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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

That Enigmatic Object Of Desire

picture source

(pp. 557-587)

A group of Quaternioneers, with Kit tagging along, meet with Viktor Mulciber, a weapons dealer interested in getting his hands on a Q-weapon who wants to hear how it might operate. Barry Nebulae and Dr. V. Ganesh Rao explain that such a weapon would employ a wave that somehow accesses the energy behind the flow of time.

But Mulciber is not the only one looking for such a thing. Piet Woevre has in fact managed to purchase something from one Edouard Gevaert, a small, elegant, enigmatic thing, with distinctly fetishistic design touches.

Kit and Umeki Tsurigame's affair continues, though he still runs into Pleiade Lafrisee, sometimes in the company of Woevre.

A Quartion holiday, October 16, is used by de Decker's security apparatus as an excuse to send agents to the Hotel Nouvelle Digue, to keep an eye on the troublemakers there. Seeing the operatives, Kit, quickly followed by the others, 86s the establishment. Around midnight Kit ends up with Rocco and Pino as they try to ride the torpedo through the canals out of Brussels, only to end up in a ghostly industrial neighborhood where they are waylaid by Woevre, who starts shooting.

Woevre, though, seems more concerned with some sort of airship, apparently with a crew, (the Chums, of course) which has been, he believes, stalking him for days. He takes out the strange new weapon for the first time and fires it, though seems to hit nothing other than himself. Deeply freaked out by the rather other-worldly experience, Woevre gives the thing to Kit, who has found him flat on his back, and runs away.

Umeki is completely fascinated by the object and describes the power it apparently has and how it seems to work. After dreaming of her and the device, which seems also to outline a vision of a hidden city, Kit gives it to her, and they prepare to part forever. She returning to Japan and he moving on to inner Asia on the Orient Express, which is in motion, with Kit aboard, as the section ends.

The weapon, as described on pg. 559, may well be the same enigmatic object which Miles saw the Others pointing at him on pg. 417. We see that it is small, with an eyepiece, an interior mirror, set in a leather case and can be slung over the shoulder from a strap. Sounds to me like a weird SLR camera. That it has been sold to Woevre by someone who shares a name with a giant photographic film and paper company, only adds to the impression.

Indeed, as Nebulae describes the action of the w term as something that crosses space and travels with time, one is put in mind of a photograph, something which crosses the three elements of space the instant it is created and then travels its own way through time. When shooting, the weapon produces a flash which briefly blinds Woevre, and another parallel with an SLR can't be ignored.

In describing the inner working of the thing, (565:37 - 566:5) Umeki indulges in what sounds to me as splendid nonsense.

I'll note that both Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray produced what they called enigmatic objects, odd surrealist sculptures which to this day resist interpretation.

And, Cazzo! (562:13), pronounced COT-so, appearing with some reqularity in the narrative now, is the favorite explitive of Naples, and means prick or dick.

Moving on, the Zombini's triumphant European tour hits Venice, where Luca makes a business trip to the Island of Mirrors, where the stage cabinet which had bilocated several members of his audiences had been produced. (We learn also that a Zombini ancestor had worked in the mirror factory centuries earlier before, possibly, running off to America to found a dynasty there.) The factory sales and tech reps, Vincenzo Miserere and Ettore Sanazolo suggest Luca can undo the damage to those bilocated by getting each pair to get back in the box at the same time; an impracticality, Luca decides.

Meanwhile Dally has, as so many of us have, fallen in love with Venice and, unlike most, has the wherewithal to stay - forever she hopes. Erlys and Luca, in a very touching scene, decide to let her, that it is the only thing to do. The Zombinis, with many waves and kisses, depart without her.

Dally becomes a street performer, working the tourist crowd and sleeping wherever she can. She soon befriends Hunter Penhallow, last seen fleeing New York and the Vormance beast on pg. 155. He is an indigent artist who takes Dally under his wing, or perhaps it is vice-versa.

Penhallow, we are told, is a veteran of a great war which, it seems, has not happened yet, quite possibly a time traveler who has found some kind of refuge in the ancient, quasi-imaginary city of Venice, a place whose dark side Dally grows increasingly aware of in her nocturnal travels.

Penhallow finds a place for Dally to stay full time, the palazzo of his friend, the young (or is it timeless?) beauty, Princess Spongiatosta, who takes a shine to our heroine.

Bria Zombini arrives on a jaunt before her parents, who have been crimping her budding teenage social life, return stateside. Hunter also introduces Dally to Andrea Tancredi, a modernist painter and anarchist who renders colorful explosions in oil paint. Dally finds him to be a pretty devastating specimen and, as the chapter draws to a close, visits his studio alone for the first time, hankering for a kiss.

And basta! I will note a certain similarity between the Zombini bilocating cabinet and that enigmatic object from the section previous. There is also a shared interest in the Pentecost (pps 561 & 580) among disparate characters. The great cricketer Dr. W.G. Grace appears to Penhallow in a dream (pp. 577), and let's agree that no one executes the vanishing elephant catch better than Cici Zombini. All else must find the way forward in Comments.


At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 9:03:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

Beautiful, and convincing argument for the Q weapon being a SLR camera. This is brilliant Pynchon, the camera as a weapon of mass destruction. I missed this the first time through.

Early large and medium format SLRs(wiikipedia)

The single-lens reflex concept was developed in the early 1900s with large format equipment. Graflex of the United States and Konishi in Japan produced SLR cameras as early as 1909 and 1907 respectively.[1] While SLR cameras were not very popular at the time, they proved useful for some work. These cameras were used at waist level; the ground glass screen was viewed directly, using a large hood to keep out the light. In most cases, the mirror had to be raised as a separate operation before the shutter could be operated.
Following camera technology in general, SLR cameras became available in smaller and smaller sizes; medium format SLRs soon became common; at first larger box cameras, and later "pocketable" models such as the Ihagee Vest-Pocket Exakta of 1933.

and just early enough historically to fit as a top secret super weapon. I love photography but particularly in its apt comparison to mirrors (both use silver and glass to reflect and capture light), I have an instinctive sense of its dark side. Areverse world that seems to have 3 dimensions but does not. How easy to mistake image for real, to double and become estranged from oneself. How quickly the photograph becomes a trophy, a symbol of the west's presumed ability to capture the reality of other people and cultures with a click, or a weapon to map and control territory. All of these images infuse this section. The Japanese love affair with the camera is fascinating and amusing. I wonder about all those tons of photos of yellowstone and the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge. So hard to stuff awe into a box.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007 10:47:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

What a model of concision and explanation. Thanks.

At Wednesday, May 16, 2007 3:50:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

How easy to mistake image for real, to double and become estranged from oneself.

A-and let's not forget how cruelly we laugh at those "primitive" peoples who balk at photography because they believe their souls are being captured and put in a little box. Oh, those silly pygmies!

Me, I tend to agree with them.

A-and let's also not forget Our Artificer's attitude toward the capture of his own image on film. (Needless to say, he taketh not kindly to it.) As Keith Gessen said in this review of Against the Day, "Photographs are what they take so they’ll know what you look like when they want to kill you."

At Thursday, May 17, 2007 6:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the device could be like an SLR, but it can't be an SLR. photography itself is the time-splitting mechanism - the image is captured on film or plate and forks the moment, so to speak - and it was certainly well-known by 190x. but an SLR is just a box with a mirror that flips out of the way while the film is exposed. i don't see how an ordinary spring-loaded mirror in front of a piece of film would frighten people . also, flash photography was well-known at the time, too, though self-contained flash-bulbs didn't appear until the 20s. people used flash powder before then.

of course, if it's not an ordinary mirror, but instead some kind of reality-splitting Spar-ish thing then we're not talking about an SLR camera anymore.

sure, Pynchon is making the device look like a modern SLR, but it really can't be one.

At Thursday, May 17, 2007 3:32:00 PM, Blogger Douglas Lannark said...


At Thursday, May 17, 2007 10:11:00 PM, Blogger H. Rumbold, Master Barber said...

Cleek, there is a reality-splitting Spar-ish thing right in the viewfinder- the split-image focusing prism. The description of the device is indeed confusing- no surprise- but has something to do with a bilocating crystal at relativistic velocity recombining its images via the Lorentz contraction shrinking space-time. Intense and scary stuff.

At Friday, May 18, 2007 6:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

there is a reality-splitting Spar-ish thing right in the viewfinder- the split-image focusing prism.

if Pynchon is implying that the SLR camera is a weapon of immense and terrifying power because it has a spring-loaded mirror and a pentagonal glass prism, i'll burn this tome and scatter its ashes.

but i think he's too smart for that. this device, whatever it is, might look like an SLR and maybe we're supposed to draw parallels from it to photography, but it just can't be an ordinary camera.

At Friday, May 18, 2007 2:53:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

I do think we are to see the enigmatic object as a kind of higher order of any device which divides and sorts light for powerful and unknown ends. Furthermore putting us in mind that some so called simple things, like SLRs, have uses and ultimate effects which are little understood, even as they are made to produce such homely objects as snapshots.

Let's emphasize the enigmatic part too. Just 'cause Worvre thinks it's a weapon, does not mean that it is, or at least its effect was as pronounced on him as on whatever it was he was aiming at. Some weapon.

Before we move on I'd like to note that Tancredi is a name borrowed from a character in Tomasi di Lampedusa's wonderful novel (an especial favorite of mine) The Leopard, a scapegrace aristocrat of a kind who was both the pride and curse of the Italian unification.

The Zombini bilocating box is a variation on the classic Maskelyne cabinet (571:17) --Maskelyne being the name of a character from M&D, the Royal Astronomer and Mason and Dixon's boss. It is one of the great names in the novel, all the more so because Pynchon didn't make it up.

Whether such a cabinet existed in the magic trade I can't say

At Saturday, May 19, 2007 7:04:00 PM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Umm.. aren't magicians John Nevil Maskelyne and his son Nevil Maskelyne the more immediate referents?

At Sunday, May 20, 2007 5:09:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Hmmm... I bet you're right. Handy name, that.

Maskelyne magicians, who knew?

At Sunday, May 20, 2007 9:14:00 AM, Blogger Civic Center said...

And since we're being picayune with bilocated names, Tancredi is also the title character of one of Rossini's most famous tragic operas from 1813. The hero is an exiled soldier from Syracuse (written for a mezzo/contralto to perform, actually, even though it's a dude).

At Sunday, May 27, 2007 9:06:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

I have been nagged by cleek's reasonable doubts and questions about the Q weapon as an SLR though I think this(SLr) is a valid interpretation. I have been re-reading the section and have come t0 sense that it is more. It is dividing squaring, rounding, focusing and reflecting light like a camera , but what is it takiing a picture of.? It seems to be a kind of Karmic reversal tool. Woevre , at first keen to test it on the Italian anarchists, loses control of himself , points it at the now revealed Inconvenience, sees himself in a flash of light and a chorus of sound and is psychically devastated by his own history as an agent of the Belgian exploitation of the Congolese and similar actions in South Africa.

Somehow there is an implied translation process in these chapters from the mathematics to the technical and social effects of the maths. I wrote something longer and more articulate but a lighning storm killed it.

At Wednesday, December 14, 2011 8:16:00 AM, Anonymous baster said...

Actually the Surrealist movement has been a fractious one since its inception. The value and role of the various techniques has been one of many subjects of disagreement.
annotated bibliography by

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