The Name Dropper’s Guide to English Occultism
Summary pgs. 219-242
Be prepared to enter a realm of unexplained phenomena, ghostly séances and mystic conspirators and Vulcan greetings!
This week, in Against the Day, we return to Lew Basnight, our favorite ex addicted-to-cyclomite-private-eye, as he arrives in England with Neville and Nigel, “Back to the delights of Evil!” (page 219) even though, he reasons, neither of the two Ns have actually seen real Evil.
Both Nigel and Neville belong to the True Worshipers of Ineffable Tetractys, or T.W.I.T., a cabal of occultists competing with Aleister Crowley’s Order of the Golden Dawn and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosphical Society and “other arrangements for seekers of certitude”. The T.W.I.T
has chosen to follow a secret neo-Pythagorean way of knowledge, based upon the sacred Tetractys,
4 5 6
7 8 9 10,
by which their ancient predecessors had sworn their deepest oath. The idea, as nearly as Neville and Nigel could explain it, was to look at the array of numbers as occupying not two dimensions but three, set in a regular tetrahedron—and then four dimensions, and so on, until you found yourself getting strange, which was taken to be a sign of impending enlightenment.
Neville and Nigel bring Basnight to the T.W.I.T. sanctuary to be initiated into the Order. There, he meets Nicholas Nookshaft, Grand Cohen of the London chapter of T.W.I.T. Mr. Nookshaft goes on to explain the ex detective that, when he jumped into the explosion, he was transported to anther dimension, a Lateral-world which was connected to this other one by the explosion (page 211) and also with Yashmeen Halfcourt, a striking young woman who is in Britain under the protection of T.W.I.T; her guardian, Lieutenant-Colonel G. Auberon Halfcourt, is working for the Political Department somewhere in Inner Asia and young Yashmeen well being could be used against him at any moment.
Nookshaft reveals that the purpose of T.W.I.T. is to observe and interfere with an organization know as the Icosadyad, a series of individuals that actually embody the twenty-two Major Arcana of the Tarot deck. Accused of the crime of creating an “invasion of Time into a timeless word … History, if you like” Lew gets offered a job spying them for T.W.I.T. (page 223) Working for the Followers of Tetractys, he feels related to Yashmeen, with whom he has a very interesting chat about the true purposes of the Order.
He quickly discovers that “the Icosadyad observe neither gender nor number” (page 225). Temperance (XIV) for example, is an entire family and Final Judgment (XX) is a streetwalker form seven dials. After less than a week in England, Lew is in the Grand Cohen’s office when a neophyte of the order comes with a message from Madame Natalia Eskimoff, an ‘ecstatica’ (some sort of medium), which has a Kabbalistic Tree of Life tattooed in her nape, trained by the best mediums in Europe. Lew and the Grand Cohen go to see her.
The Grand Cohen explains to the detective that position of The Devil is filled by professor Renfrew of Cambridge and professor Werfner of Göttingen. Their studies into the Eastern Question developed into a bitter rivalry which in turn developed into actual conflicts in the region, as both of them unleashed it’s ex students and acolytes against each other. (pages 226 – 227) Madame Eskimoff shows them a recording of the previous night’s séance. Clive Crouchmas, semi-governmental functionary and member of T.W.I.T, came trying to contact on of his agents who died in Constantinople during the negotiations for the “Bagdad” railway concession. Thanks to the recording, they discover that the ghosts of Europe are changing practices and now are haunting trains and railway lines, creating a network of phantom railways in Asia Minor.
“Something’s afoot” says the Grand Cohen (page 230). After declaring that Neville and Nigel are at Cambridge keeping an eye on Renfrew, Nookshaft goes on to explain his idea of lateral-world Britain, a darker and more conservative version, in which Queen Victoria dies and her eponymous age is replaced by the Ernest-Augustan Age. Any similarities with our time must be entirely coincidental (page 231).
Lew, however, has bigger troubles in mind, as he tries every sort of drug because of his inability to locate any cyclomite in England (pages 233 – 234) and enlists the help of the two Ns to find some. They bring him to some secret facilities of the War Office, where he meets remarkably unexcentric Dr. Coombs De Bottle, and English scientist with Anarchist sympathies that is charged with the investigation of homemade explosive devices. The doctor tells him the story of the Gentleman Bomber of Heading, who uses poison-gas grenades during cricket matches that provokes dead by inhalation after 48 hours of exposure (page 236). The actual reason for Lew’s presence here, however, is his birthday present: a dinner pail full with cyclomite, courtesy of Nigel and Neville.
Lew is sent to Cambridge with the Cohen to meet with professor Renfrew (page 237). They are received by Clive Crouchmas, who is reveled to have a very long hand when dealing with government money and who tries to convince the Cohen to use the precognitives of T.W.I.T. for profit. However, there seems to be “some serious dissonance between psychic gifts and modern capitalism”, as Nookshaft explains.
After reading some weird newspaper headlines (I’m quite stumped on those, page 239) Lew and Clive meet with Professor Renfrew for beer. After Clive is gone on his merry way, professor Renfrew asks Lew about Yashmeen, and reveals that he thinks old Auberon “simply does not understand how things are dome”. He proposes to employ Lew to use his detective skill for finding the Gentleman Bomber of Heading (page 241) and so Lew finds himself once more searching for a legendary anarchist. Back with the Cohen, Lew reveals that Renfrew offered him a job.
Some points worth discussing
- The amount of occultist practices Pynchon uses in this section is breathtaking both in its encyclopedic berth and its accuracy. Of special notice is the idea of the Icosadyad, twenty two groups or individuals representing the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck. Could this be used further insight into Against the Day? Which characters could fulfill the roles of the Arcana in this novel?
- Pynchon’s idea of England is both ironic and cynical. However, America seems to have it better in comparison. From the idea of the ironic, the colonial games of the government, the taste of beer, and the occultist craze, to cricket being the last stand of civilization, Pynchon works with every English stereotype into what turns in the last page to a proper sitcom full with recorded laughter.
- Werfner's idea of railworthiness (p. 242) seems to be crucial in the development of this section. Railroads are some sort of modern lay lines, connecting the capitalist energies of the days. Ghosts, it seems, are now haunting this lines instead of their traditional places.
- Also, there a lot of pop culture references in this section. The most obvious one is the way the Grand Cohen and Crouchmas greet each other (p. 237), forming the first letter of the pre-Mosaic name of God. A sign basically meaning “long life and prosperity”. Additional brownie points go to whoever finds the rest of the references.
- And last, but no least, is worth mentioning that some of the events in this section are greatly reminiscent of events of prior Pynchon novels. That discussion, as always, should be conducted at the Additional Discussion post.
[Doctor Spock forming the Hebrew letter shin with his hand. Now go back and check The Devil card again. ]
And that’s it for me, short and sweet, as we like it down here. Reporting from the Mexican chapter of the Chumps of Choice, Los cuates selectos, this was Scientific Officer René López reporting. Until the next time!