A heart-shaped face

January 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

At the end of the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas looks at a painting and cries. The painting is by the exiled Spanish artist Remedios Varo and depicts

a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void. (CL 13).

What upsets Oedipa is that she identifies with these girls, not only their sense of captivity, but also their impotence. It is with terror she thinks that

what really keeps her where she is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all… if the tower is everywhere and the proof of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (CL 13)

But when I look the painting above, I don’t see anything to justify this kind of fear or paranoia. It’s something Oedipa brings to the painting. The rest of Varo’s work doesn’t have this tone either. It’s more playful, more interested in the surreal than in being allegorical.

Please note the cat in the floor.

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born in Spain and educated in Spanish convent schools. Her father was a hydraulic engineer, which had a recurring influence in her work. Her artistic training was strict and academic, from which she fled into Barcelona’s bohemian artistic circle. She was married to the poet Benjamin Peret, and her widower, publisher Walter Gruen. She moved to Paris where she became involved within the Surrealist movement. Forced into exile by the Nazis, she settled in Mexico City where she died of a heart attack at 55. There only seems to be one biography of her in English, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo (1988) by Janet Kaplan, and I have a feeling she isn’t that well critically thought of (there’s a lot of snobbishness about ‘fantasy’ art, sometimes with good reason). But to me there’s something distinctive about these pictures that elevates them from a lot of stuff that’s come since. The trouble is that the waters have been muddied so much.

In Defense of Lost Causes

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

After my conversation with the organisers of the July 2009 Urumqi protests, I’ve been thinking a lot about protest, in all its forms. Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes is a book that aims to convince the reader that the ills of the world will not be solved peacefully. What is needed, he argues, is revolutionary terror. The book is a sustained attack on the idea that tolerance and democratic debate are going to effect meaningful change (which for Zizek means the end of capitalism). It’s a complicated book whose argument wanders at times, and occasionally gets lost in score-settling, or Hegelian nitpicking, but it is always readable, provocative and entertaining, not least because for Zizek everything- whether it be Shakespeare or a Jennifer Anniston film -can be illustrative.  As a Pynchon scholar I was particularly interested in how he deals with alternative communities, whether or not these are genuinely subversive, or just a form of escape which does nothing to threaten that which they are fleeing from. If I rely heavily on Zizek’s quotes to summarise some of the book’s main arguments, it’s because it seems a safer way to avoid any ‘violence’ to his ideas.

The book’s aim “is not to defend Stalinist terror, and so on, as such, but to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative… the misfortunes of the fate of revolutionary terror confront us with the need- not to reject terror in toto, but- to reinvent it” (6-7).

In terms of the accepted ideas about which to put a human face to capitalism, he argues that “When one confronts a world which presents itself as tolerant and pluralist, disseminated, with no center, one has to attack the underlying structuring principle which sustains this atonality- say, the secret qualifications of “tolerance” which excludes as “intolerant” certain critical questions, or the secret qualifications which exclude as a “threat to freedom” questions about the limits of the existing freedoms. (30)

He goes on to critique the idea of opting out of the system:

“Postmodernity” as the “end of grand narratives” is one of the names for this predicament in which the multitude of local fictions thrives against the background of scientific discourse as the only remaining universality deprived of sense. Which is why the politics advocated by many a leftist today, that of countering the devastating world-dissolving effect of capitalism modernization by inventing new fictions, imagining “new worlds”… is inadequate or, at least, profoundly ambiguous: it all depends on how these fictions relate to the underlying Real of capitalism- do they just supplement it with the imaginary multitude, as the postmodern local narratives do, or do they disturb its functioning? (33)

Zizek is withering about the way in which many of our ‘ethical’ choices involve choosing how we consume:

True freedom is not a freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between a strawberry cake and a chocolate cake; true freedom overlaps with necessity, one makes a truly free choice when one’s chouice puts at stake one’s very existence- one does it because one simply “cannot do otherwise.” When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not “you are free to choose,” but: “Can’t you see this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?” (70-71)

At times the worldview he presents veers towards a form of Gnosticism (much like Pynchon’s):

The fact that God created the world does not display His omnipotence and excess of goodness, but rather his debilitating limitations. (153)

Many of the book’s best lines belong to Robespierre. This is his riposte to the moderates who deplored the excesses.

Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that has come to revise, so to speak, the one that broke our chains? But what sure judgement can one make of the effects that follow these great commotions? Who can mark, after the event, the exact point at which the waves of popular insurrection should break? (163)

Robespierre addressing those who complained about the innocent victims of revolutionary terror: “Stop shaking the tyrant’s bloody robe in my face, or I will believe that you wish to put Rome in chains”. (471)

On the anti-globalisation movement:

This movement also succumbs to the temptation to transform a critique of capitalism itself (centred on economic mechanisms, forms of work organization, and profit extraction) into a critique of “imperialism”… with the (tacit) idea of mobilizing capitalist mechanisms within another, more “progressive” framework. (181)

On the power of ‘failed’ revolutionary Events:

The ultimate factual result of the [Chinese] Cultural Revolution, its catastrophic failure and reversal into the recent capitalistic transformation, does not exhaust the real of the Cultural Revolution: the eternal Idea of the Cultural Revolution survives its defeat in socio-historical reality, it continues to lead an underground spectral life of the ghosts of the failed utopias which haunt the future generations, patiently awaiting their next resurrection. (207)

With reference to Pynchon and the failed Utopias that appear in his work (such as Lemuria in Inherent Vice), it makes me think that though it can be a form of escape, to posit some form of Utopia is always an essentially hopeful act.

For Zizek, the real problem is what happens after a revolutionary Event, how one keeps revolutionary momentum.

The problem is thus: how to regulate/institutionalize the very violent egalitarian democratic impulse, how to prevent it being drowned in democracy in the second sense of the term (regulated procedure)? If there is no way to do it, then “authentic democracy” remains a momentary utopian outburst which, on the proverbial morning after, has to be normalized. The harsh consequence to be accepted here is that this excess of egalitarian democracy over the democratic procedure can only “instituinalize” itself in the guise of its opposite, as revolutinary democratic terror. (266)

One of Zizek’s main strengths is overturning conventional wisdom about what rhetorical positions we should occupy:

The influx of immigrant workers from the post-Communist countries is not the consequence of multiculturalist tolerance- it is indeed part of the strategy of capital to hold in check workers’ demands… the lesson the Left should learn from it is that one should not…  merely oppose populist anti-immigration racism with multiculturalist openness, obliterating its displaced class content (267)

Given how much of Pynchon’s work deals with delusion and escape, I was interested in what Zizek has to say about fetishes:

They can be our inner spiritual experiences (which tell us that our social reality is mere appearance which does not really matter), our children (for whose good we do all the humiliating things in our jobs) and so on and so forth (298)

Fetishists are not dreamers lost in their private worlds, they are thoroughly “realist”, able to accept the ways things effectively are- since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to canel the fall impact of reality. (296)

Zizek on how democracy has its own constraints:

When Rosa Luxembourg wrote that “dictatorship consists in the way in which democracy is used and not in its abolition” her point was not that democracy is an empty framework which can be used by different political agents (Hitler also came to power through- more or less -free democratic elections), but that there is a “class bias” inscribed into this. (379)

Zizek then goes on to offer what looks like an argument in favour of some kind of revolutionary faith, without which one cannot see the potential for change.

Liberals claim that capitalism is today so global and all encompassing they they cannot “see” any serious alternative to it… The repy to this is that, in so far as this is true, they do not see tout court: the task is not to see the outside, but to see in the first place (to grasp the nature of contemporary capitalism)- the Marxist wager is that, when we “see” this, we see enough, including how to go beyond it. (393)

The following seems to be a fairly clear endorsement of ‘violence’ (though what that means is not yet clear, i.e. is it literal violence or symbolic?)

One should not renounce violence ; one should rather reconceptualise it as defensive violence, a defense of the autonomous space created by subtraction (408)

Zizek also offers a way of evaluating subtraction (e.g. the alternative communities that occur throughout Pynchon, especially in Vineland).

Is it a subtraction/withdrawl which leaves the field from which it withdraws intact (or even functions as its inherent supplement , like the “subtraction” from social reality to one’s true Self proposed by New Age meditation); or does it violently shake up the field from which it withdraws? (412)

It’s only in the afterword that Zizek starts to signal what he might mean by ‘violence’. Unfortunately, this seems to shift, initially from a kind of eye-of-the-beholder definition of violence (that differentiates between “radical emancipatory violence against the ex-oppressors and the violence which serves the continuation and/or establishment of hierarchical relations of exploitation and domination” (471)) to talk of violence that is really non-violence. He calls for

a passive revolution which, rather than directly confronting power , gradually undermines it in the manner of the subterranean digging of a mole, through abstaining from particiapation in the everyday rituals and practices that sustain it. (474)

However, Zizek concludes by arguing that the distinction between literal violence and non-violence is less important than whether the “violence” is “divine violence”.

What is and what is not divine violence?… it can appear in many forms: from “non-violent” protests (strikes, civil disobedience) through individual killings to organized or spontaneous violent rebellions and war proper. (483)

As for evaluating such acts, these are said to be

located ‘beyond good and evil’, in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what, to an ordinary moral consciousness, cannot but appear as “immoral” acts of killing, one has no right to condemn them, since they are the reply to years, centuries even, of systematic state violence and economic exploitation. (478)… If a class is systematically deprived of their rights, of their very dignity as persons, they are eo ipso also released from their duties toward the social order, since this order is no longer their ethical substance. (479)

This is about as unambiguous as it gets:

Sometimes one has to kill in order to keep one’s hands clean; not as a heroic compromise of dirtying one’s hands for a higher goal. (484)

However, in the final pages, Zizek again muddies the waters by suggesting that no one is able to pass judgement on whether an act of violence is ‘divine’ or not, which if he means it, to some extent undermines many of the judgements he passes on the value of various failed revolutions.

There are no “objective” criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine: the same act, that to an external observer, appears merely as an irrational outburst of violence, can be divine for those engaged in it. (485)

The subtleties of this may be lost on me. But to me this seems dangerously close to denying us the right to condemn the killings by a lynch mob, the suicide bomber in a school, or acts of ethnic cleansing.

Vineland 323-385

September 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

p. 323 The sections starts with a description that seems to be setting up the Traverse/Becker gathering as a kind of rural idyll.

The pasture, just before dawn, saw the first impatient kids out in the dew.

This is followed by a long passage that celebrates communal life in a fairly unambiguous way.

p. 325 Even the Thanatoid’s, that ‘community of the insomniac unavenged’, appear to have found some moment of temporary peace, which leads the narrator to ask

What was a Thanatoid, at the end of the long dread day, but memory?

In terms of their refusal to forget ancient resentments, are the Thanatoids in some sense correct? Should we all therefore be Thanatoids? Their addiction to TV doesn’t seem to impede this kind of memory (which thus run counter to the idea put forth by Huehls et al that TV destroys any sense of historical perspective). However, there seems no suggestion that this sense of being wronged is anything other than personal. But in terms of ‘escape’, or ‘transcendence’, this is perhaps a necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) level at which change must occur.

p. 327 Prairie disdains the representations of girls on TV.

On the Tube she saw them all the time, these junior high gymnasts in leotards, teenagers in sitcoms, girls in commercials learning from their moms about how to cook and dress and deal with their dads, all these remote and well-off little cookies going “Mm! This rilly is good” or the ever-reliable “Thanks Mom,” Prairie feeling each time this mixture of annoyance and familiarity, knowing like exiled royalty that that’s who she was supposed to be, could even turn herself into through some negligible magic she must’ve known once.

But for all her rejection of these gender stereotypes, her role models still come from TV. Her and Che have a ‘star and sidekick routine, going back to when they were little, playing Bionic, Police, or Wonder Woman.’ An awareness of the media’s power to influence is thus no protection against its capacity to do so.

p. 328 The description of Prairie rescuing her friend Che from the mall cops strongly resembles the meeting of DL and Frenesi. Of course, whereas that was in a political context, with Prairie all that’s happening is theft, which can only be seen as an act of resistance in terms of our role as consumers.

p. 335 Hector’s TV fixation is probably the worst in the book:

In the back seat, on loud and bright, was a portable Tube, which Hector had angled the rearview mirror at so he could see, for the highway was a lonely place, and a man needed company.

This is one reason why Hector never seems as much a villain as Brock Vond. Even when in TV detox, he is subject to the whims of those in control, who had

a new policy of letting everybody watch as they wanted of whatever they felt like seeing, the aim being Transcendence through Saturation.

Exactly what kind of ‘transcendence’ this is likely to produce is debatable- perhaps a warped version of the Emersonian ideal, that of removing oneself from one’s surroundings, but only into a kind of hermeneutic fugue state.

p. 337 Unflattering portrait of two Hollywood movie executives, especially their attitude to the audience. To them, Hector is ‘just a guy from the wrong side of the box office’, a judgement that ‘condemned him irrevocably to viewer, that is, brain-defective status’.

p. 340 TV, in its pervasiveness, its saturation of the world (and the narrative of Vineland), is an obvious target of paranoia. In addition to Weed’s belief that it shows too much death (and thus weakens the effect of LSD), Hector imagines what it would be like if

the Tube were suddenly to stop showing pictures and instead announce, “From now on, I’m watching you.”

Though this is a classic Orwellian notion (the view screen that spies on everyone), it is also worth remembering the mental state of Hector. He too depends on TV for his role models, even his own profession (in contradiction to his earlier remarks to Zoyd).

P. 345

It was disheartening to see how much he depended on these Tubal fantasies about his profession, relentlessly pushing their propaganda message of cops-are-only-human-got-to-do-their-job, turning agents of government repression into sympathetic heroes. Nobody thought it was peculiar anymore, no more than the routine violations of constitutional rights these characters performed week after week, now absorbed into the vernacular of American expectations.

It’s easy to forget to who’s ‘talking’ in Vineland, given the number of minds through which the narrative is mediated, some of which sound pretty close to the book’s overall narrator. In this case, it’s Frenesi, as ‘agents of government repression’ suggests, though by the end of the quote, when there’s talk of the ‘vernacular of American expectations’ it sounds like someone else, perhaps the main narrator. This is one of the interesting things about the book- how it slips in and out of free indirect narration so subtly.

p.346 Frenesi’s disillusionment, as shown by her opinion of Hector.

He reminded her of herself when she was in 24fps, inside some wraparound fantasy that she was offering her sacrifice at the altar of Art, and worse, believing that Art gave a shit- here was Hector with so many of the same delusions, just as hopelessly insulated, giving up what already seemed too much for something just as cheesy and worthless

p. 348. TV as a household member, when Hector’s wife cites the TV as correspondent in the divorce, ‘arguing that the TV was a member of the household, enjoying its own space, fed out of the house budget with all the electricity it needed… certainly as able to steal affection as any cheap floozy Hector might have met on the job.’

p. 351 Advice on how to ‘watch’ reality.

The smartest kid Justin ever met, back in kidergarten, had told him to pretend his parents were characters in a television sitcom. “Pretend there’s a frame around ‘em like the Tube, pretend they’re a show you’re watching. You can go into it if you want, or you can just watch, and not go into it.”

Though the idea of living as if everything is a TV show doesn’t sound healthy, there doesn’t necessarily seem to be anything wrong with the approach mentioned here- note the emphasis on not having to ‘go into it’, which also suggests the converse- that one can  watch TV like watching reality- i.e. in a questioning, detached manner.

p. 358-359 introduces the Sisters, a male motorcycle order, who act as you might expect a biker gang to- the difference is that in addition to their hatred of authority, they believe they cannot sin. Van Meter tells Zoyd:

“Their club tattoo says ‘Full of Grace.’ They believe whatever they do, it’s cool with Jesus, including armed insurrection against the government.”

On the one hand, this seems to be satirising the belief of those (often on the political right) that if they have God on their side, their actions are fully justified, by transposing these beliefs to a gang of bikers. But beyond the comedy of this, there is also the idea that those on the left can be equally self-deluding, especially in terms of the use of force, which Pynchon has previously shown to be a corrupting influence on his protagonists.

p. 364 Another way to view the TV screen- as a window of redemption.

Looking for the magical exact film frame through which the dispossessed soul might reenter the world

p. 365 Weed says

“As a Thanatoid one’s reduced to hanging around monitoring the situation, trying to nudge you if you don’t think it’s moving along fast enough but basically helpless, and, if you give in to it, depressed, too.”

This is a fair summary of the predicament of many of Pynchon’s characters, in particular Oedipaa Maas.

p. 366 Refutes the idea of revenge as a form of closure.

Used to think I was climbing, step by step, right? toward a resolution- first Rex, above him your mother, then Brock Vond, then- but that’s when it begins to go dark, and that door at the top I thought I saw isn’t there anymore, because the light behind it just went off too.

p. 369 Jess Traverse reads from an Emerson passage he found in a jalhouse copy of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience.

“Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil.”

Jess and Eula are ‘each year smaller and more transparent’ which we could apply to these words as well- this, and the earlier Emerson passage, seems a case of Pynchon signaling his disagreement of these sentiments that all is fine, if fine within, and that there is some sort of restorative natural justice.

p. 371 asks us to consider if things are bad, or simply, worse.

Other grandfolks could be heard arguing the perennial question of whether the United States still lingered in a prefascist twilight, or whether that darkness had fallen long stupefied years ago, and the light they thought they saw was coming only from millions of Tubes all showing the same bright-colored shadows.

p. 373 Once again, a criticism of the naivete of the Sixties, and people’s failure to resist the distorting influences of living a TV-mediated life.

‘Whole problem ‘th you folks generation’ Isiah opined, “nothing personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it- but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies- and even in 1970 dollars, it was way too cheap…’

‘Well, I hope your wrong,’ Zoyd breezed on, ’cause plan B was to try and get my case on ’60 minutes’.

Isiah’s opinion is so commonplace in the novel that by now it approaches parody. TV is perhaps too easy a target for Pynchon, and given the events in Gravity’s Rainbow and V., it is safe to say that he does not subscribe to the all-was-fine-till-TV-began school of thought. Zoyd’s response does seem to prove the point however, as he either basically ignores what Isiah has said, or thinks that he can still use the media.

p .376 Vond’s plan to capture Prairie involves him being lowered from a helicopter, so he can

come down vertical, grab her, and winch back up and out- “The key is rapture. Into the sky, and world knows her no more.”

Instead of this peverse kind of deliverance, Brock is suddenly removed, Prairie is saved, and there is something unrealistic about this ending, almost a deus Ex Machina. This is underlined by the fact that Brock is then magically taken down into a deathly kingdom, which ironically fulfils his prophecy of ‘rapture below’ on p.248. But whilst it is satisfying for the reader that the villain is taken away, the manner in which it occurs does not allow us to enjoy it for long. It, too, is a kind of escape, into a fantasy that all (especially the ‘wicked’) get what they deserve (as in the Emerson quote about ‘divine justice’ on p. 369)

p. 382 Sister Rochelle tells Takeshi another allegorical story, about the Earth being a paradise that Heaven and Hell fought. When Hell won, Heaven withdrew upward, and Earth became a kind of vacation spot (i.e. a place to escape to). Eventually

the visitors began to realize that Earth was just like home, same traffic conditions, unpleasant food, deteriorating environment, and so forth. Why leave home only to find a second-rate version of what they were trying to escape?

In the end, the forces of  Hell leave, and the people of Earth tell stories about that time.

“We forgot that its original promise was never punishment but reunion, with the true, long-forgotten metropolis of Earth Unredeemed.”

p.383 After the communal feast, the removal of Vond, there is still talk of sinister forces.

The unrelenting forces that leaned ever after the partners into Time’s wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators who’d once boarded Takeshi’s airplane in the sky, the ones who’d had the Chipco lab stomped on, who despite every Karmic Adjustment resource brought to bear so far had simply persisted, stone-humorless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain or accommodate, following through pools of night where nothing else moved wrongs forgotten by all but the direly possessed, continuing as a body to refuse to be bought off for any but the full price, which they had never named.

In some ways, this recalls the talk of ‘divine justice’- is this a case of Pynchon affirming this view after all? Or is he satirising the kind of paranoid thinking that prefers there to be dark conspiracies rather than no order (as in the Tristero in Lot 49).

p. 384-385

The book ends in a similarly dark fashion, with Prairie fantasising about Brock as an authority figure (as her mother, and grandmother did). There are ‘silent darkened silver images all around her’, now that the flashbacks, and the screenings are over. She sleeps and the pastoral images return.

Deer and cows grazing together in the meadow, sun blinding in the cobwebs on the wet grass, a redtail hawk in an updraft soaring above the ridgeline.

Then Desmond, her dog, appears with a dead bird in its mouth. This brings the novel full circle, back to the beginning where Zoyd dreamt these same birds had messages for him he could never get to in time. Now, in reality, his daughter has also got to these birds too late. The dog is said to be ‘smiling out of his eyes, wagging his tail, thinking he must be home.’ But for all his happiness, he is mistaken- he is far from home, assuming such a place still even exists.

Coming probably all too soon: The Crying of Lot 49

Vineland 268-322

September 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

p.268 Though Brock has been painted fairly blackly thus far, the opening of this section immediately humanises him, and makes him seem far less powerful (and this reminds me of David Letzler‘s  talk on the subject of ’round’ characters in Gravity’s Rainbow at IPW 2010).

When had Brock ever posessed her? There might have been about a minute and a half, just after the events at College of the Surf, the death of Weed Atman, and the fall of PR3, though he was no longer sure.

There is also an explanation for why some become college snitches, which again draws on the idea of an escape back to childhood, or at least adolescence.

Another selling point for hiring on would turn out to be this casual granting of the wish implied in the classical postcollegiate Dream of Autumn Return, to one more semester, one more course credit required, another chance to be back in school again… the FBI could even put you on the time machine if that’s what you wanted.

There is then a further explanation for Frenesi (and many others) defection:

Brock Vond’s genius was to have seen in the activities of the sixties left not threats to order but unacknowledged desires for it. While the Tube was proclaiming youth revolution against parents of all kinds and most viewers were accepting this story, Brock saw the deep- if he’d allowed himself to feel it, the sometimes touching -need only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family.

This last phrase about the ‘national Family’ puts a different, if logical slant, on the idea of a return to childhood- that there will need to be parents, or guardians to watch over the kids. If we accept that this is filtered through Vond, then it is slightly at odds with Vond’s disparaging remarks about parenthood on p. 300. All of it, however, may be secondary to his pursuit of Frenesi, which again humanises Vond further.

p. 271 ‘Feel like we been in aMovie of the Week!’ says Roscoe, Brock Vond’s partner, in yet another example of TV being used as a frame of reference to define reality.

p. 283 ‘Childhood’, in Vineland, is not a stable metaphor, signalling, on the one hand, innocence, but at other times, naivete.

Stunned by the great Childward surge, critical abilities lapsed.

p. 285 Not just a paragraph about moments of transcendence, but one with a shift in person.

And these acid adventures, they came in those days and they went, some we gave away and forgot, others sad to say turned out to be fugitive or false- but with luck one or two would get saved to go back to at certain later moments in life.

Though the book does have a narratorial voice, whose sympathies appear to be with Zoyd and his ilk, this ‘we’ is the closest the novel comes to the personal.

p. 287 Frenesi’s Fall from ‘Angel’ status.

Taken down, she understood, from all the silver and light she’d known and been, brought back to the world like silver recalled grain by grain from Invisible to form images of what then went on to grow old, go away, get broken or contaminated. She had been priviledged live outside of Time, to enter and leave at will, looting and manipulating, weightless, invisible. Now Time had claimed her again, put her under house arrest, taken her passport away. Only an animal with a full set of pain receptors after all.

As well as its celestial aspects, the talk of ‘silver recalled grain by grain’ suggests the photographic process.

p. 289 “Taking ‘free’ as far as you can usually leads to ‘dead'” Frenesi’s dad tells her.

p. 290 Pynchon possibly overdoing the child comparisons, with Hub’s face ‘suddenly a kid’s again’, and then, in the next sentence, him and Sasha are said to have started off such ‘happy-go-lucky-kids.

p.293 Long, claustrophobic sentence that uses the metaphor of Frenesi playing an arcade game whose joystick (ahem) is represented by Brock Vond’s penis which she uses to

steer amongst the hazards and obstacles, the swooping monsters and alien projectiles of each game she would come, year by year to stand before… playing for nothing but the score itself, the row of numbers, a chance of entering her initials among those of other strangers for a brief time, no longer the time the world observed but game time, underground time, time that could take her nowhere outside its own tight and falsely deathless perimeter.

‘Falsely deathless’ is a brutal reminder of what lies at the end of a mediated life, whether through TV or within games. It cannot be avoided. And however long she plays, all she can achieve is a meaningless score.

p. 300 Vond presents normality as the escape, not the counter culture. It is thus convention that is the aberration, according to this.

A woman, say, trying to be an average, invisible tract-house mom, anchoring herself to the planet with some innocent hubby, then a baby, to keep from flying away back to who she really is, her responsibilities, hm?

p. 306 What fantasies, and nostalgia are for, perhaps.

Where’d he ever have been without fantasies like that to help bridge him across the bad moments when they came?

p. 314 Zoyd and Mucho reminisce about how acid let them understand they ‘were never going to die’. Mucho then says,

They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for. And though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming- just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die.

Though the idea of the TV being a method of control sounds like something we might want to ascribe to Pynchon, not least because TV is usually portrayed in his novels in a negative fashion (e.g. a TV box is mistaken for heroin in Inherent Vice), the fact that Mucho, who argues this, also believes that the proper use of acid will prevent death, tends to undermine this view. As Brian McHale argues (in Constructing Postmodernism) rather than Vineland being a ‘jeremiad’ against the corrupting influence of TV, it is more an exploration of how it saturates our lives, our vocabulary, and most importantly, acts a mirror to the ontological plurality (the multiple, competing forms of reality) of the postmodern world. 

Vineland 218-267

September 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

p. 218 Further criticism of TV’s effects on our sense of time, space and mortality. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is said to inform us that the ‘soul newly in transition’

finds no difference between the weirdness of life and the weirdness of death, an enhancing factor in Takeshi’s opinion being television, which with its history of picking away at the topic with doctor shows, war shows, cop shows, murder shows, had trivialized the big D itself. If mediated lives, he figured, why not mediated deaths?

p. 220 Zoyd describes Holytail, the ‘last refuge for pot growers in North California’ as ‘a community living on borrowed time’.While a reference to the precariousness of their situation, there is also the suggestion of a debt being called in.

p. 223 A paragraph that links childhood in with the ability to find transcendence, thus tying up the metaphors of childhood, naievete, innocence, and escapism that have appeared thus far.

In Van Meter’s tiny house behind the Cucumber Lounge, the kids, perhaps under the influence of the house parrot, Luis, figured out a way to meet, lucidly dreaming, in the same part of the great southern forest. Or so they told Van Meter. They tried to teach him how to do it, but he never got further than the edge of the jungle- if that’s what it was. How cynical would a man have to be not to trust these glowing souls, just in from flying all night at canopy level, all shiny-eyed, open, happy to share it with him? Van Meter had been searching all his life for transcendent chances exactly like this one the kids took for granted, but whenever he got close it was like can’t shit, can’t get a hard on, the more he worried the less likely it was to happen.

Even from the second sentence Van Meter is distrustful (‘Or so they told…), despite the fact that he ‘had been searching all his life for transcendent chances’. As for the question of ‘how cynical would a man have to be not to trust these glowing souls?’, the fact that he is, that we are, despite all we might hope for  in the way of release, or escape, could lead us to the idea that the greatest Fall we suffer is from childhood, and that this is what most of us, whether hippies or not, are searching for, but cannot accept even when we find it, or something that at least resembles it.

p. 226 May possibly mirror the cut to an advertising break.

Because Thanatoids relate in a different way to time, there was no compression towards the ends of sentences, which meant they always ended by surprise.

p. 229-230  Rex’s approach to resistance aims for a denial of all forms of pleasure, to transcend all appetites, whose culmination is death.

Rex himself saw the revolution as a kind of progressive abstinence… As the enemies attention grew more concentrated, you gave up your privacy, freedom of movement, access to money, with the looming promise finally of jail and the final forms of abstinence from any life at all free of pain.

p. 232 Rex offers a recapitulation of Weber’s ideas in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

“You’re up against the True Faith here, some heavy dudes, talking crusades, retribution, closed ideological minds passing on the Christian Capitalist Faith intact, mentor to protege, generation to generation, living inside their power, convinced they’re immune to all the history the rest of us have to suffer.

But Pynchon usually undermines most forms of duality- so the fact that they are supposedly evil, is no guarantee of ‘us being good.

“They are bad, bad’s they come, but that still doesn’t make us good, not 100%, Weed.”

p. 236 TV described as a drug, or at least a form of sustenance.

Embarassed, he reached for the Tube, popped it on, fastened himself to the screen and began to feed.

p. 236 Frenesi describes make believe as ‘her dangerous vice’, one of the few moments where a character shows some insight.

p.237

Beginning the night she and Rex had publicly hung the snitch jacket on Weed, Frenesi understood that she had taken at least one irreversible step to the side of her life, and that now, as if on some unfamiliar drug, she was walking all around next to herself, haunting herself, attending a movie of it all.

Here Frenesi is trying to distance herself from her own life, with its betrayals, by pretending it is a movie, and thus not real.

If the step was irreversible, then she ought to be all right now, safe in a world-next-to-the-world that not many would know how to get to, where she could kick back and watch the unfolding drama.

On the one hand, this seems problematic- that there isn’t this safe place where she can avoid the consequences of her actions (in her case, betrayal and accessory to murder). But within there is also the possibility of redemption- that the step is not irreversible, that one can go back, at least in memory, and seek some measure of atonement. And arguably this is something Frenesi achieves by the end of the novel.

p. 239 Suggestion that everyone is complicit to some degree with the ills of the system, the abuse of power, the erosion of liberty.

No one, Frenesi was finding out, no matter how honorable their lives so far, could be considered safely above it, wherever “above” was supposed to be.

p. 248 Brock Vond, when talking about the disappearance of many protestors, makes a joke about murder being a form of transcendence.

Taken one by one, after all, given the drop out data and the migratory preferences of the time, each case could be accounted for without appealing to anything more sinister than a desire for safety. At his news conference Brock Vond referred to it humorously as “rapture”.

He goes on to say that they have ‘gone underground’, that they have sought ‘rapture below’.

p. 252-253 DL’s sense of karma while doing the ‘bookkeeping on this caper’.

If the motive itself was tainted, then the acts, no matter how beautifully or successfully executed, were false, untrue to her calling, to herself, and someday there would be a payback.

p.256 Frenesi’s Dream of the Gentle Flood. In this a California beach town is partially, gently submerged, in such a manner that no one dies, and life can regroup on the higher slopes. She dreams of hearing a song about

divers, who would come, not now but soon, and descend into the Flood and bring back up for us “whatever has been taken”, the voice promised, “whatever has been lost….”

Yet another fantasy that dolphins, aliens or some other entity will come and ‘save’ us. Here there is also a temporal displacement, in that the Flood is arguably what she is actually wishing for, but within this future state, there is also her present desire of wanting ‘whatever has been taken’. Perhaps also worth noting the difference between ‘taken’ and ‘lost’ (why else virtually repeat the phrase?). ‘Taken’ makes her sound more like a victim; ‘lost’ allows for her playing a more active role, and perhaps comes closer to the truth.

p. 258 More talk of bookkeeping.

Those framable pieces of the time, which had demanded, when the bookkeeping was done, damn near everything.

p. 259 Repetition of question on p. 29. Frenesi asks DL

So what difference did we make? Who’d we save? The minute the guns came out, all that art-of-the-cinema handjob was over.

But given the context in which she asks this (having just betrayed Weed) her motivations for being skeptical of the achievements of their guerilla film unit are perhaps doubtful. But denigrating it she also lessens the import of her betrayal.

p. 260-261 Repetition of the idea of Frenesi as an angel who has fallen

She waited, guttering with a small meek defiance, standing at the window and trembling, moonlight from a high angle pouring over her naked back, casting on it shadows of her shoulder blades, like healed stumps of wings ritually amputated long ago, for some transgression of the Angel’s Code.

But the fact that the moonlight is coming ‘from a high angle’ should make us, as reader’s (or in a sense, eavesdroppers), wary of the romanticising power of such depictions.

And all this is taking place as oral narration, Prairie hearing it from DL, so when the phone rings, and DL stops talking,

Prairie, reentering non movie space, felt like the basketball after a Lakers game- alive, resilient, still pressurized with spirit yet with a distinct memory of having been, for a few hours, expertly bounced.

Because what a movie, or a novel does, is move you around between different places and times, often without your knowledge. All art being manipulation, the only question to what end.

p. 264 Mention of place of detention that were ‘not fun or sitcom prison camps’- as with death, such places are now trivialised.

Vineland 192-217

September 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

p.192 Description of a movie-lot converted to housing.

Space devoted to make-believe had, it was thought, been reclaimed by the serious activities of the World of Reality.

Lest we miss the capitals of ‘World of Reality’, and the slight irony of ‘serious activities’, this idea is further undercut by the tentativeness of ‘it was thought’. We are thus invited to think that rather than there being a shift from ‘make-believe’ to ‘Reality’, all that is happening instead is the substitution of one form of fantasy for another. It seems to me that this could be read in (at least) two ways, the first being that there is no reality, only constructions, which in a way is liberating, as it means there is no ‘Reality’ to escape from. The second is a more critical view of our endless attempts at delusion.

p. 194 Television schedules are used as a point of temporal orientation.

It was just before prime-time

Again, as with the cinematic vocabulary, and Zoyd’s shift in perspective in memory, Pynchon is suggesting that our ways of perceiving time and space, or at least how we talk about them (which isn’t automatically the same thing) have been heavily influenced by TV.

p. 195 24fps idealism (and naivete) regarding the power of the image to reveal the ‘truth’.

They particularly believed in the ability of close ups to reveal and devastate. When power corrupts, it keeps a log of its progress, written into that most sensitive memory device, the human face. Who could withstand the light? What viewer could believe in the war, the system, the countless lies about American freedom, looking into the mug shots of the bought and sold? Hearing the synchronized voices repeat the same formulas, evasive, affectless, cut off from whatever they had once been by promises of what they would never get to collect on?

Though meant as a series of rhetorical questions, they do, however, invite skeptical answers. Because there’s no indication that TV or film has made viewers less trusting, less willing to believe ‘the countless lies’. The end of the passage’s reference to ‘what they would never get to collect on’ is interesting, as there may be something hopeful in this idea that there is something beyond the reach of the ‘they’ of the passage. However, it is equally possible that this is just further wishful thinking.

p.202 Frenesi’s love of the TV.

Did she really believe that as long as she had it inside her Tubeshaped frame, soaking up liberated halogen rays, nothing out there could harm her?

Obviously not, judging by the fact she goes over to Brock Vond.

p. 207 Rex’s view of the Vietnamese revolutionaries:

These men and women, few of whose names he would ever know, had become for him a romantic lost tribe with a failed cause, likely to remain unfound in earthly form but perhaps available the way Jesus was to those who “found” him- like a prophetic voice, like a rescue mission from elsewhere which had briefly entered real history, promising to change it, raising specific hopes that might then get written down, become programs, generate earthly sequences of cause and effect. If such an abstraction could have found residence in this mortal world, then- of the essence to Rex- one might again.

This idea of an external, mythic agency that offers deliverance (‘like a rescue mission’) will return in Inherent Vice, in the form of Lemuria (see previous entries). It also appears in The Crying of Lot 49, on p. 85.

Catching a TWA flight to Miami was an uncoordinated boy who planned to slip at night into aquariums and open negotiations with the dolphins, who would succeed man.

p. 216 Some explanation for why Frenesi changes sides, allegedly in despair at the direction she sees things going. If there’s no escape, one can at least survive.

She understood as clearly as she could allow herself to what Brock wanted her to do, understood at last, dismally, that she might even do it- not for him, unhappy fucker, but because she had lost too much control, time was rushing all around her, these were rapids, and as far ahead as she could see it looked like Brock’s stretch of the river, another stage, like sex, children, surgery, further into adulthood perilous and real, into the secret that life is soldiering, that soldiering includes death, that those soldiered for, not yet and often never in on the secret, are always, at every age, children.

The idea that those we struggle, or ‘soldier’ for, are children, can be taken literally, but also, given the earlier comparisons of hippies to children, it can also be taken as referring to anyone in a state of innocence (or from another point of view, ignorance). As for the talk of them being children ‘always, at every age’, this supports the second reading- a state of perpetual childishness (which we can envy or disparage). ‘Every age’ also has a suggestion of this being true in different historical periods.

However, there is also way to read this. I think one of the traps in Pynchon is confusing authorial voice with that of the character. This is, after all, being filtered through Frenesi, for whom the idea that her betrayal is in some sense to benefit not just others, but the ‘innocent’ is probably a fairly appealing notion, in that it at least partially justifies (and thus redeems) her actions. Whilst she might think it a ‘secret’ that ‘life is soldiering’, if so, it is one that is extremely poorly kept.

Vineland 141-191

August 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

p. 141 Prairie asks about her mother,

“How could she’ve ever gone near somebody like this Brock guy?”

“I never could figure it either, kid. He was everything we were supposed to be against.”

I think this is one of the central questions of the novel. Leaving aside the possibility that maybe Vond isn’t so different to them, or that their own ideological stance is not as defined or principled as they might think ( an idea raised by the phrase ‘supposed to be against’), the reasons for Frenesi’s defection are never made explicit. Though the powerful-man-in-uniform hypothesis gets floated, another possibility is that after her experiences with the guerilla film crew, she could not  doubt the eventual outcome of the struggle between the forces of authority, and those who wanted an alternative. This need not be anything so crude as simply wanting to be on the winning side. If she stopped believing in the counter-culture’s ability to provide a viable alternative (a means of escape if you will), then perhaps she thought there was only one other option, to join the ranks of the self-designated elect.

For DL, Frenesi’s betrayal is enough to make her doubt reality itself.

She’d wonder if this was all supposed to be some penance, to sit, caught inside the image of the one she’d loved, been betrayed by just sit… Was it a koan she was meant to consider in depth, or was she finally lost in a great edge-to-edge delusion, having only read about Frenesi Gates once in some dentist’s waiting room or standing in line at the checkout, whereupon something had just snappped and she’d gone on to make up the whole thing?

There’s a sense that this abstract possibility might almost be preferable.

p. 155 Sister Rochelle criticises DL for her lack of focus

“All we see’s somebody running because if she stops running she’ll fall, and nothing beyond.”

To some extent, DL is almost the mirror of Frenesi. Though she dreams (p. 133-134) of escaping into a universe where she can lead a normal, Clark Kent existence, it is Frenesi who stops running, in a sense, gives up on trying to escape, and by stopping, enters a version of suburban normality, with a husband and child. In the end it is, in some ways, as much a fiction, and as fragile, as any other attempt at escape.

p. 166 Sister Rochelle’s version of the Creation story.

This is important, so listen up. It takes place in the Garden of Eden. Back then, long ago, there were no men at all. Paradise was female. Eve and her sister, Lilith, were alone in the Garden. A character named Adam was put into the story later, to help make men look more legitimate, but in fact the first man was not Adam- it was the Serpent.

Morality and notions of good and evil are then described as just another ‘confidence game’. Apart from the notion that these are just ways of controlling people, this may also be a reference to the fact that in Calvinism it is crucial to feel confident that one is part of the elect- anything less is a sign of insufficient faith.

p. 170 ‘Thanatoid’ means ‘like death, only different.’ Thanatoids have few possessions, and live in communities, and ‘watch a lot of Tube.’ Thanatoids are said to have learned

to limit themselves, as they already did in other areas, only to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing futher into the condition of death. Among these the most common by far was resentment, constrained as they were by history and by rules of imbalance and restoration to feel little else beyond their needs for revenge.

p.172 DL and Takeshi get in on the ‘karmic adjustment’ business. The list of Thanatoid complaints is enough to make them a synedoche of the entire nation.

They heard of land titles and water rights, goon squads, and vigilantes, landlords, lawyers and developers always described in images of thick fluids in flexible containers.

p.173

They were victims, he explained, of karmic imbalances- unanswered blows, unredeemed suffering, escapes by the guilty

When they look out the window, there is a parallel to Zoyd watching himself on TV on page 14.

Although the streets were irregular and steeply pitched, the entryways and setbacks and forking corners, all angles ordinarily hidden, in fact, were somehow clearly visible from up here at this one window.

p. 174 The suggestion that everyone bears some level of responsibility for the ills of the present.

“And by fixing each beef, that’ll bring back the lost limbs, erase the scars, get people’s dick to working again, that it?”

“No, and we don’t restore youth, either! Why- you don’t have enough else- to feel guilty about?”

Even karmic adjustment, and the healing of resentments, the bestowing of forgiveness, is a form of commodity exchange.

Everything had moved as slowly as the cycles of birth and death, but this proved to be too slow for enough people to begin, eventually, to provide a market niche. There arose a system of deferment, of borrowing against karmic futures. Death, in Modern Karmic Adjustment, got removed from the process.

p.180 A wonderful sentence about the sins of the past.

with the past as well, and the crimes behind the world, the thousand bloody arroyos in the hinterlands of time that stretched somberly inland from the honky tonk coast of Now.

p. 186-187 has the myth of the woge

p.191 Prairie has a TV-influenced fantasy, wishing they could be

only some family in a family car, with no problems that couldn’t be solved in half an hour of wisecracks and commercials, on their way to a fun weekend at some beach.

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