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, 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.


At Monday, January 08, 2007 2:49:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

"Michelson-Morley, one could note, leads to Einstein, which leads to..."

Both M&M experiment and Maxwell Field Equations were pivotal to the infamous E=mc^2. This is one of the big braking points of humanity.


On a more general Merle Rideout note: It's not the first, and certainly not the last time light and photography come into prominence in AtD.

At Monday, January 08, 2007 6:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ball lightning thing, along with the Chumps' almost magical airship are enough to suggest that the world Pynchon is describing is not this world, but rather a parallel world where the history is similar, but the physics is different. In this world, ball lightning doesn't come into your house and talk to you; and if it did, you wouldn't have causal conversations with it - you'd run out the door screaming.

And, of course, this kind of history + is the very essence of 'steampunk'.

At Monday, January 08, 2007 9:55:00 AM, Blogger Robert Z. said...

Cleek said, "...the world Pynchon is describing is not this world, but rather a parallel world..."

The book jacket blurb, believed to have been written by Pynchon himself, has this to say: "Maybe it's not the world, but with a minor adjustment or two it's what the world might be."

Or, as he said at the original blurb, "If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction."

See the Pynchonwiki for both texts.

Also, I'd like to mention parenthetically that the Sangre de Cristo mountains extend south as far as north-central New Mexico. Taos and Santa Fe are both nestled in the folds of the Sangres. From the eastern portions of Santa Fe, higher up the slopes of the Pecos wilderness, under Santa Fe Baldy, you can look westerly across the Rio Grande valley to Los Alamos, in the foothills of the Jemez mountains.

Why mention any of this? Los Alamos was, of course, home to the Manhattan Project.

At Monday, January 08, 2007 10:38:00 AM, Blogger David Cásseres said...

Ball lightning anecdote: years ago, a friend went to the physics department of the University of New Mexico to see about doing graduate studies there. He wound up somewhere else, but enjoyed his visit.

He found that many of the faculty and grad students had come to New Mexico in hope of seeing some ball lightning, and some of them had seen it. He said that a typical anecdote was like this: a fireball the size of a basketball appears on the ridge of a rooftop, rolls back and forth a bit, then rolls down the edge of the roof to a rain-gutter. It then slides down the rain-pipe into a barrel, where it explodes "like a quarter-stick of dynamite."

At Monday, January 08, 2007 10:42:00 AM, Blogger H. Rumbold, Master Barber said...

Thanks, Patrick for the fine contribution. The importance of Maxwell's equations as a foundation for 1) modern life 2) Against the Day should be emphasized. Popular around MIT are sweatshirts laid out:
And God Said
"[the 4 Maxwell equations]"
And there was Light.
Problem is, if you look at the Wiki page Patrick links to, the equations are all in this damned vector calculus, and the page tries to be exhaustive rather than instructive. However, for those of us Chumps wanting explanation on comic-strip level that even English Majors and Harvard alums can understand, the final link to Irregular WebComics is well worth the click.

At Monday, January 08, 2007 11:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The book jacket blurb...


the first thing i do with any hard-cover is take the jacket off and put it on the bookshelf - so i don't destroy it while i'm reading the book itself. maybe i should start reading them...


At Monday, January 08, 2007 11:23:00 AM, Blogger Boldly Serving Up Wheat Grass said...

Thanks, Aktabi. I knew that Maxwell Wikipedia page was difficult (hence the parenthetical warning). Your link makes it all significantly easier to grasp. (Yep, I was an English major -- back in another lifetime.)

At Monday, January 08, 2007 11:46:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Ball lighting figures in one of the stranger passages in Moby Dick where, if memory serves, it hovers over the rigging of the Pequod and descends onto Ahab's harpoon in a scene of storm and madness.

One of the funny things about traditional photography is that no one could ever explain why silver halide chrystals arrange themselves in distinct order when exposed to light. The best explanation I ever heard was that the latent image on an exposed negative holds a small electric charge which the development process amplifies. It is indeed alchemical, turning base materials into Spirit

It is worth noting that Hawthorne in his account of the old Pyncheon home in The House of the Seven Gables has his character Holgrave, the Daguerreotypist, represent the coming man, untutored and new in American Society. Holgrave, we are told, just drifted into the trade after doing many things. It was Hawthorne's conceit as well that light, as worked through a camera, was a new agent of truth, revealing aspects of personalities hidden from the everyday eye.

The whole Aetherist debate is indeed the crux of the, so to speak, biscuit. 58:30 if light were particulate, it could just go blasting through empty space with no need for any AEther to carry it. If light is a wave, then the wave needs a medium which might be considered the Body of God (63:10-12). No wave, no Aether, no God. Just particles blasting through the cosmos. I need not mention on which side Science came down, but it is interesting that Pynchon brings us back to a time when such things were still undecided.

Indeed the borderland of Science and Magic is a recurring theme in this passage. 61:8-15 has a loony look at the possible finite nature of light (and so the Universe) as a means of ordering reality. Psychical anti-gravity is one notion that makes Addle a candidate for the nut hatch. This is what allows the confusion in Merles's thinking of Blinky (too much light for his eyes?) with the proved existence of AEther. Even Bounce objects: 61:32 "This is primative hoodoo."

Magic apparently takes place in the darkroom, presided over by the mechanically minded Rideout: (64:7) but chemical reactions like this went on in some region too far out of anyone's control. (64:17) And Merle saw the image appear. Come from nothing. Come in out of the pale Invisible.

But also involved in the new Alchemical process is the discovery of the explosive nature of precious metals, which is what Webb Traverse finds so intriguing in his meeting with Merle. 77:38 You mean to say gold, silver, those shinin and wonderful metals, basis of the all the world's economies, you go in a laboratory [...] and you get a high explosive [?] 78:6 - "Almost makes you think, if there's a Philosopher's Stone, there might not also be--"

"Careful," said Merle.

Yea, verily. The schism of Science and Magic, the mechanistic vs. the supernatural, made clear during the period under discussion, will eventually produce, at Los Alamos, the highest explosive from the heaviest of metals. (reactions [...] too far out of anyone's control) What's missing, implies Pynchon, is any Philosopher's Stone that might balance the new power.

At Monday, January 08, 2007 3:14:00 PM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

I'm kind of amateur when it comes to the whole light thing, but as I understand it, one of the questions that people hoped Aether theory would answer is why light (which travels at infinite speeds) has a scaler associated with it. In other words, why does 299,792,458 m / s = infinity. I don't think it's hard to see the religious implications in that. The assumption was that Aether caused friction and that "slowed" light to a finite number. So, one needed only find pockets where the Aether would naturally eddie (say in the Earth's wake), where there would be a vaccuum of aether, and one would (hypothetically) find light moving at greater speeds. They didn't find that.

I'm simplifying this to the point of getting it wrong I'm sure, but if I'm at least on the right track, would someone please chime in? I think figuring out what the world is like in ATD depends greatly on whether there is/isn't aether. Chums of chance are aether based, for instance; when there is no aether, they're just ridiculous.

At Monday, January 08, 2007 3:21:00 PM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

Oh one more thing (and this one I kind of do know a little about). When people started dealing with seances, they went a bit nuts. There was, at one time, millions of people in the U.S. who believed that it was very much possible to talk to spirits, and their were countless mystics running around channeling the spirits of the dead. It seems silly now, but people believed it back then.

The same sort of thing happened (to a lesser extent) when people started spotting UFOs. People who had been contacted by alien societies crawled out of the woodwork. It really seemed like either mass insanity, or alien contact.

I think that the various light addicts that Merle meets are very much related to this kind of mass phenomena. They seem to be relating to light the way that the spiritualists related to the ghosts in seances or the UFO people related to the possabilities of aliens in and around 1950.

At Monday, January 08, 2007 9:21:00 PM, Blogger H. Rumbold, Master Barber said...

Monstro's post evokes the subject of limits and our human reaction to them, which is essentially "What if?" As in "What if you were at the back of a rocket going (c-1) m/s and ran forward really fast?" "What if the tortoise moves a teeny bit forward during every tiny slice of time Achilles is chasing it?" "What if we jumped above or below this expanding polka-dot balloon of space-time?" "What if parallel lines weren't?" "Built a wheel with sponges around the rim and dipped them in water on one side and wrung them out on the other?" "Put a vidcam in the box with Schrödinger's cat?" etc.

That we humans continue to ask such questions is perfectly fine and admirable. There are explanations out there for most of them, but we naturally want to push the envelope. And as cleek suggests, Pynchon is there to help us. I just wish there was a little more intuitive awareness of the divide between the likely and the bogus and instruction on how to discern it. Maybe I should just chill and take one of those "Brain Support Supplements" they advertise on the radio/ What's the worst that could happen?

Addendum to Will's post: An important sequel to the ball lightning/St.Elmo's fire/corpusants in Moby-Dick is the reversing of polarity of the Pequod's magnetic compass, refusal of the superstitious crew to steer by the South pole and the harmonic induction of magnetism into a sailmaker's needle by the Magician Ahab.

At Tuesday, January 09, 2007 4:09:00 PM, Blogger Monte Davis 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.

Oh, then you've treats to come in Gravity's Rainbow, at Slothrop's desk:

"Things have fallen roughly into layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom, made up of millions of tiny red and brown curls of rubber eraser, pencil shavings, dried tea or coffee stains, traces of sugar and Household Milk, much cigarette ash, very fine black debris picked and flung from typewriter ribbons, decomposing library paste, broken aspirins ground to powder. Then comes a scatter of paperclips..."

und so weiter for most of a page. Or better still, the DPs on the moive in 1945:

"...the invisible boiling goes on by, the long strewn vortices— pinstripe suits with crosses painted on the back, ragged navy and army uniforms, white turbans, mismatched socks or none, Tattersall dresses, thick-knitted shawls with babies inside, women in army trousers split at the knees, flea-bitten and barking dogs that run in packs, prams piled high with light furnishings in scarred veneer, hand-mortised drawers that will never fit into anything again, looted chickens alive and dead, horns and violins in weathered black cases, bedspreads, harmoniums, grandfather clocks, kits full of tools for carpentry, watchmaking, leatherwork, surgery, paintings of pink daughters in white frocks, of saints bleeding, of salmon and purple sunsets over the sea, packs stuffed with beady-eyed boas, dolls smiling out of violently red lips, Allgeyer soldiers an inch and a quarter to the man painted cream, gold and blue..."

Better than Whitman.

At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 2:54:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Some open questions:

What changed in the world when Aether was disproved? What relation can we find between Aether and Alchemy?

This is, so far, the weirdest section of the book. The Ball lighting bit was really interesting. What I don't really understand, is what the episode means to Merle, and how does it help to develop his personality?

At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 5:31:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

As I read it, AEther was the missing physical/theorietical link between the visible and invisible worlds. Because it is a something, however hidden, and not a nothing, Aether (another cognate may well be Easter) argued in favor of a finite universe. as well as being one possible form of the body of God.

What changes is that without AEther scientists no longer needed to consider possible agencies of the supernatural in explaining the workings of an infinite universe: a very big, scary, and cold step for many.

This also finally put paid to the old science of Alchemy, roughly a symbolic reckoning of base metals (i.e. the physical world) to enact psychic changes within the alchemist which then had real agency in the worldly realm (i.e. magic). Psyche and Science were ever after divided.

This divorce of the psychic/philosophical element of physics with all further scientific research and development (at the heart of Vibe's deal w/Vanderjuice) finally leads to an insane science - an enormous bomb controled by malign actors, and not the Philosopher's Stone in the hands of a mystic.

Merle is watching the Last Days of AEther in Cleveleand and is something of a fence-straddler. He chooses Photography, a science with heavy alchemical implications to try to get a grip on the change, but his wife still leaves him for a real magician.

I think we can color Merle disillusioned and dismayed

At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 11:36:00 AM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Uh, Will, that last little essay was awesome.

At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 2:26:00 PM, Blogger Boldly Serving Up Wheat Grass said...

I'll second what sfmike said, Will. Excellent comments!

At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 8:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: will
"This divorce of the psychic/philosophical element of physics with all further scientific research and development ... finally leads to an insane science"

Yes, but not in Pynchon. The philosopher's stone trasmutes lead (atomic number 82) into gold (atomic number 79). The anti-stone might act in the other direction, transmuting Uranium (atomic number 92) into Plutonium (atomic number 94) Similarly, the process of personal alchemy brings the human closer to the divine. The anti-stone might bring the human closer to the Satanic.

So, if one accepts this schema, how does one complete the sentence at 78:6-7 :"Almost makes you think, if there's a Philosopher's Stone, there might not also be --"

"Anti-stone" is explicitly a euphemism here, what is the true name?

At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 9:30:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

True name? I'm not sure.

But Atom Bomb works for me.

At Thursday, January 11, 2007 6:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

even though we're certainly supposed to think of the atomic bomb, i don't think the characters here are supposed to be thinking of anything like that.

the problem with the anti-stone being an actual atomic bomb is that we shouldn't expect the people in this book, in the 1880s, to know anything about nuclear fission - not that it's possible, not what its results are, not that we should be afraid of it. the science of nuclear physics doesn't exist until the late 1890s; the modern atomic model isn't be known till the 1900's; and the idea that breaking atoms would release energy doesn't come about until the late 1930's, when Fermi finally succeeds in transforming one element into another, and then other people figure out that he's breaking Uranium into other elements. yes, that's the nuclear aspect of the "anti-"stone - and we're supposed to pick up on it. but it seems unreasonable that these two guys should have any inkling about possible discoveries in the as-then-unknown science of nuclear physics. they can't be afraid of that.

they have to have reasons to be afraid of the anti-Philosopher's Stone which make sense to two non-scientists in the 1880's.

so, what's the Philosopher's Stone?

"The philosopher's stone, in Latin lapis philosophorum, is a legendary substance that supposedly could turn inexpensive metals such as lead into gold ("chrysopoeia") and/or create an elixir that would make humans younger, thus delaying death. It was a longtime "holy grail" of Western alchemy. In the view of spiritual alchemy, making the philosopher's stone would bring enlightenment upon the maker and conclude the Great Work.
Since the philosopher's stone would turn a corruptible base metal to incorruptible gold, naturally it would similarly transform human beings from mortal (corruptible) to immortal (incorruptible)."

the antithesis of all the wonderful things described there would be something fearful indeed, even without having to worry about nuclear fission. it would corrupt, shorten lifespans, dis-enlighten, bring death, etc.. that alone is enough for them to worry about.


At Thursday, January 11, 2007 11:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems like the philosopher's stone would involve fission (a heavier element losing three protons), which could be associated with the atom bomb, while the anti-stone would involve fusion (the lighter element, gold, gaining three protons and becoming lead), which could be associated with cold fusion--a free, endless source of energy, as well as hydrogen bombs.

At Thursday, January 11, 2007 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

Couple of things.

First of all, I've been following Pynchon down one of those metaphoric thought tunnels for days concerning light and I wanted to say something in conjunction to that conversation.

When aether exists light is a wave of force through aether. This is very easy to conceptualize. When aether doesn't exist, light is a wave of nothing. That's big. That's why aether stuck around for so long. But in its absense what you have is a wave that pushes itself through vacuum and emptiness.

The similarities between this and, say, a fictional character are themselves worth noting (a personality, or world for that matter, without a physical medium), but there seems to be a heck of a lot more here as well. Religously, light is the result of God's first word. In the Christian religion, Christ is the manifestation of that word. What does it mean when Christ is nothing made something. What better metaphor is there for the miracle of creation (if you're into that sort of thing).

Technology-wise, people keep talking about steam punk. I think that's a pretty close designation, but not exact. In steam punk you can't have ships floating around on the aether winds. The possability of riding through space the way that light moves through space is a possability with aether science. But that makes this section really weird. In Cleveland, the Chums of Chance lose their possability of ever existing outside of a fictional world. The Michelson-Morley experiment ties ATD to a world that follows real (or realer at least) rules of being. Rideout now knows that there are no ships floating around on the aether wind, not only "no such thing" but no such POSSIBLE thing. However, just when you think things have diverged into the real, along comes a talking ball of lightening.

By the way, we are all light eaters. Plants photosynthesize, herbivores eat plants to get what they get from the sun, and we eat the herbivores. A circle of life that HAS a beginning in a wave of nothing.

Now that alchemist thing might make more sense. Maybe it is the atom bomb. I don't think so, but maybe. I don't know, btw. I think its more likely that when you examine one kind of light and the universe it yields versus another kind of light, and a decision has to be made between which one is right, you are castigating a whole kind of reality into eternal non-being. For those of you who've read a few Pynchon books, this is that Preterite and perdition theme you've probably seen a few times before.

I'll be honest, I've got more to say on this, but I've already written to much. I may continue this rant on my blog later, or more likely, I'll wait to see what you guys think.

Lastly, Will and Patrick, you guys are doing great jobs.

At Thursday, January 11, 2007 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

My lord, I am nothing without grammar check.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 8:55:00 AM, Blogger Boldly Serving Up Wheat Grass said...

Monstro said: "...when you examine one kind of light and the universe it yields versus another kind of light, and a decision has to be made between which one is right, you are castigating a whole kind of reality into eternal non-being..."

Well, maybe not eternal non-being. Not always, anyway. It's just until the next guy comes along to flip the whole argument on its head. This is rather tangential to ATD, but I touched on this notion earlier this week on my blog (here), inspired partly ATD but mostly by some othe science news I'd been reading about quantum mechanics.

When you say, "the Chums of Chance lose their poss[i]bility of ever existing outside of a fictional world," what exactly are you getting at? Is it the whole self-awareness thing that I mentioned within the post? I'm just curious how ATD's Chumps are potentially different from any other characters in any other works of fiction?

Defining the "world" in any writing is probably an interesting issue to explore. What assumptions do readers (or should readers) bring to a work of fiction? Should we simply assusme that a book is set within this real, tangible world, until we learn otherwise? Or is it up to the text to define the book's "world" as time goes along? I've certainly noted some self-awareness in the narration, but is that enough to suggest that the Chumps (or other characters such as Merle) are possibly aware that they're fictional? Is ATD metafiction a la Barth?

At Friday, January 12, 2007 10:51:00 AM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

I think what I'm saying is, there's fiction and then there's fiction. Take Nabokov who was teaching creative writing at Cornell when Pynchon was there as an undergrad (he didn't take one of Nabokov's classes, btw).

Lolita starts out with that long introduction by a fictional person who sounds extraordinarilly real and who talks about how names had to be changed to protect rich families. The joke is carried a bit further with Pale Fire where you are reading the annotation of a text where both author and annotator are fictional characters (and possibly the same person). Okay, a lot of work goes into making such people seem real and to make the story sound real.

I think the Chums' books are supposed to be, if not like Nabokov, then at least the kind of soft core sci-fi where someone says, "yeah, that could happen." Oh, and I'm saying sci fi because it is sci fi to the characters in ATD. It's steam punk, perhaps to us, but not to them.

Think of all those novels where people go to Mars and find life there. Those are possabilities (however unlikely) until we go to Mars and don't find any life there. Then that stuff becomes pulp or worse. Does that make sense? It ceases to be possible at all.

We read the Chums after the fact, after they have already become pulp, but they're not there yet. They change with the M&M experiment because there simply can't be a world where giant sailing vessels cruise the sky riding the aether winds. You can't colonize the sky. Space yes, but that's different.

But the important thing is that something is lost with the aether. No longer is there this feeling that the sky goes all the way up. Now it stops and becomes vacuum, it becomes empty and dangerous. That frontier is officially closed--and if not completely (astronaughts and Mars rovers still get somewhere every few years), then it is at least closed to people dressed in ascots and wrapped in the American flag. It will take more than a cub scout troup and some hot air to make it across the emptiness of space. Whatever voices are blowing around up there are going to grow more and more distant every day.

Now, I know what you're saying BSUWG: so what? They're fiction. Lolita's ficiton. Merle Rideout's fiction. Okay, yes. But imagine that they're kind of Pinnochio fiction, fake characters trying to be real: are real superpatriots riding around in airships visiting foreign lands like the Chums? What reality will people be forced into when their current way of being closes off?

At Friday, January 12, 2007 11:39:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Nabokov taught European Literature, specifically the study of certain novels, at Cornell (his lectures have been published in two volumes) not creative writing. And Pynchon indeed was one of his students. While Vlad later claimed he did not recall him, Mrs. N., who graded her husband's papers, said she did.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 11:40:00 AM, Blogger David Cásseres said...

The Aether is the universal-scale version of Pynchon's old hobbyhorse, the Grid. The system of coordinates on which everything is measured, to which everything is relative, where everything happens. The Absolute.

In Newton's science, the grid was "space," three-dimensional, homogeneous, universal and, note well, immaterial. But the notion of light waves, figured out by Maxwell, seemed to require a material medium for the waves to wave in. The old idea of an invisible "luminiferous, effluvious aether" fit the bill. It wasn't the same thing as space, but it filled space and really, there was always something of a discomfort, a feeling of well, which is it? Aether or space? What's really real? Where's the Absolute? (Is there absolution?)

Michelson and Morley put an end to the confusion, leaving the huge question of how light does work, if there's no aether. But space was now back in place as the domain in which everything exists. Newton's grid again.

This classical grid was the foundation of Nature, and so when the Enlightenment built its own Grid, this new Grid partook of the power and absoluteness of the natural grid. Not only did everything in Nature have its eternal coordinates, so did all of human actions and institutions (especially commerce and colonization).

But in AtD (O look, the Fop is going to say something relevant after all), I think we see the Grid petering out west of Chicago, in the "unshaped freedom" of the "vast herds of cattle adrift in ever-changing cloudlike patterns across the Western plains." (p. 10) And I believe Pynchon is dreaming ahead to the day when Einstein describes the photon, and leaves his colleagues to wrestle out an explanation of why the particles, blasting through space, somehow look like waves traveling through aether, but aren't. "Raffiniert ist der Herrgott," sez Einstein, waggling his eyebrows, "aber boshaft ist er nicht." God's tricky, but not malicious. Oh thanks, Albert.

But the photon is only the setup. Now Einstein throws his punch: space is not absolute. You cannot measure anything against it after all. There is no grid. No grid.

At least not in the old sense of an Absolute. For Tricky God, it turns out, has provided an entirely different Absolute, one that you can't use in the same way at all: C, the speed of light in a vacuum. Or to put it another way, the Absolute is a law of Nature, not a place. Not a system but a single physical constant.

So now what are we going to imitate in our schemes of profit and conquest, of territory and dominion? Of course we'll still do as much as we can in the name of the Grid, but it's not like it used to be. Because for the next century or so people are going to keep popping up and saying "But everything is relative, innit?" Driving the aggrieved bourgeoisie crazy, right along with the eye-rolling physicists.

And that steady dance-beat of Old Europe is going to fray into Ragged Time, and then decompose completely
into bebop.

And fictional narrative is going to go all pomo and strange and take on all sorts of disguises.

Pynchon is doing something rather extraordinary here: destroying a metaphor that's been right at the heart of his previous work, recreating himself in many ways as he does so.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 12:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fop, that was nicely done.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 2:32:00 PM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

Egads, I'm wrong!

Thanks Will. I swear to god I read somewhere that someone looked through Nabokov's class rosters and never saw the name Pynchon on them. It lists, however, as one of the students of the Nabokov cadre one Thomas Pynchon in Boyd's biography of the Russian author.

Fop, I am still reading what you're saying. Deep.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 2:37:00 PM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

Say Fop,

One thing's on my mind. Do you think that this attack against rampant relativism, besides being inundative, is some sign of growing...I don't know...disillusioned with the kind of up-in-the-air possabilities at work in the other books?

Is that...part of what you're saying?

At Friday, January 12, 2007 4:31:00 PM, Blogger David Cásseres said...


Not sure, Monstro, what you mean by "attack on rampant relativism." But I note that the disappearance of the Grid might have been taken – in earlier books – as the opportunity for the underdogs, the preterite, to prevail for once. Now, I'm only 129 pages in, but I have this premonition that it ain't happening that way.

There's that New Mexico Light waiting to shine at Los Alamos as the Jigsaw pointed out. A-and it looks like no easy victories for the little guy out in Colorado, off the Grid for sure, and isn't that almost the definition of the Wild West? The place where, in spite of all the fables, it was Capital and Armed Force that actually got the benefit of "mere anarchy loosed upon the world," as opposed to poor old Anarchism...

But I have a lot more reading to do before I know what I'm talking about here.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 4:51:00 PM, Blogger David Cásseres said...

Going back to something Monstro said:

[The chums] change with the M&M experiment because there simply can't be a world where giant sailing vessels cruise the sky riding the aether winds. You can't colonize the sky. Space yes, but that's different.

Right on, and that is the very important flip side of what I said about "no grid."

But the important thing is that something is lost with the aether. No longer is there this feeling that the sky goes all the way up. Now it stops and becomes vacuum, it becomes empty and dangerous.

Yup. It's a less comfortable universe when space is no longer filled with anything at all, when it's really and truly a vacuum. Vacuum is scary, ask any dog.

Of course, we've reacted to that by discovering "fluctuations in the quantum vacuum," virtual particles that appear out of nothing and then disappear again. And we would like to fill the vacuum with "Dark Matter." Word.

Something the ancient Hindu philosophers taught thousands of years ago: the Void is the Plenum, and the Plenum is the Void. But I digress.

I think all of this, by the way, is not just playful glosses on ideas touched on by Pynchon. I'm sure Pynchon is fully aware of all these notions we're flashing and flickering on about, and had them very much in mind while writing.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 6:09:00 PM, Blogger Boldly Serving Up Wheat Grass said...

"Yup. It's a less comfortable universe when space is no longer filled with anything at all, when it's really and truly a vacuum."

Quick thought... Vacuum yes, but not necessarily totally empty. As I recall, the "new aether" is the "cosmic background raiation" -- the consistent, omnipresent echo of the Big Bang itself. But, it's been ages since I've read up on it. Here's a wiki link, though it's probably not much consolation for those (fictional or real) people who're bummed over the nonexistence of the aether.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 11:16:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

I think the ball lightning is the other side of the Michelson Morley induced vacuum. Here we see the talking universe or at least one of the talking gods/forces one is apt to meet if curious. Of course this powerful charged talking universe is as strange ,confused and hungry for someone to hang out with as most of the humans Merle lets into his circle of trust.The Lightning even presents a kind of theology - death as absorbtion into the cosmic muffin, as opposed to eternal personal identity. In the end words, mathematics, cosmic voices, lovers are directly related to the space, silence, irrationalities that surround and infuse them.

It seems to me that Pynchon is digging deeper into the nature and motives for our inquiries into mysteries like light, time, electrical and magnetic fields, etc. and showing how there are many relatively harmless approaches to these issue and a few very deadly ones.I think he is asking what is the gravity that pulls us doomward and is it inevitable,and definitive, or are we just too easily controlled by fear because we've never had a good chat with a ball of lightning.

I find the characters in this Pynchon novel to be more driven by their inquiries, more conscious of the moral and irrational forces at work in their lives than earlier Pynchon characters. Even as one poster suggested the "flat" fictional chums seem to strive toward self consciousness.

At Saturday, January 13, 2007 1:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, others have kinda said what I'm about to say, but I'll do it anyway:
The status of the Chumps of Chance changes between parts 1 and What changes it? Possibility.

"We read the Chums after the fact, after they have already become pulp, but they're not there yet. They change with the M&M experiment because there simply can't be a world where giant sailing vessels cruise the sky riding the aether winds."

This is the crux: the Chum's fiction shifts from the speculative to the counterfactual (as we know it.) Possibilities are , with time, diminished;Railroad gates are switched, and paths are therefore limited. Knowledge diminishes possibility: this is Pynchon's understanding of the fruit of the tree.

To me, all of this recalls the double slit experiment. In fact, I see much of AtD as the converse thereof: where the double slit determines, almost by divine intervention, the distribution of photons, Pynchon's double light determines the form of the (almost) divine. Rank speculation, I'll admit, but you get what you pay for.

Anyway, I'll admit I'm not sold on the atom bomb interpretation of the anti-stone. It makes a certain amount of sense, but the text makes clear that there must exist a name, which webb traverse could know, that must not be spoken. Neither "uranium". nor "nuke" qualifies.

At Saturday, January 13, 2007 3:30:00 AM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

On a personal note:

The Ghastly Fop said

"I think all of this, by the way, is not just playful glosses on ideas touched on by Pynchon. I'm sure Pynchon is fully aware of all these notions we're flashing and flickering on about, and had them very much in mind while writing. "

Umm...I used to think that I looked too deeply into Pynchon metaphors until I realized that almost everything in The Crying of Lot 49 was based on actual stuff, that I hadn't watched enough silent German movies to read Gravity's Rainbow, and oh yeah, that whole Sepiroth thing in GR and its comparison to the countdown sequences (10,9,8 usw.) of Fritz Lang. Something is going on when Pynchon writes that is akin to google searching the cosmos. There is no way to read a Pynchon book too deeply as far as I'm concerned. Worse yet, read this thing like a cartoon and it will bite you in the proverbial rear.

Part of that explains my half-way joke when the fop showed up on the scene. Why did Pynchon choose Chicago to begin the novel? Chi=X in the greek alpahabet, the twenty second letter (a repetitition of doubles--like the M and M experiment). Chi is a kind of force in some Eastern philosophies/religions/medical pracitices. So, Chicago is faux-etimologically the crossing point of various force lines. Chicago is also the second city. In the old Testament, it is the construction of a second capital which invites all the bad stuff that happens upon the children of Israel. I'm sure something can be said about the second kingdom in Egypt, but I don't know much about that.

Let's face it, the man has thought about this... A LOT. He's up on his reading, he's got more than a cursory knowledge of the history he's dealing with, and he's playfully mean.

At Saturday, January 13, 2007 10:43:00 AM, Blogger Axiomatic.Apricot said...


Good discussion, sorry I didn't start paying attention this week till it was almost over. I especially like Monstro's comment re: the light wave in a vacuum as being analogous to a fictional character, a comparison that I don't think I've seen explicit evidence for in the text, but which ought to be there if it isn't.

I was thinking about the general line of conversation re: possibility and the advance of knowledge, namely, that it clearly dovetails with the Chums' status as heroes of adolescent adventure fiction. I think that Pynchon is saying that this particular historical point, just as the world was making the Big Leap from the Cartesian grid-view of the Enlightenment to the Einsteinian relativism of Modernism, can be understood as a sort of coming of age, a loss of youthful possibility and innocence. Lots of period adventure fiction had very questionable imperial and colonial values, but at the same time this unreflectiveness allowed for a youthful passion and enthusiasm typical of the Chums that Pynchon, at least in these early chapters, seems to see as at least partially redeemed as an end in itself. This parallels the spirit of Enlightenment rational inquiry which gave us the glories of the Chicago Exhibition.

Of course, the more we've learned about we learned more about the consequences of the fearless inquisitiveness, the less innocently we can look upon that unreflective inquisitiveness.

At Saturday, January 13, 2007 4:30:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Hola AA and a fine point about the optimism inherent in juvenile adventure stories. Also working somewhere in here is, I think, the notion that these adventures were read by boys who grew up to start the OSS/CIA.

The British double agent Kim Philby was named for the Kipling novel, after all. And then there was that famous Cornellian, Hugh Troy, a children's book author and renowned public prankster, who also worked Psiops for the CIA in Iran for a spell. I think his spirit is very much at large in ATD.

At Sunday, January 14, 2007 8:42:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

NB: bad history of science runs them together, but the aether of 19th-century physics was a descendant only in name -- not in conceptual flakiness -- of the subtle "quintessence" or "fifth element" postulated in some medieval metaphysics. While it was undetectable, the properties it must have (for consistency with what was observed) were explored with as much rigor as those of today's dark energy or Higgs field.

More on Maxwell and a bit on ether at:

At Sunday, January 14, 2007 5:10:00 PM, Blogger David Cásseres said...

Good reminder, Monte. I would add that it's important to distinguish between Einstein's physical theory of relativity and all the pop variations that followed

At Saturday, April 14, 2007 6:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi All--

I've just started AtD, and am thrilled to have found this site. This is way more fun than going it alone...

Re: Monstro's comment about rampant Spiritualism, and hopefully answering Rene's question regarding the relevance of "aether":

Note that both the scientific community and the Spiritualist community relied heavily upon the concept of "aether" in the late 19th/early 20th century. Spiritual mediums would commonly claim to send messages through the aether, and thereby conjure the spirits of the dead during seances. The scientific community's dismissal of "aether" defined a notable split between the worlds of science and mysticism, in an age where both mysticism and science were considered to be a bit nutty. Science, being an empirical enterprise, was able to forge ahead despite the loss of the aether, while Spiritualism, a faith-based enterprise, was unable to relinquish this concept without loss of credibility. Spiritual mediums quickly became the target of debunkers, notably Houdini (a stage magician himself). As a result, in the early 20th century, Spiritualism moved from the cultural mainstream to the fringes, where it remains.

It's interesting to note that, in the US, we are once again, I am embarrassed to say, fighting a battle against quackery, this time against the notion of "Intelligent Design". Grrr.

It seems to me that the introduction and dismissal of the concept of "aether" brings up an "empiricism vs. nonsense" theme against which the contrapositions of science vs. alchemy, Edison vs. Tesla, scientific fact vs. unexplainable phenomenon, etc., are reflected.

I'm very curious now to see how the Merle Rideout / Great Zombini subplot develops...

On another note, in my copy of AtD, I have an ink blot on page 12, line 30. Sloppy printers? Or insidious weirdness?

At Saturday, May 05, 2007 4:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to mention a Telluride -- Cornell connection which Pynchon must have also had in mind. This is from the Wiki article cited by Patrick

"In 1891, Telluride's own L.L. Nunn joined forces with Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse and built the world's first commercial grade alternating current power plant in Telluride. The hydro-powered electrical generation plant supplied power to the Gold King Mine which was located 3.5 miles away. This was the first successful demonstration of long distance transmission of industrial grade alternating current power. The invention sparked the "War of the Currents" between the Westinghouse Company and the General Electric Company headed up by Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan. At the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 AC current went head to head with DC current and with 25 million people attending the fair, it was overwhelmingly decided that AC Power was superior. Following the success of the Tesla and Westinghouse exhibit, the Westinghouse Company was awarded the contract to build the power plant at Niagara Falls. Nunn and his brother Paul, went on to built power plants in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Mexico and built the Ontario Power plant at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side of the river. Nunn developed a keen interest in education as part of his electrical power companies and in conjunction with Cornell University built the Telluride House at Cornell in 1909 to educate promising students in electrical engineering. Later, Nunn along with Charles Walcott, started the Telluride Association. Nunn founded Deep Springs College in 1917. All of Nunn's educational endeavors are going strong today. Each year the Telluride Tech Festival honors Nunn, Tesla and Westinghouse along with current day technology and science leaders that have changed the world."

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