The Chumps of Choice

A Congenial Spot for the Discussion of Against the Day, by Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Cornell '59, and Any Other Damned Thing That Comes Into Our Heads. Warning: Grad Students and Willie-Wavers will be mocked.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Tibetan Ampersands

All right, so we're not gonna start discussing the book until Monday. That doesn't mean we can't admire the packaging, right?

I've found out a couple of interesting things about the cover and front matter of the Tome. I'm going to split them into two posts, so we get two threads of conversation going. (Still feeling our way, here, foax!)

An intrepid poster over at Pynchon-L (the listserv dedicated to Our Artificer, an anarchic and fascinating, if bruising, place -- take it from someone who knows) got curious about the red seal that appears on the cover -- that squiggly thing that we've oh-so-imaginatively appropriated for our own bug at the top of the right column over there. One Ya Sam took a flyer at it, and had this to report:
I contacted the Tibetan Cultural Centre with the request to translate the mysterious legend on the AtD seal. They were kind enough to forward my request to the Tibetan translator Tenzin Namgyal to whose generosity we owe the solution of one more AtD related mystery.

It is the Tibetan language, alright, and it means ...... Tibetan Government Chamber of Commerce.
I have absolutely no idea what to make of this, but I can say from dire experience that it cracks my ass right up. As Sandy Belth, Ya Sam's correspondent at the Tibetan Cultural Center quite sensibly suggests, "Why Pynchon has chosen to place this on the cover of his book is anyone's guess.... Perhaps after one has read it?" Sister, you said a mouthful.

This brings to mind an incident from your correspondent's own experience, years and years ago. Early in my own brash days at Pynchon-L, during the preliminary warmups and stretching before the Main Event -- a group reading of Mason & Dixon -- there arose the topic of the ampersand prominently displayed on the front cover of the very newly published book. I noted the mellifluous name of Raquel Jaramillo listed as the designer of the book's jacket. Being young and fearless (and having once been in the book-design game myself for a few years), I looked up Henry Holt in the phonebook, dialed 'em up:

"Henry Holt, publishers."

"Hi, may I speak with Raquel Jaramillo, please?"

"Certainly, sir, please hold."

(Ring, ring..)

"Hello, Raquel speaking."

Wow. Easy as that.

"Hi, I'm Neddie Jingo. I'm an Internet Creep." (I may not actually have phrased it quite like that, but it sure sounded that way coming out of my mouth.)

Having won her trust with my honeyed words, I extracted from her a fascinating tale about that ampersand. Pynchon had worked closely with her on the design of the jacket, being very fussy about the look of the type, which had been scanned from period documents and manipulated in Photoshop to appear just so. But he was not happy with any of the ampersands in her collection -- either scanned from old papers or ginned up from her type catalog.

Then one day, he appeared triumphantly in her studio with just the right ampersand, which he'd found in a previously overlooked document from his research. Raquel scanned it, ran a few filters, and presto. There it was.

So you can be absolutely certain that that Tibetan Government Chamber of Commerce seal means something. It ain't there by accident.

Let's take that one as an Action Item, eh?

And wouldn't that make a great tattoo for the other arm, eh, Will?

Tomorrow: That Thelonious Monk Quote.


At Friday, December 08, 2006 2:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, it's a hard guess, but here's my wild guess:

The book is supposed to be a huge chunk of Iceland spar (a good explanation to the weight and size to the book), which "can be used to determine the distance to an object viewed through it". A topic in itself.

Still, a huge chunk of Iceland spar, or calcite, sent from Tibet, way back when Tibet was a free country. Is the writer of Against the Day in Tibet?

By thw way, a quick Google search shows the Tibetan Chamber of Commerce is still active, albeit in exile. A relation to our era, perhaps?

At Friday, December 08, 2006 4:51:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Yeah, I'm not sure a red cream puff with banners would exactly balance on my other arm, but someone else's surely.

At Friday, December 08, 2006 8:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another intrepid poster at the P-List, when someone (perhaps thinking of Oedipa Maas), despaired of ever discovering the meaningfulness of the Tibetan stamp, responded, "Well, you obviously haven't read to page 1083 yet, have you?" There was a manic glee in her tone, discernable even thru the otherwise opaque medium of email. Shite, I thought, I gotta wait till I'm like two pages from the end? She's kidding, right?...

Speaking of opaque, howzabout the palimpsested text, sans/serif/sans? Iceland Spar, indeed. From my vertiginous perch at about page 510, I can look back, and down the long and at times perilous slopes, and say we won't be much further along than abt page 126 before this multiple image (multiple exposure?) will become (ahem) clear. Sr Villamar's trenchant speculations aren't the half of it...

At Friday, December 08, 2006 8:16:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

Wow. A palimpsest! Hot diggity spit!

From the Wikipedia article on palimpsests:

"With the passing of time the faint remains of the former writing that had been washed from parchment or vellum, using milk and oat bran, would reappear enough so that scholars can make out the text (which they call the scriptio inferior, the "underwriting") and decipher it."

At Friday, December 08, 2006 11:25:00 AM, Anonymous cleek said...

i got my copy in the mail yesterday. it weighs twice as much as the digital 8-track recorder i got the day before.


At Friday, December 08, 2006 3:46:00 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

I don't want to know what the Tibetan Government Chamber of Commerce seal "means" or doesn't mean, I'm just impressed that you tracked down the translation. And for some reason the answer tickles me no end.

At Sunday, December 10, 2006 1:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The coin bears a striking resemblance to the doubloon in _Moby-Dick_ that Ahab nails to the mainmast as a prize to the first crew member to sight the white whale. Melville's description runs thus:

It so chanced that the doubloon of the Pequod was a most wealthy example of these things. On its round border it bore the letters, REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR: QUITO. So this bright coin came from a country planted in the middle of the world, and beneath the great equator, and named after it; and it had been cast midway up the Andes, in the unwaning clime that knows no autumn. Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes' summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.

The coin serves as a sort of pre-Rorshach Rorshach test with all the major characters weighing in interpretations of the imagery that reveal more about their own characters than about the coin (Ahab, e.g., sees only himself). Those interested can find the text of "The Doubloon" chapter at:

This is in keeping with both the tripling of images theme that the Icelandic Spar seems to typify and Pynchon's frequent appeals to a sort of radical relativism, wherein one's world is defined more by one's perceptions of it than by material reality. Also, the Tibetan coin provides a chilly, antipodal antithesis the Ecuadorean mountain peaks. Though the image appears to be more of a stamp than a doubloon, there is a clear iconographic relation between the two. The stamp, being applied to AtD itself, serves as an alternative authority under whose control the book falls in addition to Pynchon's himself.

While I'm at it, has anyone noticed that the refracted image of the title on the title page reflects not the original image itself but "Thomas" and "Pynchon," which seems to be an admission of the deep relationship between author and work that Tom denied early in his career but admits to in the "Intro" to _Slow Learner_.

Finally, three questions that I don't have decent answers to: what's the deal with the (aparaently last minute?) addition of white borders to the book jacket? just an emphasis on whiteness & light? I hope there's a decent iconographic explanation, because on a purely aesthetic level I think it's kind of ugly. Also, there seems to be have been a decision to rely on, in the formatting of the book's title bits, both black and grey text, which the dust jacket establishes as signifying both original and polarized light. My question is if this distinction is maintained rigorously throughout, or if it's just a formally unifying stylistic decision. Lastly, Tom's always been a little compulsive about his color imagery. The book's white and cream binding makes sense given all the interest in whiteness and light, but what's with the mauve spine? Could there be intertextual resonances with role of mauve in GR?

At Sunday, December 10, 2006 7:47:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes' summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.

Dear GOD! This is astonishing!

Can you imagine the sheer glee Pynchon must have experienced when he saw that Tibetan stamp and recognized Melville's doubloon?

A-and it's so perfect, down to the antipodeal mirroring of the Andes and the Himalayas!


what's the deal with the (aparaently last minute?) addition of white borders to the book jacket? just an emphasis on whiteness & light? I hope there's a decent iconographic explanation, because on a purely aesthetic level I think it's kind of ugly.

I don't know about the last-minute-edness of the addition of the white, but surely the cream-colored rectangles in the middle of the jacket are meant to suggest parchment? I see aging around the edges, and the fornt and back versions are not identical... That's why my own glee-glands were tickled by DJ's mention of the word "palimpsest," which he assures me (with the giggling superiority of someone who's farther in the text than me) is not insignificant. I thought, surely those ghostly letters have been brought forth with the medievalist's milk and oat bran?

At Monday, December 11, 2006 1:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't mean to dampen your glee, Neddie, but are we certain that the seal is a found image? The current seal of the Tibetan Chamber of Commerce bears no relation to AtD's (, and I wonder if this one isn't a Tommy Boy original production intentionally mimicing Melville's.

My comment re: the white borders comes from the fact that, if I remember correctly, the image on Amazon for the cover originally just had the parchment. Don't know if that was just a function of the image being rushed off prematurely or if it reflected a last minute change.

And, one last thought on the title page and its refracted image: because the title is the bold image, it suggests that it is the primary image and TP is a polarization of the book (I'm extremely hazy on the optics here, so if anyone knows better, please correct me) - a spatial parallel maybe to TP's ongoing fascination with the reversal of cause and effect.

At Monday, December 11, 2006 2:31:00 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

What strikes me about the book design, which I'm sure is completely unintentional, is how it makes me think of The White Album by The Beatles every time I pick it up.

At Friday, December 15, 2006 8:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "Stamp" or "Seal" or "Coin" or whatever you choose to call the ideogram in question. has a Tuvan form of the Tibetan alphabet for the "Tibetan Chamber of Commerce" script on the ikon. The visual design of the Himalayan mountains with snow lion has its closest match in a Tibetan coin. The Tuvan throat singing---something absorbed/adapted by one group or the other into Tibetan Chant---plays a vital role in the novel. It should be noted, that in AtD we are inside the world of the anarchists, the dispossesed, the counterforces, the sorts of people who would choose to use underground modes of communication and alternative economic systems. As far as I'm concerned, that "Stamp" is obviously, deliberately presented as some sort of contrafactual evidence, something that in legal language you might find the words Traverse, or Traversing hiding out somewhere. The Tibetan Chamber of Commerce did not exist until 2005, and as far as I can tell, the Tuvan script is nowhere to be found on offical Tibetan stamps, coins, telegraph stamps, or anything else offically representing the Tibetan Government.

"Dharamshala: Tibetan Chamber of Commerce, the first association of Tibetan businessmen, has been registered under the Societies Registration Act XXI of 1860 at the Registrar of Societies, Delhi, on 7 October 2005."

On the other hand, Tuvan stamps are famous in the realm of Philately for "Cinderellas", "EFOs", and downright fraulent postage. Sometimes even the infamous "Potsage". It might be considered that the author might even be a Philatelist himself.

As for the meaning or import of the ikon, I suspect that the most probable meaning forms by the time you get to page 1081.


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