Thursday, January 04, 2007

Pynchon Notes

Hommage à R. Mutt

The Tunguska Event, a.k.a. the Event of 30 June (“A heavenwide blast of light” is how Pynchon puts it in one part of Against the Day, echoing Gravity’s Rainbow’s initial sentence “A screaming comes across the sky.”) Occurring at precisely 7:17 a.m. local time, on that June day, 1908, strewing something like eighty million bark-stripped trees over a rather butterfly-shaped swath of over eight hundred square miles—presumably by an airburst explosion of, uh, something—asteroid, black hole, earth-seeped methane gas, a chunk of antimatter, result of a Tesla experiment at the Wardenclyffe Tower. Estimated energy release equivalent to something on the order of ten to twenty megatons of trinitrotoluene (TNT).

In a miniature bravura piece, evoking Dostoevsky and songwriter Johnny Mays’s 1949 “most famous reindeer of all” Rudolf and the Saturday morning bold-stroke mayhem of cartoons, Pynchon offers a summary of result: “For a while after the Event, crazed Raskol’niki ran around in the woods, flagellating themselves and occasional onlookers who got too close, raving about Tchernobyl, the destroying star known as Wormwood in the book of Revelation. Reindeer discovered again their ancient powers of flight, which had lapsed over the centuries since humans began invading the North. Some were stimulated by the accompanying radiation into an epidermal luminescence at the red end of the spectrum, particularly around the nasal area. Mosquitoes lost their taste for blood, acquiring one instead for vodka, and were observed congregating in large swarms at local taverns. Clocks and watches ran backward. Although it was summer, there were brief snowfalls in the devastated taiga, and heat in general tended to flow unpredictably for a while. Siberian wolves walked into churches in the middle of services, quoted passages from the Scriptures in fluent Old Slavonic, and walked peaceably out again. They were reported to be especially fond of Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Aspects of the landscape of Tierra del Fuego, directly opposite the Stony Tunguska on the globe, began to show up in Siberia—sea ernes, gulls, terns, and petrels landing in the branches of fir trees, swooping to grab fish out of the streams, taking a bite, screaming with distaste, and throwing them back. Granite cliffs rose sheer and unexpected out of the forest. Oceangoing ships unmanned by visible crews, attempting to navigate the shallow rivers and creeks, ran aground . . .” It continues, half sophomoric giggle, half pure romp-texture, half the pleasure of tossing down an inscrutable or two.

As John Ashbery says of Frank O’Hara’s beginning—“in the academic atmosphere of the late 1940s”—a poem, “At night Chinamen jump / On Asia with a thump”—he’s “amusing himself, another highly suspect activity.” Turns out that “activity” is always suspect. Humor, most particularly self-humoring—like its kin self-pleasuring masturbatory “excess”—is perfectly anarchickal, needs no “community,” no state, no reason. “Insufficiently serious.” “Serving little purpose.” “Caricature.” “Disrupting Aristotelian unity.” Thus the high boffin bogeys of capital-L Literature, tracing a boundary, wan and mete. It’s against that narrowness of belief in what the novel’ll hold, against the spurious “demeanor” in American letters (all of them) that Pynchon tosses (himself, and whatever jokes—asinine or internecine or rabid—’ll come forth) off. (Think, too, of Marcel Duchamp’s sperm-rag objet d’art—that Slap in the Face of Public Taste, except, of course, it kept stiffly private its, ehrm, medium. The Duchampian joke of it uncover’d only following the Art World’s Greater Bodily Fluids Tests sometime in the ’seventies.) And that, all that, is how “noted Uyghur troublemaker” Elmer Fudd (under the near homonymic Al Mar-Fuad) makes an appearance in Against the Day, and in appropriate duds complete—“English hunting tweed and a deerstalker cap turned sidewise.” He is there only for whatever risible mischief a few Barbara Walter’d prevocalic rs can offer, carrying a “Greening shotgun whose brasswork”’s got “holy inscriptions in Arabic,” and aiming to go out “after some gwouse.”
        “Fond of the English, are you sir.”
        “I love Gweat Bwitain! Lord Salisbuwy is my wole model!”

After Cyprian Latewood’s quoting of Henry Newbolt’s Boer War comes to the cricket pitch ballad, “Vitaï Lampada”: “‘And England’s far . . . and honour a name,’” there comes Yashmeen Halfcourt’s retort: “And what does that mean? . . . You’re forever, all of you, banging on so about honour. Is it from having a penis or something?” Maybe so. Maybe so.

Dopplegängering away against Pynchon’s unbridled self-amusement (which is probably putting it too strongly) is such clarity regarding the Janus-face of desire and its demands that it’ll sure raise some hackles, those spindly truth-denying neck-feathers of the old biddy sets. On old “Inner Asia” hand Auberon Halfcourt’s memory (“transnoctial cheroot” in fist) of finding Yashmeen (or her, him—“her form, already womanly, held at wary attention that ill-omened day among the negotiable flesh, hair covered and mouth veiled, eyes belonging entirely to herself, though they were to find him, unerring as an Afghani sharpshooter, the moment he rode in under the gate of sun-baked mud . . . pretending to be in the market for some of the highly esteemed donkeys of the Waziri . . .”), and how desire blows so fiercely at the ashy coals of the most honorable intent: “Rescue, however, had many names, and the rope up which a maiden climbed to safety might then be used to bind her most cruelly. In that instant he had become, awkwardly, two creatures resident within the same life—one conveyed without qualification into the haunted spaces of desire, the other walled in by work-demands in which desire was never better than annoying and too often debilitating—the two selves sharing thenceforth this miserable psychic leasehold, co-conscious, each at once respectful and contemptuous of the other’s imperatives.”

Marcel Duchamp, by Alfred Stieglitz