The first novel by Thomas Pynchon weaves a labyrinthine mystery centered on the letter V. No one can definitely pinpoint who or what V specifically represents, or even if it indicates a person, place or thing. Pynchon gives the sense and meaning of V multiple different expressions with varying degrees of explicit and implicit levels of significance. We don’t get a single explanation of exactly what V. represents. This changing, shapeshifting network of interconnected resonances and perspectives anticipates Deleuze and Guattari – V. doesn’t have an arborescent final form to lock into, rather the narrative development behaves in the fashion of a rhizome: a creative process with no hierarchy or central organizing principal.
We’ll examine the esoteric side of the mystery. In my Gravity’s Rainbow essay, I speculated that the search for V reflected Pynchon’s quest to claim the post and function as a Hierophant, that archetypal constellation that communicates the secrets of the Temple. In other words, Pynchon’s desire to be a great writer, a literary genius. From the little I’ve read of his biography, it appears that, much like Jack Kerouac, he had that passion and drive to begin claiming the destiny of a great writer at a young age. He was only 24 when V. was first published.
This speculation arose before I had read V. to confirm this bias for myself. Having read it, I must modify this postulate. It appears that Pynchon aims to draw the reader into this (alchemical) conspiracy. Meaning, he wants to show the willing reader how to recognize those communications, the secrets of the Temple, in order that they may find spiritual instruction and inspiration wherever they may be, not necessarily, or only from any kind of authority figure. How to find infinity in every grain of sand. How to recognize angelic communication in the events of everyday life.
Evidence for the Hierophantic aspect of V. comes swiftly with the very first mention of it in the novel:
Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead turning everybody’s face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars.
- V. p. 11 (perennial Edition 1990)
Note: SP = Shore Patrol.
Mercury represents the archetype of communication, among other things, thus relates very much to the Hierophant. Going further: most esoteric data comes from points east relative to the American/European culture. It’s dark, i.e. strange and unknown … and there are no bars – no restrictions for this kind of information.
A few pages later, a scene gives a hint about learning to read these signs for ourselves, to begin learning pattern recognition.
Beer had soaked down most of the sawdust behind the bar: skirmishes and amateur footwork were scribbling it into alien hieroglyphics. - V. p. 17
Learning to recognize patterns seems a recurring theme in Pynchon’s books. All his novels have a distinct didactic quality of an esoteric, or spiritual nature. One strata of Pynchon’s oeuvre appears intent to communicate instructions for freeing oneself from the robot mind and mechanical, reactive life; and what Nietzsche calls ressentiment. The feeling that you always play a victim at the whims and mercy of external forces.
The program Pynchon follows aligns closely with the current presented by Aleister Crowley and cohorts. Crowley, of course, anointed Horus the reigning deity of these times. Pynchon doesn’t wait long to invoke Horus in his writing, page 74 of his first novel.
“’My God’ from Goodfellow. They looked up to see, materialized behind them. An emaciated figure in an evening dress whose head appears to be that of a netted sparrow-hawk. The head guffawed, retaining its fierce expression. Victoria bubbled over in a laugh.
‘It’s Hugh!’ she cried, delighted.
‘Indeed,’ came a hollow voice from inside somewhere.
‘Hugh Bongo-Shaftsbury,’ said Goodfellow, ungracious.
‘Harmachis.’ Bongo-Shaftsbury indicated the ceramic hawk’s head.
‘God of Heliopolis and chief deity of Lower Egypt. Utterly genuine this: a mask, you know, used in the ancient rituals’ He seated himself next to Victoria. Goodfellow scowled.
‘Literally Horus on the horizon, also represented as a lion with the head of a man. Like the Sphinx.”
The influence of James Joyce on Pynchon seems well established, we may recognize the puns in this dialogue … "My God" and "Hugh" = you. Diving deeper for an interpretation of “Bongo-Shaftsbury”:
Bongo = B + on + go; Shaftsbury connects with Crowley’s N.O.X. formula for the production of a male lesbian. Since Pynchon’s construction resembles more of a rhizome proliferation than a specific arborescent form, we can’t stay absolutely certain of this interpretation and must allow the possibility of others. For instance, take the paradoxical phrase, “Utterly genuine this: a mask …” and/or Bongo-Shaftsbury = BS = belief system and/or bullshit. It remains unknown if Pynchon reveals sources and an ideology, or if he simply hopes to pull the reader’s leg. This art of the put on, or not, perfectly resonates with contemporary schools that demand the student to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
Another occult, yet completely out in the open way (like Poe’s The Purloined Letter) V. aligns with the Horus (93) current appears in the book’s title and thus in the header of every other page in the book. A basic introductory formula representing the work of the Golden Dawn/A.’.A.’. finds itself in the 5 = 6 formula where 5, the pentagram, symbolizes WoMan while 6, the hexagram, symbolizes God realization. The equals sign symbolizes Will in that formula. This formula represents the work of transformation. The title of Pynchon’s V. includes the letter V followed by a period as if V stood for someone or something’s initial letter. V = the sign for the Roman numeral that represents 5 in our common Arabic numeration. The single period after V when added to 5 = 6. From the occult perspective, the title V. signifies the 5 = 6 formula, plain and simple. This trope, appearing wherever you open the book, seems like the ringing of a bell or, in Gurdjieff/Ouspensky terms, sounding the initial “doh,” the first note of the octave. As if to confirm this hypothesis, in the very first paragraph of V. we get the phrase: “… and five or six seamen apprentice were standing around giving encouragement.”
V. and Death
A cardinal point of the 93 current concerns surviving the death of the physical shell and the permanent death of the ego/personality complex. Does consciousness have the capability to survive death? The Book of the Law answers in the affirmative as does Tibetan Buddhists and V. The following quote seems opaque yet it communicates profound data about surviving death:
“The lady V., one of them for so long, now found herself suddenly excommunicated; bounced unceremoniously into the null-time of human love, without having recognized the exact moment as any but when Melanie entered a side door to Le Nerf on Porcepic’s arm and time – for awhile– ceased.
… If V. suspected her fetishism at all to be part of any conspiracy leveled against the animate world, any sudden establishment here of a Kingdom of Death, then this might justify the opinion held in the Rusty Spoon that Stencil was seeking in her his own identity. But such was her rapture at Melanie’s having sought and found her own identity in her and in the mirror’s soulless gleam that she continued unaware, off-balanced by love; forgetting that even though the Distribution of Time here on pouf, bed and mirrors had been abandoned, their love was in its way only another version of tourism; for as tourists bring into the world as it has evolved part of another, and eventually create a parallel society of their own in every city, so the Kingdom of Death is served by fetish-constructions like V.’s, which represent a kind of infiltration.” V. p. 409, 411
This is a fragment from a larger section about a woman named Victoria who “was gradually being replaced by V.” The Rusty Spoon is the name of a bar. Stencil is the name of the character searching for V., so a stand-in for the author if the theory holds that the search for V., in the broadest sense, represents a search for the Hierophantic post. If true, then Stencil seeking in V. his own identity, seems revealing for Pynchon. I’ll leave the rest to the reader’s detective skills. This passage seems profound to me and resonates with everything I’ve learned on the subject.
V. ends with the death of Sidney Stencil, the previously mentioned Stencil’s father and the one who wrote of V. in his journal which set his son in motion for the search. There is no actual direct mention of human death in the last paragraph, but you know that happened. V. begins with the words “Christmas Eve," the day before the symbolic birth of Jesus Christ, the leading advertisement for the death/rebirth, transformation into godhead schtick. In this way, the end of V. connects with the beginning in James Joyce, Finnegans Wake fashion, a technique Pynchon uses more than once in his subsequent books. Pynchon telegraphs the circular nature of the book at the start of the final paragraph:
“Draw a line from Malta to Lampedusa. Call it a radius. Somewhere in that circle, on the evening of the tenth, a waterspout appeared and lasted fifteen minutes…”
You can also see something by considering the phonetics and associative puns with Malta and Lampedusa, another Joycean technique.
The first event in the book is Benny Profane going into a bar called the Sailor’s Grave. It doesn’t take long for Pynchon to make a corny pun about having one foot in the Grave. There isn’t one, or two, but three women named Beatrice who work at the Sailor’s Grave. Pynchon quickly takes up the didactic hierophantic role and makes his qabala patently obvious:
“Beatrice,” said Beatrice. Beatrice being another barmaid. Mrs. Buffo, owner of the Sailor’s Grave, whose first name was also Beatrice, had a theory that just as small children call all females mother, so sailors, in their way equally as helpless, should call all barmaids Beatrice.”
Beatrice, of course, is the name of the Guide who shows Dante the way into Paradisio, the beatific vision, in the Divine Comedy – the classic journey through the Underworld adventure.
The Beatrice, Great Mother as Guide motif gets implied differently in the very last phrase of the book, a beautiful send-off. The final paragraph of V. has one of the most elegant death scenes in the history of literature. A freak event in the ocean, a waterspout, lifts the sailboat fifty feet in the air before slamming it back into the ocean which “showed nothing at all of what came to lie beneath, that quiet June day.” The month of June derives its name from Juno, the Roman Goddess of love and marriage. Coincidentally, Juno is the name of a Guide, or as they say “caseworker” in the bardo classic Beetlejuice. In that film, she incarnates as an unsentimental, crusty old battle axe, with short, matter-of-fact, excellent course advice for anyone dead or alive.
There exist a set of postures in the Golden Dawn called the INRI signs. In one reading, INRI, the letters nailed above Christ at the Crucifixion, represents the cycle of I = Life, N = Death, R = Resurrection, I = new Life. See Masks of the Illuminati by Robert Anton Wilson for an excellent analysis of that formula. The Golden Dawn sign in the series, the one for “N = Death,” has the practitioner holding their arms up in the shape of a V.
V. Represents Who or What???
This mystery at the core of the book receives many different answers, inferences and conjectures throughout the course of the novel. Candidates include a few different women with names beginning with V., the capital of Malta, Valetta, a jazz club called the V-Note frequented by the Whole Sick Crew, and even a rat named Veronica. In one way, the book appears a qabalistic study on the letter V from a multiplicity of different angles including things that make the shape of a V:
“As spread thighs are to the libertine, flights of migratory birds to the ornithologist, the working part of his tool bit to the production machinist, so was the letter V to young Stencil. He would dream perhaps once a week that it had all been a dream, and that now he’s awaken to discover the pursuit of V. was merely a scholarly quest after all, an adventure of the mind in the tradition of The Golden Bough or The White Goddess.”
– V. p. 61
That is the beginning of Chapter Three. Pynchon, again makes the qabalah correspondence to Binah extremely obvious. This technique is called iso-magnification – taking one area from The Tree of Life and highlighting and examining it. In V., Pynchon does this with the number 3, possibly partly in homage to Dante Alighieri who used the symbolism of the Trinity extensively in The Divine Comedy.
Reading V. has the effect of considering hitherto unnoticed images that pop up in the environment. For instance, the V for Victory sign, reputedly given to Winston Churchill by Aleister Crowley to counteract the magical symbolism of the Nazi swastika. Indeed, one manifestation of V. in the book is a woman named Victoria. The first day I began reading V. I saw someone with a huge V on their oversize t-shirt at the gym. Later I discovered: “V.’s the country of coincidence, ruled by a ministry of myth.” (p.450) This also happens to accurately describe the Bardo, the Land of the Dead, the space of choice-points.
That same day, I noticed that my gym trainer draws hearts, to delineate cardio exercises, that strongly resembled a V. V as the heart. This bias gets confirmed on the first page (and elsewhere) with an old street singer singing:
Every night is Christmas Eve on old East Main
Sailors and their sweethearts all agree …
A location vying for the role of V., the previously mentioned capital of Malta, Valletta, fits that interpretation. Val can signifies the heart, being short for Valentine. Chapter 16 is titled Valletta and begins: “Now there was a sun-shower over Valletta, and even a rainbow." 16 denotes the key number for the path on the Tree of Life corresponding with the Hierophant.
More obvious qabalah: Chapter 14 V. in Love. 14 = the path of Venus, the Goddess of Love.
Some advanced qabalah: the first character we meet, one of the main ones, is Benny Profane. Pynchon always has interesting names for his characters and more often than not, packs the main ones with delicious qabalistic delicacies. The book starts: "Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane …" then describes what he’s wearing, where he is and what he’s going to do. Benny = Ben + e, sounding it phonetically. Ben = 57, see Chapter 57 in The Book of Lies for how that connects with Christ – not necessarily Jesus, rather the post or place of Christ shown as the Rosy Cross. The letter e = The Star (tarot). Looked through that lens, the word Eve acquires more significance – a letter v with an e on each side. Profane = Pro + f + ane. Pro = professional; f = a stand-in for v, both letters correspond to the Hebrew letter vau which = The Hierophant (tarot); ane = 56 = Nuit which resonates with both Beatrice and Juno, see above and also Chapter 56 in The Book of Lies: f + ane = 62 = Healing. In Chapter 62 from the always truthful Book of Lies, Crowley connects the number with his ritual The Mass of the Phoenix, making another connection with the death/rebirth cycle.
V. comprises two general areas of characters and stories set in different eras. The contemporary one, beginning in 1955, tells of the adventures of a group of eccentric friends known as the Whole Sick Crew. The historical one starts sometime around the turn of the XXth Century and goes as late as just after WWII though it also jumps around in time. The book ends in 1919. Some of the characters from the two time streams overlap. The Whole Sick Crew recalls the Sufi blasphemy J.G. Bennett wrote about at the beginning of Gurdjieff: Making A New World that basically says the powers-that-be made a mistake with the Creation. Gurdjieff elaborates this idea much more in All and Everything. Whole Sick Crew, in the esoteric sense, could indicate the crew that helps heal the sickness of the whole. In other circles, this gets framed as alleviating the suffering of the Absolute. Gurdjieff called it The Work.
I have barely scratched the surface of the multiplicity of V. and its esoteric transmission.
I have barely scratched the surface of the multiplicity of V. and its esoteric transmission.