Attention All Ætherists And Anti-Stoners!
Happy New Year, Chumps! Welcome to 2007, where verbosity is never verboten. I hope no one minds my interspersing the synopsis and notes into one sustained narrative. I found it easier on myself to do it that way. However, if it's preferable to keep them separate, then someone just say so and I'll approach the text as the others have done on my next at-bat. Also, a quick welcome to a new Chump, an Internet friend of mine who blogs under the name Monstro. One visit to his blog and you'll understand immediately why he's here. So, did you come hungry? Good... Here's 4,000 words to chew on.
Synopsis and Thoughts:
Our section opens several years in the past (relative to the preceding section). Merle dreams of being in an enormous museum, in which an official accuses him of stealing an artifact. Among his wallet's contents (which he empties out, presumably to prove his innocence) is a small portrait of Erlys (who'd run off with "Zombini the Mysterious"). He has a short but interesting conversation with Dally about Erlys (recall his humorous response when Dally asks what attracted him to her: "Didn't run away screaming when I told her how I felt." [57:24]).
In no time, we're discussing the “luminiferous Æther" [58:9], which this article on Wikipedia defines as "the term used to describe a medium for the propagation of light." This Æther, according to that article and a million others available in cyberspace, was one of those long-standing assumptions (since at least the 1600s) in the scientific world. However, as science progressed, the theory kept running into trouble. At 58:7, it's noted that a "couple of professors at the Case Institute in Cleveland" were busy conducting experiments focused on the Æther. For perhaps a clearer definition of Æther, take a look at this Wikipedia article on the Michelson–Morley experiment -- "one of the most important and famous experiments in the history of physics" (my emphasis). Rumors about this upcoming landmark event fueled the debate that hurled the Æther's existence into an area “closer to religion than science” [58:13-14].
When Merle approaches Vanderjuice to discuss the Æther, the professor smells of "sal ammoniac and singed hair" [58:17]. He's had a small run-in, he says, with a Töpler Influence Machine (a machine that generates electricity). Here's a picture of one, for anyone who wondered:
[pic source - fascinating page, btw]
The two take a walk, discussing the Æther theory. Vanderjuice seems to doubt it, noting the "all those tiny whirlpools the theory seems to require" [58:34]. No doubt, we could spend some serious additional time discussing how there are numerous parallels today, for example, vis-à-vis quantum physics, the notion of randomness, causality, free will vs. determinism, et cetera. For that matter, one could also cite any political, scientific, or secular (or combination thereof) issue that seems to so perfectly bifurcate our society -- global warming, evolution, religion, one's political affiliation, etc.
Vanderjuice encourages Merle to (to paraphrase) take a ride out to Cleveland (from Connecticut) and check it out for himself. Makes sense, as Merle is destined to be a photographer. When writing this section up, I came across this page, which includes a quote from Tesla about his new invention, "artificial daylight":
"The reason I have chosen to introduce the new daylight to the photographers first," says the inventor, "is that I believe them to be the severest critics, and most hard to please in the matter of light. If it succeeds with them, a new light will succeed everywhere."
BTW, also worth mentioning there are the Maxwell Field Equations, noted by Vanderjuice at 58:37. Here's another link (for the more intrepid).
On his journey to Cleveland, it's noted that Merle takes in the rather unremarkable realization of our manifest destiny ("more Connecticut, just shifted west" [59:10]). (BTW, here's a link explaining Cleveland's nickname, "The Forest City.") The city is "obsessed by the pursuit of genial desperado Blinky Morgan" [59:11-12]. Googling the name confirms that Morgan was a historical character. This site, for example offers the description:
Charles 'Blinky' Morgan capped a lengthy career of crime in the murder of a detective on a train while freeing a captive fellow gang-member. A manhunt ensued and Morgan was eventually captured and hung in Columbus in 1888.
On his way to the Case Institute, Merle is stopped and questioned by a couple of Chief Schmitt's detectives who nearly cart him off to the local insane asylum. Newburgh [59:27] is another historical detail. A quick search reveals an actual photo! Take a look:
[Picture source. The web page also includes a history of the place, noting the the earlier fire referenced at 63:25. As a matter of curiosity, that fire happened in 1872. Add 15 years, and you get 1887. So, at this point in the text, it's presumably 1887, which makes sense since Blinky Morgan wasn't hanged until 1888.]
Back on pages 59-60, we learn about all of the "scientific cranks" locked up within that facility -- wonderful writing in this section, right? I loved the Lightarians at 60:2 ("fried light, fricaseed light, light a la mode")!
We're then introduced to Ed Addle and Roswell Bounce. Great names, of course. The word "addle" means "to muddle or confuse." Who better than Ed Addle, then, to let loose with something this beautifully mind boggling:
What, in the Æther, would occupy the place of water vapor in the air? Some of us believe it is Vacuum. Minute droplets of nothing at all, mixed in with the prevailing Ætheric medium. Until the saturation point is reached, of course. Then there is condensation, and storms in which not rain but precipitated nothingness sweeps a given area, cyclones and anticyclones of it, abroad not only locally at the planetary surface but outside it, through cosmic space as well. [60:16-22]
Roswell Bounce (first seen at 60:23) is another fascinating character name. Here we have a character set in the 1880s, yet we can't help as modern readers associating his first name with the infamous "Roswell UFO incident" of 1947. [Link to Wikipedia.] I know we're still awaiting the walk-on by Nikola Tesla, but I would add that, according to his Wiki page, "Many of his achievements have been used, with some controversy, to support various ... UFO theories... ." Interesting.
We're also here introduced (at 60:36) to Madge and Mia Culpepper -- the latter, especially, calling to mind the Latin phrase mea culpa, though we're unsure at this point what it may be that she's blaming herself for. (Unless, just perhaps, she's a prostitute? It does say, after all that Merle's been spending a lot of money on them lately. They work at the "Hamilton Street establishment of Blinky Morgan's lady friend Nelly Lowery" [60:37]. Again, "establishment" (my emphasis) = euphemism for bordello?) Another possibility, though I'm probably reaching, is a nod to the famous 17th century herbalist/astrologer Nicholas Culpeper, perhaps foreshadowing the wildcrafting we'll discuss below.
Merle, we're shown at 61:17, has established himself as the go-to guy for arranging Ætherist escapes from Newburgh -- having already broken out, presumably, Ed Addle. Being so intimately immersed in the local scene, Merle had eventually convinced himself that "the Michelson-Morley experiment and the Blinky Morgan manhunt were connected" [61:27]. Roswell doesn't buy into the theory, but Addle calls Blinky a "walking interferometer" [62:1]. From there, it's a fascinating conversation between Addle and Rideout, two theorists probably in legitimately borderline need of a stay in Newburgh. One of them (and, I believe the speaker's identity is purposely obfuscated) offers a screwball theory at 62:13-20 that almost seems to flirt with rationality (if you've read enough of those Wikipedia articles, that is, to make yourself dangerous in physics circles).
But, the Ætherist dreams were soon to be shattered. The Michelson-Morley experiment had returned, as O.D. Chandrasekhar says at 63:6, a "null result." Roswell Bounce, back at 62:34, compares the scene to "cults who believe the world will end on such and such a day." Again, the parallels with modern times are notable; I couldn't help but recall such late-1990s examples as the Heaven's Gate cult or the Y2K scare. Regarding Chandrasekhar's mention of the Hindi word akasa, the only relevant Internet page I found was a web site discussing Ayurvedic philosophy. It said:
There is a remarkable theory in Ayurveda to the effect that man is a miniature form of the universe, a 'microcosm' of the macrocosm. The material contents of man and universe are constituted of the same five primal elements: prthvi (solid component to both), apas (the liquid), tejas (the radient energy, body heat, digestive fire), vayu (air), and akasa (the orifices and empty spaces inside the body).
For a moment, upon reading Roswell Bounce's rather atheistic statement at 63:11-13, I waxed somewhat Addle/Rideout myself, wondering briefly whether the words Ætherist and atheist had any relation. (No more or less, I suppose, than Morley and Morgan, right?) Again paralleling modern day, the religious talk devolves into ugliness. A brawl breaks out [63:15], effectively taking the story to a halt momentarily.
A few things interest me here: First, though a temporal passage of time is implied, there's no physical break after the brawl (as in, a blank paragraph similar to what we had on page 61) to set things off a bit. Second, and much more important, the opening-sentence structure of the paragraph beginning at 63:18 begs attention. It's Merle slipping into a "directionless drift," but it's more than that. It's as if the narration mirrors this somehow, stringing one long dependent clause after another via no less than eight commas. It's an odd paragraph for other reasons as well, I think. For example, what's its purpose from a story structure perspective? My initial thought is that it happens to be how Pynchon chose to introduce Roswell as a photographer (having "offended a policeman by snapping his picture just as he emerged" [64:22] from a brothel.) Or, it could simply relate to the writing/narration style of this section, which gets perhaps more self-aware from time to time, manifesting itself in this way. (Please comment, Chumps!)
This leads, of course, to our learning how Merle became a photographer. "As a mechanic, he respected any straightforward chain of cause and effect ... but chemical reactions like this went on in some region too far out of anyone's control ..." [64:7-9]. Over the next two pages, Merle learns and masters the secrets of the trade over the course of many implied months. As a Pynchon novitiate, I may not have made any particular mention of the long paragraph at 65:12-34. However, I happened to browse this article the other day, which said, "Walt Whitman may be the only American writer who's better at catalogs than Pynchon is." I wasn't aware of this signature device of his, but will keep an eye out for it.
By the bottom of page 65, it's August (1888) and he's in Columbus just before Blinky's hanging. The atmosphere is dreamlike. A few vocabulary highlights from this section:
- somnambulism [65:37] = sleepwalking.
- stultified [66:2] = When I'd originally looked up this word, I took it to mean "useless or ineffectual; crippled." However, according to that link, the word could also mean to "prove to be of unsound mind or demonstrate ... incompetence."
- Scioto [66:4] = the Scioto River, which runs through Columbus.
The reason, btw, that I'd stumbled across that Boston Globe article referenced a few paragraphs above was that I wasn't quite confident that I understood what caused Merle to have his little epiphany about leaving Columbus. While that article did not ultimately help, I concluded it was simply because he'd finally realized how utterly absurd his surroundings were -- the whole spectacle of a public hanging. After all, he seems to have realized, to his horror, his role in preserving the imagery for posterity. Thus, he decides at 66:21 to expose all of his plates (to the light), returning them to "blankness and innocence" [66:22]. Absolution through light, I suppose.
The section ends with a humorous insult to Columbus, Ohio, calling it essentially the ass of America [66:25-27]. Thankfully, Pynchon's known to be a recluse; otherwise, he'd surely receive some interesting letters in response to that one. Speaking of hometown pride, my own fair city gets a mention at 67:2. Normally, I wouldn't bring up such a trivial thing, but I thought it might be worth noting my suspicion about why Roswell Bounce was subpoenaed to appear in Pittsburgh. You see, Pittsburgh was (and still is) the home of Westinghouse Electric. George Westinghouse founded the company here in the late 1860s. Interesting how, in that first paragraph on Wikipedia, it notes his friendship with Nikola Tesla. Westinghouse was also the company responsible for lighting up the 1893 Chicago fair! Okay, okay, back to the text...
So, even if Merle's had this realization that leaving Columbus is absolutely the right thing to do, it's also true that the party's over there, so to speak, anyway. We learn that this was when Merle first met Erlys Mills Snidell [67:4]. He then talks a little more (jumping ahead years later) with Dally (his curious "little eggplant" [67:9]) about her mother. She'd met Luca Zombini, a magician, in East Fullmoon, Iowa (fictional, I checked, but appropriately reminiscent of old-time stories involving themes of destiny) after his stage assistant, Roxanna, left him.
Wonderful in this section how, even as we're hearing backstory, Pynchon integrates and sustains much of the book's major imagery so naturally. We have, for just a few examples, Luca asking Erlys if she "ever felt that you wished to disappear" [68:19] (great subtext there, of course); we have a "galvanic shadow" [68:29]; a "vibrant dark density" [68:30]. And then that spectacular couple of sentences (reminiscent, perhaps, of a famous Beckett line) at 68:32-33: "He didn't know what was happening. He did know." Of course he did. So, it was no surprise when she and the magician "vanished" [69:4].
Back to the writing again: Note that the beautiful paragraph ending that section [69:7-15] is a single sentence!
At 69:18, we jump many years ahead, just after the excitement of the Columbian Expostion. Initially, we see many of the various participants on their own journeys home. Merle and Dally continue west (away from what she'd associated with wonderment and so forth). For years, Dally longs to return, daydreaming as they continue their travels. There's a great passage more or less from Dally's viewpoint: "Leaves sawtooth, spade-shaped, long and thin, blunt-fingered, downy and veined, oiled and dusty with the day..." that runs 70:17-27 as they continue westward. Specific stopping points are unspecified (for a reason, I think), and Merle takes up wildcrafting at one point [roughly the general bottom portion of page 70]. Dally brings up Erlys again as Merle harvests some ginseng.
Another rather lengthy, beautifully poetic passage can be found at 71:13-32 where we see, now from Merle's point of view, many of the various women (called "girls" throughout the section) he's noticed along his journey. Interesting that both Merle and Dally each view the world distinctly, yet so similarly. They are, after all, "each other's unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace" [70:28]. Indeed it was.
The years continue to pass, though just how many we don't yet know. By page 73, we're at what is almost certainly one of my personal favorite parts of the book (so far). Merle has taken a job as a lightning-rod salesman. Remember earlier that I mentioned the notion that Pynchon purposely doesn't mention a specific locale (other than the implied general vicinity of southern central Colorado)? I think this functions to enhance the ball lightning section. Quick break for a pic:
[Pic from the Wikipedia page on ball lightning.]
Is there anyone here, by chance, who wasn't at some point fascinated by ball lightning? Couldn't be just me, right? A rare borderline-apocryphal, quasi-paranormal phenomenon -- unpredictable floating / behaving balls of light / power / plasma / mystery; the kind of thing you suspect you might have watched a television special about 25+ years back on "In Search Of..." (hosted by Leonard Nimoy). (Note: I checked; In Search Of... apparently never ran a show on ball lightning.)
Merle meets Skip here, who initially requests, "Just don't send me to ground, it's no fun there" [73:38]. Skip stays with Merle and Dally for a while, although it takes Dally time to warm up to "him." In time, a distant electrical storm "out in Kansas someplace" [74:21] calls for Skip and he must leave. He explains to Dally that, "You get sort of gathered back into it all, 's how it works..." (my emphasis) [74:26]. This language is reminiscent of a few pages back when Merle and Dally are wildcrafting. Dally wants Merle to promise her that she'll get a chance to go looking for Erlys someday. Merle assures her that she will, but notes it "[a]in't mine to promise. Just how it works" (my emphasis, again) [71:11]. I think the assertion can be made that these things are more than coincidence; after all, much of the book so far explores human fascination with how things work. And, maybe it's more than that. Good stuff to talk about in the comments section.
The itinerant duo find themselves near the Sangre De Cristo mountains somewhere around southern Colorado/northern New Mexico. They continue westward to the San Juan mountains, which Wikipedia says are in southwestern Colorado. By the next section (beginning at 75:18), they've headed back east a bit, to Denver.
There, Merle spots and purchases a copy of Dishforth's Illustrated Weekly that features an article about Luca Zombini, Erlys, and "their children and their warm and wonderful home in New York" [75:22]. He admires the many photos of Erlys and releases his internal bitterness, finally deciding to show the article to Dally. After doing so, he felt that, "like a charge slowly building up on a condenser plate, it was going to be only a matter of time before she was off to New York in a great, irresistible surge of energy" [76:8-10].
At 76:14-23, we find another of these catalogues -- this time being all of Merle's "alchemist's stuff" [76:14]. Soon we're meeting, for the first time, Webb Traverse [first mentioned at 77:2], who has smelled Merle's chemicals (from quite a distance) and has come to visit. Webb's a "sort of mine engineer" [76:38] from the Little Hellkite works near Telluride. Of course, I suppose I know enough by now to look for meaning in many of the character names. While I haven't, by choice, read past this section yet, I do recall seeing somewhere that Webb Traverse is an important character. Without much knowledge of his future actions, my initial impression would simply be that he may have some spider-like qualities (i.e., the kind of creature that would traverse a web). But, that could be way off base; his picking up the scent of Merle's alchemical experimentation, for example, seems almost canine to me. We'll have to wait, I suppose, to understand this character better. BTW, this site defines "hellkite" as "someone who is a very fierce fighter" or a "kite [meaning, hawk] of infernal breed."
The two introduce themselves to each other cautiously, purposely dancing around any kind of honesty or straightforwardness. Some relevant informational links: alchemy, philosopher's stone, mercury/quicksilver, mercury fulminate, silver fulminate ("not quite the same thing as 'fulminating silver,' which'll blow up if you touch it with a feather" [77:29-30]), prussic acid. (One of the benefits of not reading ahead is that it frees one to speculate, which is quite different from offering spoilers. With all of this talk of explosive chemicals and anarchism, I couldn't help but think of the cult classic Anarchist's Cookbook -- or something an order of magnitude worse, which we'll get to also.) Googling "philosophic mercury," btw, produces some strange results, including this site, which describes the substance as "materia prima or first matter from which all substances are formed."
The talk of explosives moves Webb to suppose that, if there's such a thing as the Philosopher's Stone ("supposed to really mean God, or the Secret of Happiness, or Union with the All" [77:21-22]), then perhaps there such a thing as... "Careful," Merle warns [78:8], interrupting him. Merle suggests that Webb refer, if he must, to this notion as the "Anti-Stone" -- which we can assume to mean the opposite of all cited above (viz. evil, unhappiness, and division -- entrpoy, you might say). The ATD Wiki suggests the possibility that the allusion is to the atomic bomb. (I'd planned on leafing through my daughter's hard-back of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for a bonus "philosopher's stone" quote here, but my post is already absurdly long. Maybe in the comments section, though...)
Webb offers Merle a job as an amalgamator at the Little Hellkite mine in Telluride, so long as Merle doesn't mention Webb around the mine. Merle agrees, so long as Webb keeps mum about his alchemy interests. Merle adds that "modern chemistry only starts coming in to replace alchemy around the same time capitalism gets going" [79:18-19]. A few links from that bottom section: Mammon, Coxey's Army. As for that last link, there's an interesting sort of oblique connection between the paragraph at 79:30-40 and the Wizard of Oz. From that article:
Among the people observing the march was L. Frank Baum, before he gained fame. There are political interpretations of his book, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz written 1900, which has often been related to Coxey's Army. In his novel, Dorothy, the Scarecrow (the American farmer), Tin Woodman (the industrial worker), and Cowardly Lion, (political leader), march on the yellow brick road to Oz, the Capital, demanding relief from the Wizard, who is interpreted to be the President. Dorothy's shoes are interpreted to symbolize using silver instead of the gold standard (the road of yellow brick) because the shortage of gold precipitated the Panic of 1893.
At 79:34, Webb thinks of Merle as a quicksilver wizard. At 79:40, he finds that "the 'President' [referring to the former amalgamator, who'd gone mad from mercury exposure] had been replaced ... by Merle Rideout." (Not to mention gold, which gets a fair amount of discussion in this part of the book.) I'm not making any assertions here, just raising an eyebrow.
And that brings us, finally, to the final page of this section. Merle and Dally stay for "the next couple of years" in Southwestern Colorado. There's a great little history of Telluride here in the Wikipedia. It was perhaps a bit chilling to read (with the "anti-stone" in mind) the following: "A little known fact is that just outside of Telluride, in Placerville, Uranium ore was discovered. In 1898 Marie Curie purchased ore from this location and is said to have visited the area." The article also mentions major labor disputes at the Telluride mines around this time, which could be what Pynchon means by "some of the worst years in the history of those unhappy mountains" [80:3-4]. Indeed, all paths seem to be leading to something inevitable, no? Michelson-Morley, one could note, leads to Einstein, which leads to... [Link to a history of special relativity.] Photography / chemistry leads to alchemy, which leads to the Philosopher's Stone, which leads to the Anti-Stone, which is ... I'll leave further discussion along this line for the comments section.
Merle, accustomed to thinking in terms of connections, likens photography to alchemy in that they're both "redeeming light from the inertia of precious metals" [80:6]. Considering this, he feels a "secret imperative, like the force of gravity" [80:8] has brought them to this place.
[Telluride, CO, circa 1900. Source.]
As Austin Powers would say: "And I'm spent."
Over and out, Chumps.