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, 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.


At Wednesday, August 15, 2007 7:46:00 AM, Blogger Darius Kazemi said...

I, too, was confused by Cyprian, but (much) later on in the book it became clear to me that his story absolutely belongs in the book.

At Saturday, August 18, 2007 12:45:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

We get that you don't like the faggot character, Cyprian, and would prefer to read about the Traverses and Lew Basnight, and it's already been established that a lot of other readers including myself rather enjoy the Cyprian character, so give it a rest.

I loved this "Adventure in the Balkans" chapter, reminding me of the seminal masterpiece in the homoromantic (rather than homoerotic) male adventure genre, Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped." If you've never read it, I can't recommend the slim novel enough, and the sadness mixed with redemption at its ending is definitely echoed in this ATD chapter.

This section also reminded me of Stevenson's Scottish successor, John Buchan, who wrote "The 39 Steps" in 1915 (later turned into the famous Hitchcock movie) and especially its 1916 sequel, "Greenmantle," which is set during World War I. The latter has the following plot summary: "Richard Hannay is called in to investigate rumours of an uprising in the Muslim world, and undertakes a perilous journey through enemy territory to meet up with his friend Sandy in Constantinople. Once there, he and his friends must thwart the Germans' plans to use religion to help them win the war, climaxing at the battle of Erzurum." Sound familiar?

At Sunday, August 19, 2007 7:18:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Ehhh... my questioning of Cyprian's place in the narrative has nothing to do with his gayness, which, frankly, is really the only thing which makes him interesting at this point. And for someone who went into a high snit when no one bothered commenting on his own precis, I suggest you keep your give-it-a-rests to your sfself.

At Sunday, August 19, 2007 10:48:00 AM, Blogger i am he said...

As per Cyprian's involvement, I think there are a few Reasons (insofar as admirers of Pynchon can use the word), at least in my reading.

One: it'd appear, superficially, that Cyprian allows TP to advance his pictorama of WWI hotspots by using this gay fella's tale of a sort of Bill-dung's-ro-main (er howevuh it's spelled, uhmlauts 'n so forth), of the sort Mann used in Magic Mountain, which is a great book--but I like AtD much more.
Two: I also, on first reading this novel, got the impression using so "homo" a character as Cyps, I was being challenged to incorporate a still rather taboo lifestyle into the categories of folk I grant compassion, sympathy, patience and all those other icky, un-PoMo sentimental emotions dealing with Kindness and the like.
Three: I don't know. I guess because he's Pynchon and his narratives are sprawling and perhaps aim to imitate the way we, at any given random moment in our lives, are apt to run into people we've never met who may or may not take us to places we've never been. I tend to favor this explanation best. I enjoy this facet of AtD, and I think Pynchon has done it better (again: at least for me this is true) than any other author I've read. And goshdarnit, hats off to American arts and letters for such a wild ass genius as TP for his achievement!
Peace, chums.

At Sunday, August 19, 2007 10:59:00 AM, Blogger Civic Center said...

I would have called it a mild snit rather than a "high snit" and Cyprian's "gayness" is not the "only thing that makes him interesting at this point." What a stupid remark, as is your rushed and dismissive summary of this chapter which at least is aptly named.

And there endeth my Darby impression.

At Sunday, August 19, 2007 3:22:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Rushed, me boyo, because the scheduled commentor was nowhere to be found at curtain time. Dismissive in your own underdone understanding.

Ben makes several good points, and I guess what I'm missing is a sense that this current adventure is somehow grown into the overall overarching It-ness of the book, rather than something that could have just as easily been spun out into an adventure novel of its own, and so excised from this one.

While I think random sprawl is a fine aim of a novel, in fact may be the first duty of an ambitious one, I also think the author has a duty towards a kind of unity of design. The plain fact is that AtD is not random at all, but the ordered and evolved observations, in the form of chronological, if fantastic, storytelling, by a supremely talented writer.

If anyone invites critical reading, it is this guy. The novel either hangs together, as a novel, or it does not. Maybe Pynchon is preparing a 12-course meal, or maybe he bit off more than even he could chew. I don't know, yet. But if you are not wondering about this by now, after 800 pages, you have no business scolding those who are.

At Sunday, August 19, 2007 5:49:00 PM, Blogger i am he said...

As someone had mentioned far, far back in the posts (unfortunately I kinda don't have the time to look up precisely where its at--I apparently prefer long parenthetical and clause-ridden sentences), Buddhism seems to come into play in what I see as a kind of tidying-up utility for these chronologically convergent plot threads.

That is to say sometimes things align in a pleasing we've-seen-something-like-this-before manner, and at other times we readers are taken along for a trip whose conclusion we are ever in doubt of, both content-wise (and this is assuming there is a 'conclusion') and, for lack of a better way to put this, existence-wise, what the author has in mind RE 'closure.' How silly this sounds. How un-Western (a pun could be considered here, albeit a sophomoric one, and one I'm sure if the author read this would laugh at me for making).

At Sunday, August 19, 2007 8:49:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Dear Will: I'm glad we're off Cyprian and onto Thomas Pynchon.

My favorite 20th-century composer is Benjamin Britten who was a Mozartian genius of music, and also a complete snot about other composers' music. He hated Wagner, for instance, and loved Alban Berg. And just to confuse everything, he made the following quote, and I'm paraphrasing, "There are only a handful of composers who I respect enough that if I don't like one of their pieces of music, I blame myself. And Verdi is one of them." The shocking part of that statement, of course, is that a lot of early Verdi is "questionable" music in terms of its historical/musical worth, but Britten has stated that it's ALL worthwhile.

I feel the same way about Thomas Pynchon, and a lot of the reason is just plain faith. So I've never thought about questioning the "quality" and the succesfulness of this book. It is what it is and it's valuable. Who the fuck cares if Pynchon bit off a bit more than he could chew? He's already changed the way I think with this book, if only with the math history not to mention the wider world he's opened up.

Playing critic in this context, in other words, is beside the point.

At Monday, August 20, 2007 7:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i read this part of the book a few months ago, but i remember feeling like i'd hit a wall here. more characters? more plot lines? more locations? am i supposed to pay attention to this, or is all of this just scenery that i'll never see again? this part of the book just wore me down. none of it grabbed me; and i just couldn't find the strength to force myself to care about any of it.

that's why i haven't had much to say about any of this, lately.

At Monday, August 20, 2007 8:15:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

Having spent the weekend in a Internet-free zone, having checked in only last night, my intention this morning was to send a finger-wagging email to both the combatants, encouraging them to resolve their differences with a phone call that would force the mutual civility that blog-comments and emails often lack. However, as the Unpleasantness seems to be earning the adjective Recent, I will refrain.

Thomas Pynchon can introduce new characters whenever he damned well pleases, because he is Thomas Pynchon. Will, however, is within his rights to question whether the novel is going anywhere, but I'd rejoin quite simply: When has a Pynchon novel ever "gone" anywhere? Isn't that rather the appeal? The hellish ambiguity, the unreliable narrator, the endings that don't resolve anything? We were getting new characters in Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon at comparable points in those novels, and I liked them just fine.

What I'm seeing at this point of the book is repetitions of motifs that were established earlier. Pynchon has always done this -- it's why I like him so much -- in Rainbow they whiz by copiously: living matter becoming dead matter and vice versa, beyond-the-zero images, parabolic lines... Here, in the last two readings, we've had Yashmeen observing the closing of possibilities as she watches out the back of a train; it's the same image that we got way back in the first few pages, of the cattle being herded into the Chicago Stockyard, unformed chaos being shunted down ever-narrowing alleys until the only step forward is slaughter. Then, a few pages on, Cyprian has the opposite observation as his ship leaves Trieste: "If there is an inevitability to arrival by water, he reflected, as we watch the possibilities on shore being progressively narrowed at last to the destined quay or slip, there is no doubt a mirror-symmetry about departure, a denial of inevitability...beginning the moment all lines are singled up...."

One likes to imagine that if one were to plot these repetitions in some sort of gigantic diagram (a task that I also imagine is already being undertaken in graduate studies), something Important would be revealed. Then again, maybe not.

Surely the ship's name, John of Asia, is a reference to Prester John?

Now hush. I have to type up my precis from this week's reading.

At Monday, August 20, 2007 9:42:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I'm not wondering if the novel is going anywhere (it's already gone plenty of places), rather what this late plot line has to do with the other, earlier developed ones.

ben offered good suggestions, which I'll consider as we go on. cleek is apparently in the same boat as I am, and perhaps several mum others.

As for wondering when a Pynchon novel ever went anywhere, I'd say nearly all of them (alas Lot 49) have pronounced character arcs and resolution of action as they progress and finish, though certainly resolution is sometimes couched in terms of disintigration.

When he makes it all work it is the highest literary art, when he fails, as he does in places, it is at least food for thought. Granted, Ned, we have here thematic repetitions (and different modalities of possibility perhaps), but are the restated themes refined somehow, or are they just getting repetitive?

At Monday, August 20, 2007 10:12:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

Granted, Ned, we have here thematic repetitions (and different modalities of possibility perhaps), but are the restated themes refined somehow, or are they just getting repetitive?

I do believe I've actually cracked one of them, and am typing up my idea in this week's precis as we speak.

The key is Buddhism. Ben seems to have been thinking on parallel lines (pun very much intended).

At Monday, August 20, 2007 8:40:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

Well I'm on my 2nd read and am sure P is doing something quite deliberate with Cyprian. On introduction I thought C. was comic relief or part of the emotional whirlpool swirling around Yashmeen, but his clandestine service centers him in a major archetypal role explored in Pynchon's writing. But there are layers here. C. is caught between hetero and homosexual desires, between acceptance of authority and mistrust. Between grand imperial ideals and the beauty of local culture, between violent opposition to the abuse/theft/betrayal of Theign and compliance and desire to please Theign . While most characters from the upperclasses are hanging on to that status a few like Penhollow and C. seem to be moving away from it into riskier territory. Why?

I think there is a touch of Lawrence of Arabia here. One of the questions P is exploring is what is courage in the face of mind numbing complexity and power games. What keeps people from it ? What allows people to find it.? What is it and where might it lead?

At Monday, August 20, 2007 8:44:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Dear Will: May I please apologize for my anger caused mostly by a major brain-fart of incomprehension, which was not bothering to look at the page numbers you provided at the top of this post for your synopsis? It wasn't until I read Neddie's precis today in the post above that I realized you hadn't left out the entire Boys' Adventure in The Balkans because of your antipathy to Cyprian, but instead it was because you weren't even supposed to be writing about it. My sincere regrets.

And everybody else, the previous RLS and Buchan comments were meant for next week's installment, and I sincerely hope I've confused everyone in this particular time/space continuum.

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