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, August 20, 2007

Inside the Moment

(pp. 835-848)

Sometimes, if you stare at an idea for too long, you lose the ability to judge whether it's a really brilliant insight or just, you know, duh. Ah, well: in for a penny, in for a pounding...

Salonika during World War I (source)

This chapter contains some of the most straightforward event-by-event narrative that I can recall in a book by Our Boy. But, Our Boy being Our Boy, enormous ideas are being hashed out just below the surface.

I mean, just huge ideas.

We resume in mid-chapter with Cyprian and Danilo, outcast from "steel and parallel tracks," searching for the mysteriously disappeared Bevis Moistleigh. Autumn is coming on. They sit in an olive grove (mark that well) to enjoy a freshly purchased fish (ditto), when bullets begin to fly, "striking, for the moment, surfaces other than human...though it was now of the essence to to find one's way inside the moment, with death invisible and everywhere, 'like God,' it occurred to Danilo afterward." (Emphases mine.)

The pair manage to escape the bullets (oddly without source), and flee into the Balkan mountains. As they scarper, we get another of those images of inevitability: "...and all question of alloyed steel, geometric purity of gauge, railways and timetables and the greater network, not to mention European time as it usually passed, ceased to be any part of their day...." (Day. Again.)

For inevitability, I'd like to suggest at this point that we substitute the word predestination; a train on a track has no choice about where to go, and in our last two readings we've had a great deal of discussion about this. On the train leaving Trieste, Yashmeen observes "iron convergences and receding signal-lamps. Outward and visible metaphor for the complete ensemble of 'free choices' that define the course of a human life." (811:5) And Cyprian, leaving Trieste on the John of Asia, reflects on watching "the possibilities on shore being progressively narrowed at last to the destined [!] quay or slip," and the concomitant "mirror-symmetry about departure, a denial of inevitability." (821:29-31)

(Interesting image: "the black that rests at the heart of all color." (835:32) My paltry knowledge of the physics of light tells me that it's white that "rests at the heart of all color," but who am I?)

High up in the mountains, now, the sunset casting a fantastic light-show on the peaks, they observe a mysterious cloaked figure standing on a bridge, "containing in its severe contours a huge compressed quantity of attention," busy doing some Serious Foreshadowing....

Cyprian and Danilo get caught in a blinding mountain storm. Fumbling their way, safety nowhere to be found, Cyprian trips and "for the first time was delivered [interesting use of the passive voice] into an embrace that did not desire him." (Note: desire.) His fall has the effect of knocking Danilo off the trail, and in his fall Danilo breaks his leg. "You must bring me out," sez Danilo. No options, here, no choice for Cyps. Danilo speaks "without the possibility of another meaning."

You have no choice but to be God's instrument in bringing me out.

Danilo, a Sephardic Jew it should be pointed out, points the finger at the culprit he finds guilty for his pain while Cyprian is setting his leg: "En tu kulo, Dio!" The language is Judezmo, the "peculiar Jewish Spanish" we've been told he speaks: "Up your ass, God!"

(I suppose he could be cursing Ronnie James Dio, but while tempting, it's temporally unlikely.)

Through the blow-winds-crack-your-cheeks madness they trudge, and Danilo disappears into the darkness. Cyprian cries out, "Where are you?" the wind "taking his voice into the vast indifference." "Where are you?" can be read in more than one way, of course; it could be a simple request for information, but it could also be taken to mean, "Do you know where you are?" -- do you know where, that is, in this predestined universe, God has placed you? Either way, his wishing for no answer is heart-rending; either he wants Danilo dead, or God.

Once out of danger, a crack in the Predestination Question appears. Danilo speaks dreamily of his home town, Salonica, and of his cousin Vesna, apparently quite a dish. Cyprian, whose devotion to Danilo's safety, apparently acquired when he saved his life, takes on a strangely maternal aspect. This in turn causes him to note that Danilo's yearning for home was the first time any question of desire had arisen between them: "This first encounter with release from desire brought Cyprian the unexpected delight of a first orgasm." (839:30)

Not to be too heavy-handed, here, but what Major World Religion takes as its first tenet the axiom that all suffering is caused by desire, and that freedom from desire is freedom from delusion? And which is the only Major World Religion in which the question of Free Will and Predestination are fundamentally meaningless? Which M.W.R. teaches us that living in the world is an illusion, a state that is not at all unlike, oh, say, a fictional character stuck in the Maya of Thomas Pynchon's Mind? Has Cyprian just fallen asleep under the Bodhi Tree?

It continues: One of the first questions they asked us in our introductory college course on Buddhism was this: Is not the desire to end Desire itself a desire? And here we have Cyprian (840:1-3): "Of course it passed, the way a pulse of desire itself will, but the odd thing was that he found himself always unexpectedly trying to locate it again, as if it were something at least as desirable as desire."

The theological wrangling goes on, as they talk about their escape from danger (840:10-14):
"It was the will of God," Danilo said.

"Which of your several Gods would that be, then?"

"There is only God."

Cyprian was nowhere near as certain. But seeing the usefulness of remaining attached to the day, he only nodded and went on chopping vegetables. [Heavy emphasis -- and significant beard-pulling -- mine .]
It's interesting that these revelations happen when the two are far away in the trackless mountains; when they return to civilization, "back again to steel and parallel tracks," different questions of Free Will and Predestination find them. Are there two kinds of Predestination, that imposed by God on all of humanity, and that of Man over Man? I love the observation, "Social Darwinists of the day were forever on about the joys of bloody teeth and claws, but they were curiously uncelebratory of speed and deception [exhibited by prey], poison and surprise."

Cyprian and Danilo make it through Serbia, with Cyps disguised as an English civil-service wife; again we see that he is relinquishing desire, this time of an overtly sexual nature. They are forced to reverse their northward journey when they find the rivers interdicted in Belgrade, and they look southward toward Greece, to Danilo's childhood home in Salonica. (This is Thessaloniki in modern spelling; confused the hell out of Google Earth!) First following a railroad right-of-way (a straight line drawn over earth, but one that has not yet met the "parallel tracks" of the steel itself) and then on a "physical or material" train through Macedonia to Greece and the Aegean.

Arrived in Salonica, a place under the political dominion of the Young Turks, the "flophouse of Europe" they are ecstatically greeted by Danilo's cousin Vesna, who's every bit the hot patootie he described back in the mountains. Salonica is already showing signs of an unbecoming modernity under the Young Turks: "The mosqueless idea of a city is nearly upon us, dull modern, orthogonal, altogether lacking in God's mystery. You Northern people will feel right at home." (Zing!)

That Mavri Gata sounds like a fun spot. And, natch, through the hasheesh smoke we get that microtonal music we were so enraptured over about 700 pages back: "flatted seconds and sixths, and a kind of fretless portamento between..." I'd love to do a riff on modal scales characterized as "roads" (musical Predestination!) but I do have to hit Publish on this sucker soon. Maybe in Comments....

It doesn't take long for the Desperate Political Situation to rear its head in Salonica. (Honestly, I'd expected Cyps and Danilo to be greeted with the news of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand when came in out of the wilderness, but I suppose that's not far off...) Danilo brings onstage a "noodle-thin" character with the highly amusing name of Gabrovo Slim. Slim, finding Greece to be too hot for a Bulgarian, needs help getting out of town. "Oh, I'm the Scarlet Pimpernel, now, is that it?" protests Cyprian. "It is your destiny," purrs Vesna -- and if I get smacked over the head with Predestination one more goddamned time in this chapter, I'm going Gavrilo Princip on this book....

(Ommmm... Ommmm.... Ommmm mani padme hum....)

Cyps makes with the Iceland Spar action, exchanging clothes with Slim, who uses his disguise to blow Salonica.

Now on his way back to Trieste, taking coaster ships, Cyprian, "for no reason he could think of" (what, maybe he had to? Chill, Gavrilo...), hops off the boat and makes for Cetinje, in Macedonia. And who should he run into but Bevis Moistleigh, who abandoned the original get-Danilo-out-of-Sarajevo mission to shack up with Jacintha Drulov ("Truelove," surely?)! Cyprian is deliciously annoyed. And he has picked up the ability to observe himself being annoyed. Enlightenment will do that to you.

Jesus, this guy. Has any writer ever been able to pack so much into so little space?

I'm exhausted.


At Tuesday, August 21, 2007 2:32:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

As a sidelight, I just came across this in P's introduction to Slow Learner:

"I had grown up reading a lot of spy fiction, novels of intrigue, notably those of John Buchan. The only book of his that anyone remembers now is The Thirty-nine Steps, but he wrote half a dozen more just as good or better. They were all in my hometown library. So were E. Phillips Oppenheim, Helen MacInnes, Geoffrey Household, and many others as well. The net effect was eventually to build up in my uncritical brain a peculiar shadowy vision of the history preceding the two world wars. Political decision-making and official documents did not figure in this nearly as much as lurking, spying, false identities, psychological games."

At Tuesday, August 21, 2007 2:37:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Cyps makes with the Iceland Spar action...

a.k.a. "gotta split now"

At Tuesday, August 21, 2007 11:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in my opinion, that's pretty awesome, Neddie. i didn't even come close to noticing anything like that.

maybe i need to go back and re-read from pp700 onward. (after i finish Chabon's latest, which is awesome so far).

At Tuesday, August 21, 2007 6:42:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Buddha/Buchan seems to get right to the heart of this section. Thanks for the nice wrap-up.

At Wednesday, August 22, 2007 8:54:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

I agree also that Buddhism is a major theme. Particularly the whole idea of the self or multiple selves as maya, illusory constructions that can be just as easily deconstructed, fictions which produce real suffering. I think Buddhism has been touched on before but there is a sense in which like Neddie, the reader may suddenly see how much is revolving around this axis.

He is bumping this up against the dualisms of Western thinking. One of the only things that rivals Capitalism in its monomaniacal win lose approach is Islam.

I think the quote "[...] try for a moment to imagine that, except in the most limited and trivial ways, history does not take place north of the forty-fifth parallel." is a reflection of the same notion within the western imperial worldview.

At Wednesday, August 22, 2007 9:12:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

Also, as far as ideas bumping up against each other and how that might work as a transformational process, I think one of the roles of the chums (and possibly the chumps too) is to exemplify this democratic, human ideal. They start out with a group identity ordered by lines of authority, directed by orders from on high( author, God , them) but move toward a more complex interactive transparently shared identity, with self generated and mutually agreed on direction.

At Wednesday, August 22, 2007 9:12:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

Also, as far as ideas bumping up against each other and how that might work as a transformational process, I think one of the roles of the chums (and possibly the chumps too) is to exemplify this democratic, human ideal. They start out with a group identity ordered by lines of authority, directed by orders from on high( author, God , them) but move toward a more complex interactive transparently shared identity, with self generated and mutually agreed on direction.

At Wednesday, August 22, 2007 11:46:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

A quick hello from on the road, without my penciled-up copy, to note that the Chums were able to return to the Inconvenience after the Candlebrow transformation following a certain release from longing, which I suppose is a matter of desire.

Also along the lines of a vast Buddhist allegory, we might see the sudden changing of the flat into the deep, the two-dimentional into the three- via Iceland spar, or last noted when the flat desert city the Chums were hovering over turned, after the Tunguska blast, into something like Shambhala, as perhaps a way of expressing that, what?, kenso, satori, enlightenment moment, when, suddenly, 'flat' time opens into timeless depths, or when one's flat everyday awareness of the sense world becomes awakened to the profound connection of things in karmic space/time.

Or something like that.

Note also how the banners of clouds flying from the mountain peaks above the village Cyp and Danilo hide out in (citing from memory here, sorry) might resemble that Tibetan seal pictured on the cover of AtD.

At Monday, August 27, 2007 4:32:00 AM, Blogger AJ said...

Kinda cool that Pynchon makes such an off hand reference to the Jews of Salonica via Danilo. I was just reading about them elsewhere. There used to be a lot of Spanish Jews in Salonica, almost 60,000 of them, but when the Nazis occupied Greece they wiped out 97% of the Jewish population. Today there is hardly any in the city nor any trace they were ever there. A cemetary of 500,000 Jewish graves is now a city plaza w/o even a plaque on it.

Arustide D. Caratazas has this to say:
"From classical antiquity through the begining of the fifteenth century, Salonika was a Greek city. The Greeks were expelled by the Turks, who then welcomed the Jews. Its true for 500 years, the Jews dominated Salonika; and in historical terms, they preserved the city for the Greeks, who only reclaimed it in the 20th century -- partly due to another Turkish expulsion, this time from Asian Minor to Salonkia. But in Greek politcal mythology, Salonika can only be Greek. There can be no mention of the Jews. The building of a national consciousness in this part of the world sometimes means that what everybody knows privately is what can never be openly stated or admitted."

Maybe a little off topic, but not sure where else I could share.

At Monday, August 27, 2007 8:16:00 PM, Blogger i am he said...

"The building of a national consciousness in this part of the world sometimes means that what everybody knows privately is what can never be openly stated or admitted."

Sounds a little like Turkey and the unspeakable Armenian expulsion/genocide. Ditto on the sharing.

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