The Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 412-13

Ouroboros, Codex Parisinus, 1478
Ouroboros, Codex Parisinus, 1478

Kekulé 1 dreams 2 the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World 3. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used 4. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” 5 is to be delivered into a system 6 whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process 7 . The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply 8 , dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide… though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes 9 back through the loudspeaker, “Good morning folks, this is Heidelberg 10  here we’re coming into now, you know the old refrain, ‘I lost my heart in Heidelberg,’ 11 well I have a friend who lost both his ears here! Don’t get me wrong, it’s really a nice town, the people are warm and wonderful—when they’re not dueling. Seriously though, they treat you just fine, they don’t just give you the key to the city, they give you the bung-starter!” 12  u.s.w. 13  On you 14 roll, across a countryside whose light is forever changing 15 —castles, heaps of rock, moons of different shapes and colors come and go. There are stops at odd hours of the mornings, for reasons that are not announced: you get out to stretch in lime-lit courtyards where the old men sit around the table under enormous eucalyptus trees you can smell in the night, shuffling the ancient decks oily and worn, throwing down swords and cups 16 and trumps major in the tremor of light while behind them the bus is idling, waiting—passengers will now reclaim their seats and much as you’d like to stay, right here, learn the game, find your old age around this quiet table, it’s no use 17 : he is waiting beside the door of the bus in his pressed uniform, Lord of the Night he is checking your tickets, your ID and travel papers 18 , and it’s the wands of enterprise 19 that dominate tonight… as he nods you by, you catch a glimpse of his face, his insane, committed eyes, and you remember then, for a terrible few heartbeats, that of course it will end for you all in blood, in shock, without dignity 20 —but there is meanwhile this trip to be on… over your own seat, where there ought to be an advertising plaque, is instead a quote from Rilke: “Once, only once…” 21 One of Their favorite slogans. No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean. No: what the Serpent means is—how’s this—that the six carbon atoms of benzene are in fact curled around into a closed ring, just like that snake with its tail in its mouth, GET IT? 22

From pages 412-13 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Friedrich August Kekulé, 1829–1896, German chemist—the “father of organic chemistry.” (Our arts and sciences must be fathered, it seems).

East German Kekulé, postage stamp (with the benzene compound), 1979
East German Kekulé, postage stamp (with the benzene compound), 1979

Actually, let me bother to set the stage a little better, by piggybacking (are pigs not a motif of GR?) off Michael Davitt Bell’s invaluable “Some Things that ‘Happen’ (More or Less) in Gravity’s Rainbow:

[11], 397-433. This long chapter, consisting mostly of one long recollection, narrated in the past tense, tells the story of Franz Pökler […] Pökler dreamed about the history of Friedrich August Kekulé, father of organic chemistry (410-13), and about Kekulé’s dream: a serpent with its tail in its mouth. We learn how this dream was misused by the System, as the foundation for understanding the benzine ring. All this is lectured on by “Pökler’s old prof,” Laszlo Jamf.

A neat little summary, yes.

Kekulé’s most notable contribution to chemistry—and capitalism!—is in his work on describing the structure of that valuable petrochemical benzene.

Formule chimique développée du benzène inscrite dans le dessin de l'Ouroboros (serpent qui se mord la queue), Haltopub, 2013
Formule chimique développée du benzène inscrite dans le dessin de l’Ouroboros (serpent qui se mord la queue), Haltopub, 2013

2 Receiving an honor in 1890, Kekulé, told the German Chemical Society that he had discovered benzene’s ringed shape in a daydream about the ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail (tale?!).

Kekulé’s dream-image-symbol is clearly compelling for both the reader and, I think, for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is very much about the overlap between physical and metaphysical, and Kekulé’s vision points to the convergence of dream and experience, magic and science.

3 Ouroboros is literally tail-devouring in Greek, but through surreal etymological phonological dream-time leaps, we can get to tale-devouring (why not?—okay, I guess maybe that’s mythosboros or something like that, but hell—–).

In any case, the serpent, or Serpent, here strikes me as one of Pynchon’s Moves Against Them—he taps into an older myth, one that elevates the Scaly and Low—the Preterite?—into an Elect position that the Christian Tradition simply doesn’t care for, what with the Tempting Serpent and all. No, no shedding of the skin, no eternal return…no, no return at all. Cf. a few lines later in the passage cited above: “No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean.”

The anonymous author of Ophiolatreia, or Serpent Worship (1889) offers the following:

Horapollo, referring to the serpent symbol, says of it:— ‘When the Egyptians would represent the Universe they delineate a serpent bespeckled with variegated scales, devouring its own tail, the scales intimating the stars in the Universe. The animal is extremely heavy, as is the earth, and extremely slippery like the water, moreover, it every year puts off its old age with its skin, as in the Universe the annual period effects a corresponding change and becomes renovated, and the making use of its own body for food implies that all things whatever, which are generated by divine providence in the world, undergo a corruption into them again.’

4 Used by Them.

Gravity’s Rainbow is clearly about paranoia of Them, and as such (necessarily), Pynchon’s targets are…nebulous. (Although technology and the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex that technology works through might be a manifest if not wholly concrete villain in GR.). Pynchon’s big novel Against the Day offers a more specific locus for everything wrong with Them in its awful villain Scarsdale Vibe and his henchmen and lackeys.

5 You are of course familiar with the concept of eternal recurrence, no?

6 Oligarchial capitalism.

7  Pynchon seems to describe the past few centuries here, and probably the future.

8  Gravity’s Ranbow was published in 1973, folks…

9 …but of course, Pynchon is also describing now, which is to say, his narrative’s own future.

10 A charming German city famous for its university.

11 A German song composed by Fred Raymond in 1925. Hear a 1932 English-language version by Arthur Lally and His Orchestra here.

12 A wooden mallet for opening the bung of a cask (or wine or beer). I visited Heidelberg when I was 16 and drank copious quantities of ale.

13 “u.s.w.” — German acronym for und so weiter; translates to etcetera. Pynchon allows the tape to roll on in his reader’s head.

14 Always beware Gravity’s Rainbow’s shifts into second-person! Look at this ride that Pynchon’s put us on…but wait…we’re already on the ride.

15 A rainbow image.

16 Tarot references abound in Gravity’s Rainbow.

3 of Swords, Sola-Busca Tarot (1491; reprint by Wolfgang Mayer, 1998)

17 The preterite’s complaint: Wisdom shall not be found, order will not reveal itself, meaning will be suspended indefinitely.

18 Our wacky busdriver is actually “the Lord of the Night,” an ominous and perhaps self-explanatory title (and one that resonates with the passage’s mythological overtones and tarot motif). The Lords of the Night are figures in both the Mayan and Aztec calendars, but I’m not sure if Pynchon’s referencing them here—although this passage is deeply concerned with the apprehension and management of time. This Lord of the Night, you’ll note—a stickler for paperwork—is awfully bureaucratic.

19 Oligarchial capitalism. The wands are another suit in the tarot deck. (The upright three of wands is associated with enterprise).

20 The strange trip here echoes Gravity’s Rainbow’s bewildering opening “evacuation” sequence, and the line I’ve noted recalls to me a line I’ve cited at least twice now in these annotations.

From the novel’s sixth paragraph:

“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”

21 In A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, Weisenburger provides the following context for the Rilke quote:

1

22 Well? Do you?

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4 thoughts on “The Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 412-13”

  1. Edwin, this series is stellar and is a great contribution to the interlocking research, detailing, etal, for “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Everything is connected.

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  2. […] In his thorough physical description of the World tarot card, A.E. Waite describes the central figure surrounded by “an elliptic garland…a chain of flowers intended to symbolize all sensible things.” I cannot help but see in the card an impossible ouroboros; an ouroboros with four heads corresponding to the “four living creatures of the Apocalypse and Ezekiel’s vision, attributed to the evangelists in Christian symbolism” which we find in the card’s corners. The ouroboros is minor trope in Gravity’s Rainbow. […]

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