…Pynchon…invests his work with mythological associations on a vast scale, in a manner both deliberate and mocking, utilizing both central myths of Western civilization and popular culture myths. Orphic myths, manifested in various descents into the underworld, jostle against Faustian legend, which calls for trips up the Brocken, the Walpurgisnacht mountain, and these in turn are juxtaposed with fairytales like Hansel and Gretel, children’s stories like Alice in Wonderland or the Wizard of Oz, and archetypical figures from movies, such as Dracula, King Kong, and Jack Slade. In addition, there are allusions to classical, kabbalistic, and Christian contexts. By far the most significant are references to Norse and Teutonic myth. Swirling in the background of the novel are the trappings of Northern epic: runes, the Northern Lights (the flickering light given off by the Valkyries), dwarves, the titans Etzel and Utgarthaloki, and rainbows (the bridge to the abode of the gods), The distillation of meat and the novels first scene. Two of the principal figures are Blicero, or “white,” and his former love, the Herero Enzian, or “blue,” a name Blicero borrowed from Rilke; the body of the Norse goddess of death, Hela, is half white, half blue.
From Joseph W. Slade’s long essay “Living on the Interface: Preterition in Gravity’s Rainbow.” The essay is part of Slade’s 1974 book Thomas Pynchon, part of Warner Paperback Library’s “Writers for the 70’s” series.
“Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty”
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?
“The Gorgon’s Head”
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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.”
“And can I assist your Majesty in obtaining it?” cried Perseus, eagerly. Continue reading ““The Gorgon’s Head,” a myth retold by Nathaniel Hawthorne”