A last riff (for now) on Gravity’s Rainbow (and Disney’s Fantasia)

Screenshot 2015-04-24 at 9.27.30 PM

Disney’s Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. 

At least this thought zipped into my head a few weeks back, as I watched the film with my wife and kids. I was in the middle of a second reading of the novel, an immediate rereading prompted by the first reading. It looped me back in. Everything seemed connected to the novel in some way. Or rather, the novel seemed to connect itself to everything, through its reader—me—performing a strange dialectic of paranoia/anti-paranoia.

So anyway, Fantasia seemed to me an adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow, bearing so many of the novel’s features: technical prowess, an episodic and discontinuous form, hallucinatory dazzle, shifts between “high” and “low” culture, parodic and satirical gestures that ultimately invoke sincerity, heightened musicality, themes of magic and science, themes of automation and autonomy, depictions of splintering identity, apocalypse and genesis, cartoon elasticity, mixed modes, terror, love, the sublime, etc.

(There’s even a coded orgy in Fantasia).

But Fantasia was first released in 1940 right, when Pynchon was, what, three or four? And Gravity’s Rainbow was published in 1973, and most of the events in that novel happen at the end of World War II, in like, 1944, 1945, right? So the claim that “Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow” is ridiculous, right?

(Unless, perhaps, we employ those literary terms that Steven Weisenburger uses repeatedly in his Companion to Gravity’s Rainbow: analepsis and prolepsis—so, okay, so perhaps we consider Fantasia an analepsis, a flashback, of Gravity’s Rainbow, or we consider Gravity’s Rainbow a prolepsis, a flashforward, of Fantasia…no? Why not?).

Also ridiculous in the claim that “Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow” is that modifier “better,” for what other film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow exist?

(The list is long and mostly features unintentional titles, but let me lump in much of Robert Altman, The Conversation, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, that Scientology documentary Going Clear, a good bit of stuff by the Wachowksis, The Fisher King (hell, all of Terry Gilliam, why not?), the Blackadder series, which engenders all sorts of wonderful problems of analepsis and prolepsis…).

Gravity’s Rainbow is of course larded with film references, from King Kong and monster movies to German expressionism (Fritz Lang in particular), and features filmmakers and actors as characters. The novel also formulates itself as its own film adaptation, perhaps. The book’s fourth sentence tells us “…it’s all theatre.” (That phrase appears again near the novel’s conclusion, in what I take to be a key passage). And the book ends, proleptically, in “the Orpheus Theatre on Melrose,” a theater managed by Richard M. Nixon, excuse me, Zhlubb—with the rocket analeptically erupting from the past into “The screen…a dim page spread before us, white and silent.” Indeed, as so many of the book’s commentator’s have noted, Pynchon marks separations in the book’s sequences with squares reminiscent of film sprockets —  □ □ □ □ □ □ □.

Film is of course only one aspect of Gravity’s Rainbow, and Pynchon’s treatment of film is not just film-as-art or film-as-narrative or film-as-entertainment, but also film-as-technical-production. Film as a literal medium—chemistry, technology. Sound. Light. Pynchon’s critique of Them is bound up in a resistance to the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex. David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, often posited as a sort of successor to Gravity’s Rainbow, attempts to treat film in a similar comprehensive fashion. Both critiques–GR’s and IJ’s—seem to me terrifically prescient, as our discussions of politics and culture, at least in the US, are increasingly mediated in mass entertainments.

Pointing proleptically to this prescience in his introduction to Pynchon (1978), Edward Mendelson rightfully characterizes Gravity’s Rainbow as a “national encyclopedic narrative,” writing that it “proposes itself as the encyclopedia of a new international culture of electronic communication and multi-national cartels.” He continues, claiming that “Gravity’s Rainbow is a book which hopes to be active in the world, not a detached observer of it. It warns and exhorts in matters ranging from the ways in which the book itself will be read, to the way in which its whole surrounding culture operates.”

Pynchon’s critique in Gravity’s Rainbow offers some occasional hope—a Counterforce emerges, true—but as the novel’s third line tells us, “It is too late.” Michael Seidel gives us a nice summary in his essay “The Satiric Plots of Gravity’s Rainbow“: “Gravity’s Rainbow in part tells the story of scattered individuals who unsuccessfully try to resist the advance of the new bureaucratic modern order.”

Seidel’s tidy summary is particularly useful if you want to convince a friend to read this book, I guess. A blurb to sell it to them, no? (Or you could just tell them about all the sex scenes. The many, many sex scenes). What I mean is that the book is extremely difficult–far more difficult than the books it’s most often compared to, Ulysses and Infinite Jest. If Gravity’s Rainbow does indeed wish to “be active in the world,” as Mendelson claims, it wishes to be active on its own terms, to colonize its reader, to bend the world to its own strangeness. To make one of its readers, as he sits on a leather sofa with his two children and one wife watching an electronically-disseminated animated entertainment, the film Fantasia—as he, the reader, sits there four decades after its publication, think that it, the novel, the book Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, is in fact the progenitor of the electronically-disseminated animated entertainment, despite its (the novel’s) publication happening some three decades after its (the film’s) initial dissemination.

I attribute my fantastical and ridiculous assertions about Fantasia-as-analeptic-adaptation-of-Gravity’s-Rainbow not to my own zany fancies, but to the novel’s strange powers. (But which hey, didn’t the novel help trigger those zany fancies…isn’t that how the book might seek to be “active in the world”…?).

This riff has been discursive and downright silly, a discursive silliness that authorizes me to close, perhaps evasively, by citing two of Pynchon’s American progenitors. The first I’ll cite is Walt Whitman, whom I’d argue is only a weak parent for Pynchon—not a parent at all, really, but a benevolent uncle, a friend of the family, large of spirit, encyclopedic, kosmic. The final lines of his great work Song of Myself recall to me the hero of Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop, whose fate is to be scattered, undone, disseminated, invisible to us:

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you

I like to think those lines also apply to the meaning of Gravity’s Rainbow as well.
The second Pynchonian progenitor I’ll cite is Emily Dickinson, who offered a cryptic summary of Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel in which she would be directly cited over a century later, a novel which, like the following poem, also culminates in a crisis represented typographically as a dash:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

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