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, October 15, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Being -or- Guns 'N Roses

AtD pp. 950-975

Synopsis:

Yashmeen Halfcourt, Reef Traverse, Cyprian Latewood and Baby Ljubica lead an idyllic existence in the Rose Valley. After the harvest is in, Gabrovo Slim takes Cyp and Reef on a ramble to see a tower surmounted by a black iron toroidal antenna- in fact another Tesla station. In the radio shack, instead of transmitting power or Q-Rays, the Sparks are listening intently to the received transmissions of the dead. A pack of motorcyclists pulls up and turns out to be Derrick Theign's elite "shadowing" unit, R.U.S.H. led by Mihály Vámos. He and Cyps compare notes and the bikers take Cyp and Reef out to the Interdikt (952). Nobody seems to own the place and it seems to defend itself, but the bikers know the way in, following a weaving cartesian path. Inside they find canisters of phosgene , but instead of poison gas, it is to be used as a light-weapon "a great cascade of blindness and terror ripping straight across the heart of the Balkan peninsula. Like nothing that has ever happened." (953:25). Backshadows of the Vormance Monster and foreshadows of WWI. Oddly, there is no light source. Vámos takes leave without looking back (more on this later).

Time for Cyp, Reef and Yash to move on. They head east toward the Black Sea and Varna, detour to an arched rock formation called Halkata (The Ring). Yashmeen and Reef walk through together ("you will both be in love forever" according to local tradition) and Cyps follows alone ("turn into the opposite sex" 955:33). They reach, to the accompaniment of birdsong and choral music, a remote mountain monastery of a sect descended from the Bogomils, devoted to silence, contemplation and a Manichean/Buddhistic emphasis on duality, light:dark, the ratio and similarity of the part to the whole. They were of course persecuted as heretical until the absorption of the main branch into the Roman church in 1650. Cyprian decides this is just his cup of tea and stays on as a postulant nun, as Dwight Prance did back in Tuva (787). Cyprian has had an epiphany and is permitted to ask the hegumen one question: "What is it that is born of light?" (959:37) and Father Ponko answers with a reference to the hesychasts' (their fourteenth century rival sect) tradition of the light of the Transfiguration of Christ and its equivalence to the inner light perceived emanating from one's middle in meditation (omphalopsychoi). Ponko contrasts this with his sect's perception of light approached through darkness, as the Moon is to the Sun. And asks his own koanic question: "When something is born of light, what does that enable us to see?" (960:14). They part, unlike Orpheus and Eurydice and Mr. and Mrs. Lot, without looking back.

Yash, Ljubica and Reef head off West toward the Adriatic as the First Balkan War breaks out, pegging the time as October, 1912. Skirting the fighting, Reef picks up a Madsen gun and bouquets of wildflowers for Yashmeen and Ljubica. They pause to send postcards with weird multi-alphabet stamps to Yz-les-Bains, Chunxton Crescent, Gabrovo Slim and Zhivka, Frank and Mayva in the U.S.A., Kit Traverse and Auberon Halfcourt, Hotel Tarim, Kashgar, Chinese Turkestan (968:17) and enter Albania, which everyone had warned them to avoid. After a scrape with some local highwaymen, Reef is rescued by Ramiz, his buddy from the Swiss tunnel. Next thing you know they are invited home and playing clarinets in harmony and drinking rakia. Through more idyllic scenery and family bonding, they make their way to the coast and catch a lift on a fishing boat to Corfu.

Here walks into a cafe where Yash and Ljubica are sitting none other than Auberon Halfcourt (973:11). He got their postcard from page 968. He has deserted his post, made a fortune in jade (Yashmeen's namesake mineral) and having encountered Kit Traverse tending bar in the Deux Continents in Constantinople, Auberon hooks up with Umeki Tsurigane, of Q-Weapon fame (974:21). They go and find Reef in a taverna, teaching the locals Leadville Fan-Tan and all have a jolly meal of "tsingarelli and polenta and yaprakia and a chicken stoufado
with fennel and quince and pancetta" from an ancient Venetian recipe with lashings of Mavrodaphne (975:17) and all wind up doing the karsilamás. Auberon explains to Yashmeen "For me Shambhala, you see, turned out to be not a goal but an absence. Not the discovery of a place but the act of leaving the futureless place where I was. And in the process I arrived at Constantinople." "And your world-line crossed that of Miss Tsurigane. And so." "And so." (975:29).

Notes & Commentary:

chumps4
p. 950: tobacco patches- Eastern Rumelia (Thrace) is the home of yenidje tobacco and Balkan Sobranie cigarettes. Smokes, as typical in wartime, are mentioned as items of trade and baksheesh.

p. 953: Phosgene may be synthesized by combining carbon monoxide and chlorine catalyzed by sunlight, hence the name "born of light." Aside from all the other light-themery in the work, there is Lucifer, bearer of light in Manichean opposition to Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine of the Nicean credo. A light-weapon strikes me as fanciful and impractical when we can contemplate orbiting thermonuclear-
pumped X-ray lasers.

p. 956: The Bogomils drew on local Pythagorean and Orphic sources. That they were Early Protestants in the opinion of L.P. Brockett in 1879 seems to me to be biased and a bit of a stretch. So the dualistic tradition, music of the spheres, the tetractys tattooed on the abbot's head, interdiction of beans in the diet and not looking back on parting. Don't think twice, it's all right (B. Dylan). Additionally, the solution to the Pythagorean triangle of Reef, Cyp and Yash. In Ljubica, Fr. Ponko recognizes from a previous metempsychosis the mooned
planet.... the planetary electron. Self-similarity (fractals) and karmic cycles (961:11) and for Joyceans out there, "Who's he when he's at home?"

p. 969: Sheltering in a farm outbuilding, Ljubica seems to converse with a macedonian šarplaninec sheepdog. Turns out to be a buddy of Pugnax and the Chums are just out of sight, directing them away from danger and keeping an eye on things. At this stage of the book, not at all surprising, but the way this information is revealed sticks out like a sore thumb. "It would be many years before he learned that this dog's name was Ksenija..." (969:34) - instead of linear narrative, the Author steps into the spotlight as the omniscient eye, very out of character and a self-spoiler to let us know the future life of Reef. Perhaps TRP saw that the book was already pushing page 1000 and didn't have the heart to write what is a minor episode into context. Perhaps he (and all of us) are a bit tired of the Chums.

H. Rumbold, Master Barber

10 Comments:

At Monday, October 15, 2007 4:58:00 PM, Blogger Akatabi said...

Oh and I almost forgot 963:8 "Light like this must be received with judgement -- too much, too constantly, would exhaust the soul. To move through it would be a struggle against time, the flow of the day, the arbitrarily assigned moment of darkness."

H.R.,M.B.

 
At Tuesday, October 16, 2007 8:02:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

tired of the Chums

This outlying data point was so sorry to see the last of Cyprian (though happy for him) that almost everything after that felt let's-wrap-it-up by comparison. I'll need more readings to know why p. 962 is the emotional pivot of the book, but it is.

 
At Tuesday, October 16, 2007 9:57:00 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

Cyprian's character grows more than any other in the book. I thought he was a sad sack when he first entered the scene, but he evolves in his 600-some pages, introspecting on his nature all the way.

Additionally, I recall experiencing more sadness vicariously, from Reef and Halfcourt. The story became theirs predominantly at a certain point.

I never grew tired of the Chums, though. The scenes in Ostend (Torpedoists and dialogues on the ukulele and the future), the scene in Hollow Earth (reminiscient of one of M&D's greatest moments), and under the desert, were some of my favorites. Of course, I never fully felt invested in the revenge plot.

 
At Thursday, October 18, 2007 5:48:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

One can, I guess, apply the holographic theory of reality to the novel here, that any section broken off is a complete version of the whole. Certainly in this section we have most of AtD in spades.

Zones, interdicts, secret missions, passages of transit, the movements of vast, half-seen, and barely understood powers, natural beauty, the sly accommodations to present circumstances, reappearances of minor characters, ga-ga mysticism, and (offstage) the Chums!

There is a great deal to admire in all of this, but several trailing fumes of exasperation, for me anyway, as well.

After almost a thousand pages it is disappointing to be given the undigested mysticism of Father Ponco after all the undigested mysticism of Kit at Tungusta, Shambhala, Merle's photo alchemy and the T.W.I.T.

He's driving at something, of course, but unwilling to allow the reader to reach what might be a very simple understanding of an animating philosophy. One thinks of The Dharma Bums, Cat's Cradle, The Moviegoer, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, all very different from each other and AtD, that nevertheless allowed their spiritual/existential messages greater clarity of expression.

Pynchon seems obsessed with revealing with one hand and hiding with the other, which is another great theme of the book. In some episodes he pulls it off beautifully (I'm thinking of the Zombini's, and the Venice passages in particular), but our narrator hates being pinned down, and so we are told the Chums are looking out for the fleeing Holy Family, and Cyp disappears into an obscure convent (anyone notice any nuns in it, btw?), followed by passages like the one beginning Some days the light was pitiless (963).

I get it, we are blown like sparrows in a storm across a landscape of Time, fields of Light and Darkness. But the light can be pretty pitiless a lot of days here in Chicago too, and one wonders who in the novel, besides the narrator, notes its moral rigour. It's never clear.

 
At Friday, October 19, 2007 12:49:00 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

Thanks for the lovely links to The Ring and the Bogomils, Master Barber, and also the thorough synopsis.

This entire long section stretching from Yz-les-Bains through the Balkans to Corfu was as strange, romantic and wonderful as any in the book. Also agree with monte davis about page 962, and andrew about the Chums. Though their scenes were mostly incomprehensible to me, I adored the Chums.

A few notes from along the way: Page 942:21 has Yashmeen ruminating on her role in the world. "This is our own age of exploration into the unmapped country waiting beyond the frontiers and seas of Time. We make our journeys out there in the low light of the future, and return to the bourgeois day and its mass delusion of safety, to report on what we've seen. What are any of these 'utopian dreams' of ours but defective forms of time-travel?" That sounds like the best summing up of Doris Lessing, Ms. Nobelist, that I've ever read.

The arrival in Beograde (Belgrade) on page 945 with the musicologists is very funny on a number of levels. "It used to be much worse. Arthur Symons called it the most horrible street in Europe, but that was ages ago, and we all know how sensitive Arthur is." The double-joke is the next line "Kind of like Omaha," it seemed to Reef," and also from Wikipedia, "In 1909 Symons suffered a psychotic breakdown, and published very little new work for a period of more than twenty years."

Page 955:35, I don't think Cyprian does go through The Ring which has promised Yashmeen and Reef will be in love forever. "I'm not sure where that would leave me, Yashmeen [turning into the opposite sex]. Perhaps I don't need the confusion." And his brilliant follow-up with what he'd found out about gender during his earlier trip to the Balkans. "I had to put my impulses away for the duration. Balkan gender expectations being a bit as you'd say emphatic...and I had to adapt quickly. Imagine my further surprise when I discovered that women, who appear to be without power, in reality run the show. What did that mean then, for one's allegiance to both sexes at once?" Cyprian's ending up in a Pythagorean Balkan convent is a wonderful narrative stroke.

Unlike the Barber, I liked that the author stepped out as the Omniscient One on page 969 via the Ksenija dog story and told us that Reef and his family were going to be around for many more years. He did the same thing with Kit and Dally in the previous section, and though I haven't read it yet, I'm hoping he does the same thing for Stray and Frank.

 
At Saturday, October 20, 2007 12:01:00 AM, Blogger brooktrout said...

Will's plangent critique held a felt resonance for me. Respectfully delivered , it poetically captures a consistent and unstated reserve I feel about this novel. Perhaps the universe is itself a tease, and every author a false god, and that is the animating philosophy Will,( and I for that matter), want more fully elucidated. P. leaves all questions open and most answers possible.

Sometimes I begin to feel that the animating philosophy is a kind of Buddhism that focuses on the endless layers of maya, others I feel it is an affirmation of the strange beauty of anarchy and desire.

Good summary, good comments. The war begins in earnest and the beautiful and unlikely hero Cyprian withdraws from the action, disappearing like a certain Slothrop beyond the visible scrim of light and time.

Goodbye Cyp you didnt seem like the one who would catch our hearts.

 
At Tuesday, October 23, 2007 3:54:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

This outlying data point was so sorry to see the last of Cyprian (though happy for him) that almost everything after that felt let's-wrap-it-up by comparison. I'll need more readings to know why p. 962 is the emotional pivot of the book, but it is.

(Sorry -- fell behind again, catching up...)

Agree completely. Cyprian is a great character.

A who-ho-HOLE lot got wrapped up in that episode. I'll have to read it again 10-12 times to get it, but as I was reading it, I was going, this is key, this is key....

 
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