ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 12 - Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Chapter 1. Language and Reality: Course Review [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: Before launching into Pynchon today, I thought I would just take a few moments to look back over the books that we’ve read and talk about the visions of language that they have offered us, and also just to reflect for a moment on the relationship imagined between those visions of language and what is happening outside of fiction in what we might call the real world. We started this course talking about Black Boy and the way that a whole world of pressure–political pressure, racial tension–pushed on the borders of that work and actually changed its very material form. After that, I began a series of readings of novels that emphasized more what you might call the history of literature, the history of literature’s forms and ambitions. And so, beginning that series we had O’Connor embodying a new critical craft of fiction that comes out of modernism, imagining nevertheless that the craft is reflective of a transcendental order in the world, a religious order. When we moved on to Nabokov, we had an author trying to imagine a work of art so autonomous from the world that it could be something like an autonomous form of life. That, of course, I argued in those lectures, opened it up for the threat of mortality. If you imagine your artwork is living, it can also die. It’s a kind of hauntedness that surrounds Nabokov’s vision of aesthetic bliss as one’s response to that autonomous artwork.
Kerouac represents a whole group of writers, the Beats, who reject the formalism embodied by both O’Connor and Nabokov. They reject that formalism as an impediment to language’s access to the real, and to our access to the real through language. They dream of an unmediated relationship between experience and the word. They don’t think so much of language as a mediating force as an expressive force. I argued in my second lecture on On the Road that, in the end, that dream looks quite deflated when Dean can’t even speak in a coherent sentence, and he has to be rejected by Sal as Sal drives off to the jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. Nevertheless, that dream is spiritualized. It’s a way of becoming not just close to the real, but also part of some mystical unity. That thread of the mystical quality of language at its extreme of literary power is what I drew out of Franny and Zooey. So, Salinger, too, has the dream that the artifice of literature, of literary language, the performance of language in the style of his novels, can somehow be the essence of the human soul, that it can somehow communicate the truth of the universe just through its form: its human, distinctive form. It’s a way of thinking about form that has more to do with individuality than it does with convention. Remember that way that Franny can identify the timbre of her brother’s voice very specifically: it’s like no other. So, Salinger imagines that the literary art imitates that kind of voice, and in that way it is a sacred practice, a sacred art.
Barth rejects the idea that language is an unmediated form of access to the real: absolutely impossible for Barth to countenance that idea. He sees life as continually, always already mediated by language. Now, I should say, as someone from the class who came up to me after lecture and asked me about this, that Barth’s understanding of language as preceding human understanding, preceding any sense of ourselves, in a sense always slipping out of our control, is very much in concert with what was going on at very high-level language theory at that time. So, the work of Jacques Lacan in France in the 1950s and ’60s and of Jacques Derrida who brought deconstruction to the United States, actually to Johns Hopkins first of all in the 1960s where Barth was teaching. He presented that work in a very famous lecture in the late ’60s. This is all part of a way of thinking about language that became very powerful through the next decade and a half, and we’re going to see it some too next week when we read Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston. So, this is part of a larger intellectual trajectory. Barth is not alone in thinking these things about language.
I argued that Barth tried to counter that sense of helplessness at the hands of language by imagining that the human effort at connecting with another person through the mechanisms of love and desire always renewed the possibility for language to do new kinds of work in the world. So, if language seems exhausted because it’s always preceding you, everything has always already been said, there’s no new plot to be had, the world is full of stock phrases, how do you use them to embody an experience that seems fresh to you? How do those stock phrases alienate you from the very experience you hope that they can describe? He thinks that following out desire can renew language, and Menelaiad, I think, is his attempt at doing that. So, now we arrive at that tension, and I want to suggest that Barth was still dreaming of a pretty autonomous version of the literary art, even though in his 1987 preface to Lost in the Funhouse–I don’t know if any of you read it–he says about these stories, which were published throughout the ’60s:
It’s a very interesting little comparison he makes at the end. He takes that whole foment of 1960s politics and counterculture, and essentially he says, “I found that invigorating as I hope you will find these stories invigorating,” as if the stories in this very–almost, seemingly, hermetically–sealed literary world that he offers us are somehow meant to have the effects of a whole decade of foment, social foment.
Chapter 2. Pynchon and Politics: Activism and Passivism in the 1960s [00:09:18]
If Barth only gestures towards that world, the politics of that decade, Pynchon actually lets us see it. And if you look on page 83, this is just one of many, many examples. But I choose this one just because it’s so obvious. Oedipa is going to Berkeley looking for Emory Bortz, and she comes on a summer weekday in the mid afternoon.
Oedipa is in a different generation, of a different generation, but we can see the social foment just in that little snapshot of the Berkeley campus. I don’t know all of the acronyms. I don’t know what the FSMs are, but the YAFs are the Young Americans for Freedom. The VDCs are the Vietnam Day Committees. The Vietnam Day Committee organized a 24-hour teach-in in 1965 against the Vietnam War. There is a little anecdote from that teach-in that I want to share with you, that I think embodies some of the tensions in this novel. They invited Ken Kesey to come and speak at the convention, at the teach-in. Now, Ken Kesey, some of you probably know, was a sort of performer, writer, not really an activist. He was a purveyor of street theater and most famously the advocate of LSD, and he and his Merry Pranksters would ride around the country doing street theater, advocating the use of LSD and marijuana. Who, in 1964, do you think drove their bus, which was called Further? Who do you think drove their bus? Neal Cassady drove their bus. When they came to the Vietnam Day at the Berkeley campus, Kesey addressed the assembled people saying, “Turn your back on the war. Look at the war, turn your back on the war and say ‘fuck it.’” This is a group of people he was addressing who were intent on doing something to stop the war, and this was Kesey’s response.
That moment, for me, embodies this tension right at the center of the 1960s, a tension between countercultural self-development and an ethos of play, “drop out, tune in,” and (I can’t remember Kesey’s little motto). Essentially, leave the institutional life of America–that means schools, government, politics, all those traditional sources of order–and create disorder. And do that as a way of finding what’s true about yourself; do it in the company of others. It had this communal aspect, for sure. On the other side, you have a growing political movement among young people, and of course it’s legendary. By 1964, the Civil Rights movement had accomplished amazing things. As a result of the Freedom Rides, they had integrated interstate transportation, at great cost to the volunteers who rode those buses. They were beaten. Some were killed. Civil Rights workers were murdered in various states. It had come to a kind of crescendo with voter registration drives and the Voting Rights Act of 1964. At the same time, Lyndon B. Johnson was ratcheting up the Vietnam War, so the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed in 1964, which authorized bombing raids on Cambodia. This was a new turn in the war, and it promised to escalate it, and this really galvanized–especially student–resistance. So, this was a time of major political stakes, and young people at universities–primarily at universities, but also people out doing the March on Washington, in the South, in small towns–were really changing the face of America and its role in the world.
So, Ken Kesey, on the one hand, is looking for that internally directed, playful response to the oppressive order of the world. And then there is this very political response. Pynchon lets us see both. And he’s pa
Chapter 3. The Variable Roles of Oedipa Maas [00:15:42]
rodying both kinds of response in this novel, so in that sense, the novel is very much of its time.
Now, I want to pause for a moment there and ask you a question. I want you to think about what kind of protagonist Pynchon sends out into this world. What do you think of Oedipa Maas? How does she strike you as a character? How would you describe her? Yeah.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Desperate. Okay. How else? Yeah.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Powerless. Uh huh.
Student: Very confused.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Confused. What else? Those are all pretty negative adjectives. Does she bring any resources? Yes.
Student: She’s especially attractive.
Professor Amy Hungerford: She’s attractive. Yes, she is. What else? What other resources does she bring? Yeah.
Student: She’s curious.
Professor Amy Hungerford: She’s curious. Yeah. What else? Anything else?
Student: She’s determined.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Determined. Uh huh. When this book first came out, critics called her a lightweight. Was that a word that ever occurred to you? Did anyone think, “this is just a fluff character”? I would suggest to you that the difference in your response and the critics’ is the difference that feminism in the ’70s made. In the 1960s, to have a protagonist go into the world and discover this incredibly complex set of patterns, and to have that protagonist be a housewife, was very much playing against type. So, Pynchon took a certain kind of risk by choosing to make his protagonist a housewife. So, the question is, why did he do that? I want to suggest to you that he did that because a woman is expected to occupy certain conventional roles at this moment, and we see her in one at the very beginning of the novel. She has just come back from a Tupperware party where the hostess put too much kirsch in the punch, so she’s a little drunk. So you get this image of her as this stereotypical ’50s housewife going to Tupperware parties. And then she makes salad, she does the shopping, she picks herbs from the garden, she makes lasagna, she mixes drinks so that they’ll be ready when Mucho comes home, when her husband comes home: very typical.
So, this is the moment in which she discovers that she’s been chosen, or named, as the executrix of Pierce’s will. It’s that conventionality that then allows her to occupy multiple roles. And let me just detail some of those. You see it almost in language of aside. This is when she first meets Genghis Cohen. Yes. Now the names in here, we have to think about them at some point. One thing you can say about them is that they are funny. A second thing you can say about them is that they seem redolent of meaning. I can’t tell you how many scholars have come up with different readings of what Oedipa’s name means. That’s just Oedipa, and then there are so many hundreds of others. They are redolent of meaning. What are we to do with that fact? It’s a question for you. Three: they declare that language is always mediated, always mediating, that your experience of people is never clear of some set of meanings that someone else has assigned to it. Your encounter with the world is always mediated.
So, these names drag associations with them, and one question I want to ask is: what to do with those? But I’m going to set that question aside for a moment, and note that, at meeting Genghis, “Oedipa felt at once motherly.” Now, this may seem like a small aside, but if we look also on 73, when she meets Mr. Thoth, she says (on the very top; he’s telling Oedipa his dream, and she sees in it clues to the Thurn and Taxis mystery):
And then, of course, she gets a major clue for figuring out what the whole story is behind the Tristero and the post horn. “Granddaughterly.” It’s a role she occupies with great ease. A last example, on 122. This is when she’s going to meet Emory Bortz:
These are her resources: makeup, clothes, hair. With them she can occupy all these different roles, and in doing so she has access to certain kinds of knowledge. Her roles are as fluid, in some ways, as Pierce’s were. Remember that when Pierce calls her, he’s always impersonating someone. So, he was speaking with his Lamont Cranston voice the last time that she spoke to him. The difference between the way Oedipa occupies these various roles, and Pierce did it, is that Oedipa’s roles have a kind of traction in the world with other people that Pierce’s voices–or even Dr. Hilarius’s voices–simply don’t have. These male versions of it are all so apparently performances that they can’t get much out of them, except to annoy Oedipa. But Oedipa jumps right into these conventional roles, and in that act comes to know more about the world in a way that these men cannot.
Oedipa is–even from the time she was a child–a reader, and we find that out on page 14 when she has her religious instant. And I hope you remembered that scene of Sal looking down on Salt Lake City, the birthplace of Dean, from On the Road, very similar structure. He looks down, and he sees the little city laid out below him. So, this is Oedipa in one of the first instances of her becoming a reader:
Here, the cloud becomes the obscuring of this sense of intent to communicate or a sense of meaning’s pattern. But it still retains–as it did in Flannery O’Connor–that spiritual sense that the divine is always shrouded around by some Cloud of Unknowing. But here we see her with the desire to know. And the difference between her as a child and her in this moment is that she had not bothered to find out. If she had tried to find out about the radio circuit, she would have learned something. She did not try. This time she will try. So, she’s a reader who notices patterns even from a young age. And at this moment she is called upon–and she rises to the occasion–to figure out what the pattern will mean.
And, of course, she progresses through a kind of education as a reader. She goes from being a reader who can listen, for example, to the ambiguities in the Wharfinger play. She can hear when the ambiguity creeps in between the words, and that tells her that she needs to find something out. That’s what causes her to have the curiosity to go backstage. She becomes a critic. She moves from interpretation to actually finding the history, and the intertextuality, and the variations of these editions of the play. She learns history, of the U.S. and of Europe, about the mail systems. She learns the history of Inverarity’s enterprises. So, she becomes a scholar in a certain way, an amateur scholar. She’s not just a reader; she’s someone who actually performs research.
Where does all of this get her? Well, I think, what we’re led to believe, is precisely nowhere, in terms of revelation. Does a revelation ever happen? Of course, the book ends with her waiting for the anonymous bidder to reveal himself. Whether that would ever happen, if Pynchon had decided to let us in on the secret, I don’t know. Pynchon, instead, chooses to end the novel before that moment, and so we’re left with a kind of emptiness. We’re left with the multiple options that she laments. If you look on 146-147, she rehearses all the possibilities of meaning, and her conclusion, finally, is this:
And then, I’m going to skip down a little bit:
What we don’t get here is a sense of whether there really is an alternate secret postal system that serves a sort of underground of private networks. We don’t ever get a sense of whether these stamps and the signs that she sees everywhere in San Francisco when she travels through the city in the night, whether these things are a coherent meaning, or whether they are her fabrication. We don’t really know and she never really can say. All she has is the sense that there is this pattern.
Now, there are two things that she is left with, in the passage I just read: that sense of San Narciso being all of America, and, moreover, of it being constituted of “storm systems of group suffering and need.” So, remember all of the little subcommunities that she interacts with have some sort of pain or loss associated with them: the Inamorati Anonymous for example, people who don’t want to love. It’s all comedy, but then there is a heart, a kernel. And if we look on page 101-102, we can begin to see what that heart or kernel is that recuperates what I would call the sentimental. So, this is when she’s in San Francisco, looking around the city. She’s come there hoping to escape the network of symbols that she has seen–all those post horns–and instead she’s immersed with a new network of them. We’re told:
And he tells her to drop it in the “W.A.S.T.E., lady,” can. W.A.S.T.E. We’re not allowed to say “waste,” remember. And then she is gripped with–as she says, “overcome all at once”–by a need to touch him, as if she could not believe in him or would not remember him. And she reflects, just above that, on the mattress that he must sleep in, and this is one of those great Pynchon sentences. This is a question, but it comes in the declarative form, too.
It’s a sort of aria of description, and Pynchon can string those clauses together like no one else. There are even longer examples in the book, and I’m sure you noticed them. Oedipa needs to actually touch the man, and when she finally, sort of, takes him in her arms, the position she assumes looks like that of a mother with her broken son. And the image is much more specifically of Michelangelo’s Pieta. And remember the Lago di Pieta figures prominently in the novel, both as the site of the rout of GIs in Italy, and the lake from which their bones are taken to make charcoal filters for cigarettes. So, the Pieta, the image of Mary with Jesus’ body broken from the cross on her lap, is repeated, and here Oedipa comes to inhabit that position. It’s not a social role in the way that she could be granddaughterly or motherly on those other occasions. It’s a religious image. It’s also a gendered religious image; it’s also an aesthetic image. But here, it’s infused with her compassionate approach to this man.
Chapter 4. Finding Reality in the Social Details [00:36:02]
And remember, in the passage that I read about Inverarity’s escape, what she left with, as her final understanding. She has a kind of compassion for Pierce and the way that he had surrounded himself with this network of holdings that he had tried to escape from in some way. So, if you cannot, finally, have a pattern resolve into a clarity of truth or meaning, what you can do instead is inhabit a role where you will be in contact with the very material of social life. And that’s what that mattress is: totally imbued with the bodily detritus of a human life, actually of many human lives. She reflects, later, on the set of all men who had slept on that mattress. Pynchon wants to imagine a very physical repository for the social, and especially for the human, affective dimensions of the social.
That’s why Oedipa has all these men stripped away from her. Remember, she says that, as she is growing more and more desperate at the end, that her men were being stripped away from her one by one. And so, when she comes to be isolated in this way, she can finally see and meditate upon, in a new way, all those systems of communication. And she has that vision of the telephone wires, and she looks up at them as she has just doubted all of the possibilities for making sense of the post horn and the Tristero. She looks up at the telephone wires, and she thinks about all the messages, unintelligible, full of human longing, going back and forth across those wires. So, if Pynchon gives us the pattern of meaning, rather than meaning itself in this novel, he also gives us a vision of what it means to embody that pattern.
This is very different from Nabokov’s idea of embodiment as a kind of alternate or rival creativity. Remember, I argued that Lolita has a dead child, and she dies in childbirth, in a way, because it’s a kind of creativity that Nabokov wants to cancel, or that Humbert wants to cancel. In this novel, it’s not a rival creativity. It’s what creativity has to be, in the literary sense. Now, Pynchon was a student of Nabokov for a couple of years at Cornell University in the early ’60s, so he took courses with Nabokov. I don’t know how close they were, but he certainly learned a few things from Nabokov. This is something he revises from that old teacher. He is imagining a literary form that is soaked in the stuff of social life. So, if you only get a sniff of the tear gas in Barth, here you get a whole draught full of it. And what I think he is rejecting: if you look on page 95 (oops. That’s not the one I want. Yes, it is 95. If you look on page 95…) there is a different vision of what the artwork could look like that I think we’re meant to put next to that vision of Oedipa with the suffering sailor. This is when it first occurs to her that the whole world is being organized around her:
This is a meditation on both the joy and the loss of literary substitution for the real or for the truth, the substitution of abstract pattern for something like comprehensible meaning. So here, she’s kind of enthralled with the idea that these gemlike clues–that’s a very Nabokovian moment–the gemlike clues that are gathering around her would be a compensation for the loss of that real access to revelation. And this has this religious sense to it. It’s not just the religious instant of looking down at San Narciso; it’s the religious sense of the capitalized Word that comes back a couple of times towards the end of the novel, the epileptic Word. The “Word,” capitalized, always refers back to the beginning of the Gospel of John, where John describes Christ as the Word made flesh: “The Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us.” So, Pynchon is using that religious vocabulary: not just the religious imagery of the Pieta, but the religious vocabulary of the capitalized Word.
So, you can have a kind of system of symbols that’s gemlike and pleasurable and that calls you to submit to it as it does here for Oedipa, but in the end there is something more that her search will produce, and that is the moment of compassion. And, I would submit to you that tears are just all over this novel. I don’t know if you noticed it, but there are many, many examples. I’ll just give you a few. First of all, there are the tears that accumulate in her bubble shades when she’s in Mexico looking at Remedios Varo”s painting of the women in the tower embroidering the long tapestries that become the world. So, that sense of isolation in the tower makes her weep. On 117 you can see another example. This is Mucho talking about the Muzak:
113, this is Dr. Hilarius, crying: “Tears sprang to Hilarius’ eyes. ‘You aren’t going to shoot,’” he says. 146, in her moment of desperation when she loses her connection to the Inamorato Anonymous, or when she’s about to talk to him: “She waited, inexplicable tears beginning to build up pressure around her eyes.” Back on 108. This is the nurse who has just escaped from Dr. Hilarius: “ ‘He thinks someone’s after him.’ Tear streaks had meandered down over the nurse’s cheekbones.”
It’s not just that we could explain any of these moments of tears. It’s that Pynchon describes them all, notes them all. So, this is a novel that’s full of people crying, which is an odd thing to think about when you think back to Pynchon’s reputation as a metafictional novelist, as someone preeminently preoccupied with the formal aspects of fiction. What you find when you actually open up Pynchon’s novels is an incredibly rich world of human detritus, of history. In Gravity’s Rainbow he did enormous amounts of research in newspapers from the Second World War in London where some of the novel is set, so that you can go to newspapers and find the ads that he talks about in the novels. So, he combines this very attentive set of details, which are not always, and often are not at all, the aesthetic details with which Nabokov filled Lolita.
Remember, when I asked you about the specificity of America in On the Road, and I asked you to think about whether there was anything there at all? In On the Road, there isn’t anything. In Nabokov there is, but it’s usually aesthetic: how things look, the look of a hotel, the look of a field, the look of a child, the look of a woman. In Pynchon, often, these are somehow social details about people talking to other people, political things, places, and how houses are arranged. But there is a sense that these are social worlds, not just patterns, even though at the beginning that’s how Oedipa sees them. As she goes further and further in to her search for knowledge–and finally her abandonment of that search of knowledge–she sees more and more that this is not just pattern, that it’s these storm systems of suffering and need.
So, I think this is what Pynchon brings to the string of meditations on what language can do, and what the novel is for, that I began my lecture today with, just recapping for you. He’s trying to imagine a novel that meditates both on these structures of meaning that imbue the real world, such that there is no name that isn’t already saturated with associations, and that within such a world, if you enter into it, you can come to encounter the real. And the real is that sense of suffering, and that the novel can make you feel things, both the pleasure of humor or the pleasure of beauty, but also that sense of compassion. And I don’t know about you, but I feel compassion for Oedipa. I feel like she’s a real character. I think she is a character that you can–if not identify with–at least, you can understand and be interested in.
So, Pynchon offers us that, and in our next reading, when we start with Toni Morrison and also Maxine Hong Kingston, what you’re going to see is a kind of shift. So all these meditations on language, these different ways of thinking about how language interacts with the real, and what you can do by messing with language, are almost, I would say, taken as read, taken as the starting point from which a writer like Morrison or Kingston will begin to rethink how those things can be used in relation to the real world. So, that’s where we’ll start when we think about Morrison next week. Let me just also say there are a thousand things to talk about in this novel, so I hope you’ll get to some of them in section. And if you want to write about this, it’s a very rich novel for writing your papers.
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