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 27, 2007

Of Masks and Murder: pp. 849-63

First, a little architecture: this week's reading covers pages 849 through 863, which is a single chapter -- the tenth in the novel's titular fourth part. Said chapter is itself divided into eight sections. What's more, being that "Against the Day" (the part, not the novel) is divided into twenty chapters (4:20, anyone?), the conclusion of this chapter marks Part Four's halfway point. Its content focuses primarily on the actions and interactions of Reef (first in Nice, France, then in Venice) and Yashmeen (in Venice, though with the odd flashback to Croatia).

The Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, 1910, source

The chapter opens with Reef riding the winds of chance, gambling and "drift[ing]" through Nice's haut hotels, but desirous of a good ol' explosion. Chance favors Reef's desire by reintroducing "his old Simplon Tunnel compañero Flaco, [who is] even more anarchistic and dynamite-crazy than before" (849). The two recollect old times and discuss Flaco's recent dealing's with Frank, whose message that he'd '''got one of them''' Flaco delivers to Reef who wonders which one was "got" (849). The two begin to discuss the possibility of Frank's following Flaco back to Mexico for the impending revolution when -- BOOM -- the bourgeois café at which they'd just sat down is subject to a "great blossoming of disintegration" as a terrorist's bomb detonates (850). There follows a passage of top shelf Tom describing with Bellowsian abundance the proliferated details of the explosion (850-51). It's these moments, more than anything else, that keep me devotedly following Pynchon. Following the boom, Reef and Flaco spend some time performing triage before seeking out medical attention for themselves from one Professeur Pivoine, a knife-obsessed surgeon under whose blade Reef has a consoling vision of Kit. Following a section break, we find Flaco ready to leave, Reefless, for Mexico. The two discuss the relative ethical values of ground war and assassination (Flaco's for the former; Reef the latter).

Image taken from a film by the Lumiere Brothers, albeit of Paris, not Venice, but hey, it was the best I could do, source

Following another section break, the narrative shifts from Reef to Yashmeen, specifically her possession of The Book of the Masked, a gift from Vlado Pynchon's baroque description of which might also serve as a fairly adequate description of Against the Day. There follows a flashback to Yashmeen receiving the book from Vlado and a discussion of it authenticity, then another break and a very brief paragraph-section describing their habit of moviegoing in Venice, specifically a Lumiere film shot near the site of the theater they frequented which the folks over at the Pynchon Wiki have identified as the early Lumiere Brothers film Panorama du Grand Canal pris d'un bateau.

A ballroom at the Hotel Excelsior, Venice, source

Jump cut back to Reef now searching in vain for Scarsdale in Venice, "where everything had gone off the rails" (854). There he meets Pino and Rocco, two "inland sailors" traveling "semimiraculous routes," borne on the back of a "a species of Adriatic sea-monster" (854). Together they all head to the Hotel Excelsior, which, the sailors inform Reef, is not, as its outward appearance might suggest, closed for the winter. Rather than being fueled by the discretionary wealth of summertime tourist lira, in cold weather the bar serves as refuge to those fleeing the hostile snows outside. And there, whom should he meet but Yashmeen and Vlado, themselves fleeing not only the exterior cold but Austrian gunmen and Theign, to boot. Unfortunately, the Excelsior proves less suited to keeping out the pursuers than the wind, and the whole lot of them flee across the beach with Reef employing his elephant gun to provide cover fire. Unfortunately, during the fighting, Vlado is shot and the others are forced to leave him behind, Yashmeen and Reef fleeing in a small boat towed by Pino and Rocco's submarine Il Squalaccio.

Venetian Carnevale mask, source

They seek shelter in Pino and Roco's apartment and Reef leaves Yashmeen alone while he goes out to try and get word of Vlado's fate. When he returns he finds Yashmeen scantliy clad and asleep, which sets him off masturbate, an activity which he eventually realizes Yashmeen has joined him at. They have some summary sex -- Reef apparently having gotten himself the better part of the way home already -- and then discuss Vlado's fate, which Reef has heard is as a prisoner in the Arsenale, which, Wikipedia informs us, "is a shipyard and naval depot that played a leading role in Venetian empire-building." This section, by now the longest in the chapter, ends with Yashmeen at the hair salon, having her hair cut and colored by Fabrizio, Venice's finest stylist, in an attempt to disguise her identity. Her hair, the narrator intrudes to tell us, she donates to Fab, who employs it in "an elaborate wig in the eighteenth-century Venetian style, appropriate for a Carnevale costume, as part of which it was to appear in the near future, at a fateful masked ball" (860).

The Arsenale, Venice, source

In the next section, we get a glimpse of Vlado's condition within the Arsenale, which ain't so hot. The section begins with an extended meditation on the role of the Arsenale in the Venetian collective psyche, wherein we learn that the walled shipyard represents a "mystery" no less alien to day to day life in the city than does that of the nearby San Michele cemetery. Even from the inside, though, the analogy stands, as Vlado feels himself to be very nearly a dead man. Questioned by Theign, he plays hardball, refusing to disclose any information about Yashmeen, though the narrator informs us, his position is not so cushy as, say, a man in a tavern with a gun to his forehead, where at least there is a chance of outside aid. No, "[a]ny bet made in here would be for the highest possible stakes" (862).

Gamblers in the Casino at Monte Carlo, c. 1910, source

The chapter ends with two brief sections focused on Yashmeen. In the first, she tries to explain to Reef that "she put her faith, like a good Emotional Anarchist, in the Law of Deterministic Insufficiency," which she elaborates, is "'[l]ike a card coming up that you could never have predicted.'" This Reef doesn't buy, so she starts trying to explain the underlying math to him, which has a decidedly soporific effect. She continues to whisper her theory to him, though, referencing Wilson's theorem, which has something to do with remainders, factorials and primes, though I personally am left a little lost in trying to understand its exact relevance. Strangely, the subliminal teaching seems to be effective, because Reef starts "to win at roulette far outside the expectations of chance" (863). Reef, meantimes, is trying to come to terms with his unfading desire for her, which he finds somewhat inexplicable.

An artist's rendering of The Book of the Masked, which only coincidentally looks exactly like the Necronomicon from Evil Dead, source

In the final section -- a single paragraph -- we learn that Yashmeen misses Vlado terribly and has begun reading daily, "like a devout person with a religious text," from Vlado's ''Book of the Masked'', the contents of which appear "to be a mathematical argument of the classic sort [. . .] except that everywhere terms containing time stood like infiltrators at a masked ball, prepared at some unannounced pulse of the clock to throw back their capes and reveal their true identities and mission" (863).

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.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Doin' "The Idiotic"

Head like a pin? drool down your chin?
Could qualify-you
To give it a spin, tho'
It sounds neurotic,
It's just 'The Idiotic'!

picture source

(pp. 821-835)

Cyprian and Bevis Moistleigh depart Trieste on the ship John of Asia on a putative mission to rescue an operative in Sarajevo.

Everyone on board is, apparently, a spy for at least one of the competing world powers, a Nabokovian array of butterfly hunters, bird-watchers [...] photographers, schoolgirls and their guardians, examples of the latter two categories being the sprightly young creature Jacintha Drulov, an orphan under the care of her guardian, Lady Quethlock. (And here we note in passing that perhaps Pynchon is writing the espionage story which his old European Lit. prof never got around to doing himself.)

Anyway, after an up-tempo dance number (see above) featuring Jacintha and Bevis, and considerations, via Lady Q., of an alternate, recondite Adriatic geography, we land, after another dreamy passage by train, with our two foppish British ops in Sarajevo, yet a hidden city of minarets and blond Muslems on the firing line of East and West, North and South. There they find the polyglot Danilo Ashkil, a Shephardic Jew, the agent they've come to get out from harm's way.

As the lads discuss old history and recent Austro-Hungarian politics in a cafe, the Russian agents Misha and Grisha - those gay blades who introduced Cyprian to the world of espionage and Max Kautch way back in Vienna - reappear, as does the old Colonel, in disgrace at headquarters and a fugitive from Vienna, now a seedy barroom bore, who probably has several tricks, so to speak, left up his sleeve.

Time to skip town and Danilo reveals what we've felt all along, that Cyprian, and probably Bevis too, are in far more danger than he, having been shopped by Theign to the Austrians. With Ashkil they make their escape wearing fezes which can't, or won't, fit either of them.

Two weeks later, Bevis has vanished (like Kit and Hassan, right?) from a moving train. In looking for him, Cyp and Danilo travel up a spur rail line to Jajce, a small mountain resort resembling the Austrian variety, where they find waiting for them two members of the Black Hand underground, Batko and Senta, who warn them that they'd best walk across the mountains to Split (Ha!) on the coast for a boat out, a dangerous trek of ravines, diverging paths and hidden enemies, which they have undertaken as our episode (in mid-chapter) ends.

Not much to add. In all candor I have to admit to persistently wondering why Cyprian's tale is in the same novel with Lew Basnight, the Chums and Kit Traverse. But I suppose we'll hash out the whys of this as the book narrows at last to the destined quay (821:15). Or not. For there is also beginning the moment all lines are singled up, an unloosening of fate as the unknown and perhaps the uncreated begins to make its appearance ahead and astern. (821:17-19)


There is what strikes me as another key passage at pg. 828:5-34, where Danilo explains an idea of history as being endemic to culture and geography: "[...] 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." That latitude is the northernmost historic reach of Islam, a cultural and climatic high tide mark that has spooked Europeans and vexed the Turks since the 17th century.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cue The Band!!

Maybe we'll get the next post up around midnight. . .

From Neddie:
My humblest apologies for the delay, but a full-on hard-disk failure has caused the loss of everything -- that's everything -- I possessed in the digital realm. As a result, I was unable to remind the next Mod in a timely fashion, and Will has kindly volunteered to get a post up. He's a treas. Thanks, man.

Monday, August 06, 2007

European Apocalypse Pools

Map of Eastern Europe 1878, with the Ottoman Empire to the South and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the North.

pp 806-820

Following Decency Jigsaw's example from last week, let's start with numerological chapter and verse, this being Chapter 57 which consists of ten smaller installments that can be divided into three larger groups.


It's October of 1908 and "all hell" breaks loose when Austria announces its annexation of Bosnia, with Theign visiting Cyprian in Trieste at Bevis Moistleigh's underground crypto shop. Theign orders Cyprian on a dangerous mission in the Balkans and tells him to take Bevis along "if you feel you need a bodyguard." Though Moistleigh agrees to join Cyprian, he's also horrified by Theign once again after the latter gives them an absurdly undetailed map (page 807:11): "No, no, he doesn't care, can't you see that, none of the details matter to him, not only the map, he knows we won't live long enough to use it..."

Also being banished at the same time is Yashmeen in Vienna, who finds her dress shop suddenly closed and her landlady calling her a Jew Pig before evicting her, which leads Pynchon to a rumination about longtime Viennese mayor Karl Lueger and the city's anti-semitism which "really went far beyond feelings, had become a source of energy, tremendous dark energy that could be tapped in to like an electric main for specific purposes, a way to a political career...or in Yashmeen's case a simple method of chasing somebody out of town" (807:39). The short section ends with a visit from Cyprian, presumably to Vienna, where he tells her she should leave and come join him in Trieste. Cyprian makes fun of the Viennese calling Trieste a Jewish city with "they think Shanghai is a Jewish city" which leads to Yashmeen's "Well, actually..." (Click the link here to get the joke.)

In the third vignette, Cyprian meets up with old schoolmate Ratty in Graz, and the latter gives an entertaining account of all the double-dealing going on with the Bosnian Crisis (click on the link for a good, short Wikipedia account that unties a lot of knots). The Austrian foreign minister, "the vile Aurenthal," was seemingly the Henry Kissinger of his time. Ratty expresses concern for Cyprian's safety on his dangerous mission, but all Cyprian really cares about is securing Yashmeen's safety, and Ratty promises to do his best while reminding Cyprian that there is "his own op, the neo-Uskok chap, Vlado Clissan, as well" who conveniently hates Theign.


Yashmeen takes a train from Vienna to Trieste where she stays at a pensione in the nightwalking ladies' section of the Old City which Cyprian has secretly arranged for her.

In Venice, Cyprian asks Theign for protection for Yashmeen (811:26), but is rudely turned down because Yashmeen "is a person of interest to the Okhrana...with the Anglo-Russian understanding still so new, so fearfully sensitive, we must all support F.O. in this, set aside our unimportant little personal dreams and wishes mustn't we." Cyprian replies that "We had an agreement. and you might as well be an Austrian double, you contemptible pile of shit." This sets Theign to slapping, which Cyprian artfully dodges, and finally Theign says "I suppose you want to be released from your end of the agreement," but Cyprian says no, which puzzles both Theign and Max Khautsch in Vienna when they gossip about it later. "Perhaps," Khautsch would speculate in the peculiar whisper he reserved for shop talk, "he is tired, and wishes for an end."

Cyprian takes a train to Trieste and tells Yashmeen the bad news, but she takes it calmly, and Cyprian marvels "at the ease with which she could let hope glide away."

The final vignette in the section is a beautiful scene on the Trieste waterfront as Cyprian and Yashmeen say goodbye together, and Cyprian resolves not to cry. In a flashback, we are told that the last time he had cried was "one drunken evening in Vienna after discovering Derrick Theign in the embrace of a miserable little five-kroner Strichmadchen." Still, his resolve dissolves when embarking on his boat and a waterfront band strikes up that classic of Victoriana, "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations," Cyprian "felt the taps opening decisively."

Senj Nejahgrad castle, 1558.


Yashmeen adopts a stray cat and names her Cyprienne, and "one day" finds herself in a bora wind which causes her mathematical brain to start whirling again, "into her old Zetamania." She ruminates and almost solves Ramananujan's Formula before the vision disappears. (Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, 1887-1920, from India is another weird historical mathematical genius in a book literally peppered with them. Click here for a short, interesting article.). The wind blows Yashmeen's hat away, undoes her hair, and lifts her skirts just in time for Vlado Clissan to meet up with her in a doorway, "and in the moment one of his hands had seized her, down between her bared legs" and a wild stand-up public sex scene ensues.

The sexual affair continues, hot and heavy with "Sur savam!" being screamed during the many orgasms both in Trieste and at Vlado's digs in Venice, where Yashmeen ends up spending more and more time.

The final vignette is a train trip the couple make to Fiume (now called Rijeka in Croatia) and a boat ride to Zengg (now called Senj in Croatia) where Vlado gives a short history of the Croatian Uskoks and their ambivalent relationship with Venice. "You were pirates," Yashmeen said, and "Vlado made a face. We try to avoid that word," and then tells her that his people always root for "Antonio to come to grief" in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," a feeling I sometimes share with the Uskoks. Yashmeen accuses, "You ate people's hearts, so the stories go." and Vlado shrugs it off with "Myself, personally? no. Raw heart is an acquired taste." After he leaves on a day-long mission, and Yashmeen makes it to a little church "kneeling and praying for his safety," Vlado returns and fucks her "savagely from behind," sending Yashmeen into involuntary orgasm and the cry, "You have eaten my heart."