"... it is not often Death is told so clearly to fuck off."
- Gravity's Rainbow, p. 10
Thomas Pynchon's unwavering attention on Death in Gravity's Rainbow has strong emotional motivation. The book is dedicated to Richard Fariña, his close friend who tragically died at the age of 29 in a motorcycle accident near Carmel California. It happened on the day of a party jointly celebrating the release of his book, Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up To Me and the 21st birthday of his wife Mimi Baez, sister of Joan. Pynchon served as Best Man at Fariña's wedding to Baez.
At the time of his death, Richard Fariña seemed on his way to becoming a significant cultural figure of his times. He performed as a folksinger, released two albums before he died and another posthumously. At the time of his death he was producing an album for Joan Baez. A music critic once said he would have given his friend Bob Dylan a run for his money had he lived. He was a well-known character in hipster circles. The splash his short life made is excellently documented in Positively 4th Street, The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, by David Hajdu, a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in the nascent history of the 1960s.
Fariña's death has least two direct references in Pynchon's next novel Vineland published 17 years after GR. Vineland continues the revolt against the finality of Death. It appears very much a continuation of Gravity's Rainbow in terms of esoteric communication. I consider Vineland even more of a masterpiece in that regard and would suggest those new to Pynchon tackle Vineland first. It's an easier read and less scatalogical. Other themes connect the two novels such as authoritarian persecution and extreme, hyperbolized, paranoia.
Fariña died when the bike he was a passenger on failed to negotiate a curve on Carmel Valley Road. As Pynchon writes in the Foreward to a later edition of Been Down So Long ..., they were going about 90 mph when it should have been no faster than 35 mph.
"The band played up and down in valleys still in those days unknown except to a few real-estate visionaries, little crossroads places where one day houses'd sprawl and the rates of human affliction in all categories zoom. After work, unable to sleep, the Corvairs liked to go out and play motorhead valley roulette in the tule fogs. These white presences, full of blindness and sudden highway death, moved, as if conscious, unpredictably over the landscape. There were fewer satellite photos back then, so people had only the ground-level view. No clear bounded shape - all at once, there in the road, a critter in a movie, to quick to be true, there it'd be. The idea was to enter the pale wall at a speed meaningfully over the limit, to bet that the white passage held no other vehicles, no curves, no construction, only smooth, level, empty roadway to an indefinite distance - a motorhead variation on a surfer's dream."
"Emerging from a pool the size of a small reservoir in plaid swim trunks from Brooks Brothers, unable even at first glance to be mistaken for the white marble statues surrounding it, Ralph Wayvone Sr., caped himself with a towel stolen not that long ago from the Fairmont, ascending a short flight of steps, and stood looking out over a retaining wall that seemed in the morning fog to mark the edge of a precipice, or of the world. With only a few tree silhouettes, and both freeways and the El Camino Real miraculously silent ...." p. 92
Pynchon attacks the finality of biological death through strong and consistent doses of Kether among other things. How?
Wayvone = way v one = "way of one" in the abbreviated, phonetic style Pynchon uses throughout Vineland to express his more rustic characters' speech patterns; also v = The Hierophant as discussed earlier. Compare "way of one" with "try one," Tyrone Slothrop's first name anagram. Wayvone also sounds like "wavy one" which suggests the ubiquity of physical energy transmissions in waves. Note the allusion to the Hero in the quote.
The interpretation that one refers to Kether in this instance gets reinforced by reading the last 3 paragraphs of the chapter previous to the wedding scene in which Frensei Gates speculates on the nature of God and the World. On page 97, still at the wedding, we find a sentence that might also serve as a mission statement of sorts for Pynchon's writing or of a working mystic: "I'm a percussion person, my job is to take hard knocks and rude surprises, line 'em up in a row in some way folks can dance to ..." Vineland has two major Wayvone characters, Ralph Sr. and Ralph Jr., and three more minors one, Senior's wife, another son, and the daughter who is getting married.
Apart from the direct allusions to Richard Fariña's roadway accident mentioned, we find a few more references to driving too fast around curves sprinkled throughout the book. Perhaps the most revealing to Pynchon's state of mind at the time occurs on page 374 near the end:
"Out on those runs, speeding after moonset through the smell of the redwoods, with all the lights out, trying to sense among the different patches of darkness where the curves were, and what gear to be in for grades that were nearly impossible to see, bouncing along in a vintage Power Wagon, Zoyd from among somebody's collection of beat-up old 8-track tapes usually found himself listening to the Eagles' Greatest Hits, in particular "Take It to the Limit," basically his whole story these days, singing mournfully along, though obliged from time to time to interrupt himself as some new set of headlights appeared ..."
Vineland concludes on a very upbeat note, very life affirming. For me, it recalls the ending of Joyce's Ulysses with more subtle encoding. We have a "foreign magician and his blond tomato assistant" whose Act imitates a defiance of gravity and death. How Pynchon imitates this defiance in his writing is coded in the "Power Wagon" Zoyd drives in the last excerpt. Decoding this message requires reading the book and paying close attention. Here's a clue: check the behavior of the Thanatoid dogs and compare that to the last sentence in the book. Know that Pynchon was influenced by James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov (also strongly influenced by Joyce), and remain open to the possibility that Pynchon knows, or could invoke, some of Crowley's magick formulas as I've previously suggested.
William S. Burroughs famously said that he wrote himself out of the tragic black hole created by the accidental shooting death of his wife by his own hand. Could Pynchon, clearly influenced by Burroughs, intend his writing to do the same regarding the death of Fariña on a personal level and the suffering and death of War victims on a global scale?
In Lines of Flight, an abstruse commentary on Pynchon's oeuvre through the lens of Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida and other philosophers, Stefan Mattessich suggests that The Rocket can also be a metaphor for the writer's pen. This matches the correspondence of The Rocket with the Roman deity Mercury in the previous post. Mercury = the god of communication. The writer's pen adds and constructs the influence of Kether into Death's domain. Close examination will make this quite evident in the Vineland scenes quoted above.
The white rocket as a pen adding whiteness into the blackness of War, Death and human suffering to create a chiaroscuro effect.
The idea of the writer's pen becoming a magical implement creating new realities has precedence in Aleister Crowley's Magick in Theory and Practice. In the introduction to that book Crowley endeavors to systematize Magick in a similar way that Euclid did with Geometry, and Spinoza did with his philosophy in The Ethics. We find a definition of Magick in the first section of this Introduction, a postulate in the second section, and a series of theorems in the third. Nearly every one of these comes with a practical illustration.
is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.
(Illustration: It is my Will to inform the World of certain facts within my knowledge. I therefor take "magical weapons," pen, ink, and paper; I write incantations — these sentences — in the "magical language" i.e. that which is understood by the people I wish to instruct; I call forth "spirits," such as printers, publishers, booksellers, and so forth, and constrain them to convey my message to those people.
In this example, the Author makes explicit the magick inherent to the construction and dissemination of a book and stays silent regarding any effects the writing may have. My favorite anecdote of change brought about through writing occurred at the height of WWII when it appeared England would soon get overwhelmed by the forces of fascism. Aleister Crowley wrote a one page tract known today as the Rights of WoMan as an antifascist support of Liberty. After publishing and magically consecrating it, he sent it to every well-known person he knew well or had the address for. Ten days after publication, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor causing the U.S. to declare to war on Japan, Italy, and Nazi Germany, a pivotal point in the turning of the War. Admittedly, this event reads as circumstantial, we'll never know for sure if Crowley's literary ritual had anything to do with it, yet it does encourage similar experimentation in dire situations.
Some models in quantum physics may provide a material basis and explanation for how writing can help change the World. It appears easy to view Gravity's Rainbow as a kind of subatomic particle accelerator juxtaposed into an historical time and place. The characters serve as the subatomic particles while their connections and entanglements illustrate behavior in the quantum universe. The last time I heard Timothy Leary speak, at the Wetlands in New York in 1993, he urged everyone to "think of yourself as a quark," the fundamental unit of matter. He fleshes this position out in the article, Willam Gibson: Quark of the Decade originally published in Mondo 2000, now included in the book Chaos and Cyber Culture. To give you an idea:
Q. Who can explain these mysterious digital programs? Who can read us young, wanna-be quarks nice bedtime stories to make us feel secure about loosening up? Who can make us feel comfortable with the chaotic science of our wild times? Who can make us laugh at the structures crumbling before our eyes in Einstein smiles because relativity and the fractal natures of the running programs are always funny? (Why? Because they surprise us.) Who will get us giggling like shocked schoolkids at the facts of life? Who will tickle us with accurate disorder?
A. The artists-poets-musicians-storytellers. The popularizers of quantum linguistics.
Anyone who has read GR will likely recognize it in this question. It certainly appears full of surprises with tons of humor including slapstick. Leary goes on to call Thomas Pynchon the greatest and last of the "quantum linguists." (We do not use the nervous term "science fiction" to describe the quantum-science writers.) Murray Gell-Mann, the physicist who first postulated the existence of quarks, found the word in Finnegans Wake; another example of how writing changes the world we live in and how we see it. Finnegans Wake had a significant influence on Gravity's Rainbow.
Pynchon may have found the title to his book in science literature:
Gravity's rainbow is a theory that arose from attempts by physicists to generate a "theory of everything," or a theory of the universe that unites quantum mechanics and general relativity.
This theory holds that different wavelengths of light have different measures of gravity and are separated in the same way a prism splits white light into the different frequencies of the rainbow. It doesn't require much imagination to see how this applies to the book of the same name.
A talking head in A Journey into the Mind of P likens the In the Zone section to a "quantum subatomic smasher" with Slothrop "wormholing his way around it.
"He entered a brick labyrinth that had been a harmonica factory. Splashes of bell-metal lay forever unrung in the factory dirt. Against a high wall that had recently been painted white, the shadows of horses and their riders drummed. Sitting, watching, from workbenches and crates, were a dozen individuals Squalidozzi recognized right away as gangsters. Cigar-ends glowed, and molls whispered back and forth in German. The men ate sausages, ripping away the casings with white teeth, well cared for, that flashed in the light of the movie. ... Crowned window frames gave out on the brick courtyard where summer air moved softly. The filmlight flickered blue across empty windows as if it were breath trying to produce a note. The images grew blunt with vengeance. "Yay!" screamed all the zoosters, white gloves bouncing up and down. Their mouths and eyes were as wide as children's.
... For days, as it turned out, the gangsters had known Squalidozzi was in the neighborhood; they could infer to his path, though he himself was invisible to them, by the movements of the police which were not. Blodgett Waxwing —for it was he—used the analogy of a cloud chamber, and the vapor trail a high-speed particle leaves ...
"I don't understand."
"Not sure I do either, pal. But we have to keep our eye on everything, and right now all the hepcats are going goofy over something called 'nuclear physics.'"
- Gravity's Rainbow, p. 391
Much photon movement in the first paragraph.
To be continued ...