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.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ivy League Exploration and Cowboy Anarchists

Pages 156-188

After last week's deeply disturbing Northern Saga that morphed into a Horror Show, it was a relief to start page 156 with a lighthearted scene of Ivy League merriment in the Taft Hotel where the annual Yale-Harvard football game is being celebrated by "young men in striped mufflers knitted by sweethearts who had dutifully included rows of flask-size pockets." Our young hero Kit Travers finally meets his benefactor, Scarsdale Vibe, who relates a funny aphorism about Harvard being like a Tibetan prayer wheel, then slanders his own children as "the crockful of cucumbers I have sired," before offering Kit "a hefty trust fund, inheriting uncounted millions when I'm dead." Kit defends one of Vibe's sons, Colfax, a sweetly honest jock who is his Yale roommate, and rejects Vibe's offer of an inherited fortune. "Apologies, but with no idea how you've gone about earning it, I couldn't add much to it -- more likely be spending the rest of my life in courtrooms fighting off the turkey buzzards, not how I was fixing to occupy my adult years, exactly."

Kit is enthralled with "vectorism," which I don't understand even remotely no matter how many Wikipedia articles I read. The only reason Kit enjoys Yale is because of "the kindness and genius of [Professor Josiah] Willard Gibbs," who is an absolutely fascinating historical figure, the seventh in a long line of distinguished Yale scholars (his father was the "Amistad" Gibbs), and the founder of what is known as "vector calculus." There's a great quote attributed to him: "A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane." (photo of Gibbs below)

In a quick segue of time and place (bottom of page 159), Colfax Vibe invites Kit out to "the Long Island cottage" in the early spring, said cottage being "four stories tall, square, unadorned, dark stone facing ... Despite its aspect of abandonment, an uneasy tenancy was still pursued within, perhaps by some collateral branch of was unclear." The second floor is where the unnamed ghosts hang out, along with Fleetwood Vibe, who we met last week on page 138 through his diary during the ill-fated Vormance Expedition.

But before Fleetwood is seriously reintroduced, there is a soft-porn S/M scene between Kit and Colfax's Cousin Dittany in the horse stables. This is followed by a description of the unconventional family arrangements between Scarsdale Vibe, his wife Edwina (nee Beef) who has become a Thespian in Greenwich Village while living next door to Scarsdale's scandalous brother R. Wilshire Vibe, who also dabbles in the theatrical arts. We could almost be reading early Evelyn Waugh circa "Vile Bodies."

On page 164, Kit takes a walk on the estate with Fleetwood Vibe who may be alive or may be a ghost, it's not particularly clear. "They [the Vibe clan] don't actually know I'm here," he confided to Kit. "If they do, it's only in the way some can detect ghosts -- though you may have noticed already these are not the most spiritual of people." Their ensuing conversation about vectors and portals into other worlds is mystical, and contrasts with the banality of most explorations as described by Fleetwood: "all my colleagues care about is finding waterfalls. The more spectacular the falls, the better the chance for an expensive hotel."

He continues with a story about one of the "queer characters" he encountered while exploring in Eastern Africa, one Yitzhak Zilberfeld, "out traveling in the world scouting possibilities for a Jewish homeland." A discussion of Home and Zionism devolves into a Borscht Belt comedy routine when they're charged by an elephant and Fleetwood delivers the "Depends upon how much he's charging -- try to talk him down a little?" punchline while Yitzhak cries "Anti-Semitic!" All ends well, however, with a local paper trumpeting the news, "SAVES JEW FROM INSANE ELEPHANT." Zilberfeld tells Fleetwood that South Africa is the place to make a fortune. "There's fifty-thousand Chinese coolies all lined up, sleeping on the docks from Tientsin to Hong Kong, waiting to be shipped into the Transvaal the minute the shooting [from the Boer War] stops..." This leads to an offstage outburst from Scarsdale Vibe who is "mouth-foaming" because "This money is coming from nowhere."

On page 168, the backstory continues with the ghostly Fleetwood reviewing his African adventures which eventually find him in the Transvaal, murdering a laborer who has possibly stolen a diamond by giving him a choice between being shot or throwing himself down a mine shaft. The African chooses the latter, which comes to haunt Fleetwood's dreams and his soul, "warning that there was some grave imbalance in the structure of the world, which would have to be corrected. Then each time Fleetwood would be not so much overcome by remorse as bedazzled at having been shown the secret backlands of wealth, and how sooner or later it depended on some act of murder, seldom limited to once." Feeling like a cursed man, he joins the Vormance Expedition to get away north to "the purity, the geometry, the cold," and as we already know, that doesn't work out so well.

On page 171, the narrative takes us back in time and space to Colorado, where our Accidental Detective, Lew Basnight, has been exiled from Chicago by White City Investigations. His main investigative focus is on a legendary anarchist bomber, the Kieselguhr Kid, and Lew roams the mountains and trails of Colorado trying to pick up info on the Kid and other enemies of the mining owners. However, Lew finds his political sympathies shifting from a "convenient insulation...from too much sympathy for either victim or perpetrator" to outright sympathy with the workers. He muses about slinging "a frozen pile of the next silk hat he saw serenely borne along in the street, the next mounted policeman beating on an unprotected striker." Lew also realizes that the struggle in Colorado isn't "just unconnected skirmishing, a dynamite blast here and there, a few shots from ambush -- it was a war between two full-scale armies."

Lew soldiers on out of his baroquely messy office in Denver, with its stacks of files on all the various characters in Colorado, and notices "the really odd thing...was that the names of owners' operatives were also turning up among his files on the mine workers." In other words, he begins to suspect that there are plenty of false-flag anarchist bombings actually perpetrated by the owners and the strikebreaking vigilantes.

On page 179, after an unspecified number of years at this task, Lew's boss Nate Privett arrives in Denver for his annual tour of inspection, and when Lew complains that the Kieselguhr Kid case "is a bitch, and growing more difficult every day," Nate gives him a song-and-dance about how "we are only as good as our credibility, which is what Regional Operative-in-Charge Lew Basnight's been giving us here, what with the kind of respect you enjoy in the business--" to which Lew replies, "Oh, your mother's ass, Nate. Your own, for that matter. No hard feelings." On page 181, Lew gets drunk at Walker's saloon and the Anarchist's saloon, where he decides to switch sides, though "now it could be too late, already past the point where anybody stood a chance against the juggernaut that had rolled down the country and flat stolen it."

On page 182, Lew begins his Shameful Habit. When "handling explosives," he gets his hand on "cyclopropane plus dynamite" from "the widely-respected mad scientist Dr. Oyswharf" and handling the combination sends him into a psychedelic trance that ends with his communing with a steak on his plate, "not the animal origins a fellow might reasonably expect so much as the further realms of crystallography," and subsequently thrown into jail for unspecified bad behavior. When Lew returns to Dr. Oyswharf the next day, the doctor understandingly gives him more "Cyclomite" and warns Lew to "have your ticker looked at now and then" because "there's a strange chemical relation between these nitro explosives and the human heart.". Indeed, "from then on, whenever a dynamite blast went off, even far away out of earshot, something concurrent was triggered somewhere in Lew's consciousness...after a while even if one was only about to go off."

Soon after "Lew had brought up with Nate Privett his doubts about the Kieselguhr Kid--in effect quitting the case--that's just when whatever it was decided to have a crack at him." Whatever it was throws dynamite at Lew in a small arroyo in the mountains, and with instinctive timing, "Lew knew the carnival theory, which was to throw yourself into the middle of the blast the second it went off, so that the shock-wave would already be outside of and heading away from you, leaving you safe inside the vaccum at the center -- maybe knocked out for a little, but all in one piece." I assume that this is the eye of the hurricane theory, and have no idea if it's actually true.

Lew comes back to consciousness while being tended to by a pair of upper-class English twits named Nigel and Neville who are roaming the West, having been inspired by Oscar Wilde's 1882 American Excursion. They essentially adopt Lew and take him to New Mexico where they board a train with "a strangely luxurious string of oversize parlor, dining, and club cars." When they arrive in Galveston, Nigel and Neville realize they haven't brought any Wild West souvenirs for their friends, "like an actual scalp or something," so they decide to take Lew back to England as a souvenir instead.

Lew is stowed away inside a steamer trunk in the cargo hold where he's sick most of the time from bad weather, which turns out to be on account of "the disastrous hurricane that had struck Galveston the day after they left -- 135-mile-per-hour winds, the city underwater, six thousand dead." This is an actual historical event that occurred on September 8-9, 1900. When Lewis is struck "neurasthenic" by the news, they ask him "whatever is the matter?" and Lew's reply is "Six thousand people to begin with." The final two lines are worth repeating: "Happens out in India all the time," said Nigel. "It is the world, after all." "Yes, Lewis, wherever could you have been living, before that frightful bomb brought you to us?"

Additional Discussion, pp. 156-188

Chumps: Here's where we discuss this week's section (pp. 156-188) as it may relate to other Pynchon novels. Remember, this post is only for discussion of that kind; comments related to this week's section of AtD go in SFMike's post, which will appear tomorrow (Monday, Jan. 29).

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"It's always night, or we wouldn't need light."

Thelonious Sphere Monk in 1958.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Chumps of Chance Spar With Danger in the Frozen North

Synopsis (pp. 121-155)

Our plucky lads, responding to a message in a pearl and having emerged from the Northern Aperture, sail toward a date with destiny in the shape of the vessel Étienne Louis Malus bearing the mysterious Vormance Expedition. "Unfamiliar sky-traffic is to be presumed hostile until proven otherwise" (p. 121). A "Ray-rush" is ongoing to prospect, claim and mine the flux densities of the electromagnetic spectrum under the lights of the aurora borealis. Powers behind the throne of this Ray-rush include the "Inter-Group Laboratory for Opticomagnetic Observation (I.G.L.O.O.), a radiational clearing-house in Northern Alaska" (122:20), likened to Lloyd's of London maritime insurance syndicators. A warning (Lutine?) bell (123:13), tied to Pugnax's tail, signals the approach of the Bol'shaia Igra (The Great Game), captained by Igor Padzhitnoff and manned by the Tovarishchi Slutchainyi (123:28), the Russian nemeses/counterparts to our lads. They relate that a Zone of Emergency has been declared by I.G.L.O.O. regarding some vague menace that is compared to an unnamed creature that eats without killing, appreciates pain and is feared by all. They fail to intercept the Malus at Isafjörðr and begin to suffer from dementia borealis, imagining the presence of an "extra man" who is familiar but unfamiliar to them. They purchase a "blue ivory" (mammoth bone) inukshuk to serve as a totem/signpost/mascotte to serve a glimpse of "some expression of a truth beyond the secular."(126:8)

We now (126:14) switch POVs to the motor vessel Étienne Louis Malus, heading North on an unspecified mission - perhaps to find a new source of Iceland spar (? to corner the spar market and end the "spar famine"). The crew behaves much like the chums, sing sea-shanties to the accompaniment of rustic instruments and speculating whether the Captain has gone Ahab on them. They encounter (127:4) walls of green ice in a paragraph that mentions green four times, so we may be permitted to suppose it might be Greenland. Here Constance Penhallow, a woman of noble bearing (as painted by her grandson Hunter) observes the arrival of the Malus. Wherever we are, it evokes images of Viking raiders and the Ginnungagap ("seeming emptiness") that called out to Harald Hardråde (127;28) like a siren. Somehow, Harald put over the tiller at the last moment to avoid tragedy. Hunter Penhallow, from a family that made its fortune in Iceland spar, stows away aboard the E.L.M. without much objection, as sort of a mascotte.

The Vormance gang are staying in town at the Hotel Borealis (where you can check out anytime), which features a "curious open turret" (129:10). Mystery to me. Closest I can imagine is some sort of campanile. Hunter paints the place, drops of the salt fog mixing with and subtly altering his pigments. Just North is Ominous Unnamed Glacier. The Vormance crew are getting cabin fever and talking about moving on before Winter sets in. They are fed up with the Meat Olaf and an unspecified speaker offers to spice things up with a bottle of Special Sauce. The tropical paradise with parrot evoked by the sauce label is separated from the boreal by "only the thinnest of membranes" (130:10) and reachable by chanting the mantra "¡Cuidado Cabrón!" like a parrot. This has the effect of a Tibetan prayer wheel. Members of the Vormance Expedition are now introduced over a couple of pages (130:18-132:40). The roster includes Dr. Vormance of Candlebrow University; Dr. V. Ganesh Rao, quaternionist of Calcutta U., who is seeking a gateway to the Ulterior; American bucket-shop desperado Dodge Flannelette, a practical sort; Fleetwood Vibe, son of Scarsdale, sent to keep an eye on things; Sir Templeton Blope of the University of the Outer Hebrides and his collegial nemesis, Hastings Throyle; and Otto Ghloix, expedition alienist. And the "extra man" of Arctic Expeditions. The Transnoctial Discussion Group ponders the Nature of Expeditions (131:16 - I suspect they're well into the Aquavit by this time) exploring the wilderness dimension by dimension, encountering God, time and Riemann space. The mission document of the Malus describes their trajectory as being "at right angles to the flow of time" (132:4). The talk takes us through Lineland, Flatland, 3-space, the complex plane, and Dr. Rao's karmic circular representation of linear time. The talk turns to the Æther, with Blope contending the immeasurability of the Æther is the active work of a sinister presence in Nature (132:26). Vormance chides Blope for believing in spooks. Mission alienist Otto Ghloix pipes up that "What cannot be resolved inside the psyche must enter the outside world and become physically, objectively 'real'". But undetectable, immeasurable. The "extra man" snarks "fairies under mushrooms" (133:6). The Book of Iceland Spar in the Library of Iceland is recalled and noted as recording history even into the future. Iceland spar is said by the Librarian to be related to the contemporaneous system of complex numbers and together they allow access to additional dimensions, including a subterranean one of menacing "hidden people"(134:1-11).

Meanwhile (134:23), Hunter Penhallow is preparing to take his leave of Constance and pops over to Narvik's Mush-it-Away Northern Cuisine, which, being the only game in town, the queue of people waiting to get in move in Zeno's paradox of infinitesimal increments (135:23). Hunter endures Narvik's hoary jokes, and walks out with Meat Okaf, root slaw and Mystery Sauce on the side (136:4). He returns home through channels in the "bad ice", which like the proverbial infinite monkeys at their typewriters will go through all possible topological permutations and at some point in time will mimic the layout of Venice. Hunter's wanderlust increases. In the morning, Hunter and the Malus have gone.

Section break to an extract from the Journals of Mr. Fleetwood vibe (138). First sensed via a song about the doughty Arctic explorers Nansen and Johansen and their sturdy ship Fram, then viewed as an enlarging dot, then a massive overhead presence, the Inconvenience. Lines are lowered, the airship moored, a sumptuous picnic shared. Science Officer Dr. Counterfly (the mature incarnation) warns the doubting Malus crew that they are in mortal danger. The nunatak by which they are moored is far too regular in shape to be natural (139:27). they enter the Inconvenience's control cabin, straight out of Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Tesla, the most sensitive vortices of vibration picked up by a human caul (veil), which is said to grant second sight. They view deep into the pseudonunatak using an alternate frequency and observe a series of inscriptions in an unknown language, which they interpret as warnings, like to those hieroglyphic inscriptions on Egyptian tombs that have such a potent effect on grave-robbers and Egyptologists (141:18). Here a crucial story point: an object comes into focus on the viewing screen. "The Figure appeared to recline on its side, an Odalisque of the snows" (141:29). The entity is immediately perceived as evil. They make the predictable decision to recover it and take it home with them, and the Chums make no move to stop them. Dogs non-barking herald the approach of Old Magyakan, known to Throyle in Siberia and hailed by him in Tungus (142:37). Magyakan is both here and home in Siberia. He takes tea and a Havana stogie and relays his warning.

"They" don't wish to harm us, and may even love us, but out of necessity or instinct, like starving mushers and dogs, and with as little mutual understanding, will kill us (143:18-26). The strangeness makes it all seem more unsettling. Magyakan wanders off. The Vormance gang debates whether this is a prophecy, but conclude that shamans, like the Book of Iceland Spar operate in multiple dimensions of time. Pugnax organizes a sled-dog union. The tone gets more and more ominous on the trip home with the Thing. It is vaguely anthropomorphic, with "eyes" (144:17), but never clearly described, as it is never really well-contained in the ship or in this dimension. Delivery is made to a Museum, whence it promptly escapes. Witnesses who claimed to hear it speak on its escape are confined to the mental hospital at Matteawan, but their quotes supply us with our only hints to its character and motive. "Nothing voiced -- all hisses, a serpent, vengeful, restless" "The man-shaped light shall not deliver you" "Flames were always your destiny, my children"(145:16-22). Not much to be learned there. This is just a difficult, dense and obstinate piece of writing.

Fleetwood Vibe now, feeling his work done, wants to catch a train to Washington to report in to the Washingtonian Entity employing him (145:25). The rampage of the Beast has evidently begun, as panic is gripping the streets, and it is a fiery one, since vendors are hawking respirator helmets (145:40). He arrives in the District and visits the "less fashionable" Explorer's Club (146:19) where the usual bores regale him with the usual blather. Monster Ravages Metropolis doesn't explicitly come up, but a choice tidbit is tossed with the revelation that the aforesaid Nansen expedition of '95 planned, as loads got lighter and supplies shorter, to kill sled dogs and feed them to their surviving huskies, who at first refused but then accepted the meat (147:20). Pugnax's union dogs might have balked, but this throws light upon Magyakan's story. It's a dog-eat-dog world. The notion is immediately extended to cannibalism and man's inhumanity to man.
",,,but we do use one another, often mortally, with the same disablement of feeling, of conscience...each of us knowing that at some point it will be our own turn. Nowhere to run but into a hostile and lifeless waste."
"You refer to present world conditions under capitalism and the Trusts." (147:32-36) Very anarchistic talk for such a setting! It's put down to evolution - survival of the fittest - and the American Corporation "in which even the Supreme Court has recognized legal personhood--a new living species, one that can out-perform most anything an individual can do by himself, no matter how smart ot powerful he is." (148:2) "It was understood by all at some point that they were speaking of the unfortunate events to the north, the bad dream I still try to wake from, the great city brought to sorrow and ruin." (148:11-13) What can I say? Is the Entity a Corporation?

We switch in the next section back to the POV of the Chums aboard the Inconvenience, racing south to try to head off the Malus before she reached civilization with her evil cargo. They now have the knowledge that the Vormance crew had been duped by the Invader to believe what they were carrying was a meteorite. In the city, now a shambles, a Board of Inquiry meets in an upper room in the Museum of Museumology. The Vormance party relate the "Eskimo" belief that all objects possess ruling spirits that can be malevolent and must be propitiated. Collecting this spirit, moreso than the object that contained it, was the intent of the Vormance party. In the city, away from its usual outlets of vengeance, the entity took on other, catastrophic means. City-dwellers, used to living on the edge but with defense mechanisms to deny it, instinctively knew what they were up against, even as the scientists did not. The havoc of the progress of the Figure through the city is detailed. As are the reactions of the city, its feeling of violation and attempts at propitiation. At the edge of the zone of destruction, a monumental arch is erected, bearing the inscription, "I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY - DANTE" surmounted by a light show (154:21).

Hunter Penhallow, on his way out of the city, turns to observe the tragedy, and finds himself wandering in an unfamiliar dreamscape until he comes upon a group of evacuees who usher him into something like a subway. It proceeds onward and downward, although glimpses of the city are still visible, and become more futuristic, as the proceed toward "refuge, whatever that might have come to mean anymore, in this world brought low" (155:32).

Notes & Commentary

Please click on the Iceland spar image in the accompanying Additional Discussion post for an annotated web album of images related to this section. Some minor cribbing was done from the Pynchon AtD Wiki.

Part II: Iceland Spar.

This section's tone and action remind me of the movie cliffhanger serials of the 1930's-1950's. I was tempted to insert effects and stage directions, but I'm no screenwriter and they would only encumber the flow. Imagine them if you will.

By now, I presume we all know about Iceland spar, introduced at 114:14 in the pearl message. Calcium carbonate. Formerly mined in Iceland. Birefringent. Polarizing. Here's a readable historical summary. The discovery of polarization is credited to Étienne Louis Malus, though the prior contributions of Huygens, Erasmus Bartholinus and Thomas Young should be noted. His discovery is described here. "In 1808, Malus famously discovered that light could be polarized (a term coined by Malus) by reflection as he observed sunlight reflected from the windows of the Luxemburg Palace in Paris through an Iceland spar crystal that he rotated." What I want to emphasize is that the light passing through an Iceland spar crystal is divided in a specific way, based on the structure of the molecular lattice, into an Ordinary Ray and an Extraordinary Ray. They appear the same, as the double image produced by placing a crystal prism on a page of text, but they are not identical. One rotates with the crystal. One is in violation of Snell's Law. They are differently polarized and can set up interference patterns. They are beam-splitters a la Michelson-Morley. They just about drove the final nail into the coffin of the corpuscular theory of light. In short, we have a little alternate-reality generator on our hands.

We met Étienne Louis Malus at 114:34 in the name of the schooner the Inconvenience was sent to intercept and deter the Vormance expedition from their plans by any means necessary, short of force. His bio is found in the Iceland spar links. Served as an Engineer in Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. Caught plague or tuberculosis. Died young. Just make a note in the margin that also in on Boney's Excellent Egyptian Adventure were Capt. Pierre-François Bouchard, who unearthed a singular stone monolith and a British Naval Lieutenant who was asked by the one-handled adulterer to pass the salt. Malus can mean an anti-bonus, an apple, or a cheek - hence apple-cheeked.

P. 122 - I.G.L.O.O. harkens back to W.A.S.T.E. in COL49, also to U.N.C.L.E., SMERSH, and countless others.

123 - The Great Game was the 19th century Russian-British military/intelligence wrangle for domination in Central Asia. See Rudyard Kipling's Kim and George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman in the Great Game (if by some oversight you haven't already read it). Alexey Padzhitnov invented the video game Tetris, where Capt. Padzhitnoff's signature is dropping bricks and masonry in four-block fragments. Tovarishchi Slutchainyi=accidental comrades (Chums of Chance, or, more idiomatically, friends thrown together by circumstance according to the wiki).

124 - Na sobrat' ya po nebo!
Randolph says "На собратья по небо." What I believe he means to say is "Наши собратья по небу" or Nashi sobrat'ya po nebu, meaning "Our brothers/comrades of the sky" -- perhaps a ritual greeting between the two groups. It is unlikely that Pynchon would make a mistake (the Russian in GR is correct) but Randolph might err. Taken directly from wiki. I can't improve upon it. Communication between the airships is via speaking trumpet. They look like posthorns. See web album.

125 - Isafjörðr (that's an eth - hope your browser handles Unicode ISO 8859-1) is about as far away as you can get in Icelend from Helgustadir, where Iceland spar was mined. However, it is near Djupidalur, where mining was attempted but did not yield spar of sufficient quality (Thoroddsen, 1891, cited in Kristjansson). They are shadowed by the Bol'shaia Igra, "red as a cursed ruby representing a third eye in the brow of some idol of the incomprehensible." The old "Steal the Idol's Eye" wheeze (warning-1891 Savoy operetta synopsis- may not be entirely PC by today's standards).

126 - An inukshuk is a vaguely anthropomorphic guidepost of piled stones in the wilderness, "something which acts for or performs the function of a person." The replica is purported to be real mammoth ivory as opposed to ersatz blue-tinted bonzoline. A "truth beyond the secular" (126:11) connotes divine, not worldly, but the etymology derives from eternal, as in "In saecula saeculorum". "As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen."

127 - The Penhallow homestead's location is not specified. My speculation is Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland. Hunter's painting of Constance reeks of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™, who will not be linked by this author due to personal aversion to his business practices and high twee index. Jin Wicked has him nailed. Harald Hardråde ("hard ruler") escapes the maw of the Ginnungagap (?Northern Aperture) only to have the misfortune of being the wrong guy to invade England in 1066. At least he softened up the Sassenach Harold for Billy the Conq.

128 - Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum is cited as the Norse source of All Things Ginnungagap.

129 - 129:32 Meat Olaf=obvious anagram for metal oaf, teal foam, feta loam, Ma at floe... (129:38) The hot sauce legend ¡Cuidado Cabrón! Salsa Explosiva La Original (Careful, Dude!) Features a parrot and erupting volcano, and hijinx result when the crew find out the sauce is REALLY hot. The label must mean Pickapeppa Sauce, but the warnings suggest something much more macho (we're talking megascovilles).

130 - The Vormance mob and Scarsdale Vibe somehow evoke in me images of the Tweed Ring crossed with J.P. Morgan. Description (130:18) of the Transnoctial Discussion Group - bearded men in dark suits and matching waistcoats- there must be watch chains and cigar smoke, switching to the local white lightning when the 15-cent bottles of Danish Aquavit run out (132:16). Vormance is a mineralogist, handy on a spar hunt. V. Ganesh Rao evokes math whiz Srinivasa Ramanujan. Dodge Flannelette (classic Pynchon name) is of a pragmatic bent, and is in on the fact that Iceland spar might aid in global transmission of images, similar to the Tesla experiment with power. Fleetwood Vibe is one of the Bad Vibes, watching out for his father Scarsdale's interests, favors to be owed and any evidence of rivals constructing a railroad bridge across the Bering Strait.

131 - During the Nocturnal bull session, Dr, Templeton Blope objects to the colonization of the dimension of time (131:31) as impossible because we are limited to three dimensions and is dissed as a Quaternioninst by collegial nemesis Hastings Throyle. Perhaps this makes Throyle a Vectorist. I picture Blope as Col. Blimp, fresh from the Turkish bath, whereas all I can come up with for Throyle is Draco Malfoy's henchboy Goyle (not likely) and some vague memory of a similar name somewhere in the Sherlock Holmes canon.

132 - The only instance of Ghloix in Googleworld apart from the current context is as an alternate transliteration of a phoneme in the Wa language in the outback of Myanmar a.k.a. Burma. I doubt Pynchon meant to lead us down this path. Maybe the French gloire or something Flemish or Basque.

133 - The mention of the Library of Iceland throws cold water on my Greenland theory. The Book of Iceland Spar is like The Yngling Saga, only different. Like an Extraordinary Ray. "Another Quest for another damned Magic Crystal. Horsefeathers, I say. Wish I'd known before I signed on. Say, you aren't one of those Sentient Rocksters, are you?" (133:25) sounds like the voice of Dodge Flannelette, probably addressing Vormance.

134 – The "hidden people" presumably travel between Niflheim and Muspelhein via the Ginnungagap.

135 - Narvik's plats du jour include braised blubber with cloudberries, skua eggs over easy, walrus chops, snow parfaits and the ubiquitous Meat Olaf, previewed for the salivating crowd on a little railroad like kaiten-zushi.

138 - The menu includes jellied pâté de foie gras, truffled pheasant, Nesselrode pudding and '96 champagne. The Chums do themselves well.

139 - Dr. Counterfly wears anti-glare specs with lenses comprising Nicol prisms made of Iceland spar to extinguish the polarized Ordinary Rays (139:22). A nunatak is a mountain, not covered by glacial ice, poking up and forming a micro-environment.

140 - The usual electronics. Sparks and auras everywhere, received frequencies emanating from a brass speaking trumpet, data recorded on an early Poulsen's Telegraphone (140:28), a nice demonstration of Maxwell's equations in operation and the predecessor of the notorious wire recorder. (140:31) Gauge pointers are in the exquisite moon form of Breguet. The caul or veil is an amniotic membrane. It is magical in the context of that used by Saint Veronica to wipe the sweat off the face of the suffering Savior and by extension the Shroud of Turin (both interpreted by some as photographic processes), but I can't get lambskin condoms out of my mind.

141 - The famous painting of the Odalisque is the one by Ingres (1814). The term came to connote "reclining nude", although not all Odalisques in paintings are reclining, and the ones in harems likely had other duties. There are some nice reclining Buddhas in stone, which may be closer to what we are dealing with.

142 - The usual melodramatic gimmicks to build tension during the excavation. The diggers unnaturally chirpy while the native bearers melt away and the dogs go crazy barking. Except one time when they don't (142:37). Sherlockians will immediately flash to Silver Blaze:
"You consider that to be important?" he asked.
"Exceedingly so."
"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

143 - (143:4) Bilocating - Iceland spar. Get it? I knew you would.

144 - Bringing the Monster home with you has been a theme from King Kong (1933) on down. Whitehall gigs (144:40) don't help us peg the locale, as they're generic harbor boats and both London and New York have Whitehalls.

146 - At the depot, the "ungoverned mass of us was somehow spun into single-file" (146:8), mirroring the Chicago stockyards of the opening of the book and Magyakan's humans/dogs analogy. In the Explorer's Club, "Dr. Jim's little adventure" is the Jameson raid of Brits vs. Boers, 1895-6.

150 - In the ruined city, abandoned streetcars "hitched to animals months dead and yet unremoved" (150:9) conjures up the scene in Un chien andalou with the man pulling the dead mules and grand pianos. The only ones to remain cheerful and efficient in the ruibed city were the White Wings - streetcleaners (150:25). From the architectural description, it seems the Museum of Museumology must be the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Its Hayden Planetarium features meteorites, including fragments of the massive Cape York.

153 - As a defemse measure against the Figure, the Church of the Prefiguration projects a "three dimensional image in full color, not exactly of Christ but with the same beard, robes, ability to emit light as if -- should the worst happen, they could deny all-out Christian allegiance and so make that much easier whatever turnings of heart might become necessary in striking a deal with the invader" (153:12-16). The Shroud of Turin again.

154 - The Arch might have continued "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" but "Arbeit Macht Frei" seems to work as well.

155 - The tragedy and destruction on New York certainly parallel the September 11 event.

[Finale] Now please look again narrowly at the AtD dust jacket. As Neddie recounted early on in his conversation with the M&D designer, Pynchon is likely to take great care about such details. The title is not duplicated once in a fixed orientation as if viewed through a prism of Iceland spar; instead it is duplicated twice, with the middle text in a serif font and diverges as if lighted from center bottom. Maybe another way of interpreting Against the Day is through that prism uncovered by Bouchard in the Egyptian incursion. A granodiorite monolith with inscriptions in three languages (hieroglyphic, demotic and Classical Greek) linking Ptolomey V to Stanley Kubrick and serving the wise with a key to the word. A Rosetta Stone Against (in the sense of "In preparation for" as used by Samuel Pepys) the Day.

[SFX - sting and out. Fade to black. Roll credits.]
H. Rumbold, Master Barber

Additional Discussion, Pages 121-155

Discuss This Segment in Relation to Other Pynchon Novels

Chumps: Here's where we discuss the above section (pp. 121-155) as it may relate to other Pynchon novels. Flights of fancy, speculation, the Interconnectedness of All Things...

Please click on the image to go to an annotated web album of images related to this section of AtD.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dance of anarchy and change

Hulloh, fellow Chumps! Blue Wren here.

First, full disclosure: I am not a “professor,” just a curious reader who likes a challenge. My moderation of this section won’t dig deeply into physics or mathematics, philosophical hairsplitting or the space-time continuum. My eyes tend to cross when I think that hard. Then I need a nap.

Instead, mine will be a light (wink) overview. I’ll leave the mounds of unearthed jewels to more agile minds than mine. You know who you are.

That said, I’m having a ball with “Against the Day.” But I didn’t write the following without some help. Neddie Jingo, that muskly Pynchon miner, dug up some glittering nuggets for me as I read madly and prepared to write this up. You won’t find them all here, but I’m sure he’ll pipe up in the comments. Will Divide offered some gentle guidance as well, advising a minimalist approach. Gentlemen, the both of them. The chivalrous Chums would be glad to have them aboard. As for me, I’m all agog and quite grateful. Beers are owed.

So, forgive me for reading above my grade level. And let’s plunge into “Against the Day,” pages 81-118:

This section dances with anarchy and change. Look for bifurcations: the reflections and refractions that Pynchon’s been building carefully throughout the story so far.

Page 81 starts in the booming mining town of Telluride on Cowboy’s Christmas. Webb Traverse, the mining engineer whose nose for dynamite drew him to Merle and his alchemy shed in the previous section, wakes after a night under the stars to a morning so hot the nitro is oozing out of sticks of dynamite.

And it’s getting hotter: To Webb, the Fourth of July seems more like “Dynamite’s National Holiday” because everyone in town will be playing with caps and fuses attached to little bits of the explosive stuff, lighting them up as the day progresses. In fact, they’ll be making so much noise celebrating the “bombs bursting in air” aspect of the holiday, Webb figures no one will notice one more explosion. Note: There’s a fun link in the ATD Wiki about thunderstorms, lightning, and how Barbara, a beautiful girl who lived in 4th Century AD Asia Minor, ended up becoming the patron saint of artillerymen and those facing sudden death.

Webb, who hasn’t slept very well – I was struck by the empathy in the line, “he did not so much sleep as become intermittently conscious of time ” (been there, done that) – rides out among “cicadas going on like prolonged richochets” to meet his partner, the passionate worker’s champion Viekko Rautavaara, a Finn.

Neddie says “Viekko” is a rather common name in Finland. “Rautavaara,” however, has a number of meanings. In Finnish, “Rauta” means “iron,” and “Vaara,” “hills” and “danger.” Taken in context with the story’s obsession with currents of light and electricity, and now the theme of mining, explosives, mercury sickness, and the fact that uranium (the anti-stone?) was found near Telluride, the name Rautavaara seems “charged” to me.

The two men meet. Rautavaara, who sees little difference between life under the deposed Russian Tsar and American capitalism, is in a bad mood. He’s received a postcard from his sister in Finland, a minneskort, (a Swedish word, not Finnish, and Finland’s other language of conquest) which is stamped and franked with pictures of stamps and postmarks, since the Russians won’t allow the Finns to use Finnish stamps anymore.

It’s another reference to photography – images made from silver and light, real but not real. Change is relentless.

Webb and Rautavaara are meeting on this sizzling Fourth of July morning to blow up a railroad bridge. A description of the preparation of the charge, the fuse and attachment of the dynamite to the bridge struts follows. Webb notices a hawk looking down on them as they work (like the Inconvenient, perhaps? Another up-down, down-up reflection ...).

Pages 85-86: We learn how an exploding pool ball sent Webb sidelong and in slow motion into his covert career as an anarchist and terrorist, his “trajectory toward the communion of toil.” It begins in the “middle of Cripple Creek ... when men were finding their way to the unblastable seams of their own secret natures, learning the true names of desire, which spoken, so they dreamed, would open the way through the mountains to all that had been denied them.”

At night Webb dreams of standing at a divide, facing west – “something like wind, something like light” and “wake to the day and its dread.” An important passage, here, given the book’s title. There are binaries everywhere – east/west, night/day, Heaven/Earth, life/death, inside/outside.

Page 87: Webb meets up with the Rev. Moss Gatlin, who twists his sermons about Original Sin (only with exceptions) and “fishers of men” to have something other than a religious meaning. Could the name “Moss” be a leap to the eldritch foxfire moss, a bioluminescent, forest fungus? And I couldn’t help but associate “Gatlin” with the Gatling gun, the first machine gun).

Page 89: Here’s a reference to the repeal of the Silver Act and “the Gold Standard reclaiming its ancient tyranny.” Worth a look-up, Neddie says.

Page 92: More opposite pairs, as Gatlin explains to Webb how the slave owners of the South might be gone, but have been replaced by capitalist business owners holding low-wage-earners to their thankless jobs just as surely as slaves. Blacks become whites.

Page 94: There’s a Day Webb and a Night Webb. Day Webb works the mines. Night Webb lives his secret life as an anarchist... another bifurcation, a double refraction. Webb is an important character.

Page 96: This passage: “Four closely set blasts, cracks in the fabric of air and time, merciless, bone-strumming. Breathing seemed beside the point. Rising dirty-yellow clouds full of wood splinters, no wind to blow them anyplace. Track and trusswork went sagging into the dust-choked arroyo.” Isn’t that just fine? “Happy Fourth of July, Webb.”

Page 97-98: A new section that follows young Kit Traverse, Webb’s 17-year-old son who, rather than become a miner, chooses to be an electrician. The first passage is a glory of a list regarding the strange happenings on the “world-reversing” night of the Fourth of July eve of 1899. “...horses gone crazy for miles out into the prairie, electricity flooding up through the iron of their shoes, shoes that when they finally came off and got saved to use for cowboy-quirts, including important picnic tourneys from Fruita to Cheyenne Wells, why they would fly directly and stick on to the spike in the ground, or anything else nearby made of iron or steel...”

Kit was part of the strangeness, working in Colorado Springs for Dr. Tesla on an electrical experiment. Kit thinks of himself as a Vectorist, looking for work that had anything to do with electricity. “Could call me a circuit rider, I guess,” he says of his apprentice days. “It could have been a religion, for all he knew, here was the god of Current, bearing light ...” (Neddie suggests taking a look at Monstro’s comment in last week’s discussion for more on this idea.)

Page 99: Kit is compelled by and obsessed with electricity and its making. “Water falls, electricity flows – one flow becomes another, and then into light. So is altitude transformed, continuously, into light.” Religion, indeed.

An aside from Neddie about the inventor, physicist, mechanical and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla: According to legend, Tesla was born precisely at midnight during an electrical storm ... He had a photographic memory. Tesla was wonderfully weird. Read the Colorado Springs portion of his Wikipedia entry. The magnetic effects experienced on July 4, 1899 must have been the result of Tesla’s experiments with artificial lightning.

Page 100: Note the Twin Vibes. Will we be surprised to find references to “phasing?”

Leaping ahead after Kit’s decision to leave home for Yale, financed by Vibe, alienating his father, and his embarkation into the dark unknown, the story once again shifts, this time back (or forward? I’m floundering) to the Chums.

Page 107: Rousing from inactivity and disuse, the Chums get the “call” to “steer southwest and await course correction from a station unnamed, at a distance indeterminate, which would be calling in from the ship’s Tesla device ...” (a wireless radio?), which of course they answer, guided by westerly winds with “all but geometrical precision.” Hmm. Can winds do that? In this section, we seem to be in a flux of change once again, leaving the Pynchon version of “real” for the magical, the mystical, the ... fictional? Are the Chums aware of their nature as a plot device?

Page 108-109: They soar over a vast ocean (which may be the Indian Ocean) and chains of islands. Miles Blundell notes that these once had names, but “the names are being lost, this sea is lapsing back into anonymity, each island rising from it only another dark desert.” Things must have names to exist, it seems. And on some of these unnamed islands, the Chums observe work details, a reference perhaps to preparations for World War I ...?

And now, the Chums slip through the veil from reality into a sort of whimsical unreality as they reach the last island, where people just appear where there were none before as the Inconvenient touches down. These people are very strange, dressed formally in town suits and tea gowns, but none of them wear shoes. The Chums are the odd ones out, since they do wear shoes. In the center of the town, which also seems to appear out of nothing, is a huge underground construction, concrete pits in which are steam machines and draft animals. Asked what this activity is, the answer is as strange as the people themselves. “It’s home ... “What is home where you come from?”

The Chums move on, whether on this island (the last) or another is unclear, and find the volcano they’ve been looking for. They land and all the equipment the ship has been loaded with is taken out and set up – the idea being that this is the “Earth antipodal to Colorado Springs,” where they’ll measure the effects (or not-effects) of Dr. Tesla’s experiments with electricity ...

Page 110: The Chums have changed, particularly Darby, who seems to have reached the sneering phase of adolescence. Instead of the cheerful jovialness they greeted us with in the beginning of the book, they’re irritable and snarly, and as they wait for the measurement instruments to measure whatever it is they do, the Chums have their own, miniature wallow in anarchy. This is caused by a quarrel over what to replace their damaged figurehead with. Darby wants a curvaceous woman; St. Cosmo suggests the National Bird.

Boys will be boys. While they don’t come to blows, they do flip gobs of asparagus mousse and mashed turnips at each other during dinner, an image which I giggled over for a while.

Page 111: It’s almost the Fourth of July, and the Chums must have a shipboard celebration by standing orders, like it or not. “Explosion without an objective ... is politics in its purest form,” says Miles Blundell.

“If we don’t take care,” opined Scientific Officer Counterfly, “folks will begin to confuse us with the Anarcho-syndicalists.”

“About time,” snarled Darby. “I say let’s set off our barrage tonight in honor of the Haymarket bomb, bless it, a turning point in American history, and the only way working people will ever get a fair shake under that miserable economic system – through the wonders of chemistry!”

“Suckling!” the astounded Lindsay Noseworth struggling to maintain his composure. “But, that is blatant anti-Americanism!”

Page 112: As they shoot off their fireworks, Miles asks them to consider the “nature of a skyrocket’s ascent ... after the propellant charge burns out ...” (From Neddie: Absolutely blatant reference to Gravity’s Rainbow. Hah! “Stop! Stop! It sounds like Chinese!” “Think, bloviators, think!” Huge in-joke at the expense of the English Department.)

The experiment over, the Chums take to the sky again, curiously relieved of their aggravation with each other. They resolve the figurehead dispute amicably and apologize to one another, seeing their odd irritation with each other as a lesson learned.

Page 113: The Chums get new orders in the form of a pearl in a Japanese oyster nearly ingested accidentally by Lindsay Noseworth.

Page 114: Off they go, following orders to proceed by way of the Telluric Interior to the northern polar regions, where they were to intercept a schooner and convince the commander to abandon his expedition, “using any means short of force – which, though not prohibited outright to the Chums of Chance, did create a strong presumption of Bad Taste, which every Chum by ancient tradition was sworn, if not indeed at pains, to avoid.”

This just tickled me. It seems that Pynchon has switched his style again here while I wasn’t looking, and we’re back to a boy’s adventure novel in tone.

Page 115: The Hollow Earth. Now this is a concept. Interplanetary “short-cutting.” Time travel? But something’s wrong: “Navigation’s not as easy this time,” Randolph mused ... “Noseworth, you remember the old days. We knew for hours ahead of time.”

The Chums enter the portal into the Hollow Earth at the pole, with some difficulty; notice that their Tesla Device is ... singing... and figure out that there are people below who are asking for help. They descend, see a castle, people fighting... they have to help ...

Page 117: Pynchon speaks in his own voice: “my harmless little intraterristrial scherzo...” Ahah! Proof the Chums are fictional and don’t exist except in the author’s mind...

Page 118: The portal to the Hollow Earth is closing, perhaps an allusion to the dying out of Myth itself?

That's it for me, Chumps. Your Wren is one tuckered little bird. Have fun!

Additional Discussion of Pp. 81-118

Chumps: Here's where we discuss the above section (pp. 81-118) as it may relate to other Pynchon novels. Flights of fancy, speculation, the Interconnectedness of All Things...

Monday, January 08, 2007

Attention All Ætherists And Anti-Stoners!

Happy New Year, Chumps! Welcome to 2007, where verbosity is never verboten. I hope no one minds my interspersing the synopsis and notes into one sustained narrative. I found it easier on myself to do it that way. However, if it's preferable to keep them separate, then someone just say so and I'll approach the text as the others have done on my next at-bat. Also, a quick welcome to a new Chump, an Internet friend of mine who blogs under the name Monstro. One visit to his blog and you'll understand immediately why he's here. So, did you come hungry? Good... Here's 4,000 words to chew on.

Synopsis and Thoughts:

Our section opens several years in the past (relative to the preceding section). Merle dreams of being in an enormous museum, in which an official accuses him of stealing an artifact. Among his wallet's contents (which he empties out, presumably to prove his innocence) is a small portrait of Erlys (who'd run off with "Zombini the Mysterious"). He has a short but interesting conversation with Dally about Erlys (recall his humorous response when Dally asks what attracted him to her: "Didn't run away screaming when I told her how I felt." [57:24]).

In no time, we're discussing the “luminiferous Æther" [58:9], which this article on Wikipedia defines as "the term used to describe a medium for the propagation of light." This Æther, according to that article and a million others available in cyberspace, was one of those long-standing assumptions (since at least the 1600s) in the scientific world. However, as science progressed, the theory kept running into trouble. At 58:7, it's noted that a "couple of professors at the Case Institute in Cleveland" were busy conducting experiments focused on the Æther. For perhaps a clearer definition of Æther, take a look at this Wikipedia article on the Michelson–Morley experiment -- "one of the most important and famous experiments in the history of physics" (my emphasis). Rumors about this upcoming landmark event fueled the debate that hurled the Æther's existence into an area “closer to religion than science” [58:13-14].

When Merle approaches Vanderjuice to discuss the Æther, the professor smells of "sal ammoniac and singed hair" [58:17]. He's had a small run-in, he says, with a Töpler Influence Machine (a machine that generates electricity). Here's a picture of one, for anyone who wondered:

[pic source - fascinating page, btw]

The two take a walk, discussing the Æther theory. Vanderjuice seems to doubt it, noting the "all those tiny whirlpools the theory seems to require" [58:34]. No doubt, we could spend some serious additional time discussing how there are numerous parallels today, for example, vis-à-vis quantum physics, the notion of randomness, causality, free will vs. determinism, et cetera. For that matter, one could also cite any political, scientific, or secular (or combination thereof) issue that seems to so perfectly bifurcate our society -- global warming, evolution, religion, one's political affiliation, etc.

Vanderjuice encourages Merle to (to paraphrase) take a ride out to Cleveland (from Connecticut) and check it out for himself. Makes sense, as Merle is destined to be a photographer. When writing this section up, I came across this page, which includes a quote from Tesla about his new invention, "artificial daylight":

"The reason I have chosen to introduce the new daylight to the photographers first," says the inventor, "is that I believe them to be the severest critics, and most hard to please in the matter of light. If it succeeds with them, a new light will succeed everywhere."

BTW, also worth mentioning there are the Maxwell Field Equations, noted by Vanderjuice at 58:37. Here's another link (for the more intrepid).

On his journey to Cleveland, it's noted that Merle takes in the rather unremarkable realization of our manifest destiny ("more Connecticut, just shifted west" [59:10]). (BTW, here's a link explaining Cleveland's nickname, "The Forest City.") The city is "obsessed by the pursuit of genial desperado Blinky Morgan" [59:11-12]. Googling the name confirms that Morgan was a historical character. This site, for example offers the description:

Charles 'Blinky' Morgan capped a lengthy career of crime in the murder of a detective on a train while freeing a captive fellow gang-member. A manhunt ensued and Morgan was eventually captured and hung in Columbus in 1888.

On his way to the Case Institute, Merle is stopped and questioned by a couple of Chief Schmitt's detectives who nearly cart him off to the local insane asylum. Newburgh [59:27] is another historical detail. A quick search reveals an actual photo! Take a look:

[Picture source. The web page also includes a history of the place, noting the the earlier fire referenced at 63:25. As a matter of curiosity, that fire happened in 1872. Add 15 years, and you get 1887. So, at this point in the text, it's presumably 1887, which makes sense since Blinky Morgan wasn't hanged until 1888.]

Back on pages 59-60, we learn about all of the "scientific cranks" locked up within that facility -- wonderful writing in this section, right? I loved the Lightarians at 60:2 ("fried light, fricaseed light, light a la mode")!

We're then introduced to Ed Addle and Roswell Bounce. Great names, of course. The word "addle" means "to muddle or confuse." Who better than Ed Addle, then, to let loose with something this beautifully mind boggling:

What, in the Æther, would occupy the place of water vapor in the air? Some of us believe it is Vacuum. Minute droplets of nothing at all, mixed in with the prevailing Ætheric medium. Until the saturation point is reached, of course. Then there is condensation, and storms in which not rain but precipitated nothingness sweeps a given area, cyclones and anticyclones of it, abroad not only locally at the planetary surface but outside it, through cosmic space as well. [60:16-22]

Roswell Bounce (first seen at 60:23) is another fascinating character name. Here we have a character set in the 1880s, yet we can't help as modern readers associating his first name with the infamous "Roswell UFO incident" of 1947. [Link to Wikipedia.] I know we're still awaiting the walk-on by Nikola Tesla, but I would add that, according to his Wiki page, "Many of his achievements have been used, with some controversy, to support various ... UFO theories... ." Interesting.

We're also here introduced (at 60:36) to Madge and Mia Culpepper -- the latter, especially, calling to mind the Latin phrase mea culpa, though we're unsure at this point what it may be that she's blaming herself for. (Unless, just perhaps, she's a prostitute? It does say, after all that Merle's been spending a lot of money on them lately. They work at the "Hamilton Street establishment of Blinky Morgan's lady friend Nelly Lowery" [60:37]. Again, "establishment" (my emphasis) = euphemism for bordello?) Another possibility, though I'm probably reaching, is a nod to the famous 17th century herbalist/astrologer Nicholas Culpeper, perhaps foreshadowing the wildcrafting we'll discuss below.

Merle, we're shown at 61:17, has established himself as the go-to guy for arranging Ætherist escapes from Newburgh -- having already broken out, presumably, Ed Addle. Being so intimately immersed in the local scene, Merle had eventually convinced himself that "the Michelson-Morley experiment and the Blinky Morgan manhunt were connected" [61:27]. Roswell doesn't buy into the theory, but Addle calls Blinky a "walking interferometer" [62:1]. From there, it's a fascinating conversation between Addle and Rideout, two theorists probably in legitimately borderline need of a stay in Newburgh. One of them (and, I believe the speaker's identity is purposely obfuscated) offers a screwball theory at 62:13-20 that almost seems to flirt with rationality (if you've read enough of those Wikipedia articles, that is, to make yourself dangerous in physics circles).

But, the Ætherist dreams were soon to be shattered. The Michelson-Morley experiment had returned, as O.D. Chandrasekhar says at 63:6, a "null result." Roswell Bounce, back at 62:34, compares the scene to "cults who believe the world will end on such and such a day." Again, the parallels with modern times are notable; I couldn't help but recall such late-1990s examples as the Heaven's Gate cult or the Y2K scare. Regarding Chandrasekhar's mention of the Hindi word akasa, the only relevant Internet page I found was a web site discussing Ayurvedic philosophy. It said:

There is a remarkable theory in Ayurveda to the effect that man is a miniature form of the universe, a 'microcosm' of the macrocosm. The material contents of man and universe are constituted of the same five primal elements: prthvi (solid component to both), apas (the liquid), tejas (the radient energy, body heat, digestive fire), vayu (air), and akasa (the orifices and empty spaces inside the body).

For a moment, upon reading Roswell Bounce's rather atheistic statement at 63:11-13, I waxed somewhat Addle/Rideout myself, wondering briefly whether the words Ætherist and atheist had any relation. (No more or less, I suppose, than Morley and Morgan, right?) Again paralleling modern day, the religious talk devolves into ugliness. A brawl breaks out [63:15], effectively taking the story to a halt momentarily.

A few things interest me here: First, though a temporal passage of time is implied, there's no physical break after the brawl (as in, a blank paragraph similar to what we had on page 61) to set things off a bit. Second, and much more important, the opening-sentence structure of the paragraph beginning at 63:18 begs attention. It's Merle slipping into a "directionless drift," but it's more than that. It's as if the narration mirrors this somehow, stringing one long dependent clause after another via no less than eight commas. It's an odd paragraph for other reasons as well, I think. For example, what's its purpose from a story structure perspective? My initial thought is that it happens to be how Pynchon chose to introduce Roswell as a photographer (having "offended a policeman by snapping his picture just as he emerged" [64:22] from a brothel.) Or, it could simply relate to the writing/narration style of this section, which gets perhaps more self-aware from time to time, manifesting itself in this way. (Please comment, Chumps!)

This leads, of course, to our learning how Merle became a photographer. "As a mechanic, he respected any straightforward chain of cause and effect ... but chemical reactions like this went on in some region too far out of anyone's control ..." [64:7-9]. Over the next two pages, Merle learns and masters the secrets of the trade over the course of many implied months. As a Pynchon novitiate, I may not have made any particular mention of the long paragraph at 65:12-34. However, I happened to browse this article the other day, which said, "Walt Whitman may be the only American writer who's better at catalogs than Pynchon is." I wasn't aware of this signature device of his, but will keep an eye out for it.

By the bottom of page 65, it's August (1888) and he's in Columbus just before Blinky's hanging. The atmosphere is dreamlike. A few vocabulary highlights from this section:

  • somnambulism [65:37] = sleepwalking.
  • stultified [66:2] = When I'd originally looked up this word, I took it to mean "useless or ineffectual; crippled." However, according to that link, the word could also mean to "prove to be of unsound mind or demonstrate ... incompetence."
  • Scioto [66:4] = the Scioto River, which runs through Columbus.

The reason, btw, that I'd stumbled across that Boston Globe article referenced a few paragraphs above was that I wasn't quite confident that I understood what caused Merle to have his little epiphany about leaving Columbus. While that article did not ultimately help, I concluded it was simply because he'd finally realized how utterly absurd his surroundings were -- the whole spectacle of a public hanging. After all, he seems to have realized, to his horror, his role in preserving the imagery for posterity. Thus, he decides at 66:21 to expose all of his plates (to the light), returning them to "blankness and innocence" [66:22]. Absolution through light, I suppose.

The section ends with a humorous insult to Columbus, Ohio, calling it essentially the ass of America [66:25-27]. Thankfully, Pynchon's known to be a recluse; otherwise, he'd surely receive some interesting letters in response to that one. Speaking of hometown pride, my own fair city gets a mention at 67:2. Normally, I wouldn't bring up such a trivial thing, but I thought it might be worth noting my suspicion about why Roswell Bounce was subpoenaed to appear in Pittsburgh. You see, Pittsburgh was (and still is) the home of Westinghouse Electric. George Westinghouse founded the company here in the late 1860s. Interesting how, in that first paragraph on Wikipedia, it notes his friendship with Nikola Tesla. Westinghouse was also the company responsible for lighting up the 1893 Chicago fair! Okay, okay, back to the text...

So, even if Merle's had this realization that leaving Columbus is absolutely the right thing to do, it's also true that the party's over there, so to speak, anyway. We learn that this was when Merle first met Erlys Mills Snidell [67:4]. He then talks a little more (jumping ahead years later) with Dally (his curious "little eggplant" [67:9]) about her mother. She'd met Luca Zombini, a magician, in East Fullmoon, Iowa (fictional, I checked, but appropriately reminiscent of old-time stories involving themes of destiny) after his stage assistant, Roxanna, left him.

Wonderful in this section how, even as we're hearing backstory, Pynchon integrates and sustains much of the book's major imagery so naturally. We have, for just a few examples, Luca asking Erlys if she "ever felt that you wished to disappear" [68:19] (great subtext there, of course); we have a "galvanic shadow" [68:29]; a "vibrant dark density" [68:30]. And then that spectacular couple of sentences (reminiscent, perhaps, of a famous Beckett line) at 68:32-33: "He didn't know what was happening. He did know." Of course he did. So, it was no surprise when she and the magician "vanished" [69:4].

Back to the writing again: Note that the beautiful paragraph ending that section [69:7-15] is a single sentence!

At 69:18, we jump many years ahead, just after the excitement of the Columbian Expostion. Initially, we see many of the various participants on their own journeys home. Merle and Dally continue west (away from what she'd associated with wonderment and so forth). For years, Dally longs to return, daydreaming as they continue their travels. There's a great passage more or less from Dally's viewpoint: "Leaves sawtooth, spade-shaped, long and thin, blunt-fingered, downy and veined, oiled and dusty with the day..." that runs 70:17-27 as they continue westward. Specific stopping points are unspecified (for a reason, I think), and Merle takes up wildcrafting at one point [roughly the general bottom portion of page 70]. Dally brings up Erlys again as Merle harvests some ginseng.

Another rather lengthy, beautifully poetic passage can be found at 71:13-32 where we see, now from Merle's point of view, many of the various women (called "girls" throughout the section) he's noticed along his journey. Interesting that both Merle and Dally each view the world distinctly, yet so similarly. They are, after all, "each other's unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace" [70:28]. Indeed it was.

The years continue to pass, though just how many we don't yet know. By page 73, we're at what is almost certainly one of my personal favorite parts of the book (so far). Merle has taken a job as a lightning-rod salesman. Remember earlier that I mentioned the notion that Pynchon purposely doesn't mention a specific locale (other than the implied general vicinity of southern central Colorado)? I think this functions to enhance the ball lightning section. Quick break for a pic:

[Pic from the Wikipedia page on ball lightning.]

Is there anyone here, by chance, who wasn't at some point fascinated by ball lightning? Couldn't be just me, right? A rare borderline-apocryphal, quasi-paranormal phenomenon -- unpredictable floating / behaving balls of light / power / plasma / mystery; the kind of thing you suspect you might have watched a television special about 25+ years back on "In Search Of..." (hosted by Leonard Nimoy). (Note: I checked; In Search Of... apparently never ran a show on ball lightning.)

Merle meets Skip here, who initially requests, "Just don't send me to ground, it's no fun there" [73:38]. Skip stays with Merle and Dally for a while, although it takes Dally time to warm up to "him." In time, a distant electrical storm "out in Kansas someplace" [74:21] calls for Skip and he must leave. He explains to Dally that, "You get sort of gathered back into it all, 's how it works..." (my emphasis) [74:26]. This language is reminiscent of a few pages back when Merle and Dally are wildcrafting. Dally wants Merle to promise her that she'll get a chance to go looking for Erlys someday. Merle assures her that she will, but notes it "[a]in't mine to promise. Just how it works" (my emphasis, again) [71:11]. I think the assertion can be made that these things are more than coincidence; after all, much of the book so far explores human fascination with how things work. And, maybe it's more than that. Good stuff to talk about in the comments section.

The itinerant duo find themselves near the Sangre De Cristo mountains somewhere around southern Colorado/northern New Mexico. They continue westward to the San Juan mountains, which Wikipedia says are in southwestern Colorado. By the next section (beginning at 75:18), they've headed back east a bit, to Denver.

There, Merle spots and purchases a copy of Dishforth's Illustrated Weekly that features an article about Luca Zombini, Erlys, and "their children and their warm and wonderful home in New York" [75:22]. He admires the many photos of Erlys and releases his internal bitterness, finally deciding to show the article to Dally. After doing so, he felt that, "like a charge slowly building up on a condenser plate, it was going to be only a matter of time before she was off to New York in a great, irresistible surge of energy" [76:8-10].

At 76:14-23, we find another of these catalogues -- this time being all of Merle's "alchemist's stuff" [76:14]. Soon we're meeting, for the first time, Webb Traverse [first mentioned at 77:2], who has smelled Merle's chemicals (from quite a distance) and has come to visit. Webb's a "sort of mine engineer" [76:38] from the Little Hellkite works near Telluride. Of course, I suppose I know enough by now to look for meaning in many of the character names. While I haven't, by choice, read past this section yet, I do recall seeing somewhere that Webb Traverse is an important character. Without much knowledge of his future actions, my initial impression would simply be that he may have some spider-like qualities (i.e., the kind of creature that would traverse a web). But, that could be way off base; his picking up the scent of Merle's alchemical experimentation, for example, seems almost canine to me. We'll have to wait, I suppose, to understand this character better. BTW, this site defines "hellkite" as "someone who is a very fierce fighter" or a "kite [meaning, hawk] of infernal breed."

The two introduce themselves to each other cautiously, purposely dancing around any kind of honesty or straightforwardness. Some relevant informational links: alchemy, philosopher's stone, mercury/quicksilver, mercury fulminate, silver fulminate ("not quite the same thing as 'fulminating silver,' which'll blow up if you touch it with a feather" [77:29-30]), prussic acid. (One of the benefits of not reading ahead is that it frees one to speculate, which is quite different from offering spoilers. With all of this talk of explosive chemicals and anarchism, I couldn't help but think of the cult classic Anarchist's Cookbook -- or something an order of magnitude worse, which we'll get to also.) Googling "philosophic mercury," btw, produces some strange results, including this site, which describes the substance as "materia prima or first matter from which all substances are formed."

The talk of explosives moves Webb to suppose that, if there's such a thing as the Philosopher's Stone ("supposed to really mean God, or the Secret of Happiness, or Union with the All" [77:21-22]), then perhaps there such a thing as... "Careful," Merle warns [78:8], interrupting him. Merle suggests that Webb refer, if he must, to this notion as the "Anti-Stone" -- which we can assume to mean the opposite of all cited above (viz. evil, unhappiness, and division -- entrpoy, you might say). The ATD Wiki suggests the possibility that the allusion is to the atomic bomb. (I'd planned on leafing through my daughter's hard-back of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for a bonus "philosopher's stone" quote here, but my post is already absurdly long. Maybe in the comments section, though...)

Webb offers Merle a job as an amalgamator at the Little Hellkite mine in Telluride, so long as Merle doesn't mention Webb around the mine. Merle agrees, so long as Webb keeps mum about his alchemy interests. Merle adds that "modern chemistry only starts coming in to replace alchemy around the same time capitalism gets going" [79:18-19]. A few links from that bottom section: Mammon, Coxey's Army. As for that last link, there's an interesting sort of oblique connection between the paragraph at 79:30-40 and the Wizard of Oz. From that article:

Among the people observing the march was L. Frank Baum, before he gained fame. There are political interpretations of his book, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz written 1900, which has often been related to Coxey's Army. In his novel, Dorothy, the Scarecrow (the American farmer), Tin Woodman (the industrial worker), and Cowardly Lion, (political leader), march on the yellow brick road to Oz, the Capital, demanding relief from the Wizard, who is interpreted to be the President. Dorothy's shoes are interpreted to symbolize using silver instead of the gold standard (the road of yellow brick) because the shortage of gold precipitated the Panic of 1893.

At 79:34, Webb thinks of Merle as a quicksilver wizard. At 79:40, he finds that "the 'President' [referring to the former amalgamator, who'd gone mad from mercury exposure] had been replaced ... by Merle Rideout." (Not to mention gold, which gets a fair amount of discussion in this part of the book.) I'm not making any assertions here, just raising an eyebrow.

And that brings us, finally, to the final page of this section. Merle and Dally stay for "the next couple of years" in Southwestern Colorado. There's a great little history of Telluride here in the Wikipedia. It was perhaps a bit chilling to read (with the "anti-stone" in mind) the following: "A little known fact is that just outside of Telluride, in Placerville, Uranium ore was discovered. In 1898 Marie Curie purchased ore from this location and is said to have visited the area." The article also mentions major labor disputes at the Telluride mines around this time, which could be what Pynchon means by "some of the worst years in the history of those unhappy mountains" [80:3-4]. Indeed, all paths seem to be leading to something inevitable, no? Michelson-Morley, one could note, leads to Einstein, which leads to... [Link to a history of special relativity.] Photography / chemistry leads to alchemy, which leads to the Philosopher's Stone, which leads to the Anti-Stone, which is ... I'll leave further discussion along this line for the comments section.

Merle, accustomed to thinking in terms of connections, likens photography to alchemy in that they're both "redeeming light from the inertia of precious metals" [80:6]. Considering this, he feels a "secret imperative, like the force of gravity" [80:8] has brought them to this place.

[Telluride, CO, circa 1900. Source.]

As Austin Powers would say: "And I'm spent."

Over and out, Chumps.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Additional Discussion of pp. 57-80

A continuation of that House of Seven Babblers post... Here's a place for Chumps to discuss the above section (pp. 57-80) as it may relate to other Pynchon novels.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Here I am, I am no other. But what name do I show up with? (should be theghastlyfop).