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, July 09, 2007

The Madmen in the Taklamakan (ATD pp. 748-767)

  
Sorry to've been out of the loop for several weeks, Chumps. Summer vacations and all, I guess. Anyway, it's good to be caught up, so lets begin with a brief glimpse back at p. 677:
     She handed over a sealed Sanatorium envelope, embossed with the usual grandiose coat of arms.
     "What's this? Thought you two only used telepathy." He slipped it into an inside coat-pocket.
     Her smile was thin, formal. "Telepathy, marvelous as it is, would not be -- you say, 'a patch'? -- a patch on the moment you actually put this into his hands."
You did recall that Yashmeen had given Kit a letter to be delivered to her father, right?  I thought so... Me too. So opens this section, in an "ambigous epistolary" mode (my invented term to reflect the reader's position, not knowing whether the text represents Auberon reading the letter, Kit reading it en route to the desert, a flash-back to the time at which Yash had written the letter, or simply the contents of the letter being secretly shown to the reader courtesy of the narrator).
 
In the letter, Yash describes her uncertainty regarding her safety within the Tetractys-worshipping organization, members of which have begun informing secular politics with matters of TWIT obsession -- namely Shambhala. She's disillusioned; she wants out... She outlines her philosophical disagreements with her father's associates, but then goes on to describe a dream, or was it a dream?  She describes these rather luminous ("lighted from within") visitors ("the Compassionate") that she wishes to join.
 
Oddly, she seems just as preoccupied with Shambhala as any other TWIT member, though for different reasons, for she imagines her father at the city -- whether in physical or spiritual form (as Rinpunga's father) is not clear to me. Finally, she admits an awareness of a "strange doubleness" in her life (her bilocated other possibly in Shambhala with her father).
 
Next we switch to Kit's journey... Bucharest, Constantza, Black Sea, Batumi, Baku, the Caspian Sea, into the desert at Merv ("traveling sand-dunes a hundred feet high, which might or might not possess consciousness" [752]). Kit checks in with Swome and, from a stranger, learns about Namaz Premulkoff, larger-than-life hero of the local people.
 
At Kashgar, Kit quickly learns that Yashmeen's father, Auberon, is not lost or in danger, as was thought -- as though someone has deceived Yash into believing this to lure her away from the safety of the TWIT. Rather, Auberon is enjoying quite the posh, if somewhat absurdist, lifestyle; as is his Russian counterpart, Colonel Yevgeny Prokladka. Halfcourt and his colleague Mushtaq engage in lively "routine weekly rows" while the Russians carry on various conversations about all of the strange vices under their control in the city. This includes a number of steam-driven virtual reality machines [755]. Also notable, I think, was the mention of an "evil balloon" during Halfcourt and Mushtaq's interaction [754]. Could that be a skyship a la the Inconvenience (or, perhaps more likely, Padzhitnoff's ship)?
 
Next we're introduced to the Doosra, a mad, drug-swilling prophet of the desert who hands out loaded revolvers and berates his most loyal disciples. Hey, he's not just the Doosra, he's The Doosra . (A ganj-toking guy who goes by The Doosra... anyone else think Big Lebowski?)
 
A tough act to follow, you say?  Of course not... Enter "Al Mar-Faud," complete with English hunting tweeds and a shotgun!!  "Gweetings, gentlemen, on this Glowious Twelfth!" [757]. Mar-Faud, a known "Uyghur troublemaker" delivers a message from The Doosra that the city must be surrendered. Prokladka shows up and Mar-Faud rides away.  Halfcourt and Prokladka share reflective a moment, marveling at "these profitless wastes."
 
Next, we learn (if I'm reading this section correctly) about Yashmeen's arrival, how Auberon "rescued" her from some terrible fate (presumably her being sold into slavery, prostitution, or something similarly foul). (Note, she writes "slavery" in her letter on p. 750.) But, his attachment to Yashmeen is also more than simply paternal -- an inner conflict that manifests itself by (figuratively, I assume, as opposed to bilocationally) splitting Auberon into "two creatures resident within the same life" [759].
 
I understand this to be the conflict between his being (1) her rescuer / father figure / protector, and (2) her lover. After all, "One did not, however much in widely-known fact some did, undergo such passionate attachment to a child" [760]. The Wiki suggests an allusion to Faust, which certainly makes sense. (Notably, a line of Halfcourt dialogue on 763 starts with, "A lucifer flared" (my emphasis) referring, I believe to one of his so-called "transnoctial cheroots" [759].)
 
But, is he really a devil?  I suppose one could offer a least a bit of defense of Auberon. First, though the term "child" is used a few times, it could be that the term is meant from his perspective, as relative to his own age (in the way that, say a 50-year-old might view a 20-year-old as a "child"). She's described, after all, as "already womanly" on 759 at the time of her "rescue." Second, there's no reference to any occurrence of impropriety. In fact, based on her letter, she still views him as her rescuer and father figure. I'll leave it at that for now; perhaps someone else has given this complex matter deeper thought and can better elucidate.
 
Also interesting here is that, as Halfcourt's enrapturement is described, we're given the imagery of Yashmeen's "naked limbs flickering against the green-shadowed tiles" [my emphasis, 760]. Contrast that with Prokladka and Volodya's fascination with jade. Volodya continually reminds Auberon that "out here the local word for jade is yashm" [761].
 
And then there's that passing mention of "the semi-mythical aeronaut Padzhitnoff" [761].
 
A short section then recounts the arrival of Lieutenant Dwight Prance, geography and languages expert from Cambridge. Completely disheveled and confused, he warns Halfcourt about strange trouble brewing to the east, a highly influential visitor from "between the worlds" destined to instill unprecedented fear in all of the parties involved in this whole "Eurasia Irredenta" movement, or possibly to corral and lead them against the interests of Whitehall.
 
We then fast forward to shortly after Kit's arrival. Kit has annoyed Auberon, though I'm unsure why -- other than (1) Kit's appearance and attitude aren't serious enough to please Auberon, and/or (2) Auberon has read Yash's letter, in which Yash describes Kit as a brother, stirring up a bit of jealousy within Auberon. So, Auberon offers Kit a "mission eastward to establish relations with the Tungus living east of the Yenisei" [763].
 
He's to be accompanied by Prance. Reviewing maps, Prance tels Kit they need to begin their journey by going through a great archway called the Tushuk Tash. "[U]nless we enter by way of it, we shall always be on the wrong journey" [764].
 
Kit then has a meeting with The Doosra, who invites Kit to head north to meet with his master. "He will satisfy all your questions about this world, and the Other" [765]. Sorry if your moderator is a bit feeble-minded at present, but I'm admittedly unsure if this northern journey to speak with The Doosra's "master" is the same as, or even related to, Kit & Prance's journey eastward to establish relations with the Tungus. Maybe the book is like the journey The Doosra describes -- it's "a kind of conscious Being, a living deity who does not wish to engage with the foolish or the weak, and hence will try to dissuade you" [765].
 
Bottom of p. 765: First direct evidence we have that Auberon has actually read Yash's letter. He's disgusted with himself, with the fact that he's aged and unpresentable. This causes him to leave town rather mysteriously. Weeks later, he shows up "respectably turned out ... except for the insane light in his eyes" [766] at a book dealer (named Tariq) in Bukhara. Halfcourt is seeking directions to Shambhala. Tariq describes the book Halfourt wants, written by Rimpung Ngawang Jigdag to a Yogi "who is a sort of fictional character, though at the same time real." It seems Tariq will be able to hook Auberon up with the volume he seeks (or perhaps a more usual German translation), but can offer little further assistance other than the advice that "[i]t helps to be a Buddhist" [767].
 
That's about it for this section, Chumps!
-P.H.
 
ps  Per our hosts' request, we'll forgo the usual "Other Discussion" post. Just post any related thoughts in the normal comments section.

13 Comments:

At Thursday, July 12, 2007 5:52:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

I, for one, got a big laugh from the author's observation at the top of pg. 751, Afterward people would ask Kit why he hadn't brought along a hand camera, in that he gave something like an SLR, that enigmatic object, to Umeki Tsurigame about 200 pages ago.

By this stage I, for one, can't read something like (750:27) Mr. Kit Traverse, who brings you this letter, like myself, journeys at the mercy of Forces whose deployment and strength he has but an imperfect grasp of, and not think those Forces' initials are TRP.

I'm going to propose a theory, feel free to disagree, that, basically, puts the Sham in Shambhala. If anyone had been telling Yashmeen stories, it was Halfcourt. Living in a paradise of the dishonorable, he purchases a young girl from a slave market and falls madly in love with her (and here, though the language is utterly ambiguous, I think it had an acutely physical aspect) and lies to her about the world and his role in it, giving his shabby, if exotic, enterprise an almost mythic standing.

He is, as we see, overwhelmed by the relationship and ships her out to England, in the care of a nutty group that wear funny hats and, basically, buy the same line of moonshine he's used to enchant the girl.

She's beautiful, and exceptionally gifted, and so completly fooled by the story by which he's bound her to himself that she's now living in it, which becomes clear to Halfcourt only after reading the letter. He is appalled by what he's done: "I am contaminated beyond hope, Mushtaq."

Then what does he do but try to really find the place where he's told her he commonly dwells. He disappears from his post, then some weeks later, looking crazed, sets out from a bookseller's, a man who sells him a guide to a place that doesn't exist ("Shambhala--though it is all very interesting, I'm sure--"), an insane desert vision [...] for just a moment, plausible.

 
At Thursday, July 12, 2007 9:28:00 AM, Blogger Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

"She's beautiful, and exceptionally gifted, and so completly fooled by the story by which he's bound her to himself that she's now living in it..."

I like the theory, but then I think you also have to ask yourself what is and what isn't a "story." I mean, Yash may be caught up in a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but she can also "literally" (in the universe of ATD) walk through walls, right? So, if you write off Shambhala, then what else do you have to write off and reinterpret somehow? The whole book?

 
At Thursday, July 12, 2007 11:26:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Just because Yashmeen can walk through time/space portals does not mean Shambahla exists for any of the novel's characters (note that the Chums have not found it either), though I suppose her ability, and her gift for modeling mathmatical abstractions, makes the whole thing seem more possible to her than to cynical adminstrators of empire, like Halfcourt. Her idea of him living in Shambhala is what shames him, and causes him to believe in at least a search for it.

I'd also submit that one of AtD's themes is how parents fuck up their kids, and we might contrast Yash with Dally, whose presumptive father made sure she had a very realistic understanding of how the world operates.

 
At Friday, July 13, 2007 6:14:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

if you write off Shambhala, then what else do you have to write off and reinterpret somehow? The whole book?

Yes.

From Stencil's quest in V. onward, Pynchon has been playing the scales of his characters' hope for a transcendent Answer, a Counterforce, an anarchist miracle, a signal buried in the sferics or a city buried in the sand, a perfect reconciliation of history and hope (aka parents and children).

That hope is not merely analogous to our hope as readers that we can penetrate the veil of the Temple (cf. Jachim and Boaz, p. 346) and suss out What TRP Really Personally Sincerely Believes In. It is the same hope.

This is not some varnish of unreliable narration and modernist meta that we can strip away, arriving at a checklist of "what's true vs. what's Yashmeen's (or Halfcourt's) delusion" (is Oedipa crazy, or is she on the cusp of revelation?) This is radical, root-and-branch ambiguity, and we're not going to find a stable resting place from which to resolve it any more than we're going to find an absolute, pre-Einsteinian clock and meter stick to tell us when and where we really are.

 
At Friday, July 13, 2007 6:08:00 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

Possibly because I'm an old San Francisco, California, marijuana-smoking autodidact who has been exposed at one time or another to every religious cult that exists, both Western and Eastern, I definitely believe in Shambhala. Clap if you believe in Tinkerbell, I hear you say, but really, it's not a "sham" as I'm sure Brooktrout will explain eloquently when he writes about next week's short section.

I agree with the second half of Will's positing, that Auberon Halfcourt is a complete phony, but Yashmeen certainly isn't, and part of her letter clues us in that she's starting to wise up about her "rescuer." On page 749:24, "But more and more lately, I find I cannot set aside your profession, the masters you serve, the interests which all this time out there in Inner Asia, however, unconsciously, you have been furthering...I was haunted by the possibility that, if we ever did meet at last, we might both, against our wills, stumble into a serious, perhaps a fatal, row." She also seems to be a psychic bilocated time refugee, as 749:7 makes explicit, "For what mission have I here, in this perilous segment of space-time, if not somehow to transcend it, and the tragic hour into which it is passing?"

I love "The Doosra," though I don't think he's the Lebowski Dude. On page 756:35, "What they cannot see yet is that he is not another Madali or even Namaz, this is not another holy war, he does not seek an army to follow him, he despises people, all people, sends away all who would be disciples, that is both his fascination and the force of his destiny. What is to come will not occur in ordinary space. The Europeans will find great difficulty in drawing maps of this." The Great War, The Great Disaster, it's coming and there's nothing the White Dudes who are in charge can do about it for one second. This is confirmed on 762:15, "Has this Asiatic Beerbohm Tree of yours got a name?" "Not yet...the general feeling out there is that by the time his name is revealed, all will be so irreversibly on the move that, for any step we might conceive, here or in Whitehall, it will be far too late."

On page 759:7, there's a wonderful throwaway dialogue about time between Mushtaq and Halfcourt. "Go into the past and never come out?" "Something like that." "Are you talking your rubbish again, Mushtaq? What of the reverse? Remain in the exile of the present tense and never get back in, to reclaim what was?"

As for why Halfcourt is annoyed with Kit, Pynchon makes it pretty clear. I loved the description of Kit's trip to Kashgar, but the real punchline is on page 763:11 which has Auberon thinking, "Young Mr. Traverse clearly had no idea of what to do with himself. Thought he was out on a nature hike." And then we get the description of Halfcourt's journey to Kashgar in earlier times, ending with the great line, "Nowadays, of course, it might as well all be on a Cook's tour."

Also loved the meeting between Kit and The Doosra, which ends with one of the great bits of "Eastern" wisdom I've ever read (page 765:25), "It isn't only the difficult terrain, the vipers and sandstorms and raiding parties. The journey itself is a kind of conscious Being, a living deity who does not wish to engage with the foolish or the weak, and hence will try to dissuade you. It insists on the furthest degree of respect."

Which is how I'm treating this book, to tell you the truth.

 
At Saturday, July 14, 2007 5:32:00 AM, Blogger Decency's Jigsaw said...

Hey Patrick, lovely summation. I know what you mean about loops: lately, I can't seem to stay in any of them, m'self.

I gotta say, as a reader-aheader: I remember how I felt like I had it all figger'd out when I finished it the first time, "ah-ha, so that's it!" But as I've been trawling through it again with the group-read, there are more and more aspects that slip out of focus, more answers that blur into questions. It's both exhilarating and enervating. Certainties have very short half-lives before breaking down into ambiguities.

Let's see here, a couple-three things from this section that struck me...:

I'm really glad SFMike pointed out the "throwaway dialogue" on 759:7... That little exchange made my hair stand on end the first time I read it, and again this time, too. I thought, among others, of Hunter Penhallow, who seemed to have gone into the future, then back into the past, where he seemed listless and mired somehow, or stuck... And you're right on, Mike, abt 765:25 -- "the furthest degree of respect" -- that passage really jumped out at me, for exactly the reason(s) you said.

But I thought also of the Vormance Expedition's mysterious object... In fact, there've been quite a few things throughout the book that get described one way or another as "a kind of conscious being." On 177:22, Lew considered the railroad as "a living organism." A-and that ball lightning, and the tornado... Wasn't there some of that animistic talk when Frank was down in Mexico? And, duh, the sand dunes right here in this section (752). There's others, too, I'm sure. Significant? It would seem. Of what? Not sure.

I see that I scrawled "Trespassers?" in the margin beside the last paragraph of page 749, where Yashmeen's recounting that dream she had (yet another example of a child dreaming of a parent, tho in this case, it's "child" and "parent"). She sez that Auberon took her hand and they "ascended, or rather, we were taken aloft, as if in mechanical rapture, to a great skyborne town" etc etc. I guess that word "mechanical" made me think of the Trespassers, because Mr Ace had sounded mechanical (with the rasping "nzzt" and "zznrrt" on 415:27 and 416:1). But while it doesn't quite sound like them, could it actually be the Chums?...

Speaking of page 749: up at the top, when Yashmeen sez "Those in whose company I travel but among whom, I fear, I am no longer counted..." it reminded me of that curious detail during the Vormance Expedition waaay back on page 125: "the 'extra man' of Arctic myth" (125:210). (See also the ATD Wiki.) May not be a significant correlation, may just be a Kute Korrespondence.

 
At Saturday, July 14, 2007 5:35:00 AM, Blogger Decency's Jigsaw said...

Oh yeah, and on the subject of parents screwing up their kids, I offer this:

This Be The Verse
Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

 
At Sunday, July 15, 2007 12:28:00 PM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

"ascended, or rather, we were taken aloft, as if in mechanical rapture, to a great skyborne town"

...making us reflect, split-beam, on

- the book's final vision
- the Chums' descent on Chicago (10)
- Dally's recurrent memory/visions of the White City, explicit and hinted at (69, 336, 568, etc)

...not to mention assorted altitudinous raptures of Ezekiel, Dante, Gulliver in Laputa, et al.

 
At Sunday, July 15, 2007 6:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Monte: Which "final vision" are you referring to?

Sorry, guys, but I'm having too good a time playing the slow-moving traveler through this book, and I know half of you have already finished it, but do keep in mind that not everybody has done so. Thanks.

 
At Monday, July 16, 2007 5:33:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

I see no way to answer your question, anon, that won't compound the offense. (But you knew that.)

 
At Monday, August 27, 2012 3:32:00 PM, Anonymous byrd9999 said...

Whenever the characters mention 'The Compassionate', the skyborne elements, the raptures, I think of the Chums. Their presence hovers over this section of the book, bringing with it all the ambiguities of reality/fiction and authorial control.

On a different note, does anyone else get the feeling that TRP made this journey (or a similar one) himself? I can imagine TRP on the 17 year gap between GR and Vineland, touring the world at his own pace, seeking out native guides, off the beaten path, reading books in libraries, noting things down, piecing AtD together bit by bit. Somehow I don't picture TRP at home with Jackson showing him how to use the internet... But then again, it's all a fiction, isn't it?

 
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