The Chumps of Chance Spar With Danger in the Frozen North
Synopsis (pp. 121-155)
Our plucky lads, responding to a message in a pearl and having emerged from the Northern Aperture, sail toward a date with destiny in the shape of the vessel Étienne Louis Malus bearing the mysterious Vormance Expedition. "Unfamiliar sky-traffic is to be presumed hostile until proven otherwise" (p. 121). A "Ray-rush" is ongoing to prospect, claim and mine the flux densities of the electromagnetic spectrum under the lights of the aurora borealis. Powers behind the throne of this Ray-rush include the "Inter-Group Laboratory for Opticomagnetic Observation (I.G.L.O.O.), a radiational clearing-house in Northern Alaska" (122:20), likened to Lloyd's of London maritime insurance syndicators. A warning (Lutine?) bell (123:13), tied to Pugnax's tail, signals the approach of the Bol'shaia Igra (The Great Game), captained by Igor Padzhitnoff and manned by the Tovarishchi Slutchainyi (123:28), the Russian nemeses/counterparts to our lads. They relate that a Zone of Emergency has been declared by I.G.L.O.O. regarding some vague menace that is compared to an unnamed creature that eats without killing, appreciates pain and is feared by all. They fail to intercept the Malus at Isafjörðr and begin to suffer from dementia borealis, imagining the presence of an "extra man" who is familiar but unfamiliar to them. They purchase a "blue ivory" (mammoth bone) inukshuk to serve as a totem/signpost/mascotte to serve a glimpse of "some expression of a truth beyond the secular."(126:8)
We now (126:14) switch POVs to the motor vessel Étienne Louis Malus, heading North on an unspecified mission - perhaps to find a new source of Iceland spar (? to corner the spar market and end the "spar famine"). The crew behaves much like the chums, sing sea-shanties to the accompaniment of rustic instruments and speculating whether the Captain has gone Ahab on them. They encounter (127:4) walls of green ice in a paragraph that mentions green four times, so we may be permitted to suppose it might be Greenland. Here Constance Penhallow, a woman of noble bearing (as painted by her grandson Hunter) observes the arrival of the Malus. Wherever we are, it evokes images of Viking raiders and the Ginnungagap ("seeming emptiness") that called out to Harald Hardråde (127;28) like a siren. Somehow, Harald put over the tiller at the last moment to avoid tragedy. Hunter Penhallow, from a family that made its fortune in Iceland spar, stows away aboard the E.L.M. without much objection, as sort of a mascotte.
The Vormance gang are staying in town at the Hotel Borealis (where you can check out anytime), which features a "curious open turret" (129:10). Mystery to me. Closest I can imagine is some sort of campanile. Hunter paints the place, drops of the salt fog mixing with and subtly altering his pigments. Just North is Ominous Unnamed Glacier. The Vormance crew are getting cabin fever and talking about moving on before Winter sets in. They are fed up with the Meat Olaf and an unspecified speaker offers to spice things up with a bottle of Special Sauce. The tropical paradise with parrot evoked by the sauce label is separated from the boreal by "only the thinnest of membranes" (130:10) and reachable by chanting the mantra "¡Cuidado Cabrón!" like a parrot. This has the effect of a Tibetan prayer wheel. Members of the Vormance Expedition are now introduced over a couple of pages (130:18-132:40). The roster includes Dr. Vormance of Candlebrow University; Dr. V. Ganesh Rao, quaternionist of Calcutta U., who is seeking a gateway to the Ulterior; American bucket-shop desperado Dodge Flannelette, a practical sort; Fleetwood Vibe, son of Scarsdale, sent to keep an eye on things; Sir Templeton Blope of the University of the Outer Hebrides and his collegial nemesis, Hastings Throyle; and Otto Ghloix, expedition alienist. And the "extra man" of Arctic Expeditions. The Transnoctial Discussion Group ponders the Nature of Expeditions (131:16 - I suspect they're well into the Aquavit by this time) exploring the wilderness dimension by dimension, encountering God, time and Riemann space. The mission document of the Malus describes their trajectory as being "at right angles to the flow of time" (132:4). The talk takes us through Lineland, Flatland, 3-space, the complex plane, and Dr. Rao's karmic circular representation of linear time. The talk turns to the Æther, with Blope contending the immeasurability of the Æther is the active work of a sinister presence in Nature (132:26). Vormance chides Blope for believing in spooks. Mission alienist Otto Ghloix pipes up that "What cannot be resolved inside the psyche must enter the outside world and become physically, objectively 'real'". But undetectable, immeasurable. The "extra man" snarks "fairies under mushrooms" (133:6). The Book of Iceland Spar in the Library of Iceland is recalled and noted as recording history even into the future. Iceland spar is said by the Librarian to be related to the contemporaneous system of complex numbers and together they allow access to additional dimensions, including a subterranean one of menacing "hidden people"(134:1-11).
Meanwhile (134:23), Hunter Penhallow is preparing to take his leave of Constance and pops over to Narvik's Mush-it-Away Northern Cuisine, which, being the only game in town, the queue of people waiting to get in move in Zeno's paradox of infinitesimal increments (135:23). Hunter endures Narvik's hoary jokes, and walks out with Meat Okaf, root slaw and Mystery Sauce on the side (136:4). He returns home through channels in the "bad ice", which like the proverbial infinite monkeys at their typewriters will go through all possible topological permutations and at some point in time will mimic the layout of Venice. Hunter's wanderlust increases. In the morning, Hunter and the Malus have gone.
Section break to an extract from the Journals of Mr. Fleetwood vibe (138). First sensed via a song about the doughty Arctic explorers Nansen and Johansen and their sturdy ship Fram, then viewed as an enlarging dot, then a massive overhead presence, the Inconvenience. Lines are lowered, the airship moored, a sumptuous picnic shared. Science Officer Dr. Counterfly (the mature incarnation) warns the doubting Malus crew that they are in mortal danger. The nunatak by which they are moored is far too regular in shape to be natural (139:27). they enter the Inconvenience's control cabin, straight out of Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Tesla, the most sensitive vortices of vibration picked up by a human caul (veil), which is said to grant second sight. They view deep into the pseudonunatak using an alternate frequency and observe a series of inscriptions in an unknown language, which they interpret as warnings, like to those hieroglyphic inscriptions on Egyptian tombs that have such a potent effect on grave-robbers and Egyptologists (141:18). Here a crucial story point: an object comes into focus on the viewing screen. "The Figure appeared to recline on its side, an Odalisque of the snows" (141:29). The entity is immediately perceived as evil. They make the predictable decision to recover it and take it home with them, and the Chums make no move to stop them. Dogs non-barking herald the approach of Old Magyakan, known to Throyle in Siberia and hailed by him in Tungus (142:37). Magyakan is both here and home in Siberia. He takes tea and a Havana stogie and relays his warning.
"They" don't wish to harm us, and may even love us, but out of necessity or instinct, like starving mushers and dogs, and with as little mutual understanding, will kill us (143:18-26). The strangeness makes it all seem more unsettling. Magyakan wanders off. The Vormance gang debates whether this is a prophecy, but conclude that shamans, like the Book of Iceland Spar operate in multiple dimensions of time. Pugnax organizes a sled-dog union. The tone gets more and more ominous on the trip home with the Thing. It is vaguely anthropomorphic, with "eyes" (144:17), but never clearly described, as it is never really well-contained in the ship or in this dimension. Delivery is made to a Museum, whence it promptly escapes. Witnesses who claimed to hear it speak on its escape are confined to the mental hospital at Matteawan, but their quotes supply us with our only hints to its character and motive. "Nothing voiced -- all hisses, a serpent, vengeful, restless" "The man-shaped light shall not deliver you" "Flames were always your destiny, my children"(145:16-22). Not much to be learned there. This is just a difficult, dense and obstinate piece of writing.
Fleetwood Vibe now, feeling his work done, wants to catch a train to Washington to report in to the Washingtonian Entity employing him (145:25). The rampage of the Beast has evidently begun, as panic is gripping the streets, and it is a fiery one, since vendors are hawking respirator helmets (145:40). He arrives in the District and visits the "less fashionable" Explorer's Club (146:19) where the usual bores regale him with the usual blather. Monster Ravages Metropolis doesn't explicitly come up, but a choice tidbit is tossed with the revelation that the aforesaid Nansen expedition of '95 planned, as loads got lighter and supplies shorter, to kill sled dogs and feed them to their surviving huskies, who at first refused but then accepted the meat (147:20). Pugnax's union dogs might have balked, but this throws light upon Magyakan's story. It's a dog-eat-dog world. The notion is immediately extended to cannibalism and man's inhumanity to man.
",,,but we do use one another, often mortally, with the same disablement of feeling, of conscience...each of us knowing that at some point it will be our own turn. Nowhere to run but into a hostile and lifeless waste."
"You refer to present world conditions under capitalism and the Trusts." (147:32-36) Very anarchistic talk for such a setting! It's put down to evolution - survival of the fittest - and the American Corporation "in which even the Supreme Court has recognized legal personhood--a new living species, one that can out-perform most anything an individual can do by himself, no matter how smart ot powerful he is." (148:2) "It was understood by all at some point that they were speaking of the unfortunate events to the north, the bad dream I still try to wake from, the great city brought to sorrow and ruin." (148:11-13) What can I say? Is the Entity a Corporation?
We switch in the next section back to the POV of the Chums aboard the Inconvenience, racing south to try to head off the Malus before she reached civilization with her evil cargo. They now have the knowledge that the Vormance crew had been duped by the Invader to believe what they were carrying was a meteorite. In the city, now a shambles, a Board of Inquiry meets in an upper room in the Museum of Museumology. The Vormance party relate the "Eskimo" belief that all objects possess ruling spirits that can be malevolent and must be propitiated. Collecting this spirit, moreso than the object that contained it, was the intent of the Vormance party. In the city, away from its usual outlets of vengeance, the entity took on other, catastrophic means. City-dwellers, used to living on the edge but with defense mechanisms to deny it, instinctively knew what they were up against, even as the scientists did not. The havoc of the progress of the Figure through the city is detailed. As are the reactions of the city, its feeling of violation and attempts at propitiation. At the edge of the zone of destruction, a monumental arch is erected, bearing the inscription, "I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY - DANTE" surmounted by a light show (154:21).
Hunter Penhallow, on his way out of the city, turns to observe the tragedy, and finds himself wandering in an unfamiliar dreamscape until he comes upon a group of evacuees who usher him into something like a subway. It proceeds onward and downward, although glimpses of the city are still visible, and become more futuristic, as the proceed toward "refuge, whatever that might have come to mean anymore, in this world brought low" (155:32).
Notes & Commentary
Please click on the Iceland spar image in the accompanying Additional Discussion post for an annotated web album of images related to this section. Some minor cribbing was done from the Pynchon AtD Wiki.
Part II: Iceland Spar.
This section's tone and action remind me of the movie cliffhanger serials of the 1930's-1950's. I was tempted to insert effects and stage directions, but I'm no screenwriter and they would only encumber the flow. Imagine them if you will.
By now, I presume we all know about Iceland spar, introduced at 114:14 in the pearl message. Calcium carbonate. Formerly mined in Iceland. Birefringent. Polarizing. Here's a readable historical summary. The discovery of polarization is credited to Étienne Louis Malus, though the prior contributions of Huygens, Erasmus Bartholinus and Thomas Young should be noted. His discovery is described here. "In 1808, Malus famously discovered that light could be polarized (a term coined by Malus) by reflection as he observed sunlight reflected from the windows of the Luxemburg Palace in Paris through an Iceland spar crystal that he rotated." What I want to emphasize is that the light passing through an Iceland spar crystal is divided in a specific way, based on the structure of the molecular lattice, into an Ordinary Ray and an Extraordinary Ray. They appear the same, as the double image produced by placing a crystal prism on a page of text, but they are not identical. One rotates with the crystal. One is in violation of Snell's Law. They are differently polarized and can set up interference patterns. They are beam-splitters a la Michelson-Morley. They just about drove the final nail into the coffin of the corpuscular theory of light. In short, we have a little alternate-reality generator on our hands.
We met Étienne Louis Malus at 114:34 in the name of the schooner the Inconvenience was sent to intercept and deter the Vormance expedition from their plans by any means necessary, short of force. His bio is found in the Iceland spar links. Served as an Engineer in Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. Caught plague or tuberculosis. Died young. Just make a note in the margin that also in on Boney's Excellent Egyptian Adventure were Capt. Pierre-François Bouchard, who unearthed a singular stone monolith and a British Naval Lieutenant who was asked by the one-handled adulterer to pass the salt. Malus can mean an anti-bonus, an apple, or a cheek - hence apple-cheeked.
P. 122 - I.G.L.O.O. harkens back to W.A.S.T.E. in COL49, also to U.N.C.L.E., SMERSH, and countless others.
123 - The Great Game was the 19th century Russian-British military/intelligence wrangle for domination in Central Asia. See Rudyard Kipling's Kim and George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman in the Great Game (if by some oversight you haven't already read it). Alexey Padzhitnov invented the video game Tetris, where Capt. Padzhitnoff's signature is dropping bricks and masonry in four-block fragments. Tovarishchi Slutchainyi=accidental comrades (Chums of Chance, or, more idiomatically, friends thrown together by circumstance according to the wiki).
124 - Na sobrat' ya po nebo!
Randolph says "На собратья по небо." What I believe he means to say is "Наши собратья по небу" or Nashi sobrat'ya po nebu, meaning "Our brothers/comrades of the sky" -- perhaps a ritual greeting between the two groups. It is unlikely that Pynchon would make a mistake (the Russian in GR is correct) but Randolph might err. Taken directly from wiki. I can't improve upon it. Communication between the airships is via speaking trumpet. They look like posthorns. See web album.
125 - Isafjörðr (that's an eth - hope your browser handles Unicode ISO 8859-1) is about as far away as you can get in Icelend from Helgustadir, where Iceland spar was mined. However, it is near Djupidalur, where mining was attempted but did not yield spar of sufficient quality (Thoroddsen, 1891, cited in Kristjansson). They are shadowed by the Bol'shaia Igra, "red as a cursed ruby representing a third eye in the brow of some idol of the incomprehensible." The old "Steal the Idol's Eye" wheeze (warning-1891 Savoy operetta synopsis- may not be entirely PC by today's standards).
126 - An inukshuk is a vaguely anthropomorphic guidepost of piled stones in the wilderness, "something which acts for or performs the function of a person." The replica is purported to be real mammoth ivory as opposed to ersatz blue-tinted bonzoline. A "truth beyond the secular" (126:11) connotes divine, not worldly, but the etymology derives from eternal, as in "In saecula saeculorum". "As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen."
127 - The Penhallow homestead's location is not specified. My speculation is Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland. Hunter's painting of Constance reeks of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™, who will not be linked by this author due to personal aversion to his business practices and high twee index. Jin Wicked has him nailed. Harald Hardråde ("hard ruler") escapes the maw of the Ginnungagap (?Northern Aperture) only to have the misfortune of being the wrong guy to invade England in 1066. At least he softened up the Sassenach Harold for Billy the Conq.
128 - Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum is cited as the Norse source of All Things Ginnungagap.
129 - 129:32 Meat Olaf=obvious anagram for metal oaf, teal foam, feta loam, Ma at floe... (129:38) The hot sauce legend ¡Cuidado Cabrón! Salsa Explosiva La Original (Careful, Dude!) Features a parrot and erupting volcano, and hijinx result when the crew find out the sauce is REALLY hot. The label must mean Pickapeppa Sauce, but the warnings suggest something much more macho (we're talking megascovilles).
130 - The Vormance mob and Scarsdale Vibe somehow evoke in me images of the Tweed Ring crossed with J.P. Morgan. Description (130:18) of the Transnoctial Discussion Group - bearded men in dark suits and matching waistcoats- there must be watch chains and cigar smoke, switching to the local white lightning when the 15-cent bottles of Danish Aquavit run out (132:16). Vormance is a mineralogist, handy on a spar hunt. V. Ganesh Rao evokes math whiz Srinivasa Ramanujan. Dodge Flannelette (classic Pynchon name) is of a pragmatic bent, and is in on the fact that Iceland spar might aid in global transmission of images, similar to the Tesla experiment with power. Fleetwood Vibe is one of the Bad Vibes, watching out for his father Scarsdale's interests, favors to be owed and any evidence of rivals constructing a railroad bridge across the Bering Strait.
131 - During the Nocturnal bull session, Dr, Templeton Blope objects to the colonization of the dimension of time (131:31) as impossible because we are limited to three dimensions and is dissed as a Quaternioninst by collegial nemesis Hastings Throyle. Perhaps this makes Throyle a Vectorist. I picture Blope as Col. Blimp, fresh from the Turkish bath, whereas all I can come up with for Throyle is Draco Malfoy's henchboy Goyle (not likely) and some vague memory of a similar name somewhere in the Sherlock Holmes canon.
132 - The only instance of Ghloix in Googleworld apart from the current context is as an alternate transliteration of a phoneme in the Wa language in the outback of Myanmar a.k.a. Burma. I doubt Pynchon meant to lead us down this path. Maybe the French gloire or something Flemish or Basque.
133 - The mention of the Library of Iceland throws cold water on my Greenland theory. The Book of Iceland Spar is like The Yngling Saga, only different. Like an Extraordinary Ray. "Another Quest for another damned Magic Crystal. Horsefeathers, I say. Wish I'd known before I signed on. Say, you aren't one of those Sentient Rocksters, are you?" (133:25) sounds like the voice of Dodge Flannelette, probably addressing Vormance.
134 – The "hidden people" presumably travel between Niflheim and Muspelhein via the Ginnungagap.
135 - Narvik's plats du jour include braised blubber with cloudberries, skua eggs over easy, walrus chops, snow parfaits and the ubiquitous Meat Olaf, previewed for the salivating crowd on a little railroad like kaiten-zushi.
138 - The menu includes jellied pâté de foie gras, truffled pheasant, Nesselrode pudding and '96 champagne. The Chums do themselves well.
139 - Dr. Counterfly wears anti-glare specs with lenses comprising Nicol prisms made of Iceland spar to extinguish the polarized Ordinary Rays (139:22). A nunatak is a mountain, not covered by glacial ice, poking up and forming a micro-environment.
140 - The usual electronics. Sparks and auras everywhere, received frequencies emanating from a brass speaking trumpet, data recorded on an early Poulsen's Telegraphone (140:28), a nice demonstration of Maxwell's equations in operation and the predecessor of the notorious wire recorder. (140:31) Gauge pointers are in the exquisite moon form of Breguet. The caul or veil is an amniotic membrane. It is magical in the context of that used by Saint Veronica to wipe the sweat off the face of the suffering Savior and by extension the Shroud of Turin (both interpreted by some as photographic processes), but I can't get lambskin condoms out of my mind.
141 - The famous painting of the Odalisque is the one by Ingres (1814). The term came to connote "reclining nude", although not all Odalisques in paintings are reclining, and the ones in harems likely had other duties. There are some nice reclining Buddhas in stone, which may be closer to what we are dealing with.
142 - The usual melodramatic gimmicks to build tension during the excavation. The diggers unnaturally chirpy while the native bearers melt away and the dogs go crazy barking. Except one time when they don't (142:37). Sherlockians will immediately flash to Silver Blaze:
"You consider that to be important?" he asked.
"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
143 - (143:4) Bilocating - Iceland spar. Get it? I knew you would.
144 - Bringing the Monster home with you has been a theme from King Kong (1933) on down. Whitehall gigs (144:40) don't help us peg the locale, as they're generic harbor boats and both London and New York have Whitehalls.
146 - At the depot, the "ungoverned mass of us was somehow spun into single-file" (146:8), mirroring the Chicago stockyards of the opening of the book and Magyakan's humans/dogs analogy. In the Explorer's Club, "Dr. Jim's little adventure" is the Jameson raid of Brits vs. Boers, 1895-6.
150 - In the ruined city, abandoned streetcars "hitched to animals months dead and yet unremoved" (150:9) conjures up the scene in Un chien andalou with the man pulling the dead mules and grand pianos. The only ones to remain cheerful and efficient in the ruibed city were the White Wings - streetcleaners (150:25). From the architectural description, it seems the Museum of Museumology must be the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Its Hayden Planetarium features meteorites, including fragments of the massive Cape York.
153 - As a defemse measure against the Figure, the Church of the Prefiguration projects a "three dimensional image in full color, not exactly of Christ but with the same beard, robes, ability to emit light as if -- should the worst happen, they could deny all-out Christian allegiance and so make that much easier whatever turnings of heart might become necessary in striking a deal with the invader" (153:12-16). The Shroud of Turin again.
154 - The Arch might have continued "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" but "Arbeit Macht Frei" seems to work as well.
155 - The tragedy and destruction on New York certainly parallel the September 11 event.
[Finale] Now please look again narrowly at the AtD dust jacket. As Neddie recounted early on in his conversation with the M&D designer, Pynchon is likely to take great care about such details. The title is not duplicated once in a fixed orientation as if viewed through a prism of Iceland spar; instead it is duplicated twice, with the middle text in a serif font and diverges as if lighted from center bottom. Maybe another way of interpreting Against the Day is through that prism uncovered by Bouchard in the Egyptian incursion. A granodiorite monolith with inscriptions in three languages (hieroglyphic, demotic and Classical Greek) linking Ptolomey V to Stanley Kubrick and serving the wise with a key to the word. A Rosetta Stone Against (in the sense of "In preparation for" as used by Samuel Pepys) the Day.
[SFX - sting and out. Fade to black. Roll credits.]
H. Rumbold, Master Barber