Gravity's Rainbow | Critical Essay by Kathryn Hume

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Gravity's Rainbow.
This section contains 4,090 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Kathryn Hume

SOURCE: "Gravity's Rainbow: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Mythology," in Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, pp. 190-200.

In the following essay, Hume explores the intersection of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology in Gravity's Rainbow.

Gravity's Rainbow has been hailed by John Brunner as an "incontestably science-fictional retrospective parallel world," (that is, an alternate wartime London); also, by Geoffrey Cocks as the Miltonic epic of science fiction that "has taken science/speculative fiction beyond the genre's limits into metaphysics, metapsychology, and cosmology." It has also been identified as gothic, as encyclopedic, and as various kinds of satire or anatomy. I am particularly sympathetic to the desire of some critics to claim Gravity's Rainbow for science fiction, because so little mainstream fiction engages with science in any significant way, and because the identification would perhaps attract more attention from the academy for that uncanonical literature. However, the problems of defining science fiction complicate the ascription, and any single label blinds us to the generic interactions within this maverick work. I would prefer to work with a broader palette of terms when trying to describe the experience that is Gravity's Rainbow, and would like to focus on the interrelationships between three: science fiction, fantasy, and mythology. (In no way do these three exhaust the generic possibilities.)

I am going to argue that Pynchon draws on science and contributes to science fiction by creating a fictive analogue to the post-Newtonian universe, and he forces us to consider probabilistic and uncertain realities in a way that we normally avoid, even if we are aware of the implications of contemporary science. However, it is not science, but rather his arsenal of fantasy techniques that allows him to create this fictive analogue to scientific reality—each one of those techniques flagrantly nonrational and nonrealistic. Counterpointing the fantasy and science fiction is a traditional yet technological mythology, through whose repetitions, oppositions, and mediations we can find some of Pynchon's values, including a modified hero monomyth. Let me fill in this picture—the three generic forces interacting—and then consider briefly the implications to questions of definition and canon.

Since our society is fundamentally technological rather than scientific, contemporary non-Newtonian science has had remarkably little effect on our everyday thinking about life. The ten or eleven dimensions now favored by cosmologists rarely impinge on our consciousness. Reality, for us, is the stone that hurts our foot when we kick it; our assumptions do not reach to empty space, interrupted here and there by atoms, let alone to the energies which make up those atoms. All our normal assumptions about what is real are, as Rosemary Jackson puts it, bourgeois categories of the real. They assert the nature of reality in terms of practical material concerns, quite regardless of any insight or contradictory evidence available through science or philosophy.

Science fiction has done relatively little with the implications of non-Newtonian science in everyday life. When black holes turn up as grist for the story mill, they are often hunted down and captured for commercial purposes; the unimaginable is thus domesticated and made normal. Uncertainty in most science fiction is usually confined to our not knowing in detail how the story will come out. Unknowability does appear in Lem's Solaris, for instance, but most science fiction is predicated on the mysteries of the physical universe proving knowable. As Gary K. Wolfe puts it, these stories celebrate our turning chaos into cosmos by means of scientific method. Uncertainty, unknowability, and other aspects of nonmechanical physics are usually ornamental, if present at all, in much science fiction.

Pynchon creates a world in which some subatomic characteristics of reality are dealt with at the level of everyday life. Pseudo-Heisenbergian uncertainty bedevils the main characters, but even more important, it constrains the readers. We cannot know some things. Contradictory evidence is given, and at best we can work out some sort of probabilistic and nonvalidatable answer. Slothrop is convinced that he was conditioned to the smell of Imipolex G, though he and we know that it was not invented, or at least not patented, until 1939. Gottfried, too, impossibly knows that smell from his childhood. Slothrop's sexual adventures at sites soon to be blasted by V-2s cannot be explained by normal science, and we are left wondering just what, if any, is the relationship between these parallel series displayed on identical maps. The existence of "Them" is undeterminable. The novel's many paranoids detect multitudinous plots, but readers cannot verify the reality of those conspiracies.

What Pynchon creates is a fictional analogue to the post-Newtonian universe. We and his characters have to operate in his world as if such subatomic constraints as uncertainty and complementarity could operate at the quotidian level. If we really worried about the implications of the new science or philosophy, we might not make many casual assumptions about reality, such as the existence of cause and effect, or the communicability of anything. Pynchon helps us experience a world in which it is a survival factor to be aware of such unsettling possibilities and shape one's actions to this new, nonbourgeois reality.

Contrary to the assumptions of some literary critics, however, his is not scientifically a non-Newtonian world. There is no way that even his characters worry about determining the momentum and location of an electron at the same time for everyday living. One might call Pynchon's a parallel universe in which subatomic irrationalities become quotidian, rather than a direct translation of science into life; more accurately, however, I think one can say that his is a philosophical universe, and that he is using science as a structural metaphor to embody and reinforce the philosophical principles. I would argue that Pynchon's cosmos is not intended as an alternative to wartime London (in a Moorcock sense—as Brunner claims), nor as an alternate reality based directly on scientific theory. Rather Gravity's Rainbow is science fiction in the metaphorical manner of "Heat Death of the Universe," and as a celebration of technology, however ambivalent that celebration may be.

In order to create this fictive analogue to the universe that science gives us, Pynchon relies on fantasy techniques. To create a world scientifically and philosophically more real than our bourgeois reality, he resorts to what we would usually call the nonreal and nonrational, elements we would normally label fantastic.

To begin with, Pynchon establishes that his is a pluriverse, a realm of multiple realities which cannot be put in a hierarchy from the more to the less believable or real. Until physicists arrive at a satisfactory Grand Unification Theory, we are in approximately that position of being unable to unify multiple realities, but we don't worry because it doesn't affect our getting three square meals a day. Pynchon presents us with multiple realities that one does have to deal with, and leaves us to cope with the influx of data rendered nonclassifiable by such plurality.

One of his realities is that generated by dream: the book starts with an imagistic but apparently realistic sequence during the Blitz in London, only to be relabeled as Pirate Prentice's dream after we have oriented ourselves in this carefully-visualized reality, which includes such loving detail as the old-fashioned style of pulley wheel with S-shaped spokes.

Drugs also blur the lines we normally maintain between reality and fantasy. Parts of Slothrop's sodium amytal vision are documentable (indeed, the details come from Malcolm X's autobiography). But Slothrop's malaise with blacks becomes a fantasy of sodomy, and he struggles to elude this fate by diving down the toilet bowl. His subsequent trip down the sewer never explicitly ends. Both Pirate's dream and Slothrop's drug-vision are open-ended, thus erasing our guidelines to reality and making a statement about what comes afterward. The rest of the novel is in a sense an extension of the V-2 bombings, and Slothrop's excremental vision is symbolically the future his Harvard classmates will have to face, in which their WASP reality is shattered and they will be known not by family names or money, but by the kind of shit they produce.

Pynchon also destabilizes our novelistic ontology through a technique that Brian McHale calls attention to. Many characters map onto each other, and most map onto Slothrop at some point. A vivid example of such peculiar cross-overs occurs between Slothrop and Gottfried. Gottfried ends up riding in the V-2, which we might have expected to be Slothrop's fate, given his "precognitive" attraction to these rockets and his quest for their secrets. As Gottfried snuggles down in his Imipolex G insulation, the narrative voice remarks: "The soft smell of Imipolex, wrapping him absolutely, is a smell he knows. It doesn't frighten him. It was in the room when he fell asleep so long ago, so deep in sweet paralyzed childhood." But it is Slothrop who was apparently exposed in infancy to Imipolex G by its creator, Laszlo Jamf. As if this exchange of childhoods weren't enough, Slothrop experiences Gottfried's take-off in the rocket. When making love to Bianca, he starts to experience his own orgasm as if he were within his own cock, about to be launched: "his sperm roaring louder and louder, getting ready to erupt, somewhere below his feet […] an extraordinary sense of waiting to rise […] their own flood taking him up then out of his expectancy, out the eye at the tower's summit and into her with a singular detonation of touch. Announcing the void, what could it be but the kingly voice of the Aggregat [that is, the V-2] itself." Thus, in fantasy, the two men exchange places, and destroy our readerly assumptions about individuals as entities with well-defined limits.

Pynchon also creates fantastic vantage points to disorient us. We see a Pavlovian lab, and suddenly find ourselves in among the rats, who are grown to human size and who sing a beguine. At another point, we overhear skin cells in our own bodies parodying World War I heroics as they talk of "going epidermal," and facing the deadly ultraviolet radiation. Or we find ourselves in a future where men with machines can monitor stray thoughts of members of a crowd.

All of these manifestations of the fantastic reinforce messages Pynchon gives us at other levels. The world he describes is the world of modern science, philosophy, and language theory—the world of Heisenberg, Nietzsche, and Saussure. This fashionable negativity is what has most attracted the attention of critics. Indeed, they focus so exclusively on this void containing both nothingness and infinite possibility that they have almost entirely overlooked Pynchon's stabilizing mythology, so let me turn to it next.

"A mythological universe," remarks Northrop Frye, "is a vision of reality in terms of human concerns and anxieties." He points out the tendency of myths to aggregate into mythological universes, and offers the Bible as the prime Western example. Pynchon's mythological universe certainly takes some of its form from the biblical prototype. The paradise is America as virgin continent; the fall is the inability of the settlers to live within the cycles of nature, their choice of what became technology and capitalism; Gottfried's ascent in the rocket corresponds to the crucifixion as central symbol of violence; and there are allusions to several possible futures, all apocalyptic in the sense of being both destructive and revelatory. With appropriate modifications, Pynchon tells this linear tale of origins-to-apocalypse at four levels: for Western technological civilization; for Tyrone Slothrop; for the V-2; and for the history of technology.

I believe this can be called mythographic writing: first, because it works to fill the ontological gap between event and meaning, between our absent origin and the meaning of our place in the world; second, because it explains the world in human terms, measures it in human values (Northrop Frye); third, because of the archetypal nature of the major units of this symbolic history; and fourth, because it both shows us the shortcomings of the myths of our culture and manages to suggest the values that will have to supervene if we are to survive in a post-Newtonian, post-Darwinian world. Pynchon's four strands of story add up to a complex account of Western civilization and the danger it is approaching, namely immachination, or marriage between man and the machine. (Let me remind you that Pynchon explores a related theme in his first novel, V., namely, the process by which animate flesh and spirit become inanimate, a process he represents symbolically by having V replace more and more parts of her body with mechanical prostheses.)

The mythology is not just a symbolic story line; it embraces Pynchon's entire cosmos. His world is mythic: directions like south and north have meanings. Illuminations and breakthroughs, partial though they usually are, take place in high places, or in the depths, or in wastelands. The Other Side, a pastiche of otherworlds from several traditions—insists not so much on the reality of its own details as on the existence of something beyond material reality. Pynchon's world is inhabited by more entities than is ours—the omnipresent Them; angels (Moslem, Rilkean, Kabbalistic, and the Angel of Death); the Titans; Pan. It lacks a benevolent deity and exhibits a bias toward the demonic, but is quite as much a mythological world as that in the Bible.

Let me sketch briefly the contents of Pynchon's mythology, and then sum up what Edmund Leach's structuralist approach to myth can tell us about this literary mythology. Then we will be in a position to see how this stabilizing pattern interacts with all of Pynchon's aggressively destabilizing strategies linked to science and fantasy mentioned above.

The early stages involve America as a potential paradise for the death-oriented European cultures. The settlers fail to realize this potential, and Slothrop's ancestors, the patriarchs of this new world, decline from God-smitten Puritans to Yankee materialists dealing in paper—the medium for shit, money, and the Word. Parallels to this Europeanization of the American continent are alluded to in stories about Katje's ancestor on Mauretius, in tales of Tchitcherine's literacy campaign in the Russian steppes, and in references to Weissmann's colonialist exploits in Southwest Africa. As these cultures stamped from the European matrix develop, we also watch the development of various technologies—dyes and plastics and rocketry in particular. Franz Pökler sees the early firings of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, and takes part in the failures and advances of the A-2 and A-3 rockets. That the plastics and the V-2 take on mythic values is obvious in the way that the rocket draws first blood, lives on the lives of those dedicated to it. Similarly, the plastic Imipolex G is semialive, erectile.

World War II coincides with the New Testament of this mythology. In a heavily mythological passage reeking of ritual sacrifice, we see Gottfried's wedding to the rocket, his immachination, which is made literally a wedding, with "bridal costume," "white satin slippers," "white stockings" a "bridal" room, careful physical mating, a pressure switch that is the clitoris of the V-2. When Pynchon used the term immachination earlier, he shows us another form of the hybridization of man and machine, a futuristic space helmet: "The eye-sockets are fitted with quartz lenses. Filters may be slipped in. Nasal bone and upper teeth have been replaced by a metal breathing apparatus, full of slots and grating. Corresponding to the jaw is a built-up section, almost a facial codpiece, of iron and ebonite, perhaps housing a radio unit, thrusting forward in black fatality." Such Darth Vader suits will be worn in the high tech future in a society governed by the "Articles of Immachination." The rocket limericks that follow this future fantasy celebrate man's mating with machines in yet another mode. The theme surfaces in another strand of the plot, for Enzian supposedly had "a wet dream where he coupled with a slender white rocket." Plasticman, the hero of the comic Slothrop enjoys, and Rocketman, the persona he adopts, also embody variants of man united with technology. Whereas the central death in Christianity supposedly promises an end to death, immachination ultimately promises an end to life as we know it. Human life will depend on the machine for continuance, as happens in space, for instance, where one must abide by the rules and limitations of the machine or die. Or man and machine will perish together in the Liebestod of rocket falls.

The apocalyptic ends are only alluded to, but Pynchon does sketch four, all sharing the feature that man lives and dies by his technology; he is no longer separate or separable. Immachination in space is one. Rocket-borne war is another. The future (almost our present) of multinational corporations and of Them might be called the 1984-version of our future, with its elite and its helpless preterite. The web of control exercised by I. G. Farben and its present-day counterparts, is real enough. A minor figure suggests that "Once the technological means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good." Pynchon also alludes in passing to what might be called a Brave New World-form of the future. The City, as it is called, is a living complex based on verticality, with elevators whose interiors are more like courtyards, with their flowersellers and fountains. There, uniformed, good-looking young women, "well-tutored in all kinds of elevator lore," refuse to answer questions about such taboo subjects as the Rocket, and the narrative voice alludes to social repression. This vision of the future is followed by a description of a Hitler Youth Glee Club, reminding us of the polished orderliness that was one of the Hitlerian ideals, and which is a powerful force in this City of the future, and in Brave New World. Other writers to explore this kind of dystopian future include Zamiatin, We; Vonnegut, Player Piano; and Levin, This Perfect Day. All show worlds in which poverty and material suffering have been reduced to negligible levels, only to leave other, more hopeless suffering, the more complete damnation of the preterite because they are inferior to machines. Such worlds find humanity acceptable only to the degree that it can become machine-like.

Turning from general history to an individual, we see the origins-to-apocalypse of Tyrone Slothrop. His ancestors, the patriarchs of the new era, fill us in on the development of Yankee know-how, capitalism, and the exploitation of the new continent. Slothrop himself is conditioned as a baby to respond sexually to a mystery stimulus (that he later concludes must have been Imipolex G). Sexual conditioning to a product of technology puts in symbolic terms Western man's fascination and obsession with his own technological creations. Slothrop is later crammed with rocket information, and goes in quest of V-2s. In the course of his search, he does indeed find the Mittelwerke where they were assembled, and Peenemünde, the "Holy Center" of rocket technology, but like Parsifal, he fails to ask the right questions, and does not reach true insight at the birth-place of the rocket. As Technological Man, or even The American, Slothrop's end is particularly interesting, for Pynchon imagines him as becoming briefly a vatic harmonica-Orpheus in the Zone, who ultimately disintegrates. His sparagmos is appropriately orphic, but this loss of identity and then of substance for Technological Man seems to suggest either that man as individual will similarly disintegrate when wedded to the machine, or that the only escape from immachination will be such total dismantling of the ego, or both. Whether you cooperate with the machine and power structure or oppose it, the end is the same. Life as we know it will disappear.

When we look at this mythological history, using Edmund Leach's basic characteristics of myth—redundancy, binary organization, and mediation—we find that they effectively point to the values the myth inculcates, and they show us how the myth works as a stabilizing structure amidst the uncertainty and unknowability set up by the fantasy and science. The process of applying Leach is long, so I can only summarize here a few of the results relating to redundancy.

Redundancies are seen most clearly when characters map onto each other, for they undergo the same experiences, share the same insights, and—usually—fail the same tests. Slothrop is the most heavily redundant character, in this sense; his actions help alert us to what to look for in the others. Among those shared experiences or characteristics most frequently found in the redundancies are:

(a) the shock of discovering a They-reality superimposed on our quotidian, material reality;

(b) the tantalizing awareness that higher illumination is possible, coupled with the failure to achieve the breakthrough;

(c) the desirability of becoming open to the Other Side;

(d) the development of a kind of flexibility to meet whatever improbability next appears;

(e) acceptance both of one's own preterition and one's death;

(f) the importance of kindness to ameliorate our preterite lot, and indeed a general shift from eros toward kindness;

(g) the need to avoid exerting control over others;

(h) the necessity of imposing some limits on one's own freedom in order to survive and be part of a social complex, but the desirability of not letting these limits multiply and become tyrannic bonds; and

(i) the need to recognize that we have fallen into time and cannot go back to living within a totally renewable cycle of nature, and must therefore make intelligent choices when we reach the cusps that history offers us.

What emerges from looking at the myth in modified structuralist ways is, in part, a new hero monomyth, or new concept of the individual and that individual's pattern of development. Given Western assumptions—including our rather inflamed egos and romantic concepts of the individual—we are likely to find Pynchon's alternative pattern spineless and shiftless. Within the new pattern, there is none of the respect which we shower on certain obsessions (for knowledge, money, material possessions, power, persuasiveness, competitiveness, and the like). They belong to the elect, not the preterite. In essence, Pynchon seems to be arguing that even survival values are changing, that flexibility and openness are more valuable than aggressive self-interest if the species (as opposed to the individual) is to survive; that whatever nature may be, man had better not be red in tooth and claw, or the result will be the stockpiling of means of death, the ICBMs of today, made possible by the V-2s.

Without wishing to belittle Pynchon in the least, I think him more traditional and less deconstructive than do most other critics. All the fantastic effects that destabilize novelistic ontology are there to create the fictive embodiment of the new cosmos we must face, the cosmos of modern science, philosophy, and language theory; of uncertainty, unknowability, of arbitrary relationships, and ultimate incommunicability.

Generically, we have the interplay of one kind of science fiction (science as metaphor) with fantasy. The technologically oriented mythology is another kind of science fiction, however, that functions to give warning, and to suggest possible ways of changing so that we could survive in the new cosmos. Particularly in its apocalyptic arguments, it reflects the dystopian strain in science fiction. We also have the science-fictional theme of man's relationship to the machine. The celebration of technology reflects yet another branch of science fiction. And some of the values that emerge from the mythology are the values Pynchon seems to feel we need to live in a post-Newtonian, post-Darwinian world, which amounts to a kind of moral-scientific speculation.

In conclusion. I'm not sure that in most literary analyses we should even think of reducing any complex work to a single generic label. Yes, Gravity's Rainbow is science fiction—by several definitions if not by all—but to have called it science fiction, or fantasy, or mythological literature, and to have limited oneself to the insights available through one of those perspectives, would have distorted our understanding of what it achieves. Even limiting the discussion to these three genres is unwarrantable. In addition to casting doubt on the wisdom of such labels (except to use them as a temporary tool or starting point), this experience with Gravity's Rainbow suggests the usefulness of our defining science fiction as a family of related but competing literary strains, (as Michael McClintock argues elsewhere in this volume) rather than our trying to create a single exclusive definition. We can define science fiction in an exclusive and limiting fashion—be it as cognitive novum, or as informed extrapolation based on firm knowledge of science, or celebration of ritual transformation of chaos into cosmos via scientific ritual, or as investigation of human interaction with technology. But any such unitary definition is likely to distort our reading of any one work—if we try to apply the definition with any seriousness.

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Critical Essay by Kathryn Hume from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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