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.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Gate Further East

In the still-luminous sky, the thing was immense. . .

picture source

(pp. 768-778)

One of the novel's briefest episodes, as well as with the fewest named characters, it begins with one of our author's direct addresses to the reader, which seems distilled from an ocean of personal experience.

On his journey to find the Doorsa's master, Kit has reached Lake Baikal, the largest body of fresh water in the world, limpid to its mile depth, so stunning to behold, so dangerous to navigate that it appears part of a supernatural order included provisionally in this lower, broken one (769:8) On seeing it Kit feels unworthy of his quest, wants to begin it again, though when he turns to say this to Hassan, the man the Doorsa sent to guide him that far, he realizes Hassan has disappeared.

The journey in fact began with Hassan guiding Kit and Dwight Prance to the Prophet's Gate, an enormous, perhaps constructed, arch of tremendous age, set in the center of a maze of canyons that only Hassan could have led them through. Passing through the Gate, both the actual and symbolic start of his journey, Kit has a brief vision of a city, bright yellow and orange which quickly vanishes.

The trip by camel across central Asia is beautifully rendered; of oases, wolves, herds of wild asses and tall stands of flowering hemp. By now the reader has also been on a long journey of his or her own into the novel, and may feel a striking sympathy, in wonder and endurance, with Kit's expanding spirit.

Sans Hassan, Kit and Prance reach Irkutsk, a mining town very alike in many ruckus details with those Kit knew in Colorado. They meet with one of Halfcourt's operatives, Swithin Poundstock, who supplies the lads with maybe 2,000 counterfeit gold English sovereigns, with the profile of a young Queen Victoria, to spread among the natives as they journey further north.

As they do, Kit witnesses Prance talking of Shambhala with the locals, in their own languages, as a means of impressing them with the sources of the western monarchs', Czar and Queen, power. After a while they begin to bicker. Prance, clearly, has a greater mission than graduate studies in religion, one allied with the faceless powers of the secular world. Exasperated by Kit's naivete, Prance gives him a crash course (pg. 777:12-40) in the history of worldly, especially American, power's war against the realm of the spirits.

We see that Prance, like Scarsdale Vibe, is a Christian soldier who has grown steadily less Christian and more soldier as he goes along, and Kit despairs that his vision of Lake Baikal was not enough to stop him from falling now into this bickering numbness of spirit.


From Neddie:
What is up with those rock fragments putatively being thrown off by the Gate? "...Shedding pieces of itself from so high up that by by the time they hit the ground they'd be invisible, followed by the whizzing sound of their descent, for they fall faster than the speed of sound.... At any moment a loose fragment might fall too fast for Kit to hear it before it slashed into him...."? Could Our Artificer be more blatantly alluding to a falling rock[et]?


At Tuesday, July 17, 2007 1:29:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

I'll add here that the line of talk about Victoria being the Queen of Shambhala, which Kit hears Prance giving the Inner Asian locals, sounds suspiciously like the tall tales I accused Halfcourt of feeding to the credulous young Yashmeen.

At Tuesday, July 17, 2007 8:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happened to Brooktrout? I sincerely hope he did not drown in Lake Baikal, which I'd never even heard of before. And Jesus, I'm feeling more ignorant with every page of this book.

Wikipedia, as usual, gave me a hint: "Lake Baikal is the deepest, oldest, and most voluminous freshwater lake in the world. It contains over one fifth of the world's liquid fresh surface water and more than 90% of Russia's liquid fresh surface water."

At Tuesday, July 17, 2007 8:06:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Sorry, the anonymous fool is me.

At Wednesday, July 18, 2007 12:56:00 PM, Blogger H. Rumbold, Master Barber said...

Personally, I'm skeptical about the terminal velocity of rock chunks in air exceeding the speed of sound, but as Neddie indicates, it sure brings to mind the theme of rockets in Gravitys' Rainbow. I don't have my copy to hand, but wasn't it mentioned earlier here that the V2s hit you before you heard them? Also the old soldierly trope that you never hear the one that gets you, so bullets whizzing by your head are A-OK. Masonry from above is of course also the MO of our old pal, Capt. Padzhitnoff.

At Wednesday, July 18, 2007 2:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: terminal vel for v2.

Scuds reportedly have a terminal velocity of Mach 6. they're aerodynamic coming down as well as going up. the v2 was probably not as aerodynamic as a modern missile, but probably much better than a randomly-shaped rock.

At Wednesday, July 18, 2007 2:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

which is to say... yeah, i doubt a rock could reach 761mph falling off anything built by hand. a v2 was falling from 55 miles up, and was designed for high speed passage through air. a rock from a man-made structure? nah.

At Thursday, July 19, 2007 6:40:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Brooktrout reported in from camp, where he is teaching others the fine art of making stained glass. He sends apologies. The i-net connection there is spotty at best.

I knew a guy, alas departed this mortal coil, who witnessed a V2 hit south of London when he was a boy, described it exactly as Pynchon has it in GR. He saw the impact explosion about a mile distant (he was outdoors on a picnic) then heard the rocket engine going over.

For the record, he loved GR and was obsessed with rockets, often going to Florida to watch, and photograph, launches. Neat guy.

At Thursday, July 19, 2007 7:16:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

Apologies to the chumps. My situation is as Will said. I will post some notes here today on my reading but the summary is wonderfully clear and codensed to the essence. I ordered an airport card for an old ibook a teacher friend gave me, so may be in closer touch soon.

At Thursday, July 19, 2007 8:49:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

From the former chapter

The journey itself is a kind of counscious being, a living deity who does not wish to engage with the foolish and the weak, hence will try to dissuade you. It insists on the furthest degree of respect.
When you come to a fork in the Road take it.

The chapter opens with one of Pynchon’s rare , seemingly sincere comments on the inner life of a character, formulated as a universal propositional truth.
"There are places we fear, places we dream, places whose exiles we became and never learned it until, sometimes, too late."

I take this as a signal that we are sharing Kit’s inner journey into larger spirit realms. He has been forced by experience to broaden his conception of “normal “ space-time continuity, has been exiled from the mining country of his birth, from his family, his capitalist sugar daddy, then from his aspiration to the higher realms of theoretical mathematics. His Journey has been back through time and eastward at the end of westward expansion, from the wild fringes of the new world through the oldest cities in Europe eastward. Now he is looking for a meeting with the doosra’s master, or perhaps the master of the doosra’s master a kind of holy man, political leader of the steppes, or perhaps of the hidden realm of Shambalah itself. Pynchon is quite good at the high holy 2 step and swathes the reader in inner Asian mystique, geography and portents.

Lake Baikal is treated as a spirit being where Kit understands the necessity of his journey and his strange path here. Here there is a moment of temporal ambiguity when we aren’t sure if they are at the end or beginning of this journey.
Their guide, Hassan, says they have nearly finished it. Kit asks if they will speak with the master and is told he has already
“When(?)-Kit began ,and in the instant, there was Baikal.
As he gazes into lake Hassan disappears.
The reader now realizes P has begun this section at the end. and we start over.

I can’t help seeing some intentionality in this Lake with its’ depths of living power in contrast to Kit’s sister and her comparison to lakes filled with mine tailings and industrial runoff. A powerful not fully tamed river flows from Baikal, but the agents of imperial corruption are everywhere at war with the ancient mysteries.
“Back at the beginning of their journey,...
We here that the Gate or stone arch they seek as entry to the jouney is considered un-reachable by locals and the terrain un-mapable by cartographers. Kit feels he can’t look at the country (which looks fleetingly like an ancient city) directly. Kinda reminds of Emily Dickinsonn’s tell all the truth , but tell it slant. Somehow they come to the gate which is enormous, a gothic arch cut into layed stone a thousand feet high whose falling flakes defy the rules of gravity, moving at the speed of sound in their dangerous plummet. He looks up and sees an eagle, interpreting the sight as a sign. He steps through and hears a choral bellow and sees a city straight ahead, turns to Hassan who confesses to nothing.
There is another line that tells us the journey is not linear or geographic.’The space the gate had opened to was lies geographic than to be measured along axes of sorrow and loss. “ This is some sad shit . the earth has been ripped from us like a sister by the killers of Joe Hill and Martin King and Jesus and Ghandi, and is the sex slave of imperial thugs. Apologies; I rant.
I liked the coversation near the end Prance exposing the violent crusade of the American empire’s religious sujugation of Africans and Aboriginal Americans. A line like the following: “ (The Civil War ) That was the gods you tried to destroy, waiting their hour, taking their revenge…” is where I see a spiritual Karmic balance in the mind of the author. A satirist examines human practice in the light of professed notions.

The first time I read this short chapter, it seemed much longer. Like one of Rembradt's monumental thumbnail sketches.

At Thursday, July 19, 2007 10:17:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Oh yeah, (766:31) Rinpungpa instructs the Yogi, 'remember one thing--when you come to a fork in the road, take it.'

Recall, oh bhikkhus, that this great precept was spoken first by the American bodhisattva, Yogi Berra.

At Thursday, July 19, 2007 12:57:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Will, you left out the great punchline right after the quote taken from the "American bodhisattva, Yogi Berra" which is "Easy for him to say, of course, being two people at once."

Do you think Yogi Berra was bilocated? Is that the meaning of Hanna-Barbera's "Yogi Bear" and all the zen koans that have been attributed to both of them?

At Friday, July 20, 2007 8:31:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

From Neddie: What is up with those rock fragments putatively being thrown off by the Gate? "...Shedding pieces of itself from so high up that by by the time they hit the ground they'd be invisible, followed by the whizzing sound of their descent, for they fall faster than the speed of sound.... At any moment a loose fragment might fall too fast for Kit to hear it before it slashed into him...."? Could Our Artificer be more blatantly alluding to a falling rock[et]?

These fragments of an ancient gate, visible only to the serious risk taking seeker,made me think of neutrinos, x-rays, and such particles as pass through planets at the speed of light, but the context made me think its a way of hinting at the extreme danger of both truth and of the fallout of misdirected religious forces.

At Friday, July 20, 2007 9:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These fragments of an ancient gate, visible only to the serious risk taking seeker, make me think of...

when you phrase it that way, it makes me think of St Peter's gate.

At Sunday, July 29, 2007 5:55:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

"ruckus details"

Wish I'd written that. (Back from vacation, catching up)

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