The handsome Senator from Texas, the Capitol’s leading heartthrob, a former astronaut, and a likely future President, was in bed with two ladies, a young intern and the more mature Secretary of the Interior (the Senator called her the Secretary of the Posterior and had just made several charming off-color but complimentary remarks about hers, bringing an embarrassed flush to all four of her cheeks, and giggles from the intern, who was playing with two of them), when his private security phone chimed with the news: “The Martians have landed! In Texas!” He kissed the ladies, donned his spacesuit and helmet, and sprang into action.
The Senator flew his private jet directly from his ranch to the Martians’ landing site, not at all surprised that they had chosen the great state of Texas for this historic occasion. There, in an internationally televised address, he welcomed them to the once sovereign Republic of Texas, the last best place on earth and the heartland of the American nation, to which it also presently owed allegiance. The Martians poured out of their pear-shaped spaceship like spilled soup. They were pea-green, as anticipated, but with fluid bodies and multiple limbs that appeared and disappeared in the sticky flow. A random scattering of startled eyes blinked like tree lights. It wasn’t easy to see what separated one Martian from another.
a girl who keeps slipping off,
arms limp as old carrots,
into the hypnotist’s trance,
into a spirit world
speaking with the gift of tongues.
She is stuck in the time machine,
suddenly two years old sucking her thumb,
as inward as a snail,
learning to talk again.
She’s on a voyage.
She is swimming further and further back,
up like a salmon,
struggling into her mother’s pocketbook.
Little doll child,
come here to Papa.
Sit on my knee.
I have kisses for the back of your neck.
A penny for your thoughts, Princess.
I will hunt them like an emerald.
Come be my snooky
and I will give you a root.
That kind of voyage,
rank as a honeysuckle.
a king had a christening
for his daughter Briar Rose
and because he had only twelve gold plates
he asked only twelve fairies
to the grand event.
The thirteenth fairy,
her fingers as long and thing as straws,
her eyes burnt by cigarettes,
her uterus an empty teacup,
arrived with an evil gift.
She made this prophecy:
The princess shall prick herself
on a spinning wheel in her fifteenth year
and then fall down dead.
The court fell silent.
The king looked like Munch’s Scream
in times like those,
However the twelfth fairy
had a certain kind of eraser
and thus she mitigated the curse
changing that death
into a hundred-year sleep.
The king ordered every spinning wheel
exterminated and exorcised.
Briar Rose grew to be a goddess
and each night the king
bit the hem of her gown
to keep her safe.
He fastened the moon up
with a safety pin
to give her perpetual light
He forced every male in the court
to scour his tongue with Bab-o
lest they poison the air she dwelt in.
Thus she dwelt in his odor.
Rank as honeysuckle.
On her fifteenth birthday
she pricked her finger
on a charred spinning wheel
and the clocks stopped.
Yes indeed. She went to sleep.
The king and queen went to sleep,
the courtiers, the flies on the wall.
The fire in the hearth grew still
and the roast meat stopped crackling.
The trees turned into metal
and the dog became china.
They all lay in a trance,
each a catatonic
stuck in a time machine.
Even the frogs were zombies.
Only a bunch of briar roses grew
forming a great wall of tacks
around the castle.
tried to get through the brambles
for they had heard much of Briar Rose
but they had not scoured their tongues
so they were held by the thorns
and thus were crucified.
In due time
a hundred years passed
and a prince got through.
The briars parted as if for Moses
and the prince found the tableau intact.
He kissed Briar Rose
and she woke up crying:
Presto! She’s out of prison!
She married the prince
and all went well
except for the fear –
the fear of sleep.
was an insomniac…
She could not nap
or lie in sleep
without the court chemist
mixing her some knock-out drops
and never in the prince’s presence.
If if is to come, she said,
sleep must take me unawares
while I am laughing or dancing
so that I do not know that brutal place
where I lie down with cattle prods,
the hole in my cheek open.
Further, I must not dream
for when I do I see the table set
and a faltering crone at my place,
her eyes burnt by cigarettes
as she eats betrayal like a slice of meat.
I must not sleep
for while I’m asleep I’m ninety
and think I’m dying.
Death rattles in my throat
like a marble.
I wear tubes like earrings.
I lie as still as a bar of iron.
You can stick a needle
through my kneecap and I won’t flinch.
I’m all shot up with Novocain.
This trance girl
is yours to do with.
You could lay her in a grave,
an awful package,
and shovel dirt on her face
and she’d never call back: Hello there!
But if you kissed her on the mouth
her eyes would spring open
and she’d call out: Daddy! Daddy!
She’s out of prison.
There was a theft.
That much I am told.
I was abandoned.
That much I know.
I was forced backward.
I was forced forward.
I was passed hand to hand
like a bowl of fruit.
Each night I am nailed into place
and forget who I am.
That’s another kind of prison.
It’s not the prince at all,
but my father
drunkeningly bends over my bed,
circling the abyss like a shark,
my father thick upon me
like some sleeping jellyfish.
What voyage is this, little girl?
This coming out of prison?
God help –
this life after death?
December 1st.–It is curious to observe how many methods people put in practice here to pick up a halfpenny. Yesterday I saw a man standing bareheaded and barelegged in the mud and misty weather, playing on a fife, in hopes to get a circle of auditors. Nobody, however, seemed to take any notice. Very often a whole band of musicians will strike up,–passing a hat round after playing a tune or two. On board the ferry, until the coldest weather began, there were always some wretched musicians, with an old fiddle, an old clarinet, and an old verdigrised brass bugle, performing during the passage, and, as the boat neared the shore, sending round one of their number to gather contributions in the hollow of the brass bugle. They were a very shabby set, and must have made a very scanty living at best. Sometimes it was a boy with an accordion, and his sister, a smart little girl, with a timbrel,–which, being so shattered that she could not play on it, she used only to collect halfpence in. Ballad-singers, or rather chanters or croakers, are often to be met with in the streets, but hand-organ players are not more frequent than in our cities.
I still observe little girls and other children bare-legged and barefooted on the wet sidewalks. There certainly never was anything so dismal as the November weather has been; never any real sunshine; almost always a mist; sometimes a dense fog, like slightly rarefied wool, pervading the atmosphere.
An epitaph on a person buried on a hill-side in Cheshire, together with some others, supposed to have died of the plague, and therefore not admitted into the churchyards:–
“Think it not strange our bones ly here,
Thine may ly thou knowst not where.”
These graves were near the remains of two rude stone crosses, the purpose of which was not certainly known, although they were supposed to be boundary marks. Probably, as the plague-corpses were debarred from sanctified ground, the vicinity of these crosses was chosen as having a sort of sanctity.
“Bang beggar,”–an old Cheshire term for a parish beadle.
Hawthorne Hall, Cheshire, Macclesfield Hundred, Parish of Wilmslow, and within the hamlet of Morley. It was vested at an early period in the Lathoms of Irlam, Lancaster County, and passed through the Leighs to the Pages of Earlshaw. Thomas Leigh Page sold it to Mr. Ralph Bower of Wilmslow, whose children owned it in 1817. The Leighs built a chancel in the church of Wilmslow, where some of them are buried, their arms painted in the windows. The hall is an “ancient, respectable mansion of brick.”
Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally, to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.
Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.
The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:
Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .
The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.
Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:
He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)
Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):
Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.
BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW
YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:
They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.
“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:
The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.
In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painfulit is to wake up to these messages:
It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.
Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.
I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!
Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post a few years ago. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.
I 1 think that there is a terrible possibility now, in the World 2. We may not brush it away, we must look at it. It is possible that They 3 will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to go on forever 4—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have. Death 5 has been the source of Their power. It was easy enough for us to see that. If we are here once, only once 6, then clearly we are here to take what we can while we may 7. If They have taken much more, and taken not only from Earth but also from us 8 —well, why begrudge Them, when they’re just as doomed to die as we are? All in the same boat, all under the same shadow…yes…yes. But is that really true? Or is it the best, and the most carefully propagated, of all Their lies, known and unknown? 9
1 The speaker here is Father Rapier, a very minor character, one of Pynchon’s heroes of the Counterforce, the Preterite who rally (if that is the right verb, which it isn’t) around the unraveling spirit of Slothrop against the Elect.
Father Rapier is “a Jesuit . . . here to preach, like his colleague Teilhard de Chardin, against return. Here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good.”
Rapier preaches his “Critical Mass” in a cottage in the bizarro-Limbo headquarters of the Counterforce; his shack is appropriately beshingled with the sign “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE.”
Pynchon’s Counterforce points to a coming community. Indeed, Gravity’s Rainbow might be seen as an imaginative study of postwar communities, of new forms of social organization (social organizations tellingly organized against the They): The Counterforce of disaffected rebels; the Sudwest Hereros assembling their 00001 rocket; the Argentine anarchists; the homosexuals liberated from Dora; the Anubis orgiasts (orgiers? orgy-goers? What’s the word for orgy participants?)—etc. Each of these coming communities attempts to synthesize the detritus of the War into Something New. And speaking of synthesis—
Rapier’s “colleague [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin” (1881-1955) tried to synthesize science and spirituality in what he called an Omega Point, a spiritual/physical singularity, a condensation of spirit and mass into a “supreme consciousness”: Christ: God: Logos. Or, in Pynchon’s Rapier wit: Critical Mass.
Rapier rails against systems of control: The Elect will not fight the coming postWar Preterite communities directly, but rather enslave them via byzantine bureaucracies.
Cf. A.E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to Tarot (1910), one of Pynchon’s sources for Gravity’s Rainbow. Some of the language here (which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting) echoes Rapier’s Critical Mass/de Chardin’s Omega Point:
It represents also the perfection and end of the Cosmos, the secret which is within it, the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God. It is further the state of the soul in the consciousness of Divine Vision, reflected from the self-knowing spirit. But these meanings are without prejudice to that which I have said concerning it on the material side. It has more than one message on the macrocosmic side and is, for example, the state of the restored world when the law of manifestation shall have been carried to the highest degree of natural perfection. But it is perhaps more especially a story of the past, referring to that day when all was declared to be good, when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.
The World is what Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow are most interested in—both its past and its coming communities.
Significantly, The World is the final card in Captain Dominus Blicero Weissmann’s tarot (see page 746):
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.
3 The Elect. The baddies.
4 Rapier will, a few lines later, compare Them to vampires.
Here—and elsewhere in Pynchon (most clearly and perhaps most cogently in Against the Day)—the Elect—the They—manipulate and monopolize the earth’s resources in order to prolong their dominance. Those resources include humans: The Preterite: the low: the feebs.
A.E. Waite again; again, I’ve highlighted in boldface phrases that suit my own purposes for this riff:
The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton. Behind it lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit. The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. The horseman carries no visible weapon, but king and child and maiden fall before him, while a prelate with clasped hands awaits his end. … The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate. The existing occult explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.
6 If we are here once (only once), then eternal recurrence is a nonstarter.
The phrase clearly echoes lines from one of Pynchon’s major GR sources, Rainer Maria Rilke’s mystical Duino Elegies (1923). From “Ninth Elegy”:
Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more.
And we also once, Never again. But this having been once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
Once, only once, and once for all,
his precious life he gave;
before the cross in faith we fall,
and own it strong to save.
7 In “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) advised
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
Seems like a Preterite Sermon.
8 Cf. note 4. Throughout GR, the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources is a persistent if minor theme. Gravity’s Rainbow’s ecological critiques are overlooked perhaps because it’s a given in Pynchon’s critique that They would use ecological capital and human capital without regard. Consider the Slothrop family, which made its non-fortune by milling trees into “Money, shit, and The Word” — papers the real value of which Pynchon invites us to interrogate.
9 Pynchon’s mouthpieces often hedge their bets in eithers and ors, zeroes and ones. We systems and They systems, in the parlance of the Counterforce. Are we all under the same shadow (of Death? of the falling rocket?) Are we all in the same boat?—which is to say, are we all working together toward the same coming community—are we rowing in the same direction?
A few paragraphs from Italo Calvino’s 1968 story “The Daughters of the Moon”:
That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day. This feast came around every year, on a day in November, and had been set up to allow shoppers to display their gratitude toward the god Production, who tirelessly satisfied their every desire. The biggest department store in town organized a parade every year: an enormous balloon in the shape of a garishly colored doll was paraded through the main streets, pulled by ribbons that sequin-clad girls held as they marched behind a musical band. That day, the procession was coming down Fifth Avenue: the majorette twirled her baton in the air, the big drums banged, and the balloon giant, representing the Satisfied Customer, flew among the skyscrapers, obediently advancing on leashes held by girls in kepis, tassels, and fringed epaulets, riding spangly motorcycles.
At the same time, another parade was crossing Manhattan. The flaky, moldy moon was also advancing, sailing between the skyscrapers, pulled by the naked girls, and behind it came a line of beat-up cars and skeletons of trucks, amid a silent crowd that was gradually increasing in size. Thousands of people joined the throng that had been following the moon since the early hours of the morning, people of all colors, whole families with children of every age, especially as the procession filed past the crowded black and Puerto Rican areas of Harlem.
The lunar procession zigzagged around uptown, then started down Broadway, and came quickly and silently to converge with the other procession, which was dragging its balloon giant along Fifth Avenue.
At Madison Square, one procession met the other; or, more precisely, the two became a single procession. The Satisfied Customer, perhaps owing to a collision with the moon’s jagged surface, deflated into a rubber rag. On the motorcycles now were the Dianas, pulling the moon with multicolored ribbons; or, rather, since the number of naked women had at least doubled, the female motorcyclists must have thrown away their uniforms and kepis. A similar transformation had overtaken the motorcycles and the cars in the parade. You could no longer tell which were the old cars and which were the new: the twisted wheels, the rusty fenders were mixed together with bodywork as shiny as a mirror and paint that gleamed like enamel.
On the evening of Thanksgiving day, John Inglefield, the blacksmith, sat in his elbow-chair, among those who had been keeping festival at his board. Being the central figure of the domestic circle, the fire threw its strongest light on his massive and sturdy frame, reddening his rough visage, so that it looked like the head of an iron statue, all aglow, from his own forge, and with its features rudely fashioned on his own anvil. At John Inglefield’s right hand was an empty chair. The other places round the hearth were filled by the members of the family, who all sat quietly, while, with a semblance of fantastic merriment, their shadows danced on the wall behind then. One of the group was John Inglefield’s son, who had been bred at college, and was now a student of theology at Andover. There was also a daughter of sixteen, whom nobody could look at without thinking of a rosebud almost blossomed. The only other person at the fireside was Robert Moore, formerly an apprentice of the blacksmith, but now his journeyman, and who seemed more like an own son of John Inglefield than did the pale and slender student.
Only these four had kept New England’s festival beneath that roof. The vacant chair at John Inglefield’s right hand was in memory of his wife, whom death had snatched from him since the previous Thanksgiving. With a feeling that few would have looked for in his rough nature, the bereaved husband had himself set the chair in its place next his own; and often did his eye glance thitherward, as if he deemed it possible that the cold grave might send back its tenant to the cheerful fireside, at least for that one evening. Thus did he cherish the grief that was dear to him. But there was another grief which he would fain have torn from his heart; or, since that could never be, have buried it too deep for others to behold, or for his own remembrance. Within the past year another member of his household had gone from him, but not to the grave. Yet they kept no vacant chair for her.
While John Inglefield and his family were sitting round the hearth with the shadows dancing behind them on the wall, the outer door was opened, and a light footstep came along the passage. The latch of the inner door was lifted by some familiar hand, and a young girl came in, wearing a cloak and hood, which she took off, and laid on the table beneath the looking-glass. Then, after gazing a moment at the fireside circle, she approached, and took the seat at John Inglefield’s right hand, as if it had been reserved on purpose for her. Continue reading “Read “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne”→
The sky of U.S.A.’s desert was clotted with blue stars. Now it was deep at night. Only above the U.S.A. city was the sky blank of stars; its color was pearly and blank. Marathe shrugged. ‘Perhaps in you is the sense that citizens of Canada are not involved in the real root of the threat.’
Steeply shook the head in seeming annoyance. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he said. The lurid wig of him slipped when he moved the head with any abrupt force.
The first way Marathe betrayed anything of emotion was to smooth rather too fussily at the blanket on his lap. ‘It is meaning that it will not of finality be Québecers making this kick to l’aine des Etats Unis. Look: the facts of the situation speak loudly. What is known. This is a U.S.A. production, this Entertainment cartridge. Made by an American man in the U.S.A. The appetite for the appeal of it: this also is U.S.A. The U.S.A. drive for spectation, which your culture teaches. This I was saying: this is why choosing is everything. When I say to you choose with great care in loving and you make ridicule it is why I look and say: can I believe this man is saying this thing of ridicule?’ Marathe leaned slightly forward on his stumps, leaving the machine pistol to use both his hands in saying. Steeply could tell this was important to Marathe; he really believed it.
Marathe made small emphatic circles and cuts in the air while he spoke: ‘These facts of situation, which speak so loudly of your Bureau’s fear of this samizdat: now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so-called perfect Entertainment, this film. Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving: Hugh Steeply, in complete seriousness as a citizen of your neighbor I say to you: forget for a moment the Entertainment, and think instead about a U.S.A. where such a thing could be possible enough for your Office to fear: can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time? To survive as a nation of peoples? To much less exercise dominion over other nations of other peoples? If these are other peoples who still know what it is to choose? who will die for something larger? who will sacrifice the warm home, the loved woman at home, their legs, their life even, for something more than their own wishes of sentiment? who would choose not to die for pleasure, alone?’
Here are the first few paragraphs of “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm”:
The schoolmarm is playing poker in the town saloon. The stake is the saloon itself. As she is preparing to deal the cards, one of the men demands that she cut the fuckin’ deck, and she shoots him from her lap. “Sorry, but I simply cannot allow . . .”
The others tip their crumpled hats. “No, ma’am, you just go ahead and deal.”
The men of the town find the schoolmarm difficult but are awed by her refined and lofty character, and generally do what she tells them to do. The sheriff likes to say that she’s as pure as the spotless lily of the lake, though they have no lake, and there are no lilies in it. No damn lilies. The men cuss a lot—in fact, all the time—but never around the schoolmarm. Cussing doesn’t go together with the schoolmarm. It’s like salting your coffee, to put it politely.
After winning the saloon in the poker hand, the schoolmarm has the deceased removed and turns the card tables into school desks. The bar becomes an altar on Sundays, but there’s no preacher, so the schoolmarm provides temperance lectures from it, which the men are obliged to attend. In their minds, it’s still the old bar, the old saloon, so they carry along hip flasks and beef jerky to ease themselves through the unholy tedium, belching and snorting noisily.
At the Uffizi, in Florence, is this odd painting by Titian. For a while, no one knew who the artist was. First the work was attributed to Leonardo and then to Sebastiano del Piombo. Though there’s still no absolute proof, today the critics are inclined to credit it to Titian. In the painting we see a man, still young, with long dark curly hair and a beard and mustache perhaps slightly tinged with red, who, as he poses, gazes off toward the right, probably toward a window that we can’t see, but still a window that somehow one imagines is closed, yet with curtains open or parted enough to allow a yellow light to filter into the room, a light that in time will become indistinguishable from the varnish on the painting.
The young man’s face is beautiful and deeply thoughtful. He’s looking toward the window, if he’s looking anywhere, though probably all he sees is what’s happening inside his head. But he’s not contemplating escape. Perhaps Titian told him to turn like that, to turn his face into the light, and the young man is simply obeying him. At the same time, one might say that all the time in the world stretches out before him. By this I don’t mean that the young man thinks he’s immortal. On the contrary. The young man knows that life renews itself and that the art of renewal is often death. Intelligence is visible in his face and his eyes, and his lips are turned down in an expression of sadness, or maybe it’s something else, maybe apathy, none of which excludes the possibility that at some point he might feel himself to be master of all the time in the world, because true as it is that man is a creature of time, theoretically (or artistically, if I can put it that way) time is also a creature of man.
In fact, in this painting, time — sketched in invisible strokes — is a kitten perched on the young man’s hands, his gloved hands, or rather his gloved right hand which rests on a book: and this right hand is the perfect measure of the sick man, more than his coat with a fur collar, more than his loose shirt, perhaps of silk, more than his pose for the painter and for posterity (or fragile memory), which the book promises or sells. I don’t know where his left hand is.
How would a medieval painter have painted this sick man? How would a non-figurative artist of the twentieth century have painted this sick man? Probably howling or wailing in fear. Judged under the eye of an incomprehensible God or trapped in the labyrinth of an incomprehensible society. But Titian gives him to us, the spectators of the future, clothed in the garb of compassion and understanding. That young man might be God or he might be me. The laughter of a few drunks might be my laughter or my poem. That sweet Virgin is my friend. That sad-faced Virgin is the long march of my people. The boy who runs with his eyes closed through a lonely garden is us.
Perseus was the son of Danae, who was the daughter of a king. And when Perseus was a very little boy, some wicked people put his mother and himself into a chest, and set them afloat upon the sea. The wind blew freshly, and drove the chest away from the shore, and the uneasy billows tossed it up and down; while Danae clasped her child closely to her bosom, and dreaded that some big wave would dash its foamy crest over them both. The chest sailed on, however, and neither sank nor was upset; until, when night was coming, it floated so near an island that it got entangled in a fisherman’s nets, and was drawn out high and dry upon the sand. The island was called Seriphus, and it was reigned over by King Polydectes, who happened to be the fisherman’s brother.
This fisherman, I am glad to tell you, was an exceedingly humane and upright man. He showed great kindness to Danae and her little boy; and continued to befriend them, until Perseus had grown to be a handsome youth, very strong and active, and skilful in the use of arms. Long before this time, King Polydectes had seen the two strangers—the mother and her child—who had come to his dominions in a floating chest. As he was not good and kind, like his brother the fisherman, but extremely wicked, he resolved to send Perseus on a dangerous enterprise, in which he would probably be killed, and then to do some great mischief to Danae herself. So this bad-hearted king spent a long while in considering what was the most dangerous thing that a young man could possibly undertake to perform. At last, having hit upon an enterprise that promised to turn out as fatally as he desired, he sent for the youthful Perseus.
The young man came to the palace, and found the king sitting upon his throne.
“Perseus,” said King Polydectes, smiling craftily upon him, “you are grown up a fine young man. You and your good mother have received a great deal of kindness from myself, as well as from my worthy brother the fisherman, and I suppose you would not be sorry to repay some of it.”
“Please your Majesty,” answered Perseus, “I would willingly risk my life to do so.”
“Well, then,” continued the king, still with a curving smile on his lips, “I have a little adventure to propose to you; and, as you are a brave and enterprising youth, you will doubtless look upon it as a great piece of good luck to have so rare an opportunity of distinguishing yourself. You must know, my good Perseus, I think of getting married to the beautiful Princess Hippodamia; and it is customary, on these occasions, to make the bride a present of some far-fetched and elegant curiosity. I have been a little perplexed, I must honestly confess, where to obtain anything likely to please a princess of her exquisite taste. But, this morning, I flatter myself, I have thought of precisely the article.”
In a corporate State 1, a place must be made for innocence, and its many uses 2. In developing an official version of innocence, the culture of childhood has proven invaluable 3 . Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe 4 can be adapted and even embodied in a physical place, such as at Zwölfkinder 5. Over the years it had become a children’s resort, almost a spa. If you were an adult, you couldn’t get inside the city limits without a child escort. There was a child mayor 6, a child city council of twelve. Children picked up the papers, fruit peelings and bottles you left in the street, children gave you guided tours through the Tierpark 7, the Hoard of the Nibelungen 8, cautioning you to silence during the impressive re-enactment of Bismarck’s elevation, at the spring equinox of 1871, to prince and imperial chancellor 9,… child police reprimanded you if you were caught alone, without your child accompanying. Whoever carried on the real business of the town—it could not have been children—they were well hidden.10
From page 419 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1 Pynchon, as always, diagnoses not just the past and present, but the future. The state is corporate; They — the oligarchy et al. — run the show. And conceptualizing innocence is part of running that show.
2 Cf. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789). In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), Blake wrote: “Without Contraries is no progression.” Without corruption there is no innocence; without abjection there is no purity; without an elect, there is no preterite.
Blake’s Songs share much in common with Pynchon’s big novel—both argue for the preterite, pointing out the ways in which industrial technologies exploit the most vulnerable among us; both are wildly, acidly vivid; both employ metaphors of fall and ascent; both foreground the utterly real humanity of their subjects.
Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” (from Experience) shows in simple language how the official version of innocence can be used to enforce the dominant and exploitative order. Consider the last stanza:
And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery
Blake’s chimney sweeper asserts his right to happiness, to laughter and joy. The creative impulse is a Counterforce against Them—here, the Priest and King. Yet They co-opt the dancing and joy and convert it into signs of “the official version of innocence”: a lie to cover over the utter corruption of the dominant order.
3 You’ve read Freud, right? Like, those ideas on infantile sexuality that are downright icky, and yet nevertheless reaffirmed and reinforced by the Corporate State? (Oligarchial capitalism simultaneously infantilizes and sexualizes its subjects). Gravity’s Rainbow does a lot of stuff it’s easier (less queasier) to write off as abject than to actually like, think through. But GR also shows that They infantilize and sexualize childhood in the service of control, as a way of establishing (and blurring and “defiling”) official versions of innocence.
Consider Our Poor Hero Tyrone Slothrop, whose conditioning as an infant by Laszlo Jamf (involving the mysterious MacGuffin Imipolex G) leads to erections that predict rocket strikes. (I swear that sentence makes sense).
4 “Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believecan be adapted and even embodied in a physical places” — physical places like Gravity’s Rainbow. Well, okay. I mean, we get a condensation here of Pynchon’s process, his synthesis, his grab-bag of songs and japes and jibes and jokes and tales and etcetera.
But Pynchon’s pointing out other, perhaps more nefarious and venal and corporate uses for the same cultural material he’s massaging: A fucking theme park. Like, uh, Disneyland. Or Disneyworld. Etcetera, you get it—that we—did I just write We?!—I want to say They—that They colonize and corporatize the imagination; that They gobble up the cultural material and excrete it in smooth, digestible, sanitized (yet subtly sexualized)—and consumable, marketable!—segments that we take our kids to queue up to experience in their innocence.
“Twelve Children” – the name evokes Jacob’s twelve sons (and the daughter who is not one of the official twelve). This pattern is self-consciously repeated in the Grimms’ tale “The Twelve Brothers”, where the boys are to die if their mother gives birth to a girl.
The camp, which is also a quasi-town, may be modelled after Theresienstadt, the Jewish town/Lager set up by the Nazis in what is now the Czech Republic. This is suggested by themes like transit, phoney children’s paradise, as well as the large orchestra, or the number 60,000 (the number of those who “passed through” Zwölfkinder as well the population of Theresienstadt at its peak). It also recalls another totalitarian institution, that of the communist “children’s towns” (large, town-like, somewhat militarized holiday camps for Young Pioneers), whose prototype was Artek in the Soviet Union. (Deutsches Jungvolk also had its summer camps.)
Further, consider Argentina’s Republic of Children, a city proportioned for children, which was created under Juan Peron’s regime and opened in 1951.
The Oedipal plot of Grimms’ “The Twelve Children” repeats throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, and I invite you to look for it lurking in Disney.
“At the entrance to the town, barring their way, stands the Midget who played the lead in Freaks. The one with the German accent. He is the town sheriff. He is wearing an enormous gold star that nearly covers his chest.”
The little person referenced is Harry Earles who played Hans in Freaks (1932; dir. Tod Browning).
7 The zoo.
8 A vast treasure hoard, such as Scrooge McDuck might dive into, or Bilbo Baggins and his pals might play upon.
The Nibelungen Hoard, as I’m sure you know, is the treasure of the Nibelungen. (You know Wagner’s Ring Cycle, eh? Or you’ve read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, right?—you get the idea. The titular Nibelung is the dwarf Alberich, by the way).
The tale of that same treasure might well your wonder raise;
’T was much as twelve huge wagons in four whole nights and days
Could carry from the mountain down to the salt-sea bay,
If to and fro each wagon thrice journeyed every day.
It was made up of nothing but precious stones and gold;
Were all the world bought from it, and down the value told,
Not a mark the less thereafter were left, than erst was scored.
Good reason sure had Hagan to covet such a hoard.
In the Nibelungenlied, Hagen murders the hero Siegfried and then steals and hides the Nibelung hoard.
9 Otto von Bismarck, 1815-1898, who unified Germany through technocracy and, uh, war.
10 “…they were well hidden”: A précis of Pynchonian paranoia, perhaps.