism” in “The Power of the Powerless” shares commonalities with Pynchon’s work, especially the view that capitalism, in collaboration with the automatizing forces of technology, has become the new totalizing ideology with which human beings must contend.
Along with the more recent theorists of totalitarianism, including Havel and Sheldon Wolin, Pynchon believes that modern men live at the mercy of economic and political forces of which they have little understanding and even less control. The world has become Weberian to the core, completely disenchanted, devoid of any heroic action. But the bleakness of Pynchon’s vision, the sheer pessimism, goes far beyond what most theorists of totalitarianism are willing to accept. Unlike these other thinkers, Pynchon sees a life in which people are self-governing and able to shape their own destinies as an ideal that can never be realized. The existing political and economic system is invulnerable to resistance. Indeed, political engagement is a futile endeavor: Those who try to topple the system will be destroyed, while those who try to change it will be co-opted. Understandably, those who are aware of the ubiquitous matrix of power often become deeply paranoid. Interpreting everything as part of a vast conspiracy, they become mistrustful of other people and lose any chance of leading a meaningful life. In Pynchon’s view, such paranoia is unwarranted. It is beneath the dignity of the person seeking freedom to cower in a perpetual state of fear and loathing. In brief, then, the solution to our disenchantment can be found in neither political struggle nor paranoia.
As an alternative, Pynchon celebrates preterition, the act of being disinherited or passed over. In a clever inversion of Calvinist theology, Pynchon suggests that preterites, the forgotten refuse of society, are the fortunate few who have received a kind of grace. They are the blessedly forsaken. Embracing the apolitical, preterites enjoy an invisibility that Pynchon believes is necessary to attain a modicum of freedom in late modernity. They find freedom by eluding the clutches of the system, by effectively disappearing. In our age, suggests Pynchon, freedom can be experienced at best in its most negative form—“freedom from” outside control.
Though a complete treatment of Pynchon’s political thought should cover his entire body of work, I focus my analysis on Gravity’s Rainbow (henceforth, GR), probably his richest novel of ideas and the central text in his mythological reconstruction of modern history. A bewildering work of art, the novel depicts the crucial moment in Pynchon’s cosmology when all of humanity’s hopes vanished for good. Though it teems with a large cast of characters whose stories intersect in any number of ways, the story revolves around one Tyrone Slothrop, a blue-blooded American officer based in London at the end of World War II. The reader learns that Slothrop was the subject of Pavlovian experiments when he was an infant. For reasons unknown, a behavioral scientist conditioned the young Slothrop to get an erection when given an unidentified stimulus. During the war, Slothrop becomes a person of interest to intelligence operatives on all sides when they discover something peculiar: Not long after Slothrop has sex somewhere in London, a V-2 rocket lands in that very same spot. It is suggested, though never fully explained, that his conditioning as an infant may have something to do with the perfect geographical correlation between his sexual encounters and the V-2 rocket strikes. When Slothrop begins to suspect that sinister forces have an interest in controlling him, he goes AWOL and tramps throughout a war-ravaged Europe in an effort to find answers about his past, especially any connections he may have to a mysterious and hidden V-2 rocket.
I organize my discussion around three concepts or recurring themes in GR: power, paranoia, and preterition. Through the lens of these themes I hope to bring Pynchon’s political philosophy into sharper focus.
1) The Pathology of Power
In Pynchon’s universe, power involves exercising dominance and control over others, and it corrupts those who wield too much of it. Unlike Nietzsche, Pynchon does not celebrate the will to power; he is wary of it. The critics who deride Pynchon for the ubiquity of perverse and obscene behavior in GR, and who at times even accuse him of immorality (Gardner 1978, 93), have failed to catch the allegorical meaning here. Hardly intending to glorify the perverse and obscene, Pynchon tries to unnerve his reader with unspeakable acts (and fantasies) of sexual perversion, including pedophilia and sado-masochism, to drive home the point that power, though an inescapable part of life, has inherently pathological tendencies.
One of the more diabolical characters in GR, Edward Pointsman, has frequent pedophilic and homicidal fantasies which the narrator likens to imperialism. Pointsman embodies the dark side of the will to power, the uncontrollable impulse to dominate the weak, to corrupt the innocent by writing his own “Realpolitik dreams” onto them (50). Rocket scientist Weissmann (a.k.a. Blicero), the other terrifying villain in GR, has intimate experience with the evils of colonialism as a young man, and his life story brings into sharp relief the loss of humanity that too much power can bring. Oberst Enzian observes the transformation of Weissmann, the man he once loved as a young boy back in Africa. “The Blicero I loved was a very young man, in love with empire, poetry, his own arrogance,” he observes. “My slender white adventurer, grown twenty years sick and old…was changing, toad to prince, prince to fabulous monster” (660). Again, we see the relationship between empire and pedophilia: having sex with young African boys was just part of carrying out the imperial ambitions of Germany at the turn of the century. A young colonial adventurer full of princely dreams, Weissmann begins his transformation into the monstrous Blicero. By the end of World War II, Blicero spends his time performing perverse death fantasies and building a terrifying instrument of death, Rocket 00000. An abuser of power throughout his life, he has truly become a monster beyond any hope for redemption. In many ways, Blicero resembles the tyrant described in Plato’s Republic: a prisoner of his own appetites, a wretched soul tortured by his perverse dreams, paranoia, and loneliness. Plato describes the tyrant as the most solitary person on earth. Such a creature can hardly be human.
Pynchon makes a particular point of condemning colonialism, a horrific example of the unchecked exercise of power that corrupted untold numbers of Europeans like Weissmann. “Colonies are outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit,” says the narrator.
Out and down in the colonies, life can be indulged, life and sensuality in all its forms, with no harm done to the Metropolis…No word ever gets back. The silences down here are vast enough to absorb all behavior, no matter how dirty, how animal it gets… (317)
This is hardly the voice of an amoral, let alone immoral, writer. The narrator expresses a thinly-veiled outrage at the excesses of colonialism, an effusion of power that no one, if he wants to preserve his humanity, should ever experience. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that colonialism was one of the most significant historical precursors to the emergence of Nazism and Stalinism. It would seem that Europeans had to become practiced in the naked, primal exercise of power, and to master the logistics involved in carrying out savagery and carnage of that magnitude, before they could devise subtler—and perhaps more nightmarish—methods. Pynchon takes pains to establish this link in GR, and he returns to this theme in Mason & Dixon, in which the eponymous heroes spend time in the Ivory Coast and, to their horror, witness the slave trade and the early stages of European colonialism.
Pynchon’s take on the corrupting influence of power in its absolute form, such as imperialism, appears to be at odds with Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis, in which she claims that perpetrators of evil are not monsters but normal people who are able to ignore the ghastly consequences of their actions. No doubt, this incongruity is a reflection of the well-known tension between Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and her earlier work in which she tries to make sense of what she calls “radical evil”. Pynchon reveals his preference for the “radical evil” thesis in suggesting that a system of total domination produces monsters of sorts who become inured to the suffering of others and come to see human life, including their own, as superfluous. What is so monstrous about these men, according to Arendt, is that they have entered a horrifying “realm where ‘everything is possible.’” Their psyches having been completely destroyed, they have become “inanimate men, i.e., men who can no longer be psychologically understood” (Arendt 1968, 138-39). In their quest for power, even for omnipotence, they cease to be human. Indeed, “what binds these [evil] men together is a firm and sincere belief in human omnipotence” (Arendt 1968, 85). The problem with this belief is that it eliminates the “reason why men in the plural should exist at all—just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that makes him ONE. So, in this same way, the omnipotence of an individual man would make men superfluous” (Arendt and Jaspers 1992, 166). Striving for god-like power, these men begin to view their fellow human beings as insects. In King Lear, Gloucester famously says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport.” One could substitute “the SS” for “the gods” and capture Arendt’s point perfectly.
2) The Masterless System of Power
The catch is that no one is spared the effects of radical evil because the organization of power has no center or focal point. Power operates diffusely and systemically, not hierarchically and conspiratorially. There are no masters pulling the strings; there is no wizard behind the curtain. This means that Slothrop is not the only pawn or plaything of unseen forces. Even those characters who seem to be high-ranking members of the Firm (or the Force) are subject to a system of which they have little understanding.
There is a telling scene in the novel in which Webley Silvernail, the caretaker of the rats at “The White Visitation,” contemplates liberating his wards but decides against it. “I would set you free, if I knew how. But it isn’t free out here,” he says to the rats.
All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all. I can’t even give you hope that it will be different someday—that They’ll come out, and forget death, and lose Their technology’s elaborate terror, and stop using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level—and be like you instead, simply here, simply alive… (230)
Pynchon the allegorist is proposing that we are all just rats in a cage. Even outside the cages all life forms, including human beings, “are being broken and reassembled,” subjected to a conditioning that makes freedom impossible. It is particularly telling that, in Webley’s estimation, the “elite few” are “the least free of all.” Unlike the rats, the elite few rely on technology to assuage temporarily their fear of death, but they mercilessly exploit all other life forms in the process. The elite are both exploiters and exploited, both perpetrators and victims, and they hardly become free when they turn into monsters like Pointsman or Blicero. The wielders of power are the most wretched people on earth. They are not conspirators or masters who control the destinies of others. Like everyone else, they are at the mercy of an inscrutable system.
Dr. Rozsavolgyi, an influential figure at “The White Visitation,” champions a masterless system. “Dr. Rozsavolgyi tends to favor a powerful program over a powerful leader. Maybe because this is 1945. It was widely believed in those days that behind the War—all the death, savagery, and destruction—lay the Fuhrer-principle,” says the narrator. “But if personalities could be replaced by abstractions of power, if techniques developed by the corporations could be brought to bear, might not nations live rationally?” In the long term, the system of power intends to replace “charisma” with “rationalization”—to eliminate all the irrational and unreliable personalities and replace them with systematic processes and predictable outcomes (81). Flesh-and-blood individuals give way to abstract systems. No longer is there a locus of power.
The masterless system described in GR departs from Arendt’s idea of a regime in which power is concentrated in the hands of one Leader motivated by a deeply irrational and self-destructive ideology. This idea that everyone is at the mercy of a totalitarian system evokes the political thought of Václav Havel. In “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel highlights the impotence of the individual in what he calls the “post-totalitarian” regime. He criticizes Western Sovietologists who
exaggerate the role of individuals in the post-totalitarian system and overlook the fact that the ruling figures, despite the immense power they possess through the centralized power structure, are often no more than blind executors of the system’s own internal laws—laws they themselves never can, and never do, reflect upon. In any case, experience has taught us again and again that this automatism is far more powerful than the will of the individual. (Havel 1978, 140)
In the post-totalitarian regime, no one can deviate from the “system’s own internal laws.” Indeed, “[i]ndividuals are reduced to little more than tiny cogs in an enormous mechanism and their significance is limited to their function in this mechanism” (Havel 1978, 186). What Havel has in mind is an “anonymous” system of power in which people “are dissolved in the ritual” and “swept along by it” (Havel 1978, 139). Havel’s pessimistic diagnosis of the postmodern human condition should sound familiar. His description of a masterless system by which each individual has been subsumed coincides with the universe of GR. According to both Pynchon and Havel, everyone is “swept along” by the inscrutable logic of the system, and even the elite must act within strictly defined parameters.
3) Behavioral Conditioning
In GR, the masterless organization of power controls people by subjecting them to a program of behavioral conditioning. The salience of Pavlovian techniques in GR speaks to the importance of conditioning. This approach to regulating behavior represents a form of power where the victims do not change their ways due to fear of physical punishment but rather due to an alteration in their internal stimulus-response mechanism. In other words, the program of conditioning eschews attacks on the body and goes straight for the soul. Physical punishment, no matter how severe, can never eliminate the possibility of resistance, for the victims still have the same thoughts and impulses. Conditioning, on the other hand, can change who they are at a fundamental level. If successful, it creates a whole new set of desires and impulses in the subject, thus extinguishing, at both the conscious and unconscious levels, any lingering opposition to what the system wants them to do.
Most of the Pavlovian research discussed in the novel takes place at “The White Visitation,” a former insane asylum near Dover where researchers administer all kinds of sinister tests and experiments, mainly on dogs and rats. But the clear goal, especially for Pointsman, is to apply Pavlovian conditioning to human beings. In a conversation with Roger Mexico, Pointsman discusses approvingly the ideals of his hero, Ivan Pavlov, who “believed that the ideal, the end we all struggle toward in science, is the true mechanical explanation.” Although he knew science couldn’t attain such an explanation in his lifetime, he placed his ultimate faith “in a pure physiological basis for the life of the psyche. No effect without cause, and a clear train of linkages” (89). The object here is clearly control. Once scientists have mapped out the “train of linkages” between cause and effect, between stimulus and response, they can change the way people think and act by exposing them to new stimuli.
Pointsman betrays his hunger for power in his singular obsession with Slothrop, “a monster” over whom “[w]e must never lose control” (144). The reader learns that Slothrop is the product of an insidious program of conditioning that began in his infancy, and it appears that this conditioning may have something to do with the uncanny geographical correspondence between each of his sexual conquests in wartime London and the V-2 rocket strikes which follow within days. Pointsman is convinced that he can solve Slothrop’s mysterious—and disturbing—connection with the V-2 by applying Pavlovian techniques. In his view, Slothrop is a “perfect mechanism” that has been conditioned somehow to give a response (coitus) before the ostensible stimulus (V-2 strike). When Spectro accuses him of “putting response before stimulus,” Pointsman suggests that there must be a “sensory cue we just aren’t paying attention to” (49). For a dog in a Pavlovian experiment, a bell or a metronome represents the sensory cue (or conditioned stimulus) that elicits drooling (the response). (Presumably, the unconditioned stimulus is a juicy steak.) In Slothrop’s case, however, the sensory cue simply remains a mystery. This proves vexing for Pointsman and other scientists at “The White Visitation” who want to uncover all causal links in their quest for complete social control.
The focus on Pavlovian conditioning in GR calls to mind Arendt’s discussion of total domination in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In fact, she invokes the example of Pavlov’s dog on more than one occasion to illustrate her point. She describes the concentration camp as the laboratory of total domination in which “the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings” is eliminated to the point that “each and every person can be reduced to a never-changing identity of reactions.” Arendt continues her analysis with the suggestion that the camps represent the
ghastly experiment of eliminating, under scientifically controlled conditions, spontaneity itself as an expression of human behavior and of transforming the human personality into a mere thing, into something even animals are not; for Pavlov’s dog, which, as we know, was trained to eat not when it was hungry but when a bell rang, was a perverted animal. (Arendt 1968, 136)
The goal of totalitarian regimes is clear: to turn each autonomous human being into a perfectly predictable stimulus-response mechanism. The goal is “to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and events.” In the camps, there are only creatures that “behave like the dog in Pavlov’s experiments, which all react with perfect reliability even when going to their own death” (Arendt 1968, 153). The macabre research being conducted in “The White Visitation” has the same objective—and it continues even after the war has ended.
4) Buyers and Sellers
If the masterless organization of power conditions us to become predictable stimulus-response mechanisms, this raises the question: To what end? Pynchon suggests that the system turns us into eager capitalists. Slothrop’s story is illustrative. An Everyman of sorts, Slothrop faces a predicament that, in allegorical terms, tells us something about ourselves. Slothrop has been conditioned to be “turned on” by the Rocket—a symbol of almost everything, but most clearly of war and destruction. We too are conditioned for war, Pynchon suggests, but not in the usual sense of the term. Pynchon has an unconventional conception of war that extends well beyond familiar images of military conflict between sovereign states. In fact, he distinguishes between war and the War, or between war and the true (or real) war, to make his point. In his view, the real war continues, if somewhat beneath the surface, even after the ostensible war—in this case, World War II—comes to an end. “Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways,” the narrator instructs.
It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ‘n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets. (105)
In allegorical terms, then, Slothrop’s conditioned arousal by the rocket means we are all being taught to embrace capitalism—to become buyers and sellers, enthusiastic participants in the market. Calling to mind our mortality, the violence of war triggers an individualistic—and hence capitalistic—response in all of us. It is one of the stimuli in the real war that conditions us to become capitalists.
Because the War is about buying and selling, it does not have to do with politics per se. “It means this War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, just to keep the people distracted” (521). The narrator provides a bitterly ironic example of the primacy of economic over political (or moral) considerations in the real war. He informs the reader about a subsidiary of IG Farben whose management team will be fired for sinking a considerable amount of capital into “a new airborne ray which could turn whole populations, inside a ten-kilometer radius, stone blind.” IG Farben stops production of the blinding ray not because it has moral reservations or because the weapon has questionable strategic value. It balks because of “what such a weapon could do to the dye market after the next war” (163). The anecdote suggests that corporations are inherently amoral entities, driven only to maximize profits, without regard for other considerations. Even national loyalties play second fiddle to the demands of profit. Slothrop discovers, for example, that British Shell and other companies based on Allied soil were involved, at least indirectly, in the production of the V-2, the very rocket killing thousands of people in London (250-51).
Even as the war draws to a close, the War continues to wreak havoc and ruin lives. “The Germans-and-Japs story was only one, rather surrealistic version of the real War. The real War is always there. The dying tapers off now and then, but the War is still killing lots and lots of people,” says the narrator. “Only right now it is killing them in more subtle ways. Often in ways that are too complicated, even for us, at this level, to trace” (645). Pynchon undoubtedly knows that the post-war death toll could never match the mass murder that ravaged Europe, not to mention northern Africa and East Asia, from 1939 to 1945. The implication here is that the War is “killing” people in a way so subtle that it may not even be recognized as such. The War can kill without resorting to old-fashioned bloodbaths and slaughter, producing instead a race of what we might call “walking dead” or “undead”—much like the Tube-obsessed Thanatoids in Pynchon’s Vineland. If it can destroy our souls, the War has no need to spill blood.
Pynchon’s description of a system that coheres around a capitalist ideology calls to mind some of the insights offered by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. The Frankfurt School thinkers argue that human beings have ceased to be free in any meaningful sense of the term because their goals, and means of achieving them, have been prescribed for them by a powerful “culture industry”. Without their being aware of it, the “culture industry” manufactures demand for goods and services they do not need and conditions them to be individualistic and politically passive consumers. Samuel Thomas (2007) does an admirable job of calling our attention to Pynchon’s debt to the Frankfurt School.
But Havel also offers a penetrating critique of how post-totalitarian regimes operate by drawing comparisons between the opposing sides of the Cold War. While he has the Eastern bloc chiefly in mind, Havel understands that Western democracies are not immune to post-totalitarianism, a system that stands as “an inflated caricature of modern life in general” and “a kind of warning to the West, revealing its own latent tendencies” (Havel 1978, 145). He describes a “radically new” regime in which the stable and diffuse organization of power has created “intricate and well-developed mechanisms for the direct and indirect manipulation of the entire population” (Havel 1978, 130). This manipulation of the populace is made possible in the post-totalitarian regime, says Havel, because its people have embraced the “consumer and industrial” values associated with liberal individualism. Afraid of losing the many material perks and privileges earned through adherence to the demands of the system, people perform the requisite rituals automatically, without questioning their meaning or purpose.
Havel is particularly insightful on the role that technology plays in our conditioning. The automatism he observes in post-totalitarian regimes points to a larger crisis plaguing contemporary technological society. “Technology,” he says, “is out of humanity’s control, has ceased to serve us, has enslaved us and compelled us to participate in the preparation of our own destruction.” While the post-totalitarian system may be an “extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilization,” it also reflects a “general failure of modern humanity.” Most alarming is the fact that Western democracy is ill-equipped to address this crisis or even to be aware of it. In the end, it seems “that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it” (Havel 1978, 207-08).
Pynchon and Havel clearly share the view that the post-modern world has conditioned human beings to become champions of capitalism, of “consumer and industrial” values. They also understand that, although self-interest guides each individual, the outcomes are collectively irrational. Not only are people deprived of their freedom; they are also driven along the precipice of complete annihilation in the age of technology. The shadow of the death instinct, an indefinable but ever-present collective madness, looms in the works of both thinkers.
5) Resistance Is Futile
At the heart of GR is a disturbingly pessimistic message: Resistance to the power structure is a futile endeavor, resulting in either cooptation or defeat. This message is apparent in one of the more bizarre episodes of the book—when Pirate and Katje take a dream-like tour of what appears to be a taffy museum. Over the course of the tour they come upon a corrugated shack with a shingle hanging outside that says, “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE.” Inside the shack lives a Jesuit priest who preaches to whoever wants to listen to his sermons about the disappearance of freedom in the modern world. The narrator describes Father Rapier’s message as follows: “Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good. The word has ceased to have meaning.” The total eclipse of freedom stems from the “terrible possibility” in today’s world that They have attained, via “technical means,” a certain kind of immortality. “It is possible that They will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to go on forever—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have.” Most of us have assumed that They die just like us and, as a result, have refused to “begrudge Them” the power They exercise over us. But Father Rapier asks whether the belief that they die like us is not “the best, and the most carefully propagated, of all Their lies” (539).
The references to “Them” and “propagated lies” have the ring of conspiracy, but Rapier raises the possibility that They are no longer mortal people but an immortal bureaucratic system. The system does not conspire so much as it conditions us to think in certain ways. No doubt, the system benefits from our thinking that power resides in the hands of people who will one day perish like us, that changing an unsatisfactory situation requires the elimination of a few bad apples in government. But as Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy teaches us, people come and go, while bureaucratic offices and procedures, if properly designed and calibrated, can continue ad infinitum, regardless of who occupies the positions and holds the titles.
Father Rapier clings to the hope that we will choose to “fight” and bring about Their death through revolutionary means. “They may not be dying in bed any more, but maybe They can still die from violence.” If not, there is always the possibility that “the physical things They have taken, from Earth and from us, can be dismantled, demolished—returned to where it all came from” (540). In effect, he implores his listeners to fight the system by stripping it of the infrastructure it requires to remain in operation.
In Part Four of GR, entitled “The Counterforce,” the reader learns about a number of people who are also committed to fighting Them. Pirate Prentice, Roger Mexico, Thomas Gwenhidwy, and others sing what the narrator calls a “counterforce traveling song,” the last two lines of which capture the spirit of their intentions: “But we’re bringin’ down Their system, / And it isn’t a resistance, it’s a war” (640). Learning about the Counterforce, which hopes to defeat the system and restore freedom, the reader believes that there may be a glimmer of hope toward the end of GR. But Pynchon raises our hopes only to dash them.
In their attempt to win this “war,” members of the Counterforce have constructed a “We-system” that draws on many of the same techniques used by the “They-system.” Mexico is upset when he learns that this is the case. “Well,” he says, “you’re playing Their game, then.” But Mexico also realizes that the “We-system” has not reached the same level of rationalization—not proven “thoughtful enough to interlock in a reasonable way, like They-systems do.” When he asks why this is the case, Osbie shouts, “That’s exactly it…They’re the rational ones. We piss on Their rational arrangements. Don’t we…Mexico” (638-39)? The others in the room cheer “Hoorah!” This exchange raises serious issues about the conundrum in which the Counterforce finds itself. It has adopted a “We-system” in an attempt to match the “They-system” at its own game. But it resists going too far with the adoption of “Their rational arrangements” for fear of being compromised, and perhaps co-opted, by a new freedom-depriving system. In other words, members of the Counterforce either refuse to adopt Their methods on principle and lose the fight against them, or they do use Their methods and become imprisoned in a system of their own making. Another way of putting it might be as follows: the Counterforce attacks the system from the outside and is destroyed, or it tries to effect change from within the system and is co-opted. The freedom fighters lose either way.
Pynchon clearly sees cooptation as the graver danger. During the taffy museum tour, Prentice and Katje meet Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck, who claims he no longer fears death. As a result, he says, They cannot control him anymore because they don’t have anything to hold over him. But, later on, he shows that he is hardly free. “At the moment,” he says, “I’m involved with the ‘Nature of Freedom’ drill you know, wondering if any action of mine is truly my own, or if I always do only what They want me to do…regardless of what I believe, you see…I’ve been given the old Radio-Control-Implanted-In-The-Head-At-Birth problem to mull over.” Even Prentice, who has worked as a double-agent and considered himself an active member of the Counterforce, despairs that “he has always been one of them.” He naively believed that he defected from Them to Us, that he used to work for Them, but no longer. Someone behind him whispers, “You hear? ‘Used to work.’ That’s rich, that is. No one has ever left the Firm alive, no one in history—and no one ever will” (541-43). The realization that he has worked for Them all along brings poor Prentice to tears.
Father Rapier, the supposed advocate for revolution, is a prime example of how cooptation works, creating the illusion of free dissent while in reality taming the “opposition” within the framework of acceptable institutions. First of all, Prentice and Katje come upon his shack inside the taffy museum, a symbol of the system. Second, as noted earlier, the shingle hanging outside his shack says “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE,” which may suggest that Father Rapier, in the end, works for (or is an “advocate” for) Them. Finally, the priest’s final words suggest a resignation in the face of Their indestructible system. “To believe that each of Them will personally die is also to believe that Their system will die—that some chance of renewal, some dialectic, is still operating in History. To affirm Their mortality is to affirm Return. I have been pointing out certain obstacles in the way of affirming Return” (540). In this statement, Father Rapier casts serious doubt on the prospects “that Their system will die,” and he counsels his listeners not to count on any “chance of renewal.” He ends his sermon with a somber reminder of the many “obstacles” standing in the way of freedom’s “Return.” The narrator calls the last sentence a “disclaimer” and says the priest “sounds afraid.” He suggests that the priest adds his disclaimer so as not to dissatisfy Them. He can talk about the evil system and the need for revolution, but lest he anger his generous benefactors he adds a “disclaimer” about the futility of the revolutionary enterprise. That way, even if aware of the evil system, the people will not be roused from their lazy resignation. Sadly, the belief that resistance is futile becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (See Chambers 1992, especially 151-52.)
At the beginning of Part Four, the reader maintains some hope that the Counterforce will come to Slothrop’s rescue. But they give up not only on saving Slothrop but also on achieving their larger goal: “to disarm, de-penis and dismantle the Man.” The sad truth is that they surrender to the allure of money. The Counterforce is bought off. “They are as schizoid, as double-minded in the massive presence of money, as any of the rest of us, and that’s the hard fact,” says the narrator. Conditioned to prize money and material rewards above all else, they are easy prey for the system. It merely has to give them a “glimpse” of what it has to offer and they immediately compromise their principles (712-13). The narrator draws particular attention to double-mindedness, people’s capacity for self-deception: they submit to the system in exchange for generous compensation and comfortable living, but they convince themselves that they’re still somehow outside the system, free to express dissent and criticize it.
The system will never fall, says Pynchon, in large part because we cling to the illusion of our own freedom and believe it does not have any hold over us. Each of us sees himself as an exception, but Pynchon tells us there are none. His bleak view of the human condition becomes apparent at the very end of the novel. People lead what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” in the Zone, sapped of their humanity, of their desire for real freedom. The narrator informs us that there is “no dignity” left: “generation after generation of men in love with pain and passivity serve out their time in the Zone…terrified of dying, desperately addicted to the comforts others sell them, however useless, ugly or shallow, willing to have life defined for them by men whose only talent is for death” (747).
Pynchon’s view that resistance is a futile endeavor, fated for either cooptation or defeat, represents a departure from what Arendt and Havel contend. According to Arendt, the Nazi and Stalinist examples should not be understood as historical anomalies but rather as warnings about what the future may hold, with even greater frequency and severity, if the modern world continues to foreclose opportunities for an authentic form of politics (i.e., “the political”) in which citizens muster the courage to enter the public sphere and engage in serious talk about issues of common concern. Longing for a society of perfect predictability and uniformity, totalitarian leaders condemn the political for promoting spontaneous action and a messy pluralism. Arendt (1958), then, finds hope in genuine political action, the antidote to the totalitarian tendencies of modernity. Havel also avoids the pessimism of Pynchon in his celebration of “post-democracy”. His is a vision of communities forming “structures that are open, dynamic, and small” and “organizations springing up ad hoc, infused with enthusiasm for a particular purpose and disappearing when that purpose has been achieved.” Only this kind of participatory democracy, people coming together with immense energy and zeal to address collective needs and grievances, can establish a “permanent bulwark against creeping totalitarianism” (Havel 1978, 210-11). The far less sanguine Pynchon finds no antidotes or bulwarks. We must accept the totalitarian reality.
It would seem that such a chillingly pervasive system of power would give us good reason to be paranoid. Not surprisingly, Pynchon may be best known for imagining fictional worlds saturated in paranoia. His characters see vast conspiracies swirling around them, controlling their destinies through incomprehensibly sinister machinations. In GR, the narrator defines paranoia as “nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in Creation, a secondary illumination—not yet blindingly One, but at least connected, and perhaps a route In” (703). The suggestion here is that the paranoiac is not crazy or delusional. To the contrary, he has just reached the stage of discovering that “everything is connected” but has not yet attained full knowledge of how it all works. The possibility remains that he will attain this knowledge and find “perhaps a route In”—i.e., a way into the conspiracy. Critics such as James Wood often accuse Pynchon of indulging in vague conspiracy theories without ever coming out and providing useful insights: he is either suggesting, quite ridiculously, that the world is run by an invisible but omniscient “Them” or just putting us on with an elaborate joke. This is an understandable but mistaken critique of Pynchon. A careful examination of his work, especially GR, suggests that he sees paranoia as a misguided faith that helps sustain the system of power.
Slothrop has constant bouts of paranoia, and the reader cannot help but think there is justification for this. He is, after all, the product of a sinister program of conditioning, and his unconscious ability to anticipate where the V-2 rockets will land has made him an object of intense surveillance and scrutiny by various Allied intelligence organizations. But, as the narrator suggests, the paranoiac only reaches the “edge” of discovering that “everything is connected”—and, despite what many characters believe, the novel offers little evidence that this is the case. The characters merely take this connectedness on faith. As the narrator suggests in a remarkably revealing passage, this faith takes on a mystical or religious aspect.
Slothrop perceives that he is losing his mind. If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long. Well right now Slothrop feels himself sliding onto the anti-paranoid part of his cycle, feels the whole city around him going back roofless, vulnerable, uncentered as he is…Either They have put him here for a reason, or he’s just here. He isn’t sure that he wouldn’t, actually, rather have that reason… (434)
In Pynchon’s fictional universe, people have the stark choice between paranoia and nihilism. The paranoiac believes in a vast conspiracy being carried out by unseen forces that have a plan for him. This is a grim prospect, but the narrator suggests that the alternative, “anti-paranoia,” may even be worse. The paranoiac may feel threatened, but at least the world, as he sees it, has meaning. Dwelling in a world of random occurrences, the nihilist stares into the abyss and sees nothing—not meaning but emptiness. For this reason, the impulse to embrace faith, even one as dire as the paranoiac’s, should not be underestimated. Like Slothrop, many of us seek order and meaning in whatever form we can find it.
That Pynchon sees belief in conspiracy theories as a kind of religious experience in the modern era is also evident when the narrator describes paranoia as a “Puritan reflex of seeking other orders behind the visible” (188). In Pynchon’s view, paranoia has become a secular substitute for traditional faith in a godless universe. The paranoiac merely replaces God with Them, God’s plan with conspiracy. “God is the original conspiracy theory: behind floods, deaths in the family, the sprouting seeds or splatter of rain, behind every heartbeat and thought of man himself, monotheists discerned the single guiding will of a deity,” muses Pynchon scholar Scott Sanders. “An otherwise chaotic world made sense because it was perceived as a plot, narrated by God” (Sanders 1976, 139). Both They and God work in mysterious ways, using us for obscure purposes, constructing a plot of which we can glean only a dim understanding. But, as Pynchon is well aware, ardent faith in gods or conspiracies does not make them any more real.
Pynchon does not ask the reader to subscribe to the various conspiracy theories in GR. He’s merely pointing out that a state of paranoia may be the unfortunate result of living in a disenchanted world. Critics who believe otherwise, that Pynchon is a champion of conspiracy theories, fail to read him carefully. The narrator relates a number of simply laughable conspiracy theories in GR which drive home the point that people will find order and meaning in the most unlikely places. During the journey to Peenemunde, Frau Gnahb’s son Otto chats up a young woman, explaining to her “his views on the Mother Conspiracy…The Mothers get together once a year, in secret, at these giant conventions, and exchange information. Recipes, games, key phrases to use on their children.” Then the boy and girl commiserate over the fact that—surprise, surprise—both their mothers used to exclaim, “I’ve worked my fingers to the bone!” to make them feel guilty. That both their mothers resorted to this and other well-known clichés to regulate their children’s behavior was proof enough of the vast Mother Conspiracy (505). Later in the novel Slothrop indulges in an outlandish Father Conspiracy. After learning that his father may have allowed Lazlo Jamf to perform Pavlovian experiments on him in exchange for money, Slothrop imagines that his father is trying to kill him. Slothrop certainly has reason to be suspicious of his father, but his Oedipal-in-reverse fantasies of his “father’s daily little death-plots” distract him from finding any true answers about himself and the rocket.
A discussion between Pointsman and Roger Mexico about Pavlov’s concept of the ultraparadoxical phase may provide some insight into the origin of paranoia and the widespread belief in conspiracies. The ultraparadoxical phase is that point where the subject of Pavlovian conditioning can no longer easily recognize opposites—can no longer, for example, “distinguish pleasure from pain, light from dark, dominance from submission.” If a human subject is sufficiently traumatized, his ability to recognize opposites will be so weakened that he will become “paranoid,” a person who has the capacity to “be master, yet somehow feels himself a slave…who would be loved, but suffers his world’s indifference.” Pavlov believed that his notion of the ultraparadoxical phase could explain all psychoses, including not only paranoia but also insanity, schizophrenia, and moral imbecility (48-9).
Pointsman tells Mexico that he has been able to test Pavlov’s theory by experimenting on dogs. “Yesterday we got him to go ultraparadoxical. Beyond. When we turn on the metronome that used to stand for food—that once made Dog Vanya drool like a fountain—now he turns away,” says Pointsman. Traumatized to the point that they cannot think straight, the dogs cannot distinguish the metronome from the silence. They no longer associate the metronome (the conditioned stimulus) with food (the unconditioned stimulus). “Pavlov thought that all the diseases of the mind could be explained, eventually, by the ultraparadoxical phase, the pathologically inert points on the cortex, the confusion of ideas of the opposite” (90). Pointsman and other psychologists at “The White Visitation” consider Slothrop “diseased” (81 & 90) like the dogs in the Pavlovian experiments. They know that Lazlo Jamf conditioned Slothrop as an infant to get an erection when given an unidentified stimulus. Pointsman suspects that this “conditioned reflex” was never completely extinguished and has something to do with the V-2. The reader is inclined to agree with Pointsman, especially when given additional information that connects young Slothrop to some of the material used to build the Rocket, including Imipolex G. While we don’t know for sure what happened to Slothrop during those years he served as a subject of Jamf’s Pavlovian experiments, it seems clear that he has suffered enough trauma to become a paranoid mess. He believes conspiracies swarm around him, and he has an uncertain grip on reality. He cannot distinguish, for example, friend from foe. As with Pointsman’s dogs, “ideas of the opposite” seem to elude him.
In a world where conditioning has become a routine method of social control, everyone will have ultraparadoxical tendencies to some degree. The result is a horde of Slothrops, paranoiacs who are alone, always suspicious of other people. And this is why Pynchon opposes paranoia: It leads to solipsism and loneliness. The paranoiac imagines conspiracy with a global reach but is preoccupied with its particular effects on him. Each person he encounters is suspect, a potential conspirator, another agent in the Plot centered on him.
Though the paranoiac perceives absolute unity and order in the world around him, he sees himself as a solitary, disconnected island—the only person he knows for sure is not privy to the Plan. Pynchon suggests that we live in a system that perpetuates paranoia, making us believe we cannot trust or reach out to others, and thus alienating us from our fellow human beings.
What if there is no Vacuum? Or if there is—what if They’re using it on you? What if They find it convenient to preach an island of life surrounded by a void? Not just the Earth in space, but your own individual life in time? What if it’s in Their interest to have you believing that? (697)
This passage suggests that there may be a conspiracy to get us to believe that we are all alone in this world, each of us a creature of solitude, “an island of life surrounded by a void.” But what we really have to fear, Pynchon suggests here, is not conspiracy itself but rather the paranoia and solipsism created by the belief in vast conspiracies. Mass solipsism is “in Their interest” because it perpetuates mutual suspicion and reduces the likelihood that people will act in concert to challenge the existing system of power. It is for this reason that a “nation of paranoiacs would be a totalitarian’s dream” (Sanders 1976, 158).
Who are They, then? “They” could simply be shorthand for the system of power or for the so-called rulers working at its behest. The narrator’s constant references to Them is in keeping with the atmosphere of paranoia that plagues the modern world, but there is no “They” running things from behind the curtain in GR. There is no master Plot or omniscient Author. Hardly shadowy figures or grandmasters of a vast and enigmatic conspiracy, “They” should be easy to identify and understand. That we fail to see the reality of the situation speaks to our increasingly atomized society. Without the desire or capacity to act collectively, each of us stands alone, forever mistrustful of others and powerless to effect any change.
Slothrop eventually learns that it is possible to work this labyrinthine system to one’s advantage. Not long before he disappears from the story, Slothrop has a conversation with Bodine and Solange that proves revelatory for him. The lovers point out that the world contains multiple plots which do not always connect and often move in opposing directions. After Bodine says, “Everything is some kind of a plot, man,” Solange adds a vital caveat: “And yes but, the arrows are pointing all different ways.” As the narrator informs us, this is “Slothrop’s first news, out loud, that the Zone can sustain many other plots besides those polarized upon himself…that these are the els and busses of an enormous transit system here in the Raketenstadt.” He realizes that learning to navigate this complex system of plots “may yet carry him to freedom. He understands that he should not be so paranoid of Bodine or Solange, but ride instead their kind underground awhile, see where it takes him” (603). Here is when Slothrop learns that paranoia has proven counterproductive for him. Although he faces a system that threatens his freedom, he needn’t obsess about a master plot centered on him. The world teems with many plots, not all of them connected, and most having nothing to do with him. If he learns to eschew paranoia and navigate the system, he may well learn to trust others (such as Bodine and Solange) and use the world’s complexity and plurality to his advantage. Now able to make distinctions between friend and foe, between this plot and that one, Slothrop has a firmer grip on reality. No longer is he blinded by a paranoiac’s faith. He has ceased to be ultraparadoxical.
While Slothrop is fortunate enough to see reality once again for what it is, many people never escape the vortex of conspiratorial thinking in a totalitarian world. This is evident from Arendt’s analysis of how paranoia about conspiracies serves to de-politicize and isolate individuals in totalitarian regimes. According to Arendt, totalitarian ideologies always revolve around a conspiracy theory which identifies groups that are responsible for the ills of society. Though far-fetched, these theories have an almost religious-like appeal for the masses, who desperately seek meaning in an increasingly disenchanted and unsettled world. The masses gravitate to these theories because they give the world an easily understood coherence and consistency, a simple story predicated on “the principle that whoever is not included is excluded, whoever is not with me is against me” (Arendt 1968, 79). The dark cloud of conspiracy hanging over totalitarian societies creates an atmosphere of “mutual suspicion” which “permeates social relationships” and turns everyone into an “agent provocateur of everyone else.” The result is a “system of ubiquitous spying, where everybody may be a police agent and each individual feels himself under constant surveillance” (Arendt 1968, 128-29). Understandably, people avoid close attachments with others lest they be accused of “guilt by association” with someone who has been arrested for treason or another crime. Having severed the bonds of trust, totalitarian regimes are able to create “an atomized and individualized society the like of which we have never seen before” (Arendt 1968, 21).
The individuals who constitute this society experience an unprecedented loneliness, an isolation from all other people, including those closest to them. Ultimately, says Arendt, this loneliness alienates the individual not only from his fellow men but also from any reasonable sense of reality. The totalitarian regime
has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (Arendt 1968, 172)
The people Arendt describes here resemble to an extraordinary extent those who have entered what Pointsman calls the ultraparadoxical state in GR. Isolation becomes a powerful tool in realizing the larger aim of total domination. By completely isolating them, the totalitarian regime gives people the “experience of not belonging to the world at all” and, in disconnecting them from reality, destroys “their political capacities” (Arendt 1968, 173). In the end, they are completely defeated, infused with a profound sense of their own superfluity.
As we have already seen, Arendt does not believe in the inevitability of totalitarianism. Nor does she believe, therefore, that the atomization of society is a foregone conclusion. On the first point, Pynchon parts company with Arendt. But Slothrop’s story seems to suggest that totalitarianism does not have to result in loneliness, paranoia, and a complete detachment from reality. While totalitarianism may be inevitable, says Pynchon, the individual does not have to submit to the kind of conspiratorial thinking and suspicion that isolates him from his fellow man. Forging bonds with others, perhaps even forming ad hoc communities built on mutual trust, is not impossible. And this realization creates opportunities for him to live in the totalitarian world with a modicum of freedom.
The aforementioned conversation with Bodine and Solange proves to be something of a breakthrough for Slothrop. Now aware that his faith in a master plot has been a delusion, he is free to find his way to some kind of freedom in the modern world. In this section I aim to show that it is in invisibility—or disappearance—that Pynchon finds any chance of becoming free, albeit in an extremely negative form. The key to achieving this kind of freedom can be found in preterition, an immensely important theme in GR that most readers either overlook or grossly misunderstand. Preterition is a theological concept in which Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries believed. It means the act of being passed over or disinherited by God. According to the Calvinists, God chose a select few, the elect, to enter heaven in the afterlife. Unlike the elect, the preterites were forsaken by God, damned for all eternity to burn in hell. But Pynchon suggests that, in the godless and disenchanted world in which we live, to be passed over may be a blessing, an opportunity for freedom that most people do not enjoy.
Taking a closer look at the Calvinist understanding of preterition may shed light on how Pynchon views it. Predestination—or, in secular terms, determinism—was at the heart of Calvinism. Members of this faith believed that a small number of people, the elect, were destined for salvation. Some Calvinist theologians identified another group caught in the grip of determinism, the reprobate, whom God chooses for perdition. Unlike the elect and reprobate, the preterites have simply been forgotten by God, since they do not play a role in His plan. Calvinists merely assumed that the preterite, untouched by the grace of God, will meet the same fate as the reprobate. Louis Mackey draws on a useful metaphor to distinguish these three groups (elect, reprobate and preterite, respectively): “All men are drowning. A few of them God mercifully plucks out of the water and revives. Some are pushed down and held under. The rest are allowed to sink on their own” (Mackey 1981, 18). Note the irony: through God’s abandonment, the preterites are the only people given the gift of freedom. While the elect and reprobate have sealed fates, the preterite can take pleasure in uncertain futures. For a thinker like Pynchon, who places a great premium on freedom, preterition rates much higher than the other two conditions. In embracing preterition, Pynchon stands Calvinism on its head. In his view, predestination of any kind—whether for heaven, hell, or anything in between—makes life rather pointless. It lacks drama and moral gravity. One would be hard-pressed to consider it even human.
The preterites in his fictional universe are the misfits, eccentrics and outlaws, those who have rejected the rationalized and systematized world, its soulless sterility and its bleak determinism. Their freedom rests not on struggling against the system but rather on being forgotten—not on becoming a vigorous and known presence in the world but on being invisible. Pynchon shows an obvious affinity for these preterites, including Seaman Bodine, Roger Mexico, Frau Gnahb, and others who seem to enjoy life and do what they can to make it vibrant and colorful without drawing undue attention to themselves. The preterite do their best to move throughout the ubiquitous system while remaining largely undetected in the shadows or on the margins. Their coordinates are unknown. The following table illustrates the correspondence between Calvinist and Pynchonist theologies:
|Elect||Determinism||Chosen by god for salvation||Co-opted or corrupted by system|
|Reprobates||Determinism||Chosen by god for damnation||Defeated or destroyed by system|
|Preterites||Freedom||Forsaken or passed over by god||Untraceable within system|
In the uncharted terrain traversed by preterites, the human comedy has some life left. To show his preference for the human comedy, Pynchon celebrates unpredictability, random occurrences, or what Darwinists call chance variation—all of which he associates with preterition. One of the characters in GR who understands the value of preterition is Enzian. Upon their second meeting, Enzian tells Slothrop of the Herero mantra, “mba-kayere,” which means “I am passed over.” Those Hereros who survived the 1904 massacre in von Trotha understand that being passed over can mean survival. But, as Enzian suggests, it can also give one an appreciation for the gift of uncertainty and “for the statistics of our being.” Enzian attributes the Hereros’ growing attachment to the Rocket, in large part, to the fact that its performance is contingent on so many unforeseeable factors (362). Roger Mexico, who works as a statistician at “The White Visitation,” tries in vain to explain to Pointsman and others why the distribution of past V-2 landings cannot help them predict future landings or, at the very least, reduce their chances of being killed. The Poisson distribution of past blasts indicates that each rocket launch is an independent event. This means, much to Pointsman’s dismay, that each location in London has an equal chance of being hit by a future rocket. A true devotee of cause-and-effect, Pointsman sees science as a way to eliminate all contingency (56).
Mexico also challenges the Newtonian approach to science, which seeks, as Pointsman describes it, a “true mechanical explanation” for everything in life. Presumably speaking for Pynchon here, Mexico suggests that “cause-and-effect may have been taken as far as it will go.” It may be the case, he says, that science should operate under “a less narrow, a less…sterile set of assumptions. The next great breakthrough may come when we have the courage to junk cause-and-effect entirely, and strike off at some other angle” (89).
All the same, science will never cease in its quest for full explanations, and those who apply science will always want to conquer the world—to make it predictable and thus controllable. No one knows this better than Slothrop, who has been the subject of Pavlovian experiments, followed by agents of PISCES and other groups affiliated with Them, and manipulated into searching for Rocket 00000. The scientific enterprise, in one way or another, has sought to control him. Slothrop’s odyssey has ostensibly been an ongoing search for the Rocket, which he believes will give him information about his mysterious past. But without his recognizing it at first, his odyssey is actually a search for freedom, not for self-knowledge.
He makes incremental steps toward freedom along the way. He feels more liberated, for example, after he gives PISCES agents the slip, wanders the Zone for some time undetected, and discovers the advantages of becoming a stateless person. A guest at Waxwing’s safehouse in Nice, Slothrop has the sense to remain quiet and hidden when he hears the voices of American MPs. It dawns on him as he “lies freezing” that for “possibly the first time he is hearing America as it must sound to a non-American.” He realizes that, indeed, “this is his first day Outside. His first free morning. He doesn’t have to go back. Free? What’s free” (256)? He doesn’t know what freedom means yet, but he has gotten closer to it. He also moves closer to freedom during the aforementioned conversation with Bodine and Solange, which proved most revealing to him. The realization that there is no master plot centered on him and that he can navigate the “network of plots” without succumbing to paranoia “may yet carry him to freedom” (603).
Not long after this final revelation the reader finds Slothrop living alone somewhere in the Zone near a mountain stream. He appears to lead a simple life, playing his harmonica, spending “whole days naked” while communing with nature. A kind of proto-hippy, he lets his hair and beard grow. The narrator also informs us that Slothrop “has been changing, sure, changing, plucking the albatross of self now and then” (622-23). No longer burdened by the weight of solipsism, Slothrop decides at this time to give up his search for the Rocket. He falls into various reveries about the past, including a memory of his Depression-era childhood in the Berkshires, where he picked up “rusted beer cans, rubbers yellow with preterite seed, Kleenex wadded to brain shapes hiding preterite snot, preterite tears, newspapers, broken glass, pieces of automobile…” In these discarded, forgotten items Slothrop sees something of himself. He identifies with the preterite. Then, after a heavy rain, Slothrop sees a rainbow and begins to cry without anything in his head, “just feeling natural.” As the day draws to a close, Slothrop becomes what the narrator calls a “crossroad” (626). This is the moment of Slothrop’s disintegration, and he effectively disappears from the story. Having become a “crossroad” through which many vectors move in all directions, Slothrop no longer has a coherent or distinct identity.
Most readers of GR have interpreted this episode as evidence of Slothrop’s destruction at the hands of Them. After all, we learn later in the story that Slothrop “has become one plucked albatross. Plucked, hell—stripped. Scattered all over the Zone” (712). We also hear that Slothrop “is being broken down…scattered” (738). It’s important to note, however, that the narrator never says Slothrop has died. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that suggests he continues to live. When he begins to disintegrate, ceasing to be “any sort of integral creature,” Slothrop continues to interact with those people who can see him. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Seaman Bodine, preterite extraordinaire, is the last person who can see Slothrop. But after Slothrop becomes invisible even to Bodine, he does not cease to exist. Indeed, Slothrop faces not death but “a long and scuffling future” (738). Even decades after the war, fragments of him emerge. “There’s supposed to be a last photograph of him on the only record album ever put out by The Fool, an English rock group—seven musicians posed, in the arrogant style of the early Stones, near an old rocket-bomb site” (742).
Although not dead, Slothrop may be completely defeated, leading a life worse than death. There is little evidence to support such a claim. More likely, Slothrop has found a certain peace from a modest life in which he can move about invisibly and thus freely. The narrator tells us that Slothrop’s long future points to “mediocrity” and to “no clear happiness or redeeming cataclysm” (738). This information suggests that Slothrop has become a figure undeserving of status or repute, a person who experiences no highs or lows in life. He merely lives, in almost Zen-like fashion, without fanfare, without vicissitudes. The anonymous credit to Slothrop in the liner notes of The Fools’ only album—“Harmonica, kazoo—a friend”—also illustrates his preference for obscurity, even reclusion (742). Though his fate may seem unfortunate, Slothrop reaps the benefits of disintegration or disappearance: “It’s doubtful that he can ever be ‘found’ again, in the conventional sense of ‘positively identified and detained’” (712). Having spent much of his life as a pawn of the system and most of his time in the Zone as the celebrated and immediately recognizable Rocketman, Slothrop must revel in not being “found” or “identified and detained.” Now a preterite, he enjoys a semblance of freedom in the mad world that is the Zone. (See McClure 2007, 26-62.)
Interestingly, Slothrop’s movement toward preterition might have met the approval of his ancestor, William Slothrop, who settled in the Berkshires in the 1630s. He fell out of favor among the Puritan leadership for writing a heretical tract entitled On Preterition, in which he “argued holiness for these ‘second Sheep,’ without whom there’d be no elect.” He maintained that “what Jesus was for the elect, Judas Iscariot was for the Preterite,” and since “everything in the Creation has its equal and opposite counterpart,” it is our duty to “love Judas too.” By elevating the preterite to the same level as the elect, William called into question the very divisions and hierarchies upon which Calvinism was based. In essence, he sought to democratize his Puritan community, and the elect summarily banished him from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Aware of his ancestor’s story, Tyrone Slothrop wonders whether the “Slothropite heresy” might represent “the fork in the road America never took, the singular point she jumped the wrong way from.” Indeed, Slothrop yearns for a world where “all the fences are down, one road as good as another…without elect, without preterite, without even nationality to fuck it up” (555-56).
For Pynchon, the discovery of the New World seems to be a squandered opportunity. Removed from European influences and traditions, the settlers in America could have taken a different path toward a world without property or class—a world where democracy, equality, and liberty truly prevailed. But the Puritans set the stage for a continuation of elite domination and elaborate systems of mastery and control. The readers of Mason & Dixon witness Pynchon’s fictional recreation of the corruption of America as the astronomer and the surveyor draw a line across the continent that will separate free and slave states. America was “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 to foul” (214)? The American pastoral, befouled and corrupted beyond redemption, became a paradise lost.
Now that we have fallen, Pynchon says, only through embracing preterition can we hope to find something that resembles freedom. Unfortunately, the best our corrupted world can offer is a negative freedom, a freedom from the undue influences of the system. The only way to achieve this preterite freedom is to drop out of conventional society as Slothrop does so effectively. The symbolism of his disappearance or invisibility should not be overlooked. Slothrop has withdrawn from the grip of the system, but he must pay a heavy price: an indeterminate identity. One might say that Slothrop has been atomized, an apt metaphor for a world in which individuals can only achieve negative freedom. Classical liberals have long viewed freedom in solely negative terms; Slothrop’s disintegration demonstrates the inadequacy of negative freedom for those who want to live a full life. Arendt claimed that only a deeply political life can be called a full one. Unfortunately, Pynchon counters, the political in our age leads inevitably to cooptation and corruption. Even those who have every intention of waging war against the powers that be and toppling their system will see their rage tamed, their subversion normalized. With nothing else to hope for, Pynchon points to the apolitical as the best option available to us. (See Mattessich 2002; McClure 2007, 26-62; Thomas 2007, 109-30.)
Interestingly, Arendt understood that complete political withdrawal may be the only option for someone living in a totalitarian regime. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she says that “the only possible way to live in the Third Reich and not act as a Nazi was not to appear at all.” Then she approvingly cites Otto Kirchheimer who saw “withdrawal from significant participation in public life” as the only way to avoid moral compromise (Arendt 1994, 127). But, clearly, she considered Nazi Germany an extreme case where political participation and resistance really were futile. She did not share Pynchon’s bleak view of the post-war world, in which a subtler form of totalitarianism makes preterition a continued necessity.
Although his celebration of the preterite may suggest otherwise, Pynchon is political in so far as he suggests what kind of life one should lead in this disenchanted world. As much as possible, he says, we must steer clear of the myriad forces in the postmodern age that enervate us, shape who we are, and compromise our autonomy. Not only must we cease fighting the system, we must also never succumb to paranoia. There is no freedom or dignity to be found in either being subsumed by the system or shrinking in fear of it. In order to maintain a trace of human dignity, we must eschew, as much as possible, the trappings of state capitalism: buying and selling, unbridled ambition, fetishized technology, bureaucratic routines, compulsive behavior, and the cold-blooded domination of others. No one can escape the taint of corruption completely, but a partially reclaimed humanity, the vestige of an authentic life, may be found in the virtues of simplicity, modesty, anonymity, spontaneity, and human decency. In the end, Pynchon advocates a quiet form of political radicalism—a withdrawal from the capitalist system without all the noise and attention-grabbing.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Pynchon will never give interviews, appear in public, or even allow his picture to be taken. Taking a page from his own book, the renowned recluse has carefully avoided the frills of literary celebrity and adopted the preterite’s code.
The author would like to thank Ben Johnson, Jon Keller, John Krafft, Sean Molloy, Rebecca Root, and Nicholas Xenos for reading earlier drafts of this essay and offering their helpful comments and encouraging words.
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