“Smite early and often” (Another Riff on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

Image by Samuel Ehrhardt, 1889

1. The passage I’ll be riffing on today is hardly the funniest or most dazzling piece of writing I’ve encountered so far in Thomas Pynchon’s massive, shaggy novel Against the Day. However, I think this stretch of writing neatly and concisely illustrates the perspective (maybe world view is a better term; hell, we could even go with fancy-pants Weltanschauung here) of who I take to be the novel’s most prominent villain, ruthless robber baron Scarsdale Vibe.

More significantly, I think this passage illustrates the ways that Pynchon’s big novel analyzes American history and illuminates the contemporary American zeitgeist.

2. The block quote citations are continuous, although I’ll be interrupting. The passage starts at the very bottom of page 331 and goes through 334 in my hardback Penguin first edition.

3. Okay, so a bit of context:

Our scene is mostly a dialogue, or a monologue really, between Scarsdale Vibe and his Other, Foley Walker, who took Scarsdale’s place in the Civil War, took a bullet to the brain, and now, like so many of the characters in Against the Day, has special powers (he can hear voices that tell him how to invest (Scarsdale’s) money in the market).

Back at Pearl Street, the two Vibes were sitting over brandy and cigars.

“A tough one to figure, that kid,” Foley opined. “Sure hope we ain’t got another Red in the root cellar like his old man.”

The “kid” here is hero Kit Traverse, and his old man — the “Red in the root cellar” — is the recently-deceased-on-Scarsdale’s-orders Webb Traverse, the Kieselguhr Kid, enemy of the captains of industry.

Scarsdale is backing Kit in the hopes that he’ll become “the next Edison” — and not, significantly, the next Tesla.

5. (Tesla v. Edison—another set of doubles in the book.

Tesla, Serbian-American, mad magician, prophet of science, seer of the invisible, wants to provide free power for all is clearly allied (in Pynchon’s book, that is) with the unions, the Traverses, labor—the good guys.

His double, Edison: American-American, reputed idea-thief, dog-electrocuter; Edison, a hustler who sweated out idea after idea, perhaps gracelessly; Edison, whose methods and inventions could generate corporate profits.

Tesla remarked of Edison, after his death: “he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense”).

6. Note that Scarsdale wouldn’t hesitate to kill Kit:

“Our duty would be no less clear. There are hundreds of these abscesses suppurating in the body of our Republic,” an oratorical throb creeping into Scarsdale’s voice, “which must be removed, wherever they are found. No other option. The elder Traverse’s sins are documented—once they were brought to light, he was as good as lost. Should there be moral reservations, in a class war, about targeting one’s enemies? You have been in this game long enough to appreciate how mighty are the wings we shelter beneath. How immune we are kept to the efforts of these muckraking Reds to soil our names. Unless—Walker, have I missed something? you aren’t developing a soft spot.”

As Scarsdale’s was not the only voice Foley had to attend to, he erred, as usual, on the side of mollification. He held out his glowing Havana. “If you can find a soft spot, use it to put this out on.”

“What happened to us, Foley? We used to be such splendid fellows.”

“Passage of Time, but what’s a man to do?”

“Too easy. Doesn’t account for this strange fury I feel in my heart, this desire to kill off every damned socialist and so on leftward, without any more mercy than I’d show a deadly microbe.”

“Sounds reasonable to me. Not like that we haven’t bloodied up our hands already here.” Scarsdale gazed out his window at a cityscape once fair but with the years grown more and more infested with shortcomings. “I wanted so to believe. Even knowing my own seed was cursed, I wanted the eugenics argument to be faulty somehow. At the same time I coveted the bloodline of my enemy, which I fancied uncontaminated, I wanted that promise, promise unlimited.”

Foley pretended his narrowing of gaze was owing to cigarsmoke. “Mighty Christian attitude,” he commented at last, in a tone as level as he could make it.

Here we see Scarsdale’s hatred of organized labor, of anything that impedes on his profits, get tangled into the ideology that underwrites this conflict. He even cites the conflict as “a class war.”  This class war interweaves into his personal life: he is usurping the coveted “bloodline of my enemy” by attempting to adopt Kit.

7. The scene then takes on a religious dimension, exploring a “Mighty Christian attitude”:

“Foley, I’m as impatient with religious talk as the next sinner. But what a burden it is to be told to love them, while knowing that they are the Antichrist itself, and that our only salvation is to deal with them as we ought.”

Pynchon’s villain here sounds like so many figures on the contemporary American Evangelical right, who repeatedly conflate their political/cultural enemies with “Antichrist” as a means to avoid the Jesusian imperative to love the Other.

8. Remember, wealthy Scarsdale—his father, really—was able to buy a deferment from the Civil War; Foley took his place:

It did not help Foley’s present mood that he had awakened that morning from a recurring nightmare of the Civil War. The engagement was confined to an area no bigger than an athletic field, though uncountable thousands of men had somehow been concentrated there. All was brown, gray, smoky, dark. A lengthy exchange of artillery had begun, from emplacements far beyond the shadowy edges of the little field. He had felt oppressed by the imminence of doom, of some suicidal commitment of infantry which no one would escape. A pile of explosives nearby, a tall, rickety wood crib of shells and other ammunition began to smolder, about to catch fire and blow up at any moment, a clear target for the cannonballs of the other side, which continued to come in, humming terribly, without pause. . . .

Foley has actually fought and been wounded and risked. He’s literally put skin in the game.

In contrast, Scarsdale Vibe was able to continue amassing and controlling wealth—just like other robber barons who bought deferments and then profited from the war (Andrew Carnegie, J.D. Rockefeller, and Jay Gould, just to name a few).

(Hey, can you think of any wealthy American men in contemporary times who avoided serving in a war but made ludicrous sums as war profiteers?)

9. Note how Scarsdale, claiming “My civil war has yet to come,” pitches the conflict between capital and labor in terms of a holy war:

“I didn’t have my war then,” Scarsdale had been saying. “Just as well. I was too young to appreciate what was at stake anyway. My civil war was yet to come. And here we are in it now, in the thick, no end in sight. The Invasion of Chicago, the battles of Homestead, the Coeur d’Alene, the San Juans. These communards speak a garble of foreign tongues, their armies are the damnable labor syndicates, their artillery is dynamite, they assassinate our great men and bomb our cities, and their aim is to despoil us of our hard-won goods, to divide and subdivide among their hordes our lands and our houses, to pull us down, our lives, all we love, until they become as demeaned and soiled as their own. О Christ, Who hast told us to love them, what test of the spirit is this, what darkness hath been cast over our understanding, that we can no longer recognize the hand of the Evil One?

Note the xenophobia here, the fear that the dark Other with their “garble of foreign tongues” will try “to pull us down, our lives, all we love.” Good thing this poor rich captain of industry will fight for Real America!

10. Scarsdale, weary from carrying his White Man’s Burden:

“I am so tired, Foley, I have struggled too long in these thankless waters, I am as an unconvoyed vessel alone in a tempest that will not, will never abate. The future belongs to the Asiatic masses, the pan-Slavic brutes, even, God help us, the black seething spawn of Africa interminable. We cannot hold. Before these tides we must go under. Where is our Christ, our Lamb? the Promise?”

Seeing his distress, Foley meant only to comfort. “In our prayers—”

“Foley, spare me that, what we need to do is start killing them in significant numbers, for nothing else has worked. All this pretending—’equality,’ ‘negotiation’—it’s been such a cruel farce, cruel to both sides. When the Lord’s people are in danger, you know what he requires.”


“Smite early and often.”

And there it is: The ideological veneer of demagoguery quickly gives way to the violent impulses seething underneath. Scarsdale’s Real America has no place for equality and negotiation. Just smiting.

11. And then quoth Foley:

“Hope there’s nobody listening in on this.”

I can’t help but read this as a joke, an echo (pre-echo?) of Nixonian paranoia. The direct recognition that there is a gap between intention at the core and the way that intention is represented (hidden) on the surface (in language, in gesture).

12. But Scarsdale is unafraid:

“God is listening. As to men, I have no shame about what must be done.” A queer tension had come into his features, as if he were trying to suppress a cry of delight.

“But you, Foley, you seem kind of—almost—nervous.” Foley considered briefly. “My nerves? Cast iron.” He relit his cigar, the matchflame unshaking. “Ready for anything.”

Scarsdale’s God is the god of the white man robber baron Real American capitalist, and “God is listening” not because he is omnipresent but because he is on Scarsdale’s side.

13. Foley doesn’t quite buy this resolve:

Aware of the Other Vibe’s growing reluctance to trust reports from out in the field, Foley, who usually was out there and thought he had a good grasp on things, at first resentful and after a while alarmed, had come to see little point these days in speaking up. The headquarters in Pearl Street seemed more and more like a moated castle and Scarsdale a ruler isolated in self resonant fantasy, a light to his eyes these days that was not the same as that old, straightforward acquisitive gleam. The gleam was gone, as if Scarsdale had accumulated all the money he cared to and was now moving on in his biography to other matters, to action in the great world he thought he understood but—even Foley could see—was failing, maybe fatally, even to ask the right questions about anymore.

Foley, who actually served in war, “who usually was out there,” can see that Scarsdale can only see what he wants to see—the Other Vibe lives in “a moated castle” as a “ruler isolated in self resonant fantasy,” blinded by the lights of his xenophobic ideology, which has moved beyond mere money to pursue some other greater power.

14. Foley, so far anyway, proves an important contrast, a balance even, to Scarsdale’s zealous evil. Through his eyes we can see the effects that isolation have taken on Scarsdale, who is becoming increasingly paranoid, anxious—crazy even. Scarsdale is completely divided from the men and women who create his wealth—he doesn’t understand (let alone empathize with) the average American—yet he sees himself as the God-appointed, self-created savior of America (an America with no place for equality or negotiation). The ways in which this passage diagnoses certain attitudes in contemporary American politics/big-business strikes me as so transparent that I won’t remark on them at further length. Pynchon’s novel documents the tail-end of the Gilded Age through the end of the Great War, showing us that the conflicts of the past are the conflicts of today—and tomorrow. 

“…he enjoyed a sort of dual existence” (Another Riff on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)
Art by Charles Dellschau (1830 Prussia – 1923)

He had brought with him a dime novel, one of the Chums of Chance series, The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth, and for a while each night he sat in the firelight and read to himself but soon found he was reading out loud to his father’s corpse, like a bedtime story, something to ease Webb’s passage into the dreamland of his death.

Reef had had the book for years. He’d come across it, already dog-eared, scribbled in, torn and stained from a number of sources, including blood, while languishing in the county lockup at Socorro, New Mexico, on a charge of running a game of chance without a license. The cover showed an athletic young man (it seemed to be the fearless Lindsay Noseworth) hanging off a ballast line of an ascending airship of futuristic design, trading shots with a bestially rendered gang of Eskimos below. Reef began to read, and soon, whatever “soon” meant, became aware that he was reading in the dark, lights-out having occurred sometime, near as he could tell, between the North Cape and Franz Josef Land. As soon as he noticed the absence of light, of course, he could no longer see to read and, reluctantly, having marked his place, turned in for the night without considering any of this too odd. For the next couple of days he enjoyed a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro and at the Pole. Cellmates came and went, the Sheriff looked in from time to time, perplexed.

At odd moments, now, he found himself looking at the sky, as if trying to locate somewhere in it the great airship. As if those boys might be agents of a kind of extrahuman justice, who could shepherd Webb through whatever waited for him, even pass on to Reef wise advice, though he might not always be able to make sense of it. And sometimes in the sky, when the light was funny enough, he thought he saw something familiar. Never lasting more than a couple of watch ticks, but persistent. “It’s them, Pa,” he nodded back over his shoulder. “They’re watching us, all right. And tonight I’ll read you some more of that story. You’ll see.”

Riding out of Cortez in the morning, he checked the high end of the Sleeping Ute and saw cloud on the peak. “Be rainin later in the day, Pa.”

“Is that Reef? Where am I? Reef, I don’t know where the hell I am—”

“Steady, Pa. We’re outside of Cortez, headin up to Telluride, be there pretty soon—”

“No. That’s not where this is. Everthin is unhitched. Nothin stays the same. Somethin has happened to my eyes. . . .”

“It’s O.K.”

“Hell it is.”

—From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (215).

1. There’s so much I like about this passage.

2. First, Pynchon explicitly ties together two groups of his characters here. Pynchon connects the Traverses of Colorado with those champions of the ether, The Chums of Chance.

And he does it through a novel, which I’ll get to in a minute.

3. I’ve already remarked on the adventurous, even light-hearted tone of the Chums of Chance episodes, which often buoy the narrative out of its byzantine winding.

4. The Chums passages contrast strongly with the Colorado episodes featuring the Traverses.

While Pynchon is not really known for his pathos or the depth of his characters, the Traverse story line is genuinely moving. We see the family disintegrate against the greed of the Colorado mining rush. Patriarch Webb cannot hold his family together, and he gives over to a deep bitterness; his union becomes his raison d’etre, and he undertakes dangerous secret missions to fight the forces of capitalism. It’s worth giving Webb’s opinion at length:

“Here. The most precious thing I own.” He took his union card from his wallet and showed them, one by one. “These words right here”—pointing to the slogan on the back of the card— “is what it all comes down to, you won’t hear it in school, maybe the Gettysburg Address, Declaration of Independence and so forth, but if you learn nothing else, learn this by heart, what it says here—‘Labor produces all wealth. Wealth belongs to the producer thereof.’ Straight talk. No doubletalking you like the plutes do, ’cause with them what you always have to be listening for is the opposite of what they say. ‘Freedom,’ then’s the time to watch your back in particular—start telling you how free you are, somethin’s up, next thing you know the gates have slammed shut and there’s the Captain givin you them looks. ‘Reform’? More new snouts at the trough. ‘Compassion’ means the population of starving, homeless, and dead is about to take another jump. So forth. Why, you could write a whole foreign phrase book just on what Republicans have to say.”

5. It’s also worth pointing out that Webb is likley the Kieselguhr Kid: He has a secret identity and secret powers, like many of the characters who inhabit Against the Day.

6. The Traverse passages recall the social realism of Steinbeck at times, with a dose of the moralizing we might find in Upton Sinclair. There’s also a heavy dash of Ambrose Bierce’s cynicism, and something of Bret Harte’s milieu here.

A kind of ballast for Pynchon’s flightier whims? Not sure.

7. Returning to our initial citation:

As prodigal son Reef Traverse moves his father’s corpse across Colorado, he reads from The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth. We learn that he’s had the dime novel for years and we learn of its physical condition — “dogeared, scribbled in, torn and stained from a number of sources, including blood.” The book is a kind of abject survivor, a physical totem with powers of endurance, which, in turn, grants metaphysical powers on its user-reader.

8. (Parenthetical (i.e. unexplored) aside: The cover of The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth features handsome, uptight Lindsay Noseworth facing off against a “bestially rendered gang of Eskimos.” Here is our Manifest Destiny; here is our White Man’s Burden).

9. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth allows Reef brief transcendence of time (“whatever ‘soon’ meant”) and space (it provides him escape from his jail cell).

10. Also: The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth grants its reader the power to read in the dark. There is something of a huge in-joke here that all late-night readers will appreciate.

Also: the major motif of At the End of the Day is darkness and light. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth works as a kind of self-illuminating object outside the confines of the physical world, but only when the user is not conscious of this power (“As soon as he noticed the absence of light, of course, he could no longer see to read”).

11. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth bestows upon Reef, its operator,  “a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro and at the Pole.” This relationship, again, won’t be unfamiliar to voracious readers. Hell, many of us chase that transcendent space the rest of our lives. The older we get, the harder it is to get back to Dickensian London or Rivendell or Crusoe’s island or Narnia or Thornfield Hall or wherever it was that we got to live out part of our dual existence.

Here Reef, a grown-ass man, gets to be one of the Chums and traverse an alien frontier.

12. And the biggie: Somehow this dime novel wakes the dead.

Now, it’s easy to say that Webb doesn’t really talk to Reef, just as we can easily say that Reef doesn’t really head to the pole with the Chums, doesn’t really transcend time and space, etc. We could look for simple answers in psychology—Reef has internalized his father’s voice; Reef is going mad.

But I think Pynchon’s presentation of the scene suggests something more—but something I don’t know how to name or describe, only a fifth of the way into this book. Something to look for in any case.

And so thus end with Webb’s line: “Somethin has happened to my eyes.”