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.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Additional Discussion: pp 336-357

I'm not an expert Pynchon-ite; I've read most of his work, but never with the attention I'm paying to AtD. In part, perhaps, because I didn't have Internet resources when reading previous ones (I didn't get very far in M&D, and I read all the others in the paleo-data days). So I won't be able to make any comparisons with the other books.

I do have some strong opinions about interpretation, however, many of which come from my long experience as a reader of many kinds of literature, and from reading "critical" analyses of works I enjoy. I'm not a grad student, teacher, or anything like that, and I tend to get all itchy when I read people suggesting some of the more tenuous meta-interpretations. I also find that an overzealous search for symbolic meaning in tiny details can be not only counter-productive, but, most likely, wrong. (While that approach works with Finnegans Wake, with its fractal structure - Joyce intended each word to be a reflection of each sentence which was a reflection of each paragraph which was a reflection of the entire work - I don't think Pynchon's writings benefit from such speculation.)

There certainly are references, to ideas, places, people, and events, but some of the suggestions I've seen on the AtD Wiki are, at best, grasping at straws. (One, in particular, that I found ludicrous, is the suggestion that by using the work "neurasthenia", Pynchon is referring to Proust. While Proust might have been called neurasthenic, he was much more an asthmatic. He had some serious issues, but calling him neurasthenic is really a shortcut for those who know little about his life. And, neurasthenia was a 19th century catch-all word for what would be today called depression. In fact, if it were to refer to anyone, I'd think more Henry James, since there are several very clear James references in AtD; not the author himself, but some of his characters, or his sister Alice, perhaps, whose lived, in some ways, like the sister of Paul Muniment in The Princess Casamassima. But I'm straying...) While it's interesting to see what resonates with different readers, some people seem too obsessed with tiny details at the expense of broader themes. That said, I have to admit that I immediately reacted when I saw the name of Dr. Oyswharf; I've been a Deadhead for a long time. :-)


At Wednesday, March 21, 2007 7:07:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Yeah, where does it end?

The post-modern examination of texts began, I think, innocently enough in the New Criticism propounded by such illuminaries as John Crowe Ransom, Alan Tate and Perry Miller (to name but three) and their many and varied students. The NC dictated that the only consideration of a text was the text itself, which presumed the appreciation of creation and language per se for its own sake, absent politics, public events and private demons.

I'll tell you that this perspective ruled the roost at Kenyon when I was a lad there a third-of-a-century ago, and was the purview of highly intelligent and very conservative literary savants. Though I was taught by collegues of Ransom's, my own inclination tended towards an appreciation of the artists' struggles conjoined with the text, a more popular - if that's the right word - brand of criticism, one exemplified to the finest degree by Edmund Wilson, who had an eloquent horror of academic criticism.

His last great essay The Fruits of the MLA neatly pilloried the inane attention to printed errata that literary scholarship had become by the early 70s, and called for the creation of a series of cleanly edited, clear texts of American classics that was eventually fulfilled by The Library of America series. (That Philip Roth has been honored by titles in this line and Wilson, or Saul Bellow, have not is utterly mystifying.)

Anyway, it was no great leap from chasing down semi-colons in, say, The Ambassadors to adumbrating the construction of recondite, or alternate, or parallel, meanings in standard texts. It is a rich field for the PhD candidate (Alas, Apricot!) and can harbor some pretty mediocre thinkers as well.

Is ATD having all kinds of fun with said academic adumbration? Boy, Howdy. TRP's an interesting case in that, to my way of thinking, he began his career as an exceptionally precocious, late-Beat writer (The Benny Profane portions of V, for me, are wonderful and have held up far better than the Godolphins' mystery chase.) who, perforce, came of age in a very weird era, when understandings of relativity became very public, indeed commercial.

He has consequently a foot in either camp. It is undeniable that his tenebrous personna adds a very appealing taste for many to the appreciation of his work (Very un-New Critical) while he unlaces conventional narrative tropes right and left in his work.

That said, his sympathies are very much on the side of traditional story telling; novels with perhaps an embarrassment of riches - of events, characters, allusions, ideas, research, you name it. This may be why extended textural consideration that draws in, say, Proustian vibes, strikes some as being kind of thin. In a way, Pynchon has already commented on what his text is about (Cue the kazoos and ukes!) and, consequently, the theories of others seem kind of pointless.

At Thursday, March 22, 2007 3:18:00 AM, Blogger kirkmc said...

Yes, the nit-picking type of criticism has come and gone and come again. A couple of comments:

First, the LoA is an extraordinary project, and I have had communications with their editor asking just such questions: why certain authors, but not others? It is simply a question of money - some heirs, or publishers, want too much money, and they simply cannot afford it. Whoever negotiated with Philip Roth - and with his publishers - realized that this canonization was worth more than ignoring him, partly, perhaps, because he is still alive and it will help future sales. However, ceratin dead authors aren't in the series because of the rights their heirs want, and that's a shame, because they are some of the names that really belong there. However, I was told that they will be publishing some very interesting things in the coming years (or decades): journals by both Emerson and Thoreau, for example, which are only currently available in expensive editions.

But this nit-picking has infested other areas. If anyone reading is a Proustian, they'll probably know about the Great Proust Errata Scandal. The previous "standard" edition of Proust was the Pléiade edition, in three volumes. When the copyright ran out, Gallimard, the publisher of the series, commissioned a new edition from Jean-Yves Tadié, an anal-retentive obsessive who things that every scrap of paper Proust wrote on is worthy of publication. The new Pléiade edition is 4 volumes, twice as many pages, with half of the text being "drafts and variants", in tiny type. This has been strongly criticized (notable by Roger Shattuck in the NYRB), and is truly scandalous, since the Pléiade editions (LoA modeled their series on the Pléiade) had long been an example of reader-friendly books.

At Thursday, March 22, 2007 5:06:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Interesting about the LoA authors and such. It is, still and all, a magnificent project. I wonder about the Wilson heirs. Publishing his collected works, journals, and letters would be a huge undertaking, which perhaps no one acceptable to the family wants to do.

Oddly, a character named Pléiade appears in ATD on pg. 537 (and I've not read much further past.)

Interesting too, in a cosmic sorta way, is that Wilson and TRP share a birthday: May 8. The upcoming is Tom's 70th, right? EW, if alive, would be blowing out 112 candles this year.

At Thursday, March 22, 2007 6:11:00 AM, Blogger kirkmc said...

BTW, Bellow is represented in the LoA with two volumes so far...


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