Vítězslav Nezval’s 1937 poetry collection The Absolute Gravedigger is new in English translation by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická, thanks to Twisted Spoon Press. As usual, Twisted Spoon’s edition is a beauty, including some of Nezval’s original illustrations.
The Absolute Gravedigger seems comprised of seven “books,” and I ended up barreling through one of them, Bizarre Town, in one sitting. Nezval’s surrealist poems are seemingly spare, but the parts jar against each other in unsettling ways; Bizarre Town evokes Bosch, or Goya’s etchings.
You might know Nezval as the author of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which was adapted into a marvelously disturbing 1970 film by Jaromil Jireš.
More to come as I read more, but for now, here’s Twisted Press’s blurb:
The Absolute Gravedigger, published in 1937, is in many ways the culmination of Vítězslav Nezval’s work as an avant-garde poet, combining the Poetism of his earlier work and his turn to Surrealism in the 1930s with his political concerns in the years leading up to World War II. It is above all a collection of startling verbal and visual inventiveness. And while a number of salient political issues emerge from the surrealistic ommatidia, Nezval’s imagination here is completely free-wheeling and untethered to any specific locale, as he displays mastery of a variety of forms, from long-limbed imaginative free verse narratives to short, formally rhymed meditations in quatrains, to prose and even visual art (the volume includes six of his decalcomania images).
Together with Nezval’s prior two collections, The Absolute Gravedigger forms one of the most important corpora of interwar Surrealist poetry. Yet here his wild albeit restrained mix of absolute freedom and formal perfection has shifted its focus to explore the darker imagery of putrefaction and entropy, the line breaks in the shorter lyric poems slicing the language into fragments that float in the mind with open-ended meaning and a multiplicity of readings. Inspired by Salvador Dalí’s paranoiac-critical method, the poems go in directions that are at first unimaginable but continue to evolve unexpectedly until they resolve or dissolve – like electron clouds, they have a form within which a seemingly chaotic energy reigns. Nezval’s language, however, is under absolute control, allowing him to reach into the polychromatic clouds of Surrealist uncertainty to form shapes we recognize, though never expected to see, to meld images and concepts into a constantly developing and dazzling kaleidoscope.
Roberto Bolaño’s short story “The Return” is so good that it has two perfect opening paragraphs:
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.
That’s a hell of a way to start a story! Bolaño lays out his two themes—the afterlife and necrophilia—in a jovial, almost cavalier, but dare I say sweet, even charming way. And then this paragraph:
Death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning. My doctor had warned me, but some things are stronger than reason. I was convinced, mistakenly (and even now it’s something I regret), that drinking and dancing were not the most hazardous of my passions. Another reason I kept going out every night to the fashionable places in Paris was my routine as a middle manager at Fracsa; I was after what I couldn’t find at work or in what people call the inner life: the buzz that you get from a certain excess.
Those are the first two paragraphs, and maybe they’ll entice you to read the story. However, the following riff includes what some people might consider spoilers; my hope is that if you’ve never read it before, you’ll take it on faith that “The Return” is a great, great story and you’ll go read it and stop reading this riff now. (Maybe come back later though after you’ve read it).
“The Return” is a ghost story that transmutes the horror of death and the abjection of the corpse into love, empathy, and communication—and art. It’s a beautiful ghost tale in the Romantic, Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, from whom Bolaño drew heavily. However, while Poe’s tales of necrophilia (like the poem “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Berenice” to name just a few) obsess over repression, loss, burial, and imperfect and violent attempts at restoration, Bolaño’s “The Return” offers its readers a peaceful reconciliation with death. It’s collected in The Return (New Directions, English translation by Chris Andrews), which is a perfect introduction to Bolaño—so many great stories there (“Buba,” “Clara,” “William Burns,” etc.). So go read it.
The narrator of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King assures us at one point that “phantoms are not the same as real ghosts.”
So what’s a phantom then, at least in the universe of The Pale King?
Phantom refers to a particular kind of hallucination that can afflict rote examiners at a certain threshold of concentrated boredom.
The “rote examiners” are IRS agents who perform Sisyphean tasks of boredom. They are also placeholders for anyone who works a boring, repetitive job.
(We might even wax a bit here on the phrase rote examiner—the paradox in it—that to examine should require looking at the examined with fresh eyes, a fresh spirit—a spirit canceled out by the modifier rote).
In The Pale King, phantoms visit the rote examiners who toil in wiggle rooms. The “phantoms are always deeply, diametrically different from the examiners they visit,” suggesting two simultaneous outcomes: 1) an injection of life-force, a disruption of stasis that serves to balance out the examiner’s personality and 2) in the novel’s own language, “the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side.”
In one scene, desperate Lane Dean contemplates suicide on the job, until he’s visited by a phantom.
“Yes but now that you’re getting a taste, consider it, the word. You know the one.”
The word is boredom, and the phantom proceeds to give a lecture on its etymology:
Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer of the realm. He didn’t cast a shadow, but that didn’t mean anything. For no reason, Lane Dean flexed his buttocks. In fact the first three appearances of bore in English conjoin it with the adjective French, that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes? The French of course had malaise, ennui. See Pascal’s fourth Pensée, which Lane Dean heard as pantsy.
I might occasionally talk shit about my old man (what boy doesn’t?) but he always picked me up an issue of MAD.
I’m not sure when these wonderfully weird Basil Wolverton drawings were originally done/published, but they come from the Fall 1990 “Super Special” of weirdness. Note that the “Vote for Nixon” button on the cover illustration is likely an update to the “Vote for Landon” button below (Alf Landon lost in a landslide to FDR in 1936). The other internal/meta-textual differences are obvious too.
James Hill’s illustration for The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. From The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde, Heritage Press, 1968.
The Canterville Ghost
When Mr. Hiram B. Otis, the American Minister, bought Canterville Chase, every one told him he was doing a very foolish thing, as there was no doubt at all that the place was haunted. Indeed, Lord Canterville himself, who was a man of the most punctilious honour, had felt it his duty to mention the fact to Mr. Otis when they came to discuss terms.
“We have not cared to live in the place ourselves,” said Lord Canterville, “since my grandaunt, the Dowager Duchess of Bolton, was frightened into a fit, from which she never really recovered, by two skeleton hands being placed on her shoulders as she was dressing for dinner, and I feel bound to tell you, Mr. Otis, that the ghost has been seen by several living members of my family, as well as by the rector of the parish, the Rev. Augustus Dampier, who is a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. After the unfortunate accident to the Duchess, none of our younger servants would stay with us, and Lady Canterville often got very little sleep at night, in consequence of the mysterious noises that came from the corridor and the library.”
“My Lord,” answered the Minister, “I will take the furniture and the ghost at a valuation. I have come from a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy; and with all our spry young fellows painting the Old World red, and carrying off your best actors and prima-donnas, I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in Europe, we’d have it at home in a very short time in one of our public museums, or on the road as a show.”
“I fear that the ghost exists,” said Lord Canterville, smiling, “though it may have resisted the overtures of your enterprising impresarios. It has been well known for three centuries, since 1584 in fact, and always makes its appearance before the death of any member of our family.”
“Well, so does the family doctor for that matter, Lord Canterville. But there is no such thing, sir, as a ghost, and I guess the laws of Nature are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy.”
“You are certainly very natural in America,” answered Lord Canterville, who did not quite understand Mr. Otis’s last observation, “and if you don’t mind a ghost in the house, it is all right. Only you must remember I warned you.”
Toward dusk, the black birds descend, millions 1of them, to sit in the branches of trees nearby. The trees grow heavy with black birds, branches like dendrites of the Nervous System 2 fattening, deep in twittering nerve-dusk, in preparation for some important message… . 3
Later in Berlin, down in the cellar among fever-dreams with shit leaking out of him at gallons per hour, too weak to aim more than token kicks at the rats 4 running by with eyes fixed earnestly noplace, trying to make believe they don’t have a newer and dearer status among the Berliners, at minimum points on his mental health chart, when the sun is gone so totally it might as well be for good, Slothrop’s dumb idling heart 5 sez: The Schwarzgerät is no Grail, Ace, that’s not what the G in Imipolex G stands for. And you are no knightly hero 6. The best you can compare with is Tannhäuser 7, the Singing Nincompoop—you’ve been under one mountain at Nordhausen, been known to sing a song or two with uke accompaniment, and don’tcha feel you’re in a sucking marshland of sin out here, Slothrop? maybe not the same thing William Slothrop, vomiting a good part of 1630 away over the side of that Arbella8, meant when he said “sin.” . . . But what you’ve done is put yourself on somebody else’s voyage 9—some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain—playing her, its, game… you know that in some irreducible way it’s an evil game. You play because you have nothing better to do 10, but that doesn’t make it right. And where is the Pope whose staff’s gonna bloom for you? 11
From page 364 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1A million black birds sounds like a hyperbole of crows, but Berlin 1945, post-V-E Day—which is like, where we are here—I mean, it’s a desperate deathly ghastly place. So maybe buzzards and dreadful crows abound.
3 What’s the important message? Oh wait, we’re still in the marvelous tree-crow-dendrite simile—the “twittering nerve-dusk”—so the “message” the crow-tree-branches awaits is just part of the, uh, metaphor. Or not? I mean, this is a novel in large part about expectation—about waiting for the bomb to fall, waiting for the Sword of Damocles to descend. And also: awaiting a message of Return.
But: What a lovely little simile. Pynchon’s powers as a prose stylist seem under-remarked upon.
4Cf. page 359: “Last week, in the British sector someplace, Slothrop, having been asshole enough to drink out of an ornamental pond in the Tiergarten, took sick.”
The cellar, the diarrhea, the rats….I’ve written it before:Gravity’s Rainbow is a thoroughly abject novel—full of assholes (literal) and shit (literal) and toilets (literal). (And oh, also: metaphorical too, metaphorical too). Slothrop here is sick, literally evacuating—but also figuratively evacuating. A few pages later he’ll evacuate into his next identity, Rocket Man.
Cf. page 553, from Slothrop’s “Partial List of Wishes on Evening Stars for This Period”:
“Let me be able to take a shit soon.”
5I counted 75 words in the dependent clause that precedes Pynchon’s finally introducing the independent clause—which is to say subject and verb—
“Slothrop’s dumb idling heart sez”
(My count is likely off; I counted once and I’ve had some bourbon. I counted “fever-dreams” as two words, although I think you’re not supposed to do that).
Anyway: That’s a lot of dependent-clauseauge before, like, the main idea—which I guess, from a prose/aesthetic analysis, is the, uh, main idea—ascent, suspension—and then an immediate divergence (and note how Pynchon simultaneously deflates and invigorates his predicate verb “sez” with colloquial zeal).
6Many of Gravity’s Rainbow’s motifs almost cohere here. Pynchon highlights two of Slothrop’s ostensible “quests” — the Schwarzgerät (the mysterious “black device” that will be installed in rocket 00000 (present), and the sexy sinister plastic Imipolex G (past). (But also both, obviously: Future).
Slothrop’s dumb heart denies any knightly virtue, rejects Romanticism—and, perhaps, Modernism’s ironic obsessions with Romanticism.
(I think the passage above, what with its ravens and Venus-denial and grail-refusal, is a tidy antonym to Rossetti’s depiction of the Grail…and yet I’d argue Pynchon’s writing bears a Pre-Raphaelite streak)—
The episode strikes me as utterly true, a moment of honest self-speech. As Emily Dickinson put it: “I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true.” (One of Slothrop’s ancestor’s plagiarized Ms. Dickinson on his gravestone). And yet and yet and yet…Perhaps Tyrone S. is being a bit too harsh on himself (who among us hasn’t cast a harsh gaze into the mirror?).
Slothrop expels the old identity here, the old dreams, the old, evacuating space for the arrival of “Raketemensch,” — Rocketman!
Rocketman points to an emerging postmodern hero—a comic bookish hero, perhaps—totemic, sure, but also Pop, cartoonish, textual—framed (literally) in the conventions of previous centuries’ conceptions of “heroism.”
8Cf. pages 203-04 (annotations here), wherein Slothrop’s vomiting ancestor William Slothrop, in a remarkable passage of hysteron proteron, travels backwards from the New World to the Old.
9One of the central paranoias of Gravity’s Rainbow is that you might be on their voyage. How much agency do you have in your own life? And what’s the cost of asserting that agency? How many identities do you have to evacuate? And in the end—what’s left?
10Boredom strikes me as one of (if not the) central theme connecting Modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism.
Or: Simply note the motif of bloom, of fruition, of phallic life, of promise. In fuller context though—it’s a bloom too late. The question blooms from Slothrop’s self-speech, but also extends to you and me, reader.
Or: Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the 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. . . .”
I filled 45 minutes that I had to wait for something at my favorite used bookstore. I spent most of the time perusing the section of German books—I’d never looked at them before. I was kinda sorta browsing for a copy of Arno Schmidt’s Zettels Traum. I picked up the English translation of Zettels Traum (Bottom’s Dream) not quite two weeks ago, and I was curious to see what the original looks like. It may or may not (I’m guessing probably not) have been there—I got a bit lost. (There are almost three million books in this store; at least 1000 or so in the German section, and not particularly well-organized).
I did pick up Schmidt’s sci-fi novel The Egghead Republic, which is much much shorter (and much much more accessible) than Bottom’s Dream. Here’s the blurb:
I couldn’t help but snap some pic of some of the German-language, German-published books I perused:
Arno Schmidt’s 1970 novel Bottom’s Dream is finally available in English translation by John E. Woods. The book has been published by the Dalkey Archive.
It is enormous.
As you can see in the picture above: Enormous.
But what’s Bottom’s Dream about? (This is the wrong question).
“I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was,” says Bottom. “I have had a dream, and I wrote a Big Book about it,” Arno Schmidt might have said. Schmidt’s rare vision is a journey into many literary worlds. First and foremost it is about Edgar Allan Poe, or perhaps it is language itself that plays that lead role; and it is certainly about sex in its many Freudian disguises, but about love as well, whether fragile and unfulfilled or crude and wedded. As befits a dream upon a heath populated by elemental spirits, the shapes and figures are protean, its protagonists suddenly transformed into trees, horses, and demigods. In a single day, from one midsummer dawn to a fiery second, Dan and Franzisca, Wilma and Paul explore the labyrinths of literary creation and of their own dreams and desires.
The novel begins around 4 AM on Midsummer’s Day 1968 in the Lüneburg Heath in northeastern Lower Saxony in northern Germany, and concludes twenty-five hours later. It follows the lives of 54-year-old Daniel Pagenstecher, visiting translators Paul Jacobi and his wife Wilma, and their 16-year-old daughter Franziska. The story is concerned with the problems of translating Edgar Allan Poe into German and with exploring the themes he conveys, especially regarding sexuality.
Did I mention that it’s enormous?
Look, I know that dwelling on a book’s size probably has nothing to do with literary criticism, but Bottom’s Dream poses something of a special case. As an article on Bottom’s Dream at The Wall Street Journal points out,Schmidt’s opus is 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds.
It’s a physical challenge as well as a mental challenge.
And, Oh that mental challenge!
Here’s the first page of Bottom’s Dream (the pic links to a much larger image):
Hmmm…? What do you think?
The obvious easy reference point here is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which indeed Schmidt was actively following, both in form and style: competing columns, a fragmentary and elusive/allusive style, collage-like metacommentary, an etymological explosion—words as paint, text as meaning. Etc.
(Did I mention it’s a lot longer than Finnegans Wake? Did I mention it’s enormous?)
Here’s a glimpse at two random pages (don’t be afraid to click on that image and get the full, y’know, effect):
I’ll never forget one of my graduate school professors warning us not to “peer too long into Finnegans Wake.” He called it an abyss. (The man loved Joyce’s work, by the way, and had studied under Hugh Kenner. I’m not sure if he meant abyss pejoratively. It was, like I say, a warning).
Bottom’s Dream seems like an abyss. As its title (a reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) suggests, “it hath no bottom.”
After nine days, I’m “on” page 21 of Schmidt’s novel now, and I have no idea what’s going on. And not just because it’s a primal gobbledygook wordmass. No, part of my incomprehension results from a very strong physical reaction to “reading” Bottom’s Dream. This physical reaction goes beyond the size of the volume—although there’s certainly something to the size. I more or less have to read the thing on my dining room table; it’s dreadfully uncomfortable on a couch, and probably impossible on my hammock or in the bathtub. I can’t really hold it while I read it. I think this matters, although I can’t really say how right now. The multiple columns, marginalia, images, etc. are engaging but also fragment my attention—and I generally find myself flicking through Bottom’s Dream, rather than sustaining the will to follow the “plot.” Right now, anyway, I find myself wrapped up in the aesthetics of reading Bottom’s Dream. It’s a tactile read. I enjoy it most when I smooth my hands over it, jump out of the stream, 20, 30, 100 pages forward, backwards. Relax a little.
Otherwise, Bottom’s Dream becomes a bit of a nightmare for me: I get all dizzy, thirsty, my eyes seem to thrum. Something going on in the inner-ear. It’s like a slow-motion panic attack. When that abyss-stress comes on, I jump ahead.
Which is how I found this bit of marginalia (I wish I’d recorded the page when I photographed it; but, also: the iPhone camera is a better recorder of Bottom’s Dream’s aesthetic textuality than any word-processing program. Even a scanner might straighten some of its bends and arcs, its voluminous volume):
Yes! Poe’s >swirlpools<! >intoxication o’r dizziness<! — there’s a description for me of my own reaction to reading Bottom’s Dream.
Poe might be something of a guide for me if I do try to stick out wandering through Bottom’s Dream, and his story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” referenced above, seems a particularly nice parallel to Schmidt’s bigass book.
“Descent” relates the tale of a sailor (a voyager!–a, like, metaphoricalreader, y’know) transformed by his encounter with the “Moskoestrom” —a swirling abyss from which no one returns. This vortex, “absurd and unintelligible,” breaks the sailor, “body and soul.” He can’t comprehend the storm. It’s unknowable, un-nameable. At best, he is able to make a sidelong glance at it, but can never plumb its depths. And not only is his glance broken, but all of his senses are fragmented. He escapes the maelstrom, but is unrecognizable to the sailors who rescue him. He becomes the voice of the vortex, the metonymy of a force he can perceive but can’t comprehend.
The maelstrom—the vortex, the abyss—this, for Poe, was language.
I’m not sure how deep I’ll travel into Schmidt’s maelstrom. I managed large sections of Finnegans Wake—but I had a guide in Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key. Someone to map out the terrain, show me the ropes, etc.
There is that not-so-rare personality disorder known as Tannhäuserism 1. Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations 2.—Venus, Frau Holda, her sexual delights—no, many come, actually, for the gnomes 3 , the critters smaller than you, for the sepulchral way time stretches along your hooded strolls down here, quietly through courtyards that go for miles, with no anxiety about getting lost… no one stares, no one is waiting to judge you… out of the public eye… even a Minnesinger needs to be alone…4 long cloudy-day indoor walks… the comfort of a closed place, where everyone is in complete agreement about Death 5. Slothrop knows this place. Not so much from maps he had to study at the Casino 6 as knowing it in the way you know someone is there… .
Plant generators are still supplying power. Rarely a bare bulb will hollow out a region of light 7 . As darkness is mined and transported from place to place like marble, so the light bulb is the chisel that delivers it from its inertia, and has become one of the great secret ikons of the Humility, the multitudes who are passed over by God and History 8. When the Dora prisoners 9 went on their rampage, the light bulbs in the rocket works were the first to go: before food, before the delights to be looted out of the medical lockers and the hospital pharmacy in Stollen Number 1, these breakable, socketless (in Germany the word for electric socket is also the word for Mother—so, motherless too 10 ) images were what the “liberated” had to take… .
From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, page 299. All ellipses are Pynchon’s
1Tannhäuser was a 13th-century German Minnesinger, a troubadour—a knight-poet. A bard, I guess. Is Slothrop a bard, a knight-poet—a knight-errant? Not sure. (He’ll later deny he’s on a grail-quest).
In German legend, Tannhäuser falls from grace when he discovers Venusberg, the underground home of Venus. He stays there a year, neglecting his betrothed and indulging in erotic delights. Teutonic Christian knight that he is, Tannhäuser leaves Vensuberg (Hörselberg) for Rome to beg forgiveness from Pope Urban IV, who denies him, saying absolution would be as impossible as his papal staff flowering in bloom. The staff does bloom—but not until Tannhäuser has disappeared back into the Venusian underworld (and his gal Lisaura has killed herself in grief).
Cf. the sonnet on pages 532-33 of Gravity’s Rainbow:
Where is the Pope whose staff will bloom for me?
Her mountain vamps me back, with silks and scents,
Her oiled, athletic slaves, her languid hints
Of tortures transubstantiate to sky,
To purity of light-of bonds that sing,
And whips that trail their spectra as they fall.
At weather’s mercy now, I find her call
At every turn, at night’s foregathering.
I’ve left no sick Lisaura’s fate behind.
I made my last confession as I knelt,
Agnostic, in the radiance of his jewel…
Here, underneath my last and splintering wind,
No song, no lust, no memory, no guilt:
No pentacles, no cups, no holy Fool…
The Tannhäuser myth connects to Gravity’s Rainbow’s Orphean motif, and readers may take note of the hero’s descent played against the mystical “blooming” of a staff…eh, what with the sexy phallic overtones and all.
And we can use the third line of Gravity’s Rainbow here to describe the bloom on the staff: “It is too late” (3).
2“Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations” — one problem with reading Gravity’s Rainbow only once or twice is that it is too full of great sentences and you’ll likely miss them. Pynchon continues to deflate what he has inflated (only to inflate it again)—sex will give over to death—or, an un-death (an un-sex) here. Slothrop inert, underground, in the tombs.
3Cf. Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day, wherein (briefly, too briefly), the heroic Chums of Chance take on “the increasingly deranged attentions of the Legion of Gnomes, the unconscionable connivings of a certain international mining cartel, the sensual wickedness pervading the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and the all-but-irresistible fascination that subterranean monarch would come to exert, Circelike, upon the minds of the crew of Inconvenience [ETC.]”
4. “…out of the public eye… even a Minnesinger needs to be alone…”
5A perhaps puzzling line, if only because I think I get what everyone’s in “agreement about Death” here—Death as a kind of cozy promise that we all say “Fuck off” too in lieu of “long cloudy-day indoor walks” (and the horny expectations of underground sexbergs). I’m interested on anyone else’s ideas, of course.
6 The Casino Hermann Goering—Slothrop’s last “official” assigned post.
7 We privilege light over darkness; Pynchon inverts the image here: light is a violent “chisel”; darkness is a commodity to be mined.
The bulb becomes one of GR’s most powerful motifs, culminating in the late (and essential) episode “Byron the Bulb” (find Harold Bloom’s essay on Byron the Bulb if ye can).
“a bulb over his head burning all night long. He dreamed that the bulb was a representative of Weissmann, a creature whose bright filament was its soul” 426-27; “a theatre marquee whose sentient bulbs may have looked on […] witnesses to grave and historical encounters” 464; “The Story of” 647-55; “Someday he will know everything, and be just as impotent as before” 654; “electrical tidal wave” 665; “young Jack may have had one of them Immortal Lightbulbs then go on overhead” 688; screwed into Gustav’s kazoo hashpipe, 745
9 Laborers in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp who were forced to work toward producing V-2 rockets for the Nazis. Myth—Venus, gnomes, etc.—tips back into the horrific reality of slave labor. Pynchon seems to cast the Dora laborers as the preterite, grasping at their own spark of redemption by looting lightbulbs…and then reframes their preterite condition in the ironic quotation marks around “freedom.”
10 I don’t think the German word for electric socket, steckdose, corresponds so much to the word for “mother,” but maybe…it does? In any case, the etymology does seem to correspond to the concept of absence, or cavity, which permeates this episode of GR.
I looked for the root of “socket” in Josepth T. Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, and while I didn’t find anything about mothers or Venus or lightbulbs, I did find a connection to another of Gravity’s Rainbow’s big motifs: Pigs!—-
A couple of weeks back, I was looking for John Berryman’s biographical study of Stephen Crane. I did not find it, but I did find a signed hardback edition (not sure if it’s a first or second printing) of Harry Crews’s amazing memoir A Childhood.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
I already have the book (it’s included in Classic Crews—the best starting place for Crews (you should start)), but I couldn’t pass up a signed copy. (It was like 8 bucks I think, and I have store credit out the wazoo).
In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, it seems to me, have been reversed. The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction – conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads. Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of the dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.
From J.G. Ballard’s 1995 introduction to the Vintage reprint of his 1973 novel Crash.
In Chapter 18 of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston imagines a hurricane descending on the Everglades as a cosmic monster. Her description comes in part from accounts of the 1928 Great Lake Okeechobee Hurricane—
Ten feet higher and far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. Two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to- be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.
The War has been reconfiguring time and space into its own image 1. The track runs in different networks now. What appears to be destruction is really the shaping of railroad spaces to other purposes, intentions he can only, riding through it for the first time, begin to feel the leading edges of… .2
He checks in to the Hotel Nimbus 3, in an obscure street in the Niederdorf or cabaret section of Zürich. The room’s in an attic, and is reached by ladder. There’s also a ladder outside the window, so he reckons it’ll be O.K. 4 When night comes down he goes out looking for the local Waxwing rep, finds him farther up the Limmatquai, under a bridge, in rooms full of Swiss watches, clocks and altimeters 5. He’s a Russian named Semyavin. Outside boats hoot on the river and the lake. Somebody upstairs is practicing on a piano: stumbling, sweet lieder. Semyavin pours gentian brandy 6 into cups of tea he’s just brewed. “First thing you have to understand is the way everything here is specialized. If it’s watches, you go to one café. If it’s women, you go to another. Furs are subdivided into Sable, Ermine, Mink, and Others. Same with dope: Stimulants, Depressants, Psychomimetics… . What is it you’re after?”
“Uh, information?” Gee, this stuff tastes like Moxie… .
“Oh. Another one.” Giving Slothrop a sour look. “Life was simple before the first war. You wouldn’t remember. Drugs, sex, luxury items. Currency in those days was no more than a sideline, and the term ‘industrial espionage’ was unknown. But I’ve seen it change—oh, how it’s changed. The German inflation, that should’ve been my clue right there, zeros 7 strung end to end from here to Berlin. I would have stern talks with myself. ‘Semyavin, it’s only a temporary lapse away from reality 8. A small aberration, nothing to worry about. Act as you always have—strength of character, good mental health. Courage, Semyavin! Soon all will be back to normal.’ But do you know what?”
“Let me guess.”
A tragic sigh. “Information. What’s wrong with dope and women? 9 Is it any wonder the world’s gone insane, with information come to be the only real medium of exchange?”
“I thought it was cigarettes.”
“You dream.” He brings out a list of Zürich cafés and gathering spots. Under Espionage, Industrial, Slothrop finds three. Ultra, Lichtspiel, and Sträggeli 10. They are on both banks of the Limmat, and widely spaced.
“Footwork,” folding the list in an oversize zoot-suit pocket 11.
“It’ll get easier. Someday it’ll all be done by machine. Information machines. You are the wave of the future.” 12
1 If there is a central thread through these Gravity’s Rainbow annotations—and I’m not claiming that there is one—but if there is a central thread I’ve been trying to tease out, it’s that GR, despite being a complex and confounding conundrum, repeatedly clarifies its thesis. The narrator spells out another summary of the tale, this time in a dozen words.
2 The “he” here is Our Main Man Tyrone Slothrop en route to Zurich. It’s the spring of 1945, and we’re at the end of the second part of Gravity’s Rainbow, “Un Perm ‘au Casino Hermann Goering,” and riding into part three, “In the Zone.” Here, the war—excuse me, The War—is an entropy pushing out into “other purposes.”
3 Weisenburger notes in A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion that “The Nimbus appears to be a fictional hotel.”
You, dear reader, of course know that a “nimbus” is a cloud. I’ve always been partial to Magritte’s clouds.
“Nimbus” is also a term for the halo or aureola that often surrounds sacred or supernatural figures in artistic representation, like the rainbow that shimmers around Albion in Blake’s Albion Rose.
Later, in his hot air balloon escape from Marvy’s Mothers, Slothrop and his pirate pilot Schnorp will try to hide in a cloud.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984). Check his last notation (the Nibelungen are a motif in Gravity’s Rainbow):
4 As GR progresses, Our Free Agent Slothrop gets better and better at spotting means of escape (he’ll note the keys left in an unattended car later in Peenemünde, for example). A ladder up, a ladder down. Rise, ascend, escape. Repeat.
5 All devices for measuring, obviously—ones and zeroes and all that. Slothrop is a disruptive force to traditional means of measurement, natch.
6 “French and Swiss liqueur distilled from the roots of gentian plants; also called Enzian” (Weisenburger, A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion).
Cf. Oberst Enzian, introduced on page 100—Enzian meets Slothrop a few dozen pages later and pushes Marvy from a train.
7 The inflation, the zeros…Pynchon intricately repeats his motifs, ever-threading them throughout the novel.
8 And who among us has not assured themselves that “it’s only a temporary lapse away from reality”? Semyavin’s complaint seems to be the default position of the 20th century. It’s downright quaint or naive in the 21st.
Reality is not a stable story, a progress, a culmination, but rather a entropic mess, a shuffling chaos, one big etc.
10 Weisenburger gives “Ultra, Lichtspiel, and Sträggeli” as nightclubs, and offers that Sträggeli means “‘specter,’ a ‘play of light’ (or Lichtspiel); in the same context, ‘Ultra’ refers to the very high frequency light waves in any spectrum of illumination.” Synonyms.
11 The zoot suit is another motif in GR (another kind of uniform that Slothrop dons—a non-uniform? a uniform of resistance?), and Pynchon’s evocation of the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 (roughly 10 pages earlier) is a superb little number of storytelling.
The zoot suit received an unnecessary revival in the 1990s. I was then an impressionable lad in my very-late teens/early twenties, yet still had the sense to find this attire revolting. It’s possible now to see that the zoot suit revival gelled with the zeitgeist’s preference for baggy garb—hip-hop, mall goth, and skate culture clothes in particular.
12 Clearly prescient lines—both in the spring of 1945 and in 1973 when GR was published. Pynchon explores the idea of these information ideas in his 2009 novel Inherent Vice.
I love the metaphorical evocation of Slothrop as “the wave of the future” — a cliche that the narrative literalizes.
It reminded me at first of a book my wife brought back to me years ago from San Francisco—a kids book called The Daddy Book by Todd Parr (she took our son when he was like, what—six months old?—left me with our daughter, alone, when she was like, what—twoish? Everything was fine and dandy cotton candy). And then, simultaneously, Fatherson reminded me of Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father—particularly the “Manual for Sons” section.
And Fatherson reminded me of other stuff too, but mostly I loved it because of the stuff it didn’t remind me of. Highly recommended.
Just before dawn knocking comes very loud, hard as steel. Slothrop has the sense this time to keep quiet.1
“Come on, open up.”
“MPs 2 , open up.”
American voices, country voices, high-pitched and without mercy. He lies freezing, wondering if the bedsprings will give him away. For possibly the first time he is hearing America as it must sound to a non-American 3. Later he will recall that what surprised him most was the fanaticism, the reliance not just on flat force but on the rightness 4 of what they planned to do… he’d been told long ago to expect this sort of thing from Nazis, and especially from Japs —we 5 were the ones who always played fair—but this pair outside the door now are as demoralizing as a close-up of John Wayne (the angle emphasizing how slanted his eyes are, funny you never noticed before) screaming “BANZAI!” 6.
“Wait a minute Ray, there he goes—”
“Hopper! You asshole, come back here—”
“You’ll never get me in a strait jacket agaaaaain… .” Hopper’s voice goes fading around the corner as the MPs take off in pursuit.
It dawns on Slothrop, literally, through the yellowbrown window shade, that this is his first day Outside. His first free morning. He doesn’t have to go back. Free? What’s free? He falls asleep at last. A little before noon a young woman lets herself in with a passkey and leaves him the papers. He is now an English war correspondent named Ian Scuffling 7.
1 Slothrop has fled the clutches of The White Visitation and made out for Nice, where he hooks up with Blodgett Waxwing’s contacts in a squalid safehouse…the safehouse is actually closer to a madhouse though, or a halfway house.
2 Military Police—a concept that perplexed me when I was five or six, watching MASH reruns with my father. MASH is kinda sorta (slightly) Pynchonian, actually.
3 A fascinating notation.
Some jingoists would insist, of course, that no decent American (i.e., a Real American) ought to hear America the way it must sound to a non-American. Slothrop has already posed as an Englishman, but there’s a bit of a conversion here, I think—a shift for our shifter, who’s moving from not simply performing a double-agency to actually existing (or non-existing) one.
Cf. Walt Whitman’s 1860 poem “I Hear America Singing”:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
To which, Langston Hughes, in 1926 replied in “I Too”:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
4 When we most believe we are right we are most susceptible to being wrong. Unconsidered belief is terrifying.
5 Pynchon is too often accused of obscurity; his critique of blind patriotism and government propaganda is so clear that it hardly warrants this footnote. So I’ll comment, rather, on his brilliant modernist style—note the shift here, via free indirect speech, from third-person to first-person, from “he” to “we.”
6 I’m admittedly confused here—does the narrator attribute the expression BANZAI! to the MPs, or to John Wayne? I think what we have here is a conflation of both (which is to say a conflation of the third-person “he” with the first-person “I”—in other words, Slothrop, now attuned (or detuned) to “hearing America as it must sound to a non-American” can recast his country’s jingoistic martial fantasies and see/hear the Hero of the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex (John Wayne) as a cartoonish, racialized war trope).
In Japanese, the term banzai translates as ten thousand years, but basically means, as I’m sure you know, something like “Hooray.” During WWII, banzai was an attack cry for Japanese soldiers (review the independent clause after the ellipses in Pynchon’s original sentence).
Is BONZAI! here a strange transposition of GERONIMO!, an exclamation cribbed by U.S. Army parachutists from a 1939 film of the same name?
The ironic notation of John Wayne’s “slanted…eyes”seems like a nod to the notorious 1956 flop The Conqueror, which featured John Wayne as…Genghis Khan.
And speaking of BANZAI—
Have you seen the Pynchonesque 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension? It is good fun.
(W.D. Richter, director of Buckaroo Banzai, also co-wrote Big Trouble in Little China, in which Kurt Russell did a good/bad John Wayne impression).
7 Slothrop’s always shuffling off identities—or shuffling into them. Here, we get Ian Scuffling, his English journalist identity (for a few dozen pages). Scuffling…shuffling…? Let’s get the etymology.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984):