Gravity's Rainbow | Critical Essay by Kathryn Hume

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Gravity's Rainbow.
This section contains 4,652 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Kathryn Hume

SOURCE: "Repetition and the Construction of Character in Gravity's Rainbow," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 243-54.

In the following essay, Hume considers mythographic, modernist, and postmodern aspects of Pynchon's characters in Gravity's Rainbow. According to Hume, the novel's major characters are subjected to a common set of situations and relationships that reveal Pynchon's underlying humanism.

Thinness of character in Gravity's Rainbow disquiets even the book's partisans. Pynchon confounds us with an opulent Ulyssean world but denies us the filigrain complexity of Joyce's psychological portraits. Weissmann's squalid attempts to transcend, for instance, glisten darkly in the ashes of the Zone, but Pynchon does not ground that quest in the psyche of the individual—a puzzling failure by the standards of realistic literature.

Pynchon's admirers have tried to explain away this "fault" in two fashions. One consists of redefining the genre: if Gravity's Rainbow is a satire rather than a novel, argues Alfred MacAdam, we can expect flat figures. Much the same goes for calling it an encyclopedic narrative, a menippea, a jeremiad, or a gothic novel. The other consists of invoking postmodernism by any of several definitions. The intermapping between characters destroys conventional individuality (Brian McHale) or creates prismatic figures, without "core or identifiable inner self"—the absent center beloved of deconstructors (Carol Richer). Richer focuses on the dispatterned elements and ignores some obvious formal schemata. McHale notes the existence of repetitions that support his definition of postmodernism but pays no attention to those that build meaning in a conventional fashion. Without intending to attack critics who follow a postmodernist line, because I certainly accept their readings up to a point, I would like to focus on material that their assumptions necessarily obscure for them and their readers.

Through frequent repetition of certain situations and relationships, Pynchon subjects almost all of his characters to a fixed array of pressures. Major characters experience most of the possibilities; minor characters deal with fewer. Such repetition signals Pynchon's lack of interest in individuality. Within his aesthetics of character, individual variations are trivial when compared to the overwhelming problems facing everybody in his fictive universe.

Putting characters to the same tests makes sense if he wants to define some general features of human nature and renegotiate the terms of what it is to be human—normally the concerns of a mythographic writer. His situations and relationships introduce values and shed light on the question, "What is right action?"—again, a question basic to mythographically oriented works, an orientation that I have argued elsewhere to be relevant to Gravity's Rainbow. Generalizations about postmodernism have led critics to believe that Pynchon's vision is dehumanizing. His prominent use of repetition, however, has the potential to reinstate some values and to set boundaries to his particular form of postmodernism.

The repeated situations to be discussed represent a simplification of Pynchon's complexities. Having at one time traced and compared as many as thirty forms of repetition, I sought common denominators and reduced the variables to six, a manageable but admittedly arbitrary number. Each one exposes a character to an overlooked facet of reality or to our means of organizing such reality. The first two, (1) symbol systems and (2) the void, form an opposition. Symbol systems represent fundamental methods of ordering experience, whereas the void is that which cannot be ordered by such systems. The next two, (3) technology and science and (4) multiple realities, augment humanist, Western reality at both ends of the spectrum, the rational and the non-rational. The last two, (5) activity as game and (6) kindness, ask what human beings may be and what obligations we may have to them, given the nature of reality as defined in the other repeated situations. Establishing non-destructive relationships with other people is a major part of Pynchon's solution to the problems he poses, a significant component in the message of his mythology. After seeing the coherent power of these repetitions, we can return to the problem of how they and their implications relate to character construction and the postmodernism of Gravity's Rainbow.

Symbol systems. The presence of symbol systems in the novel has been frequently noted but not in relation to the formation of character. Pynchon reveals the power inherent in letters or numbers to his major figures. Tchitcherine is chagrined to discover that his life and happiness have been subordinated to letters by the powers-that-be: "all the Weird Letter Assignments have been reserved for ne'er-do-wells like himself." He notes the power of these letters in concatenations as religious texts and as anti-establishment graffiti. He realizes that the form taken by the letters used to transliterate the language of the Kirghiz tribes—Cyrillic, Arabic, or Roman—will channel their relationship to the world. For Enzian and Weissmann, the word is the basic unit, whether words of Rilke or of the African mythologies. Together they approach Absolute Presence, when "words are only an eye-twitch away from the things they stand for." Leni Pökler resists words as tools of political oppression: "'Mother,' that's a civil-service category, Mothers work for Them!" Roger Mexico learns to wield words with comic potency when he disrupts the banquet with his revolting alliterative menu, offerings such as booger biscuits spread with mucus mayonnaise and abortion aspic in dandruff dressing. Geli Tripping works magic with words of power.

Franz Pökler's symbols are mathematical; with numbers he can tame the terror of exponential curves and reduce the universe to our feeble human capacity to assimilate it. The bombs falling in London manifest the power of his calculations. Roger Mexico displays the power (and the impotence) of the Poisson distribution, in that he can predict rocket falls statistically but not individually. Pointsman revels in zeroes and ones, the elegant binary opposites that he expects to yield a perfectly mechanical explanation of life.

Slothrop's experience with verbal and numeric symbol systems is more diffuse than those just described but includes letters, words, and numbers. He tangles with single letters in Imipolex G. D wing, and stimulus x. Like his ancestors, he is "word-smitten." The numbers and letters of rocket equations give him erections. He chases the 00000. In addition, he is also exposed to secondary symbol systems: mandalas, chess as metaphor for life in the Zone, and the coercive force of heroic narrative. This last system of symbols causes him to plunge into personal danger because his Rocketman costume engenders powerful generic expectations in himself and others.

By confronting his characters with symbol systems, Pynchon makes them at least marginally aware of forces that control their lives. For most, however, awareness of primary symbol systems does not lead to decisive action, for few members of an advanced society would jettison the alphabet or numbers. However, if they recognize that they have been controlling others through these means, they try to repudiate such power. Roger admittedly uses alliterative words to manipulate the Elect, but Pynchon appears to condone this because his prank is explosive, dionysian, and self-consuming; the power could not readily be exercised over others not could Roger use it to overcome his present victims a second time. Enzian's mission of building a new mythic consciousness for his people forces him to use such verbal powers. His status as racial underdog wins reader sympathy, but he is likened to a lion, emblematic animal of the Elect, a suggestion that we should be wary of taking him as model for actions or values. The characters who use such power without scruple, Weissmann and Pointsman, provoke revulsion.

The void. The void and our symbol systems are naturally opposed. Whether the absence is the existentialist néant or the radiant void of mysticism, it is generally acknowledged to be ineffable, beyond the powers of mere words or numbers. Pynchon repeatedly exposes his characters to a nexus consisting of the void, silence, and illumination. This repetition functions in two fashions: it opens characters' minds to something beyond material reality and it demonstrates that symbols, for all their hidden coercive powers, are helpless to describe or tame or control this aspect of existence.

The void manifests itself in many forms. As vacuum, it threatens Pökler and encroaches upon Katje with Enzian. As silence, it is the Brennschluss of the sun, the stillness sensed at the Fair for double agents, the stillnesses of the Asian steppes, the stillness of a leaking toilet valve that signals a police raid. Stillnesses choke the narrative after Slothrop sees the Hiroshima headline. His harmonica blues fall silent. Pauses dominate melody in the quartet. Orpheus puts down harp.

As mystic void, we find it in Nora Dodson-Truck's experiences, in the spots on Tchitcherine's horse's hide, and in the Aqyn's song about the indescribable Kirghiz Light. Mystic vision is available to the major figures: Mondaugen in the Kalahari; Enzian near zero; Weissmann while firing the rockets; Slothrop at the Mittelwerke and Peenemünde. As Molly Hite has shown, Pynchon characters typically hover at the edges of illumination but fail to connect. Slothrop does manage to achieve one form of mystic consciousness as Zonal Orpheus, but can only express his feelings in wordless music.

When exposed to various voids, characters become aware that quotidian reality is bounded, as are our symbol systems. At the limits, something else commences. By repeating exposure to the void as a means of unfolding characters, Pynchon explores the gap between our ordinary reality and what our imagination yearns for. All the unobtainable, missing centers shed light on the limitations of our symbol systems and the reality they tame. As Charles Russell has remarked, the Fall from a paradise now lost is a fall into consciousness and into language.

Science and technology. When we come to science and technology and to multiple realities, we find Pynchon systematically augmenting the reality recognized by Western civilization. The Judeo-Christian-Hellenic tradition pays little attention to science or its implications. To that tradition, reality is something outside of human control. Hence, Pynchon's repeatedly linking characters to science or technology invites us to consider the often unacknowledged power of such forces within our lives. The relationship is sometimes metaphorical. For Tchitcherine, molecular chemistry is both an avocational interest (psychoactive drugs) and a figure expressing his way of life. He is "a giant supermolecule with so many open bonds available at any given time." As one of Tchitcherine's linguistic colleagues muses, molecules and alphabets are alike; letters can be modified and polymerized into texts.

For several characters, engagement with the sciences comes through mathematics. Katje, as intelligence agent, casually juggles the conversion factors between information and lives. She thinks of sex in terms of rocket trajectory equations. She is technically informed enough to test Slothrop on boundary layer temperatures. Nusselt heat-transfer coefficients, methods of computing Brennschluss, and jet expansion angles. Calculus lets Franz and Leni characterize experience. In Leni's case, calculus is her metaphor for trying to explain to Franz a world with multiple levels of reality. Roger Mexico operates as a statistician.

Enzian's metaphor is the atomic particle: "Well, I think we're here, but only in a statistical way." "Enzian would like […] to be able to see where it's going, to know, in real time, at each splitting of the pathway of decision, which would have been right and which wrong. But it is their time, their space […] each particle with its own array of forces and directions." This subatomic terminology also attaches to Squalidozzi, the Argentine Anarchist; although he has stayed invisible to the law, his trail is discernible, like "the vapor trail a high-speed particle leaves" in a cloud chamber.

In addition to such ornamental links to science, most characters maintain a professional bond with the Rocket. Mexico plots rocket-falls and becomes (in Jessica's eyes) a creepy creature of the rocket. Pointsman studies the fall in terms of Slothrop's amours. Pirate Prentice receives a "morning packet" in the rocket that landed in Greenwich. Katje spies on the crew that launches them, and Weissmann fires them personally, a perk he enjoys after having administered the rocket program throughout its troubled development. Franz Pökler and Kurt Mondaugen help make the Rocket possible: Leni protests against it; Ilsa dreams of going to the moon in it; and Gottfried ascends in it. Enzian, Tchitcherine, and Slothrop quest for the elusive missile.

The rocket's ubiquity marks Pynchon's concept of reality, for his is not just the humanist's world of character, education in past cultures, and moral choice. Reality is not something separate from human invention, but is itself created through our science and our other professional activities. The Rocket may have peaceful applications in space exploration, but its powers as a weapon hold the foreground, and the various futuristic Rocket-cities are not utopias.

By repeatedly showing his characters engaged in rocket-related work, Pynchon insists that we take our relationship with technology into account when defining humanity. Through the complicity of all these characters. Pynchon suggests that people are responsible on the individual as well as the national level for the developments of human and social reality. We create the world; we do not just live in it.

Multiple realities. Pynchon's presentation of humanity insists on science and technology as an inescapable factor, as something that cannot merely be ignored or deplored, as usually happens in humanist visions. In addition to technology, he insists upon another ignored feature of reality, namely, its multiplicity. He repeatedly exposes his characters to at least two dimensions of reality that transcend the quotidian. The first, which he generally calls the Other Side, features Angels, Titans, the sentient dead, and other supernatural presences. The second is the world of Them-with-a-capital-T. Many readers have commented on the role of Them in Gravity's Rainbow but have fastidiously passed over The Other Side despite its raucous demands for our attention.

The denizens of the Other Side are capable of penetrating our own. Angels enter the lives of Slothrop, Tchitcherine, Weissmann, and the fliers bombing Lübeck: furthermore they haunt the text in the name of a nightclub for Katje and Pirate and in the name of a snow game for Roger and Jessica. Titans and Pan are real for Katje and Geli. Moreover, the dead are curiously lively in this novel. By means of séances in Berlin and London, we see Weissmann, Enzian, Roger, Jessica, and Leni exposed at least tangentially to revenants. Slothrop generates his own in Nice. Pirate and Katje are haunted by Katje's long-dead ancestor Frans van der Groov. Enzian as a Herero may consider such contact with one's tribal dead ordinary, but Tchitcherine does not suffer gladly the twisted vision of his dead father.

Besides these loosely classifiable forms of Other-Side power, there are the many invoked only once—Lyle Bland's astral intelligences, the "claws and scales" Slothrop hears as he absorbs data on Imipolex G, the miniature dwarves who attend one's transference to a new world after being hit by a bolt of lightning. Weissmann indeed may become an Other-Side power while still alive. Other dimensions of reality take on life when skin cells, rats, and trees talk.

Strangely, almost all the characters accept the remaking of their cosmic picture without hesitation once they have been exposed to some other plane of reality. Pirate is slightly slow to credit his dreaming the dreams of others, but his marginal hesitation is the most resistance mounted. Those who see the Lübeck angel accept it but do not report it, knowing that their bosses (Them) would call the seers insane. Jessica may or may not accept the séances, but she does not doubt that a woman at the White Visitation can read her thoughts. This uniformity of response is, in its fashion, amazing and clearly must be worked into one's understanding of Pynchon's endeavor. As a preliminary observation, I would simply point to the parallelism between Pynchon's tactic here and his approach to science: he is insisting through all the repetitions that non-rational and non-rationalizable forces of some sort are unavoidably part of life, and that we cannot begin to make sense of experience without taking this augmentation of material reality into account. Our assumptions about what makes a person or character must include responses to multiple realities.

In addition to traditional supernatural forces, we also see Them. Many characters realize that another reality is superimposed upon their own lives when they stumble onto the activities of Them. For the major characters, this revelation radically alters their sense of the world. For Roger Mexico, the insight comes when he learns that I. G. Farben had been spying on Slothrop even before the war. He realizes in a flash how he has been manipulated, how Jessica has been used to control him. Enzian concludes that the bombed-out Jamf Ölfabriken Werke AG is not a ruin. "It means this War was never political at all, the polities was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted … secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology [his version of Them]."

Tchitcherine meets the Marxist Them governing history in an Oneirine haunting. Leni identifies Them right from the start and rebels against Their uses of "Mother." Franz Pökler recognizes the existence of another level of reality when talking with Weissmann: questions and answers about combustion and funding "were not exactly code for something else, but in the way of an evaluation of Pökler personally." He intuits that behind the professional chitchat lies the fate of his wife and child.

Slothrop, as usual, enjoys the most elaborately orchestrated version of this revelation. Throughout his sojourn at the Casino Hermann Goering, and especially in the Himmler Spielsaal, he senses "an order whose presence among the ordinary debris of waking he has only lately begun to suspect … everything in this room is really being used for something different. Meaning things to Them it has never meant to us. Never. Two orders of being, looking identical." "What Slothrop has been playing against [is] the invisible House, perhaps after all for his soul." Slothrop accepts this restructuring of his world picture so totally that he throws away his chance for normal life by deserting the army.

The repeated appearances of supernatural beings and of Them mark Pynchon's cosmos as mythological. Although the presences do not conform to any neat taxonomy, the fabric of this fictive reality has enough structure to challenge the notion that it merely reflects random fragmentation. Granted: it resists closure. The various elements do not fit the same puzzle, and in that sense remain fragments. But within the pieces there are local orders if not Order-with-a-capital-O (the distinction is Hite's), and characters need to reach some sort of accommodation with this divided nature of existence.

Activity as game. With this fifth repetition, we come to attitudes toward humanity. Particularly central are those moments of recognition that afflict characters with a sense that professional activities are a game. Goals and rules suddenly appear arbitrary, not sanctified by any humane value. Moreover, those goals and rules do not necessarily nurture the best interests of the characters themselves. This discovery is closely linked to identifying a Them reality. The game is Theirs, and characters discover themselves to be lowly pawns. When they achieve this insight, they must choose how to respond.

Pynchon mostly portrays recoil and a gesture of withdrawal. Katje grows tired of the games as agent and as Weissmann's Gretel, and "quits the game for good." She goes on to serve the White Visitation as Domina Nocturna, but she leaves even that in her search for Enzian and ends by accepting a sense of guilt and responsibility at the fair for double agents, and by refusing to accept easy answers or "some shallow win." Like Katje, both Pirate Prentice and Roger Mexico recognize how they have been pawns in the games of Them, and quit—both to seek Slothrop. Pökler offers his supposed daughter her freedom: "Pökler committed then his act of courage. He quit the game." He continues working on the rocket but starts trying to investigate Camp Dora. He no longer pretends that the camp is irrelevant to rockets and has nothing to do with him. Like Katje, he admits complicity; he leaves his ring with an anonymous victim of Dora. Slothrop spots Their game while on the Riviera, and he quits by going AWOL and seeking rocket information on his own. Tchitcherine rebels against Soviet games playing (exposed by Wimpe) and escapes partly through drugs and partly by hunting both rocket information and Enzian.

The game They play revolves about death and control, as is learned variously by Tchitcherine, Enzian, and Roger. Father Rapier expresses a fear that They are becoming immortal, and their control, eternal. In his idealistic view, our only hope of escaping from Their game is to "choose instead to turn, to fight: to demand, from those for whom we die, our own immortality. They may not be dying in bed anymore, but maybe They can still die from violence. If not, at least we can learn to withhold from Them our fear of Death." This answer to the discovery that we are pawns in obviously two-edged. Learning not to fear death can also help resign us to serving Their ends as cannon fodder.

When life is a game, people are things—this is one of Pynchon's important insights. As an agent, Katje learns that Jews are as negotiable as candy bars or sex, and that their lives have a departmental value equal to set quantities of information. Tchitcherine muses on the convertability between human pain and goal and is rendered uneasy by the Marxist vision of history when Wimpe explains how it makes him and everyone expendable, Slothrop sees how people are being used as counters in a game when small honesties or kindnesses from Tantivy and Sir Stephen get them silently removed from his purview. Pirate and Roger revolt at the way Slothrop is being used as a thing. Leni and Franz both rebel against being used as if their human feelings and concerns were of no account. In contrast. Pointsman and Weissmann both use their subordinates as pawns.

Basically, Pynchon seems to favor withdrawal to the extent possible, upon recognizing the existence of Them and Their game. He gives us no hope of effective counter action: individual and improvised gestures, such as the alliterative menu, are possible; but concerted effort is not because that would involve hierarchy and control. We can only abjure control and extend ourselves to do small kindnesses.

To sum up the argument thus far: by means of this series of repetitions, Pynchon exposes his characters and his readers to a cosmos that is far from value-free. They come to understand some of the ways in which cultures and people are controlled by symbol systems. They are also pressured to realize that symbol systems do not provide any ultimate meaning because such systems are helpless when faced with the void, whether that void is radiant or merely empty. Nor do symbol systems appear adequate to encompass the multiple realities offered us in this text. Pynchon insists that we live in a pluriverse and may discover that Titans or Angels are observing our actions—for what purpose we will never know. Words can acknowledge the presence of such forces but cannot delve into their motives or assign a logic to their actions.

Nor can words protect us from the powers called "Them." At any moment, we may became aware of a Them-pattern making us do things toward ends quite different from those we had in mind. We may find ourselves cheap counters in some unimaginable game that is being played at a higher level.

Kindness. Given the nature of Pynchon's universe, what advice does he offer? What is the nature of right action? The sixth repeated situation comes about when characters quit the game and feel impelled to some act of kindness rather than treating someone as a thing. In the worlds of hardship experienced at the end of the war, any kindness is a candle lit against the darkness. Leni, Franz, Pirate, Roger, Slothrop, Katje, Geli, Pig, and Bianca all offer kindness, gestures meant to help someone. The other person may be oblivious, as is the unconscious woman to whom Franz gives his ring, but the gesture helps him reverse the attitude that had once let him consider Dora inmates faceless, insignificant things. Pynchon associates love with mental bondage and control; but when it disintegrates, it leaves a capacity for kindness. The willingness to give something without expectation of a return is a move meaningless within a game and hence it puts one outside game-board relations with others.

These, then, are the six repeated recognitions of some aspect of reality or some value to which Pynchon systematically subjects his characters. What do these repetitions tell us about Pynchon's construction of character and how do such value-building structures relate to the value-fragmenting postmodernism of the novel?

Any work of art embodies a struggle between tradition and novelty and criticism will always branch, to some extent, as it pursues one or the other of these inherent orientations. The postmodernist readings help us see what is new; they help habituate us to the jagged, unstable vision of our time, to the denial of closure or perfect system. Such critics rightly make the point that traditional, rounded characters would contradict the world-vision of postmodernism. Characters with well-established selves are incompatible with deconstructive absent centers. But this in only half of the picture. Character is indeed irrelevant and the individual is diminished in this book—in part by the magnitude of Them and the supernatural power who are presented in repeated situations. The paranoid and multiple nature of reality affects Pynchon's construction of fictional people. Instead of focusing on character—the darling of realist and modernist fiction—Pynchon focuses on humanity, a very different concept. If we grant Pynchon the mythological, supernatural and fragmented nature of his cosmos, then we must ask how humanity is to operate within such a threatening world, how humanity is to survive in it. Thought his repetitions, he both warns us of what we must take into account—symbols, science, other realities and the like—and gives us his low-keyed suggestions for attitudes and behavior.

Pynchon's aesthetics of character emerges as a necessity of postmodernism and as a feature of several generic influences, for mythology as well as satire, gothic novel, menippea, and jeremiad, depends more on generalized figures than on individuals. It also emerges as the product of his concepts of a supernatural and Them-dominated reality, his passionate concern with humanity's possible future and our poor means of ensuring that we have any future at all. If we simply follow the highroad of postmodern orthodoxy, we will fail to grasp the humane orientation of his concerns.

The mechanisms by which postmodernism integrates with conventionality are little studied, but we have here an example of such a mingling. Jürgen Habermas has delineated two strains of postmodernism, one radical and one so conservative that it is reactionary, a Reaganite denial of modernism. He is excluding the middle, and excluded middles, as Oedipa Maas points out, are "bad shit." Pynchon seems to represent a middle position, one in which the old-fashioned material universe of science is undone by the unexpected presence of gods and angels; but those powers give us no new assurance because their ontological status, in turn, shimmers uncertainly. He fragments the self, and we discover that our systems for ordering experience all lack a firm center. Such a postmodern cosmos may drive us to agree that conventional logic lacks any foundations "reality," but people—however decentered Lacan may declare them to be—must blunder on in such a postmodern world, their emotions active even though thinking has been rendered problematic. Pynchon's mode of constructing characters is addressed to the problems of such people. Now as much as any time in the past, we need generalized thinking about what it means to be human and about the ordinary concern of how to survive, because we, too, live in the postmodern world. To overlook this conservative moral and prophetic strain in Pynchon's endeavor because we are intellectually drawn to the radical and postmodern is to impoverish our experience with the complexity of his text.

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