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, May 07, 2007

Casino Royale in a Flanders Field


The Docks at Ostend, James Ensor (1900)

pp 525-556

A note about the fairly obscure Belgian James Ensor (1860-1949) from a 1993 "Art News" article: "Nineteenth-century Belgian artist James Ensor's scatological imageries, evident at the peak of his political activism, symbolize the artist's personal rebellion against the ideals and norms of the Belgian society he lived in, and represent his affiliations with an anarchist philosophy. His anarchist beliefs are embodied in his 'Alimentation doctrinaise,' which represents his most explicit imagery."

Kit, truly bilocated, wobbles off the Fomalhaut where he has been regarded as both a curse (first no fish) and a blessing (followed by too many fish) by his fellow seamen. He takes an electric tram to the Continental Hotel "where for some reason he assumed there'd be a room reserved and waiting." This brings up the question of whether the Stupendica's original destination from New York was Ostend rather than Trieste, and whether Kit actually had reservations at the Continental, but before we can ask too many questions like what happened to his luggage, Kit returns to the docks, has a beer in a small cafe, and is immediately recognized as a fellow-Quaternion by an "unkempt, indeed seedy band of varying ages and nationalities." It turns out that Kit has wandered into a Quaternion convention being held "irregularly" in Ostend.

The Quaternions, rather like the Aetherists earlier in "Against The Day," are a tribe of mathematical thinkers who have been deemed superfluous and heretical by the superseding Vectorists. Leaping forward to page 553:31, an unnamed character makes the analogy explicit: "We are the Jews of mathematics, wandering out here in our diaspora -- some desined for the past, others the future, even a few able to set out at unknown angles from the simple line of Time, upon journeys that no one can predict." They are also an eminently amusing crew to hang out with, and Barry Nebulay invites Kit to crash with them in their rooms at the art nouveau Grand Hotel de la Nouvelle Digue, another odd hostelry in a book filled with them.

Also staying at the hotel are the young and silly Eugenie, Fatou, Denis and Policarpe, two women and two men who form the Belgian nihilist cell "Young Congo," who are of great interest to both the French and Belgian secret services because they want to assassinate the King of Belgium. On page 527:13, Kit has "a moment of intense recognition, almost as if he'd once, somehow, actually belonged to the little phalange" in another space-time axis. Hmmm. On page 528:5 Denis gives a classic self-description of the group: "We are metaphysicians at heart. There is a danger of becoming too logical. At the end of the day one can only consult one’s heart.” As an aside, Kings Leopold I and II of Belgium transformed Ostend from a sleepy Northern Flanders seaside village to an opulent resort during the 19th century through their patronage, and Leopold II who reigned from 1865-1909, used the Congo as his private fiefdom, perpetrating horrifying atrocities on the local population while raping their resources on a scale hitherto unseen in history.


Whitehead, 1875, with a battered test torpedo

Joining forces with Young Congo are a pair of comical "Italian naval renegades, Rocco and Pino, who had stolen from the Whitehead works in Fiume the highly secret plans for a low-speed manned torpedo, which they intended to assemble here in Belgium and go after King Leopold's royal yacht." I assumed this was more fiction, but it turns out the Englishman Robert Whitehead (1823-1905) was real and he did have factories in Trieste and Fiume where the first torpedo was invented. Both Fatou and Eugenie flirt shamelessly with the Italians, which frightens Rocco who is obsessed with "danger from lady spies" (italics in the original).

Kit also finds himself playing with a dangerous woman in the bar of the hotel, the Japanese femme fatale math genius Miss Umekie Tsurigane, which may be a bad pun on "You Make Sure Again." While she hoists boilermakers without any perceivable effect, Kit flirts with her discussing various mathematical terms and professors, and she refers to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 that is currently raging. She then asks Kit to escort her into the Grand Salon, but “two steps into the Grand Salon, she had slipped away, or he had, and it would be days before they saw each other again” (page 533:2). Hmmm again. There is a crazed party of Quarternionnaires from around the globe carrying on in the Salon and their overheard conversations starting at page 533 and continuing through the Quaternion Silly Song Lyrics on page 534 are well worth rereading, particularly for its explication of why Quaternions are Anarchist ijk folk while Vectorists are Bolshevik xyz brutalists.

Kit suddenly runs into his lost friend from the Stupendica, Root Tubsmith, which leads to the following exchange on page 535:9, "Nothing's been rigorously what you'd call 'real' lately [Kit said]. Does seeing you in this condition mean that everything is normal again?" "Of course," handing him a bottle of no-name wine, "next question." Hmmm for a third time. Is Kit weaving in and out of bilocated realities? There follows a game among the assembled throng where mathematicians are compared to their corresponding poet: Oliver Heaviside/Walt Whitman; Clerk Maxwell/Tennyson; William Rowan Hamilton/Swinburn; Hermann Grassman/Wordsworth; Gibbs/Longfellow. What all these 19th century scientists/mathematicians/engineers seem to share was the major incomprehension and outright neglect of most of their peers and the fact that their work, rediscovered in many cases, is all essential to modern math and physics. I presumed the "ijk" Quaternion label was a Pynchon language joke because every other word in Flemish ends in "ijk," but instead it’s referring to Hamilton’s “Eureka!” moment crossing a Dublin bridge where he was struck by the Gods with the following equation which was the beginning of quaternions.



The group decides to go to the Casino where Kit is put off by the non-saloon atmosphere of a "temple to money," and where he meets Pleiade Lafrisee, who calls herself a "consultant" but acts more like one of those "lady spies." Meanwhile, using quaternion math, Root is making a small fortune for everyone, including Pleiade. "Our magic is more ancient, and the big advantage to being so outmoded is that nobody recognizes it when they see it." Pleiade offers to buy the entire group dinner where "hilarity at the table was general and prolonged." This leads to my favorite joke in the book so far, when a Dr. V. Banesh Rao of the Calcutta University, using a modern school of Yoga based on Quaternion disciplines, contortions himself into nothingness and reappears as a blond in the kitchen in a tub of mayonnaise. "It is like reincarnation on a budget, without the element of karma to worry about."


The Caress, 1887, Fernand Khnopff (1855-1921)

Pleiade leaves for a rendezvous with Piet Woevre, who has spent too much time in the Heart of Darkness in the Congo being an enforcer with the Force Publique, and who is having a hard time readjusting to “the need not to offend the King, to remain aware of rival bureaux and their own hidden schemes, to calibrate everything against the mortal mass of Germany, forever towering over the day.” After an s/m sexual encounter, she promises to occupy Kit that evening so Piet can look through his room. Kit, “against his better judgment accompanied Pleiade to her suite” and goes through another weird bilocating moment where Pleiade simply disappears from the room but leaves her chiffon dressing-gown standing erect. Returning to his hotel, the Young Congo informs him that the political police have sacked his room and that Kit is now an honorary nihilist outlaw.

And here we come to the bisected middle of the entire novel, where Policarpe says, "It's a peculiar game we all play. Against what looms in the twilight of the European future, it doesn't make much sense, this pretending to carry on with the day, you know, just waiting. Everyone waiting."

Kit runs into Pleiade again at a a cafe where she tells him the cultural history of Mayonnaise (which starts with a great "La Marseillaise" joke by Kit, page 544:32), and then makes a tryst with him for that evening at the Mayonnaise Works on the edge of town. It turns out to be a set-up for Kit's Murder by Mayonnaise, but in a "Charlie and The Chocolate Factory" scene Kit narrowly escapes from drowning by kicking out a window and being pushed by the force of the mayonnaise into a canal below, where he is rescued by Rocco and Pino who happen to be test-driving their torpedo. End of section.


Battle of the Skeletons, James Ensor (1907)

The next eight pages (548-556) are deeply, beautifully melancholy on all kinds of levels. The Inconvenience has been given ground leave at Ostend, after a dreary trip to Brussels, at the same time as the Quaternion convention. The dark Piet Woevre and his bureaux vaguely manage to notice the Chums and their craft, on account of the electromagnetic messages sent through their Tesla device from private power sources, which the Belgian secret service mistakenly thinks has something to do with a secret Quaternion War Weapon. However, the population at large doesn't seem to see the Chums and their craft anymore, which leads to a sad reflection (page 549:3). "Once," Randolph with a long-accustomed melancholy, "they would have all been stopped in their tracks, rubbernecking up at us in wonder. Nowadays we just grow more and more invisible."

There are a few low Darby weiner jokes along with the news that Pugnax has developed a taste for human blood, and Miles Blundell, the seer/chef, has horrible premonitions looking down upon the lowlands below. He tells Chick Counterfly that he's seen one of the Trespassers (from the scary Dead Zone on the outskirts of town at Candlebrow University, pages 413-418). His name is Ryder Thorn, and he’s been on the Promenade, and Miles has spoken to him. They shared a love of the ukelele at Candlebrow and discussed the instrument's philosophical implications (page 552:1-9) which center on the ukelele only being able to play one chord at a single moment in time while "to play a melody is to introduce the element of time, and hence of mortality. Our perceived reluctance to leave the timelessness of the struck chord has earned ukelele players our reputation as feckless, clownlike children who will not grow up."

Miles goes on solo shore leave to meet with Ryder who greets him with two bicycles. They cycle southward through the lowlands until they hit Ground Zero of A Flanders Field "on a road between Ypres and Menin." Ryder tells Miles that "our people know what will happen here and my assignment is to find out whether, and how much, yours know.” Miles demurs and professes not to be a fortuneteller, and as the Trespasser becomes more agitated, Miles becomes calmer and smoother which only agitates Ryder more, until he spills the beans and tells him exactly what hell is going to be unleashed on these fields in ten short years “and all history after that will belong to Hell.” Miles continues with his nonchalance, “Sure sounds unpleasant.”

This finally tips the Trespasser over the edge and he reveals that they are not really “time-travellers” but something else, characters "blundering upon a shortcut through unknown topographies of Time" (page 555:2). “No more than ghosts may choose what places they haunt…you children drift in a dream, all is smooth, no interruptions, no discontinuities, but imagine the fabric of Time torn open, and yourselves swept through, with no way back, orphans and exiles who find you will do what you must, however shameful, to get from end to end of each corroded day.” This is when Miles realizes “that there had been no miracle, no brilliant technical coup,” in other words, no remaining young forever as promised. He returns with the news to Chick, telling him that it only confirmed his earlier vision when he met Mr. Ace “when I could not stop crying for hours, for I knew then—with no evidence, no reasoned proof, I simply knew, the minute I saw him, that it was all false, the promise was nothing but a cruel confidence game.” And now it’s up to Chick to tell the other Chums.

21 Comments:

At Wednesday, May 09, 2007 6:12:00 AM, Anonymous cleek said...

this was my favorite section so far: a town full of con-men, ex-pats, lazy revolutionaries, accidental participants and wacky hijinks. it reminds me a lot of certain sections of G.R..

now if Pynchon would just stay here instead of jumping back to all that western stuff...

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2007 11:06:00 AM, Blogger Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

That manned torpedo concept is interesting in that it seems to call to mind modern times / terrorism / Islamic fanaticism, etc. I think the 2005 movie Syriana actually featured a manned torpedo, if I recall correctly.

After a few week absence, I'm still playing catch-up, Chumps... just starting the end of this current section with the Chums.

Though, Cleek, I can't second your vote for this being the favorite section thus far. I've spent quite a good deal of time confused as hell over the last 50 pages or so. But, I will repeat something I said earlier: Every time I get particularly confused about something, I find that sticking it out another 10 pages or so usually solves the problem.

I guess I tend to read this stuff with more of an eye toward Pynchon's writing technique and style rather than solely trying to interpret the overall message of the text. Of course, in the world of meta-fiction, I suppose there's a certain integration of the writing style and the book's subject matter -- which kind of goes back to the discussion of narration style a few weeks back.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2007 11:13:00 AM, Blogger sfmike said...

Dear bsuwg: You're not the only one who's been a bit confused over the last 75 pages or so. Trying to condense this section into a comprehensible synopsis just about made my brain explode.

And cleek, I like the Western stuff, but maybe it's just because I live in California. Still, at the halfway point in this novel, the characters' space/time continuum has definitely shifted towards the Old World.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2007 7:10:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

The May 14 issue of The New Yorker -- the "Innovators Issue," it sez here -- has a long & involved article by Elizabeth Kolbert about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN outside Geneva. I couldn't help but react to a couple of passages.

The first is about the implication of the Higgs particle, a theoretically existent but as yet unobserved subatomic particle -- something they're trying to study with this new, gigantic particle accelerator under construction. My knowledge of subatomic physics is comically puny, but this really grabbed me by the short-and-curlies:

"[The discovery of the Higgs particle] would have many fantastic implications, one of which is that the void of space is not really void but is permeated by an invisible field that acts a bit like cosmic molasses. The Higgs field, if it exists, exerts a drag on matter passing through it, lending mass to particles that otherwise wouldn't have any."

Hmmmm....

The second item was an image invoked by the author:

"When protons crash into each other at 99.9999991 per cent the speed of light, the resultant mess is usually just that -- the subatomic equivalent of shattered glass and twisted metal. But stranger things can happen. Just as it is possible to convert mass into energy -- as in a nuclear explosion -- the reverse is also true: energy can be transformed into mass according to the Einsteinian equation E=mc^2 (c being the speed of light). In this way, new particles can be produced that are more massive than those that entered the collision in the first place. The process might be compared to smashing two high-speed Priuses into each other and finding that they have rematerialized as a tank." (Emph. mine.)

This last isn't an insight into the book, really, I just thought it was amusingly coincidental, talking about the speed of light-an'-all...

I'll have more thoughts on AtD tomorrow.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2007 8:32:00 PM, Blogger Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

Sounds good to me, Neddie... As Roswell Bounce says, "all’s we need to do’s translate this here into hardware, then solder it all up, and we’re in business."

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2007 5:37:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Here, at the center of the novel, I think we are presented it's main conceit, being that certain events have a weight, a presence, which warps Time just as Gravity warps Space.

The looming presence of WW1 (which, as Thorne reminds us, presented western civ. with killing and death in Europe on a hitherto unimaginable, and afterwards gladly forgotten, scale.) is upsetting the flow. The War will knock some beings sideways in the fourth dimension, sending them to inspect for signs of psychic damage even "before" the event takes place - maybe find a way to stop it?.

554:9 "You have no idea what you are heading into. This world you take to be 'the' world will die, and descend into Hell"

Miles sees something resembling a holy City (pg. 551) and feels its immeasurable Approach, just as Young Congo also intuit the coming of some rough beast (Yes, Yeats is in the picture here) (543:18) "... one would have to be uncommonly isolated, either mentally or physically, not to feel His approach. And to know what He is bringing. What death and what transfiguration."

Interesting that even those sensitive enough to feel the weight of the disaster to come consider it in ambivalent terms, a balance of holiness with death, seem entranced by a possibility which, Thorne knows, leads only to Hell.

Which serves to explain pretty neatly how humans enter into wars in the first place.

The view into the human-less machinery which renders eggs into mayonnaise seen on pg 546 can be read as a nifty metaphor regarding the inhumane process of mechanized Capital -- the crushing of all life potential (eggs, Italian, no less!) into an oily, bland mass. Seeing it up close sends Kit into a panic.

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2007 10:00:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

Strikes me that in 538:38 - 539:32 we're being given a huge hint as to What This Whole Damn Thing's About.

It's also one of those passages where I slap my forehead in amazement: How the hell does he do that?

We're having dinner with the Quaterionists. Kit's just met Pléiade, who innocently asks, to general hilarity, "Yes, but what is a Quaternion?"

Barry Nebulay adverts to Bertrand "Mad Dog" Russel's critique: "Most of Hegel's arguments come down to puns on the word 'is.'"

Then we get Dr. Rao's literal party trick of employing Quaternion Yoga to become someone else. Is this too not a "pun on the word 'is'"? Who "is" Rao -- the guy who did the Yoga trick or the guy he became?

Mathematics is our language to describe objective reality. Here we have two competing descriptions of reality, the Quaternionists and the Vectorists. They are at odds, the Vectorists considering the Quaternion description of reality to be outmoded -- untrue. There can't be two realities -- or can there? (Sure as hell wish I understood the math better.)

Monstro will like this: Now impose over this map the fact that these are fictional characters. Rao becomes a second person entirely inside the head of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon. And ours, too, I suppose.

"It's like reincarnation on a budget, without the element of karma to worry about."

Jesus. This guy.

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2007 10:09:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

Further on the topic:

534:3 -- "Actually Quaternions failed because they perverted what the Vectorists thought they knew of God's intention -- that space must be simple, three-dimensional, and real, and if there must be a fourth term, an imaginary, that it be assigned to Time. But Quaternions came in and turned that all end for end, defining the axes of space as imaginary and leaving Time to be the real term, and a scalar as well -- simply inadmissible. Of course the Vectorists went to war..."

Quaternionists = Preterite
Vectorists = Elect

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2007 10:22:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

"All mathematics leads, doesn't it, sooner or later, to some kind of human suffering."

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2007 10:34:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

You've absolutely nailed it, sfmike: "Against what looms...pretending to carry on with the day..."

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2007 10:40:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

I'm seeing a blatant reference to The Evil Halfwit in "Neuropathists would recognize in both kings a desire to construct a self-consistent world to live inside, with allows them to continue the great damage they are inflicting on the world the rest of us must live in." (You know, the Reality-Based Community.)

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2007 10:09:00 PM, Blogger brooktrout said...

That manned torpedo concept is interesting in that it seems to call to mind modern times / terrorism / Islamic fanaticism, etc. I think the 2005 movie Syriana actually featured a manned torpedo, if I recall correctly. bsuwg

Just a thought on suicide warfare. Some how despite the taactically hopeless suicide charges of the American Civil War or WW1, Gallipoli was a perfect example, we tell ourselves that when westerners follow suicidal orders they are not comparable to other culture's suicidal assaults.

One of the things GR explores is the suicidal death wish at the heart of Fascism.

MY sense with Miles is a little different than what Neddie is proposing. I sense that Miles is refusing the black future in Hell presented as inevitable by Thorne and seeing dimly another possibility.

But it is just as possible that Miles vision is the opium by which the cyanide is introduced.

 
At Friday, May 11, 2007 8:02:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

MY sense with Miles is a little different than what Neddie is proposing.

I know I got a little logorrheic here yesterday, but that was Will, not me.

 
At Friday, May 11, 2007 11:30:00 PM, Blogger brooktrout said...

Oops, I wrote that while I had a headache and I don't think all the dots were connecting.

This passage is still haunting me. It is such a sad and troubling scene, painted in the bleakest tones from a shimmer of silver grey graduating endlessly toward coal black. The darks seem darker as we consider the staggering difficulties of slowing our own carbon fueled trajectory.

 
At Sunday, May 13, 2007 6:16:00 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

Dear Neddie: I quite enjoyed your logorrhea, and completely agree that our Nitwit Decider-Commander is being nodded at with the phrase "a desire to construct a self-consistent world to live inside, with allows them to continue the great damage they are inflicting on the world the rest of us must live in." Pretty much sums up our current, fraught-with-danger situation.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2007 8:24:00 AM, Blogger Monte said...

Some how despite the tactically hopeless suicide charges of the American Civil War or WW1... we tell ourselves that when westerners follow suicidal orders they are not comparable to other culture's suicidal assaults.

Read Gen. Boynton's description of the charge at Missionary Ridge:

http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/
history_military/nmpidea5f.htm

Those fanatics in blue, they just don't place the same value on human life that we Heirs to Western Values do...

 
At Monday, May 14, 2007 1:32:00 PM, Blogger brooktrout said...

I hate having the last word on these comment sections , so I hope someone will chime in once more, but this and the last 2 chapters covered some wild writing. Somehow those several characters who are traveling east are moving psychically, emotionally, and physics-ally along with just plain sillily, into bifurcatated terrain. I guess nothing puts you in 2 places at once like love, with the possible exception of war, and since all is fair in love and war, the rules of reality are pretty flexible.
"...what was this journey of Dally's the other way? A kind of release from death and judgment back into childhood?


One of the troubling aspects of all this is the connection between love and war . Kit, afraid of the implications of drawing Dally into his inner and family struggles and afraid of rejection by the fiery Dally tosses himself (jonah)into the bowels of the ship which is 2 ships, one on the verge of war. I think the metaphor here goes at least 2 ways: the ship of state, and the ark of the spirit/covenant. The division reflects his own division, upper class, lower class, love or war, and moves on to other questions of bilocation. "Two fishes, two Jonahs, two Agadirs?

One aspect of the Jonah Metaphor is that it is prominent in the New Testament where the 3 days in the whale prefigure Christ's 3 days in hell. This connection is amplified by the miraculous catch of fish. This continues the metaphor of Webb's death as the crucifixion and his children as disciples. Pynchon seems to be weighting Kit(Christopher) with some powerful mojo.

Vibe has sent him to be the next Edison and here he is hanging out with outcast quaternions, and Belgian nihilists , one named policarpe after the early church leader and martyr Polycarp. Here speaks of the Belgian colonial slavery in a prefiguration of the later references to the history of Hell. "...we create this from the ooze of hallucination being mapped onto by the unremitting and unremittable hell of our dominion down here."(527) I sense Pynchon is sketching out a karmic connection between the Belgian treatment of the Congolese and the coming horror at Flanders Field.

Pynchon seems to like these outsiders and this is a big change from Yale. The crazyness multiplies; souped up torpedoes, quaternion street songs,....there are plots afoot to kill Leopold, and plots to kill Kit with mayonaise. The whole thing goes very Gravity's Rainbow in tone pace and style, but I think the lead in via the Jonah metaphor is important enough to review so I did.

Thanks again to the initiators of the Chumps and to all fellow Chumps and potential Chumpettes. This is definitely a stone soup experience for me.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2007 3:26:00 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

Dear brooktrout: I love your commentaries, so I'll just put this up so you don't have to be last.

And what happened to this week's installment? I'm jonesing.

 
At Thursday, September 09, 2010 3:16:00 PM, Anonymous Viagra Online said...

I took a course on UCLA of Art Appreciation and we studied James Ensor political view of society, represented on his works. He was a great artist. Thank you for posting it.

 
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