Friday, December 10, 2004


On p. 268 of the Bantam edition, Webley Silvernail makes a speech. I'd never paid attention to this speech in previous readings: it's a speech by a very minor character, made to a bunch of dancing rats at the tail end of one of Pynchon's song-and-dance fantasy sequences, and the scene between Pudding and Katje which follows immediately is lurid enough to overshadow everything else in its vicinity. But it now strikes me as absolutely crucial for the book as a whole, crucial enough to reproduce here in toto:

"Now it's back to the cages [for the rats] and the rationalized forms of death--death in the service of the one species cursed with the knowledge that it will die. . . . 'I would set you free, if I knew how. But it isn't free out here. All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all. I can't even give you hope that it will be different someday--that They'll come out, and forget death, and lose Their technology's elaborate terror, and stop using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level--and be like you instead, simply here, simply alive. . . .'" (Ellipses Pynchon's)

Combining this speech, Rathenau's speech at Peter Sachsa's seance (193-95), and various incidental remarks, including the statement that "The real business of the War is buying and selling" (122) I quoted earlier, we can piece together, in broad outline, the worldview governing the book. In GR, World War II is only superficially a struggle to the death between two ideologically opposite sides. In reality, it is being stage-managed by a conspiratorial elite referred to as "They" which controls both sides, in order to extend the reach of technology, bureaucratization, and control, in the hopes that they can overcome death. But far from being able to overcome death, they are its unwitting tools: their actions further the inhuman, quasi-mystical process in which "Death the Impersonator" extends its artificial domain at the expense of life.

Now, this worldview has an aesthetic appeal, and it's fun to hunt down its ramifications throughout the book. And there is arguably a certain symbolic truth to it. The problem is that, of all the historical events Pynchon could have used to illustrate this worldview, World War II is perhaps the worst. For all the faults of the Western Allies (Pynchon pays little attention to the U.S.S.R.'s role), it made an enormous difference which side won; but Pynchon can't acknowledge this without contradicting the book's worldview. The need to deny the difference between the two sides leads him to minimize the Holocaust (though he's willing to allude to it when it serves his purposes). Nor was the vast amount of death caused by Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust, the result of an impersonal process: it was willed by specific people. This treatment of World War II shows a certain moral insensitivity, despite the sensitivity Pynchon frequently shows in individual passages. And it's mainly for this reason that I can't give myself up entirely to the book this time through, despite the brilliance of its prose.

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?