Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, January 12, 2017

fear and loathing in recent American history

It’s been said — I wish I knew who said it first — that fantasy is always about disenchantment, about the draining of magic from the world. Certainly disenchantment is one of Pynchon’s obsessions, and the fantastic elements of his stories tend to emphasize loss. There’s a moment late in Mason & Dixon, when our heroes are returning from their adventures in the wilderness, and they discover that their companion the poet Timothy Tox is accompanied by a Golem:

But as ’twill prove, the closer they escort Mr. Tox to the Metropolis, the less Evidence for his Creature’s existence will they be given, till at length they must believe that the Poet has either pass’d, like some Indian Youth at the Onset of Manhood, under the Protection of a potent tho’ invisible Spirit,— or gone mad.

The city’s powerful engines of disenchantment overwhelm and dissipate the magic that arises from the unregulated wilderness. Experiences of the supernatural must thereafter be either invisible, indiscernible to the Sensorium, or a token of insanity. And then after a while those who had had such experiences wonder whether they even happened at all. They eventually “fade into the light of common day.”

Where has it gone, the glory and the dream? And can it be recaptured? This sense of being in-between haunts Pynchon’s fiction: I find myself thinking of Matthew Arnold “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.”

I think one cause of this tendency in Pynchon’s fiction is generational. Pynchon is roughly the same age as Ken Kesey, who once said that he was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie — that is, his life fell between two excited and excitable movements of countercultural possibility. Kesey tried to overcome that in-betweenness by main force — the main force of an artificial community, the LSD-fueled Merry Pranksters. And of course it didn't work; it couldn’t have worked. There are a lot of people like the post-Pranksters Kesey in Pynchon’s fiction: old druggies like Zoyd Wheeler or Doc Sportello, becalmed, in the doldrums, waiting out the coastal fog as Doc does at the end of Inherent Vice, hoping for something, anything, to happen. Pynchon’s characters are often half-remembering or hoping to remember some idealized past, some lost Lemuria or Atlantis, and half-watching for some Vision to appear on the horizon of the future. The Second Life-like video game DeepArcher in Bleeding Edge is an attempt to enforce this Vision by the main force of digital technology: the technological sublime, accessible always to the connected user!

In the Sixties the “connected users” were potheads and acidheads, and if Kesey was the chief Merry Prankster of such secular hope in the latter part of the decade, following the pioneering work of Timothy Leary, its dark Joker was Hunter S. Thompson. An early paragraph in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas goes,

The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

If that won't immanentize the Eschaton, what will?

But Thompson actually knows that it’s all bullshit, that he is continuing practices and habits that he doesn't believe in any more. At one point he pauses in his wild trip through Vegas to say,

We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. After West Point and the Priesthood, LSD must have seemed entirely logical to him... but there is not much satisfaction in knowing that he blew it very badly for himself, because he took too many others down with him.

And Thompson is one of those. Elsewhere in the book he writes the true epitaph of the Sixties, in a passage whose tone might be quite recognizable to those on today’s left trying to reckon with Trump, in a passage that Thomas Pynchon could have written:

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Monday, January 9, 2017

growth and form

D Arcy Wentworth Thompson 1860 1948In my previous post I explored some of the biological contexts of the idea of morphosis, form-changing, in Pynchon’s work. But I also hinted at the moral, the theological, and the literary-imaginative uses of the immensely rich concept of form.  In light of all this it’s worth noting that by general consent the most remarkable endeavor in the history of biological morphology is D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s massive and magisterial On Growth and Form — over 1100 pages in its second edition of 1942.

Pretty much everything about Thompson is fascinating, but I’d like to call particular attention to the fact that he was a classicist as well as a biologist and mathematician. Legend has it that at the University of St. Andrews he was offered his choice of professorships in classics, mathematics, or zoology (though his very versatility, and the unpredictable views it spawned, meant that he was never hired at Oxford or Cambridge, though he applied several times for jobs at those universities).

He became a hero and model to, among other scholars, Stephen Jay Gould, who in 1971 published a wonderful essay about Thompson — and published it in New Literary History, later to become the leading journal of literary theory. In that essay, a revised version of Gould’s senior undergraduate thesis at Antioch College, Gould comments that

D'Arcy Thompson's mathematics has a curious ring. We find none of the differential equations and mathematical statistics that adorn modern work in ecology or population genetics; we read, instead, of the partitioning of space, the tetrakaidekahedron, the Miraldi angle, the logarithmic spiral and the golden ratio. Numbers rarely enter equations; rather, they exemplify geometry. For D'Arcy Thompson was a Greek mathematician with 20th century material and insights. Growth and Form is the synthesis of his two lives: eminent classicist and eminent zoologist. As he stated in a Presidential Address to the Classical Association (1929): "Science and the Classics is my theme today; it could hardly be otherwise. For all I know, and do, and well nigh all I love and care for (outside of home and friends) lies within one or the other; and the fact that I have loved them both has colored all my life, and enlarged my curiosity and multiplied my inlets to happiness.” 

(“Multiplied my inlets to happiness” — what a delightful phrase.) The geometrical character of Thompson’s biological mathematics keeps him close to the sensually accessible character of actual creatures: he uses geometry to describe things we can actually see. And this positions his work within the same ambit as literature and ordinary language, something he was quite aware of. Gould’s essay takes as its epigraph at important sentence from the latter pages of On Growth and Form: “Our own study of organic form, which we call by Goethe’s name of Morphology, is but a portion of that wider Science of Form which deals with the forms assumed by matter under all aspects and conditions, and, in a still wider sense, with forms which are theoretically imaginable” (emphasis mine).

This notion of a “wider Science of Form” was immensely attractive to Gould. In The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, his attempt, published just weeks before his death in 2002, to write his own magnum opus along the lines of On Growth and Form, Gould makes an interesting comment on the sources of his mature thinking about evolution:

I read the great European structuralist literatures in writing my book on Ontogeny and Phylogeny. I don't see how anyone could read, from Goethe and Geoffroy down through Severtzov, Remane and Riedl, without developing some appreciation for the plausibility, or at least for the sheer intellectual power, of morphological explanations outside the domain of Darwinian functionalism — although my resulting book, for the last time in my career, stuck closely to selectionist orthodoxy, while describing these alternatives in an accurate and sympathetic manner.

That “selectionist orthodoxy,” which he would later call "Darwinian fundamentalism,” became for him the chief enemy of a truly universal science of form, the kind of thing that Thompson had imagined, an account that could potentially be equally useful in illuminating the structure of crystals, the petal arrangements of roses, the  shape of a novel’s plot.

I don’t yet know, but I have a suspicion that meditation on these themes will be useful to me as I try to come to grips with Thomas Pynchon’s body of work. And I have this sinking feeling that at some point I'm going to have to reckon with Goethe's role in this history....


Here’s a passage from my review of Adam Roberts’s edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria:

As the culmination of the long repudiation of [David] Hartley’s thought, Coleridge famously opposes this Imagination (later divided into Primary and Secondary) to the “Fancy,” which “has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.” The Fancy indeed merely plays with the “counters” that have been given it by the memory; “it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.” If we were reliant only on the Fancy, we would indeed be Hartleian beings, shuffling our fixed and defined impressions like cardboard coins; but as beings made in the image of God, Coleridge says, we can do more: “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”

The importance of this distinction is evident from Coleridge’s redeployment of it in other terms elsewhere in the Biographia: “Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις [morphosis], not ποíησις [poiesis]” — shaping, not making. Roberts, whose background in classics serves him very well as an annotator of Coleridge, points out that “when Coleridge uses [morphosis] in the Biographia he has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the King James version translates as ‘form’” — mere form, as it were, mere appearance. And it may be also that Coleridge is thinking of the New Testament uses of poiesis and its near relations as well: for instance, when Paul writes of human beings (Eph. 2:10) as poiesis theou — “God’s workmanship”; God’s poem.

(Not incidentally, Adam's blog is called Morphosis.) I’ve just discovered in my Great Pynchon Re-Read that the word “Morphosis” is used five times in Mason & Dixon, though not, it seems, in Coleridge's sense of the term. Here's the best example:

If you look at the OED entry for the word here's what you see:

(You might have to right-click or control-click on the image and open it in a new window or tab to see it properly.) The very bottom is the first relevant thing here, since, in the passage earlier cited from Mason & Dixon, the apostrophe at the beginning of the word suggests that it is an abbreviation of "Metamorphosis" — and indeed, all five uses in the novel employ the apostrophe. 

But it's also worth noting that Maskelyne — this is Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811 — clearly uses the word in a pejorative sense: morphosis is "veering into error." (I can't help being reminded here of the root meaning of hamartia — the New Testament word for sin, and Aristotle's word for some trait of the tragic hero that no one has ever been able reliably to identify — is to "miss the mark." This is all very Pynchonian, who is obsessed with vectors, especially tragic ones.) And most of the meanings of morphosis listed in the OED are either subtly or clearly pejorative: John Owen's identification of Catholicism as an inadequate morphosis of true faith, which is clearly derived from the biblical meaning of mere semblance; but also the medical sense of a "pathological" or "morbid" change of form — the most obvious example of which being a malignant tumor, which is nothing other than unchecked morphosis: the healthy organ does not so change, but rather retains a stability of form and function. 

What makes all this especially interesting for the reader of Mason & Dixon is that three of the five uses of the term occur within a few pages, and all refer to Vaucanson's famous Digesting Duck, who plays a significant role in the story by virtue of having become animate and articulate: the duck refers to this as his 'Morphosis. And this should call to mind an earlier post about the Bad Priest in V. and her "progression towards inanimateness." To be animate, to be organic, is necessarily to undergo morphosis, and so life itself, in this account of things, is therefore intrinsically malignant, cancerous. 

The view shared by the Bad Priest and the animate duck is perhaps the opposite of that articulated in the famous closing sentence of Darwin's Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved" (form being, of course, μορϕή). For the Bad Priest evolving, changing, is itself an evil — perhaps the root of all evil — and certainly not something to take delight in, as Darwin did. 

And this preference for the inanimate over the animate may be interrogated from another perspective as well. In a wonderful essay from many years ago — one which I cannot, alas, find online — Wendell Berry describes his encounter with an advertisement celebrating a John Deere tractor as an "earth space capsule" that fully isolates its driver from the outside world with all its changes of weather. Berry finds it both curious and sad that farmers, of all people, would desire to be so separated from the natural world. And he comments, more generally, 

Of course, the only real way to get this sort of freedom and safety—to escape the hassles of earthly life—is to die. And what I think we see in these advertisements is an appeal to a desire to be dead that is evidently felt by many people. These ads are addressed to the perfect consumers: the self-consumers, who have found nothing of interest here on earth, nothing to so, and are impatient to be shed of earthly concerns.

After all, the perfect "earth space capsule" is the coffin. 

Pynchon's novels return again and again to this fear or hatred of organic life, of time and change, not to celebrate it, but to understand it. I suspect that for him this repulsion is at the heart of technological society, of a culture-wide compulsion to trust in and defer to the inorganic and the human-made — which is, ultimately, a form of idolatry: as the Psalmist says, "They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them." 

There is much more to be said about all this, and I hope to say some of it in this book on Pynchon and theology that I am trying to write. For now I'll just note that my respect for Pynchon's acuity on all these matters — respect that was already verging on awe — has just been significantly increased by my reading of Jessica Riskin's astonishing book The Restless Clock. I can't say too much more, because I have just written a lengthy review of Riskin for John Wilson's forthcoming joint Education and Culture, and I'll link to that review in due course (probably in a couple of months); but the combination of reading Riskin and reading Pynchon has seriously altered my understanding of the last five hundred years of intellectual and cultural history, and has significantly intensified my belief that the only truly theological account of modernity is one deeply immersed in the technological history of this past half-millennium. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

those darn millennials?

Stories like this one by Frank Furedi are ubiquitous these days. It’s a refrain sung by many:

Back in 2003, Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of the study Millennials Go to College, advanced the thesis that this generation is far less mature and resilient than previous ones. They noted that the millennial generation is far more “closely tied to their parents” than the students that preceded them, and they also insist on a “secure and regulated environment.”

Howe and Strauss concluded that as a result, students today find it difficult to flourish in the relatively unstructured environment of higher education. The assessment that the millennials find it more troublesome to make the transition to independent living on campuses than previous generations is widely held by educators on both sides of the Atlantic.

All I can say is that none of this has been my experience. I’m a pretty tough grader, so I’ve had many complaints about grades over the years, but not discernibly more now than in the past. Once a parent called to yell at me after I failed her daughter for plagiarism, but that was 25 years ago. Some professors complain that they can’t assign long books any more because students won’t read them, but I’ve always assumed that few students of any description will read long books unless you hold them accountable with reading quizzes, so that’s what I’ve been doing since I started teaching literature in 1983. (I learned the practice from my undergraduate mentor, John Burke of the University of Alabama.)

Perhaps — perhaps — my students today are a little more sensitive about criticism than my students of decades ago. But I’m not convinced of it.

So why does my experience differ so greatly from that of many others? Some possibilities:

1) Rosy retrospection by the professorial complainers.

2) Institutional location A: I have spent my career at a highly selective liberal arts college (Wheaton) and a selective program within a university (the Honors Program at Baylor). So my students have been very, very good, but perhaps have not had the unbroken record of triumph that some students from the cultural elite have had: they understand the value of hard academic work but don’t think that perfect success is their birthright.

3) Instututional location B: Wheaton and Baylor are both (though in rather different ways) Christian schools, which means that most of my students come from Christian homes, where they are more likely than many young people to be taught respectf for authorities. Which could mean that they accept the validity of my decisions, or that they complain as much as students elsewhere but not to me. Also, I think that in Christian families academic success may be important but it is never the only thing, and rarely the most important thing: there’s a bit of perspective built in. (It may be noteworthy that here at Baylor the students who have expressed to me the deepest anxiety about grades come from non-Christian homes, but my sample size isn’t large enough for me to conclude that.

Obviously these possibilities are not mutually exclusive; and I may have left out something significant. Any thoughts, friends?

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Apologies, friends — I had to delete this post. Too much material that's really central to the book-in-progress. I'll figure all this one one of these days.

Friday, December 30, 2016

brief Pynchon update

Well ... I know I said I was going to stop blogging my way through Pynchon, but I am grateful for the comments I've been getting (both on this blog and via email) — they really help me to think through these issues. So I need to find a way to keep getting those benefits without, as an editor put it to me the other day, "giving away the farm" — that is, putting all my best ideas here and thereby making a book superfluous. So after taking a bit of a break to read some other things — I am rather pynchoned-out at the moment — I'll be back with thoughts on Mason & Dixon and then Against the Day. (I have many, many thoughts about Gravity's Rainbow, but those are giving-away-the-farm sorts of thoughts.)

children and culture

Two thoughts about children and culture, prompted by a re-reading — or rather, if I’m honest, my first really thorough reading — of Iona and Peter Opie’s classic The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (hereafter LLS):

1) A few days ago I experienced a wonderfully bizarre moment of readerly serendipity: I was reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which a character hears, from a distance, children singing “Hark the herald angels sing, / Mrs Simpson’s pinched our king” — and then a couple of hours later I picked up LLS (p. 6), where that very verse is cited as an example of “the efficiency of oral transmission” “by the schoolchild grapevine,” a channel of communication whose speed “seems to be little short of miraculous.” The Opies point out that word of King Edward’s dilemma — to keep the throne and reject Mrs Simpson or marry Mrs Simpson and abdicate the throne — only began to reach the public in the last week of November; and Edward formally abdicated on 10 December. Yet when the carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was played at an end-of-term festivity in Swansea, “a mistress found herself having to restrain her small children from singing this lyric, known to all of them, which cannot have been composed much more than three weeks previously.” You don’t need the internet to have the rapid spread of memes.

But when you do have the internet, what becomes of “the lore and language of schoolchildren”? One answer will be that they’ll be just as creative and imaginative and intellectually acquisitive as ever, and will simply use internet-connected devices as their instruments for deployment and dispersal. But I suspect that that’s too glib an answer — as would be its opposite, the one that says that in the age of the internet children’s creativity is dead. But it’s hard for me to see how, in a universally connected age, children can continue to make their own culture wholly apart from the prying eyes and alert ears of adults, many of whom want to find ways to monetize children’s attention. I hope some smart people are studying these matters with care.

2) In chapter 10 of LLS, “Jeers and Torments: Unpopular Children,” the Opies write of hair-pulling and ear-pulling games, citing sources from Blackburn, Swansea, Newcastle, East Texas, and African-American culture as a whole, the last via T. W. Talley’s 1922 book Negro Folk Rhymes. They then comment, “it seems certain that somewhere, sometime, this game played in the nineteenth century by coloured folk in the United States, and the ordeal which little girls undergo in Britain today, must have had a common ancestor.” They suspect a Scottish origin, but of course can only speculate.

And this ought to remind us how completely misbegotten it is to rail against “cultural appropriation”: culture is appropriation. Culture is hearing and borrowing and transforming. Culture is giving and taking and giving again. You can’t legislate against it, and it would be foolish (indeed, a truly tragic error) to try.

Not long ago I saw someone on Twitter declaring that white people shouldn’t clap their hands between words — IRL or via emoji on Twitter — because that’s unjust appropriation of black culture. But, I thought immediately, my grandmother did that — a white woman born in 1906. Was she appropriating? Where did she get that gesture? It’s perfectly possible that she did get it from black people, since, despite the vicious cruelty of the Jim Crow era, many white people in the Deep South, especially poor-ish white people like my grandparents, spent a good deal of time around black people. But maybe the influence went in the other direction. Probably, like the rhymes and taunts shared by people in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and people in East Texas and black people throughout the South, it’s a gesture that has some ancestor we’ll never know. Such uncertainty makes claiming ownership over gestures or styles or memes impossible, even if it were desirable. But it’s not desirable; it’s anything but.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

the Studio and the Church

On Twitter, Ross Douthat tells me that in Hail, Caesar! — a movie I dearly love — “The studio is the church, a corporate entity w/cosmic purpose that polices morals for everyone’s own good…. With its own necessary hierarchies, its place for everyone, its direct line to God (the invisible studio boss), etc.” and that therefore the movie is in a fundamental sense about the Catholic Church.

Sonny Bunch is forcing me to write this reply.

I think Ross’s interpretation is impossible, because the Catholic Church actually plays a role in the movie, primarily through Eddie Mannix’s frequent recourse to the confessional: If the studio equals the Church, then what does the Church itself represent? So it seems to me that Ross’s logic won’t hold up. Plus, what Ross says about the studio is generally true about the Communism that the group of writers in the movie adhere to (that they must be faithful to despite the invisibility of the Boss, etc.). That whole subplot echoes the Christian narrative in other ways as well: its group of faithful disciples in a boat, on the sea, with their leader! Who had previously "prepared a place for them"! Who then undergoes an Ascension, as they look on in awe!

If you look at the Communist subplot alongside Eddie Mannix’s struggle to reconcile the apparently conflicting demands of Church and Studio, then I think you can see that one of the movie’s major themes is the way that models of Value that rival the Christian account, those serious competitors for our attention and loyalty, must create their own structures, their own rituals and practices, that mimic those of the Church. Communism and the Studio both, in their different ways and for different purposes, strive to effect a kind of transfer of charisma (to borrow Weberian language) from the Church. The big difference is that Communism does this straightforwardly, repudiating Christianity and claiming the power and authority to overthrow it, whereas the Studio emphasizes that it is deeply respectful of biblical religion and wants to pay proper respect to it — which leads to one of the funniest scenes in recent film history.

Whether the Studio, or more broadly the Movies, and the Church are indeed so compatible is a question the movie leaves wonderfully open. On the one hand Eddie Mannix comes to believe — and several events, especially those made possible by the sleuthing of good, honest Hobie Doyle, conspire to help him believe this — that the Church and the Studio are not rival authorities, but rather that he can serve God through serving the Studio. (After all, “the story of the Christ” is “a swell story.”) On the other hand, there’s the fact that the movie that's supposed to be about "the Christ" is called Hail, Caesar! — which seems to miss a little something about what we're supposed to render to whom. And then there's the sublime moment when Baird Whitlock delivers his great soliloquy about the new cosmic meaning, the transformation of our lives that, when we look upon the Christ, we could achieve had we but … had we but … Dammit, what’s the word? And as Whitlock proclaims that noble speech all the people on the set sit up a little straighter, listen a little more closely, hoping and trusting that right then and there the Studio can deliver to us Truth we can live by. Would that it were so simple.

At the risk of ruining the effect of my absolutely perfect final sentence, I have to comment on this:

I see we're now enacting a drama in which Ross employs a multivalent interpretative scheme closely related to patristic/medieval Catholicism's fourfold exegesis, while I (typecast here as the Reformer) am insisting that we stick to the historical sense as our only guide to valid interpretation. We need a script doctor stat!

does Pynchon write good novels?

(the other two I'm reading digitally)
Reading Pynchon — especially in the large quantities I am ingesting this holiday season — is a peculiar experience for this long-time lover of fiction, because, I find, I don't know whether Pynchon writes good novels. Indeed, it's not obvious that he writes novels at all. I do not doubt for a moment that he is a great genius and that his ideas reward all the attention you choose to give them; I’m not questioning that; every step further into his fiction reaffirms that judgment; but his books are very peculiarly made and I can't say with any confidence whether they are well made. I could only make such a judgment if I were confident that I know precisely what Pynchon is trying to do, and I lack that confidence.

Some critics have argued that Pynchon writes Menippean satires rather than novels, and I'm sympathetic to that argument — indeed, I have said the same about C. S. Lewis, who shares with Pynchon an interest in the drama of ideas and tends also to create characters who are embodiments and mouthpieces of ideas. Northrop Frye's comment that "the novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect" is exceptionally pertinent to Pynchon, I think.

But even granted that genre identifier, I still find myself in a constant state of puzzlement about what Pynchon is trying to do at any given point in any given book. I’m in Vineland right now, and I’m finding, to paraphrase what someone famously said about Wagner’s operas, some magnificent moments and some really brutal half-hours. So, to cite a fresh example, why, why, in the middle of the book, do we get page after page of the adventures of Vato and Blood, the proprietors of V&B Tow? They have, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to do with anything — they’re just what, in a review of Against the Day, Louis Menand calls “Pynchonian wallpaper.” It gets tiresome enough in a 400-page book like Vineland, so I am trying to prepare myself for dealing with it in a book three times as long.

Now, let me make a distinction here: also in Vineland we hear a good deal about birds — never at the forefront of tha narrative, but often in the background, eating dog food or watching, from outside a window, what this book invariably calls the Tube, or being alarmed by human violence, or whatever. At the moment I have no firm idea why they’re there, and I may never feel that I’ve figured it out, but there is clearly some purpose to their frequent appearances. I can say the same about Pynchon’s use (elsewhere but esp[ecially in this book) of multiple levels of nested flashbacks. But Vato and Blood’s inability to sort out the lyrics of the songs they try to sing together? Useless crap, as far as I can tell.

Maybe that useless crap was fun to write, though. Reading Pynchon, I think that he always has some very clear sense of what a given book is fundamentally about, what he wants to accomplish with it, but I also feel that he just indulges himself sometimes, in a what-the-hell-I’m-Thomas-effing-Pynchon spirit. And if so, then that makes his books less well-made, less coherent and beautiful as aesthetic objects. I once heard the philosopher Nick Wolterstorff comment that his sense of what makes for a good, strong argument was shaped by his having come from generations of woodworkers and cabinetmakers, arts in which he himself was instructed: a sound argument for Nick needs to fit together precisely, to have smooth and tight joints. No image could be less appropriate to a Pynchon novel, which seems to be thrown together any which way and yet clearly rises to a towering height and shows no signs of toppling over.

Which is another way of saying that the techniques of artistic making employed by Pynchon are obscure to me: Not only am I often confused about what he’s trying to do, I can't even see what tools he’s using to do it. In his great book on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, John Bishop cites a comment by friend of Joyce’s who was helping him insert ever more obscure foreign words into the text, but whose suggestions were sometimes met by a pause, and then: “I can’t use it.” Bishop notes that this enigmatic response suggests that Joyce’s methods were “darkly principled”: he had a thought-out rationale, but it wasn’t one he was sharing even with those who had come to help him. I can’t help wondering if many of Pynchon’s most inexplicable passages aren’t also and equally “darkly principled.” But even if they are, in a hundred years I could never guess what Vato and Blood are doing in Vineland.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

my year in technology

Last year I wrote a “my year in tech" post, so why not this year also?

It’s been a one-step-forward one-step-back kind of year. Some of the changes I implemented last year have stuck this year, but not all of them.

1) The big difficulty of this past year was Twitter, thanks almost wholly to the Presidential election. As I explained in last year’s post, I had mostly escaped public Twitter, venturing there only on rare occasions — and regretting every such venture: I still sometimes forget just how many responses from strangers are uninformed or belligerent or both. (However, my moments of forgetfulness have become rarer, and maybe at last I have learned my lesson for good.) So I had confined myself to the much calmer sanctuary of a private account — but during and immediately following the election private Twitter was no refuge. Even given the small population of that world (fewer than a hundred people) the anger just pulsed and radiated — 24 hours a day, it seemed. So for a while I escaped altogether, deactivating my private account and thinking I might never return. But soon enough I found myself really missing my friends there, so I re-activated it, though making sure to disable retweets for almost everyone, hoping in that way to minimize the amplifications of wrath. We'll see how it goes. In March I will have been on Twitter for ten years. Maybe ten years is enough.

But even if I shut down the private account I have to admit that I'm not likely to shut down the public one. In a better world, the great majority of people would learn about interesting posts and articles and sites through RSS readers; but in this world the great majority of people learn about those things on Twitter. If a post falls in the forest of the internet and there's no one there to tweet it, does it really exist?

2) I took a further step towards owning my turf by (a) downloading the posts from my various Tumblrs, (b) copying the more relevant and significant posts to my personal site, and (c) deleting my Tumblr account. Tumblr had become an increasingly annoying platform to be on, thanks to ads and the various hokey ways they were constantly trying to get me to use more of their "features," so escaping that crap has been a big plus. Also, as long as I had access to the site I found myself thinking about whether I wanted to use it: deleting my account altogether solves that problem. I had created a tumblr for my forthcoming book How to Think but then bought a proper domain name and now own my thoughts about the book and its themes.

By the way, I did this through Reclaim Hosting, which is an amazing company focusing on people in academe. If you are part of the academic world and are not using Reclaim, you're really missing out. Their customer service is state-of-the-art, and through the various apps and services they offer you can expand to your heart's content the elements of your online presence you want to control: from static sites to blogs to galleries of images to email to ... well, you name it. Reclaim is the best.

And in case you’re wondering how to download an entire website: If you're comfortable using the command line, wget is the way to go (just make sure you set the parameters correctly or you could end up trying to download an entire domain, like tumblr.com). But if you have a Mac then you could try the accurate and easy-to-use SiteSucker.

Next step: deleting my Google account. — But I can't! This site runs on Blogger!

3) This year I have written more and more often by hand — that's one change I don't think I'll ever go back on. When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that's all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand. My preferred notebook: the Leuchtturm 1917, which works wonderfully with the Bullet Journal method of organizing tasks and ideas. My preferred pen: the Pilot Metropolitan. I have a dream, a dream that I could write a book in that notebook with that pen and have some publisher turn it into editable copy.... I mean, come on, it worked for Dickens and Tolstoy.

4) I'm still listening to CDs a good bit, but the flexibility of digital music is hard to resist — right now I'm writing this post on an iPad and listening to music through the truly remarkable Deepblue 2 from Peachtree Audio — I didn't know a Bluetooth speaker could be this good. Irresistible (for me) convenience.

5) I'm still using a dumbphone — but not as much as I had hoped I would. I go back to an iPhone when I'm traveling, in part because I'm a light-packing fanatic and when I bring that phone I don't need a camera or maps, or for that matter a computer. But then when I come back home and ought to switch out the SIM card to the dumbphone, somehow I manage to forget. Oh well. Here again my problem is having choices: if I just sold one of the phones, my life would be simplified. But that I struggle to do.

6) If the biggest difficulty of the past year was Twitter, the second-biggest was what seems to me the decline of both software and hardware quality on the Macintosh. And I think the Mac problems are just going to beg bigger, as more and more of Apple's energies go into the growth and development of iOS.

When I upgraded to Yosemite, I discovered that Bluetooth had ceased to work, so I couldn't send audio from my Mac to external speakers. (I think that's when my return to CD listening began.) When I upgraded to El Capitan, Bluetooth worked but wifi was totally borked — and since wifi is more necessary than Bluetooth, I reverted to Yosemite. When Sierra came out, earlier this year, I upgraded with fingers crossed, and discovered that Bluetooth works as well as Bluetooth ever works (which is: inconsistently), and wifi works pretty well, though not as reliably as it did in pre-Yosemite versions — but now switching between apps is chaotic. I can use the Dock or my preferred command-Tab method of changing from one app to another and I have no idea what will happen. Sometimes it switches to the app I want, sometimes it continues to show me the app I was in when I switched, sometimes it goes to a third app I didn't ask for. No way to know in advance. Similar problems arise with the use of apps in fullscreen mode, so clearly the code that generates windowing behavior has gone awry in Sierra. My chief point: Every new release of MacOS introduces major new bugs.

Apple's official response to problems of this kind is simply to deny that MacOS has any serious problems, which makes me wonder whether I need to find ways to switch to iOS. After all, that's clearly where the company's focus is. So I've been writing lately on an iPad using Editorial, a very good app, but one that hasn't been updated in so long that I'm assuming it's abandonware — one more iOS update and it could well become unusable, though for now it's fine. (I'm using it to write this post.)

(And by the way, I am also one of those people who thinks that the MacBook keyboard is really terrible — I can type much faster and more comfortably on my Logitech iPad keyboard, which has enough key-travel to give me significant haptic feedback. It also has backlit keys. It's the best iPad keyboard I've used, by a mile.)

In hopes of finding tips for shifting to iOS, I read this post by Federico Viticci on using the iPad Pro as (more or less) his only computer. Viticci's claim is that the iPad Pro fits his needs: he loves working with it, and never wants to go back to the Mac. But as I read his post I almost laughed aloud at the endless hoops he has to leap through to make it all work. I mean, to cite just one example among many possible ones, the guy uses at least six different text editors to make his "workflow" work — it seems to me that that's anything but flow. On the Mac, I almost never have to leave BBEdit, thanks to the ability of pandoc to convert text files into whatever format I need. And given that pandoc is based on underlying UNIX features that deeply embedded in MacOS, and BBEdit has been around for more than twenty years and is still updated regularly, I don't feel nearly as vulnerable as I do when using Editorial on the iPad.

Riccardo Mori, who uses both iOS and MacOS, has written about the logistical complications of using iOS:

The flip side of iOS’s modularity, of iOS’s model of accomplishing a complex task through a series of simple apps, is… well, it’s that often you have to go through unnecessarily long-winded routes and seek the assistance of multiple apps to get stuff done. It’s that in order to find the ‘perfect’ app to handle a task or a series of tasks, you end up installing a lot of similar apps with overlapping features. A personal example: I’ve been toying with the idea of just using my iPad to work when I’m not at home. I’m a writer and a translator, so I shouldn’t need very complex tools or intricate workflows. And yet my experience with iOS has been surprisingly frustrating due to the unexpected fragmentation of what, on the Mac, is a trivial thing to achieve.

Moreover, some of the most basic elements of computer user interaction are still rough and inconsistent on iOS: for instance, selecting text, which in my experience works about 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time I put my finger on one chunk of text and a different chunk gets selected, or I try but fail to find the right pixel to activate the little handle that, were I to find it, would allow me to extend the selection to the length I desire. And I am by no means the only person to have this complaint.

Yet I feel that the far more mature and efficient Mac platform is vulnerable indeed — vulnerable to further degradation and its own inconsistencies of behavior, especially involving any form of wireless connectivity. Old bugs are not being fixed, and new ones keep cropping up, and Apple as a company shows no signs of giving a rat’s ass about any of it. Mori has written about this too: the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that “Mac OS is demoted to ‘hobby status’ inside Apple, and that iOS receives all the attention from now on.” For Mori this will likely mean that iOS will need to develop more “desktop” skills:

When I walk down this hypothetical path, what I see in iOS’s trajectory, more than sheer innovation, is a reinvention of the wheel. iOS was born as a simpler, streamlined version of Mac OS X; its multi-touch interface was ingenious and groundbreaking when applied to a smartphone and (similarly, but less strikingly) to a tablet; to then evolve — through a series of iterations and feature creep — into… Mac OS X?

Sounds like a freakin’ disaster to me.

So here's what I think is coming for me in 2017: a concerted effort to move towards Linux, where I can readily replicate much of what I do on the Mac. I've been spending more time lately in emacs, and especially in org-mode, and I just received a nice Christmas present — this could finally be the year I make the Big Switch.

Mind you, I'm not promising anything. It wouldn't be easy for me to abandon a platform that I've been relying on since the beginning of Ronald Reagan's second Presidential term. And I’ve had enough experience editing configuration files in Linux that I am filled with dread at the prospect, and praying with some desperation that Ubuntu has addressed many of those old bugs. But that after all these years I'm even considering dropping MacOS ... well, that should tell you just how big a mess Apple has created for me.

Monday, December 26, 2016

a change of plan

Re-reading Gravity's Rainbow — for the first time in decades — has been a remarkable experience. Among other things, I had forgotten how dark the book is and how interested in bizarre sexual practices. But if rereading his first two novels had already begun to reward my intuition that Pynchon was going to help me understand the technological history of modernity, GR has exceeded all my hopes. In fact, one scene in particular illuminated a great deal that had been in darkness to me, and after reading it I began to discern the order and shape of the intellectual landscape in new and exciting ways. A narrative, a kind of critical theological meditation on the emergence and development of the modern world, started to come together in my mind.

But see, I can't talk about that here. Because now all this stuff is going to have to be a book, and editors don't like it when the key elements of a book are already available for free online. And truth be told, I am reluctant to put this new understanding forth in half-baked ways. I need to get to work on organizing and developing it properly, with clarity and scholarly depth.

So the Great Pynchon Read-Through is going to continue, but I won't be blogging it — at least, not the central insights that emerge from it (I might follow some more rabbit trails). My apologies to the three of you who care.

Tomorrow: a recapitulation of my year in technology.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Historia Naturalis

A 15th-century copy of Pliny's Historia Naturalis digitized (or digitised, to use the native term) by London's Natural History Museum.

Friday, December 23, 2016


“As things developed, she [Oedipa Maas] was to have all manner of revelations,” we are told in the first chapter of The Crying of Lot 49, and as Edward Mendelson pointed out long ago in an essay I’ve already mentioned, the language of the novel is relentlessly religious.

Here’s a passage from Chapter 2:

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant....

She gave it up presently, as if a cloud had approached the sun or the smog thickened, and so broken the “religious instant,” whatever it might’ve been....

And a little later, when she sees a commercial for a housing development that her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, had invested in:

A map of the place flashed onto the screen, Oedipa drew a sharp breath, Metzger on the chance it might be for him looked over. But she’d only been reminded of her look downhill this noontime. Some immediacy was there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead....

As Mendelson comments, Pynchon seems to have borrowed the term “hierophany” from the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, who writes in his book The Sacred and the Profane: “To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany.... From the most elementary hierophany — e.g., a manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree” — or a printed circuit, or a map of a housing development — “to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity.” That is, there is no possibility of accounting for what has been revealed within the structures of everyday experience, no means of domesticating what has shown itself. “We are confronted by ... the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (p.11).

Another way to put this is that the hierophany happens within ordinary space but suggests something beyond ordinary time, something that belongs to or comes from a different temporal order. Therefore, “religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites” (p. 70). Eliade claims that such experiences are “inaccessible to a nonreligious man” (p.71), which would suggest that Oedipa is a religious person — and yet she shows no evidence of participating in any “rites,” any communal worship. This may help to explain her obsession with the possible existence of the Trystero as an organization, a secret community, that bears and transmits revelations of the sacred. Oedipa, like her namesake Oedipus, thus becomes a seeker of truth, a pursuer of religious possibility — a homo religiosus, and perhaps even an anima naturaliter christiana, in this respect not unlike Psyche in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, following her blurry vision from within a kind of cloud of unknowing.

Eliade taught at the University of Chicago for many years but was a native Romanian, and as a young man was an enthusiastic advocate for Romania’s fascist Iron Guard — a fact he later took great pains to obscure. A decade ago Joseph Frank summarized Eliade’s story, along with those of his countrymen Eugene Ionesco and E. M. Cioran, in an essay-review that’s very much worth reading. Here's a key passage:

Sweeping aside all the ideas of the past that had been destroyed in the carnage of World War I, Eliade wrote: "The myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism, all this has been shattered to pieces in every area in which it has been contested."

Frank goes on to argue that Eliade's belief that the fascists alone had the power to overcome the secular "myth" and "faith" of modernity led him to endorse anti-Semitism, not just politically but also intellectually:

Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade's postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much more scholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which "sacred time," the time of religious experience, was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive "sacred time" because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of "the eternal return" by linking God with linear time. "The Hebrews," he writes, "were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God," and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world.

It’s not clear to me that this is correct: In The Sacred and the Profane Eliade emphasizes the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, especially in contrast to other world religions (p. 71), and says that Christianity “goes even further” than Judaism “in valorizing historical time” (p. 110). But I don't know that much about Eliade, and we need not settle that matter here; I just felt that I needed to acknowledge the possibility that there is an even darker side to Eliade's thought than I know. And in any case the tendency of religious people to accept authoritarian political figures as bulwarks against secularism has a certain currency.

But: What matters for my attempt to make sense of Pynchon is that the Christian model of time — “The Christian liturgy unfolds in a historical time sanctified by the incarnation of the Son of God” (Eliade, p. 72) — effectively repudiates “the myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism.” To reassert the power and validity of hierophany is at least to begin to emancipate oneself from the claims of technocracy to account for and then govern the whole of behavior. (It is vitally important here that governance and control are the key terms of cybernetics.) It may seem odd that someone as concerned with emancipation from governance as Eliade was would endorse fascism, but presumably he held some analogue of the Kirkpatrick doctrine: a distinction between authoritarian regimes that, as Auden put it, "leave the self alone" and totalitarian ones that leave nothing alone — secularism and technocracy being on Eliade's account totalitarian.

In any case, hierophany is ungovernable — and in this sense is the counterpart of the anarchic Brownian motion of the Whole Sick Crew in V. We could say that the Whole Sick Crew are living in a kind of permanent carnival — which means, as Bakhtin never tires of explaining, that they are not living a true carnival at all, because the healthy and vigorous carnivalesque never rejects and indeed is wholly dependent on the religious structures that prompt its laughter. And indeed this is why the Crew are “sick” instead of vital. They evade technocracy but (and this is the perennial problem of anarchy) have no alternative structure of meaning and value with which to replace it. They have the community but not the hierophany; Oedipa has the hierophany but not the community. The Crew and Oedipa alike enact signs of contradiction, but what they signify is partial, incomplete. Eliade would suggest that lived Christianity, especially in its liturgy, is the truly effectual sign of contradiction because it unites hierophany and community. Pynchon has not stated his views on this topic.

However, what seems to be held out as possibility in CL49 is something other than either pure anarchy or formal organizational structure. Jesús Arrabal of the C.I.A. — the Conjuración de los Insurgentes Anarquistas — says that a miracle is "another world's intrusion into this one," which clearly invokes Eliade's definition of hierophany, but then he explains what happens when such a miracle occurs: "revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul's talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself." I spoke in a previous post about the cyberneticists' interest in the simple rules from which complex behavior emerges without being planned or directed, and Arrabal envisions what we might call spiritual emergence: anarchy is for him not the goal but the precondition for spontaneous and therefore genuine order.

And isn't this reminiscent of what happens in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends to empower "the soul's talent for consensus" among the variegated disciples of Jesus the Christ? I think of W. H. Auden's comment on that passage:

The Christian church came into being at Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit on that occasion is generally called the gift of tongues, but it might equally as well be called the gift of ears.... As writers, readers, human beings, we cannot speak to or understand each other unless we are first prepared to listen. Of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit is able to bestow, the one for which we should first and most earnestly pray is humility of ear.

And I think it tells us a lot about Pynchon that the closest approach Oedipa Maas makes to experiencing this emergence of spontaneous order from anarchy does not involve either tongues or ears, but rather when she stumbles into a group of wildly, incomprehensibly dancing deaf-mutes.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


My friends (and former colleagues) Jeremy Botts and Richard Gibson have sent me a lovely Christmas gift: the firstfruits of their Manibus Press. Feast your eyes:

Note the subtle Hebrew lettering on the verso:

Beautiful work, my friends! Many thanks to you, and the merriest of Christmases!

the tragedy of couriers

What is the real tragedy of the courier? That he should be the bearer, the transmitter, of messages which he neither initiates nor receives.

This is the great danger for all of us who practice the disciplines of interpretation, as Hegel explained long ago in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion:

There is a type of theology that wants to adopt only a historical attitude toward religion; it even has an abundance of cognition, though only of a historical kind. This cognition is no concern of ours, for if the cognition of religion were merely historical, we would have to compare such theologians with countinghouse clerks, who keep the ledgers and accounts of other people's wealth, a wealth that passes through their hands without their retaining any of it, clerks who act only for others without acquiring assets of their own. They do of course receive a salary, but their merit lies only in keeping records of the assets of other people. In philosophy and religion, however, the essential thing is that one's own spirit itself should recognize a possession and content, deem itself worthy of cognition, and not keep itself humbly outside.

This seems to describe Oedipa Maas through most of CL49, though there is the possibility of her becoming something more at the end. She has been concerned to discover whether there is a message at all, and, if there is, who are the "couriers" of that message — but she is not yet ready to confront what the message is. Not until the last page, when, as the crying of Lot 49 begins, she takes a deep breath....

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

post and courier

People who know almost nothing else about Pynchon know that The Crying of Lot 49 is concerned with the possible existence of a secret postal service, the Trystero, which is a kind of rival or shadow or doppelgänger of the Imperial Reichspost and its successor the Thurn und Taxis Post, the official postal services of the Holy Roman Empire. Postal delivery in its many different forms, I believe, is a vastly underrated element of the rise and consolidation of modernity — I have written a couple of preliminary posts about it here and here. I hope to give the matter more attention in the future, so I can’t resist writing a bit about Pynchon’s transformation of postal delivery into something like a Theme.

If the chapter called “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral” is, as I have suggested, at the heart of V., is the central point from which the book’s various possibilities of meaning radiate outward, I’d say that the equivalent scene in CL49 is the performance of a (made-up) Jacobean revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy. In fact, a plausible case can be made that The Courier’s Tragedy is in some sense a condensation of the whole of CL49. There are multiple analogues.

For instance, in what remains, forty years after its first publication, the best essay, by miles, on the novel, Edward Mendelson comments that “Until the middle of the fifth chapter Oedipa consistently sees the post horn as a living and immediate symbol, actively present in the daily life around her. From that point on she only hears about its past existence through documents, stamps, books — always second-hand. (This distinction is nowhere mentioned in the book, but the clean break after page 131 [in the original Dutton edition] is too absolute to be accidental.)” So this decisive change occurs about three-fifths of the way through the book; meanwhile, in the intermission of the play, after the third of five acts, “Oedipa headed for the ladies’ room. She looked idly around for the symbol [the muted post-horn] she’d seen the other night in The Scope, but all the walls, surprisingly, were blank. She could not say why, exactly, but felt threatened by this absence of even the marginal try at communication latrines are known for.” The transmissions have ceased. Also noteworthy, in light of Mendelson’s comment and the puzzlement that descends on Oedipa in the latter pages of the book, is this description of fourth-act events in the play: “It is at about this point in the play, in fact, that things really get peculiar, and a gentle chill, an ambiguity, begins to creep in among the words.... It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance. Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage.”

I could go on about this for some time, as I’m sure a number of critics already have. (I'm largely, though obviously not wholly, staying away from secondary sources in this re-read.) The play is put on in a Southern California town called San Narciso; certain events in the play revolve around a statue of Saint Narcissus of Jerusalem. Before attending the play Oedipa has just heard about the deaths of Allied soldiers near an Italian lake; in the play soldiers die near an Italian lake. I’m particularly taken by what the director of the play says about his role (which, by the way, involves altering the text): “That’s what I’m for. To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also.” Pynchon’s self-description? Or what he doesn't want to be?

As I say, I could go on, but I’ll stop and ask a question: Why is the play called The Courier’s Tragedy? Because one of the main characters, Niccolò, the rightful Duke whose place Angelo has usurped, disguises himself as a courier. Though he escapes death several times during the course of this exceptionally bloody play, he eventually dies its most significant death.

But maybe there's more to this courier business than a simple disguise. Maybe we should reflect on what a courier is. A courier bears messages without writing or reading them. In that sense couriers are necessary to informational exchange but are outside the communicative circuit. In the fourth act of the play we learn that the dead soldiers, the Lost Guard of Faggio, were in fact ordered massacred by the wicked Duke Angelo, who had their bones burned to charcoal and that charcoal made into ink, which he then employed to write lying messages to those he wished to manipulate or destroy. The Lost Guard had thus become unwilling couriers, transmitters of a message which, being dead, they could not know.

Yet we learn what happened to the soldiers because by an inexplicable miracle the lying words Angelo wrote have transformed into a truthful confession: as through the ink had become conscious and reorganized itself on the paper. The unwilling couriers have somehow become writers, makers of messages. Moreover, this message is found on the body of Niccolò, who thus had in death become not a pretend courier but a true courier indeed. I can’t help thinking here of some famous words from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” — Eliot being a favorite poet of Fausto Maijstral in V., and “Little Gidding” being a poem that hovers over much of Gravity’s Rainbow: “And what the dead had no speech for, when living, / They can tell you, being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

Tongued with fire: earlier in the play one Ercole, a wicked henchman of the wicked Duke, captures an informer named Domenico — Saint Dominic being the founder of the great order of preachers, and the name Dominic being derived from Dominus, the Lord — and, before torturing him to death, cuts off his tongue, sets it on fire, and brandishes it as a torch, crying,

Thy pitiless unmanning is most meet,
Thinks Ercole the zany Paraclete.
Descended this malign, Unholy Ghost,
Let us begin thy frightful Pentecost.

The “zany Paraclete,” the “Unholy Ghost,” does not give the gift of tongues but takes tongues away: poor Domenico has a tongue of fire, but in all too literal a sense, and the flame here destroys the power of communication rather than enhancing and extending it. Ercole and his master Angelo are therefore not anti-Christs but anti-Paracletes, blocking the channels of communication, making people unintelligible to each other.

Two more notes, and then I'll stop for now. First, the play strongly suggests that this communicative revelation, this restoration of intelligibility, is the work of the Trystero. And second, the day we call Pentecost, the day of the Holy Spirit, the day on which people understand foreign languages as clearly as they understand their own, gets its name from the number fifty — while this book is named for the immediately preceding number, which suggests that whatever revelation is made available here it falls just short of the Pentecostal completeness of understanding.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Pynchon, entropy, cybernetics

American Society for Cybernetics

A great deal of learning underpins Pynchon's fiction, and if you're not careful, reading him can pique your curiosity about some of his references and riffs and send you down endless rabbit trails. (And it's all on the internet now! And Pynchon wrote almost all these immensely learned books before the internet! Dude must have spent years in libraries, like scholars used to back in the old days.)

When SHROUD tells Benny, "Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday," it's talking about entropy. Pynchon wrote a story called "Entropy" and he seems fascinated with the concept: I suspect that at least half of the undergraduate papers about Pynchon ever written have taken entropy as their theme. In the long introduction to Slow Learner that I've already mentioned a time or two he acknowledges this interest and mentions that he learned a lot about entropy by reading Norbert Wiener's book The Human Use of Human Beings, so I took some time out from reading Pynchon to read Wiener.

It's an interesting book in some ways, a semi-popular rewriting of his earlier book Cybernetics and a celebration of all the problem-solving the application of cybernetics will achieve. It's rambling, though, and burdened by a woefully inadequate account of language. For Wiener, language is a matter of communication, communication is a matter of messaging, messaging is a matter of information, and information (as Wiener learned from his collaborations with the great Claude Shannon) is a matter of bits. So for Wiener language is simply the transfer of bits. I think Pynchon, whatever debt he may have owed to Wiener, resists this model of language — but more about that in later posts.

Anyway, it seems clear to me that the primary illumination Wiener offers Pynchon may be found, in condensed form, in this passage:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives. Cliches, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.

(If only Wiener had thought through the implications of that last sentence!) The key point here is that entropy comes in two varieties: thermodynamic and informational. And I think it's Wiener's intuition that the world of communication and the "external world" are alike governed by the relationship between organization and disorganization that leads him to conceive of cybernetics as a universal science of control. Thus:

Since the end of World War II, I have been working on the many ramifications of the theory of messages. Besides the electrical engineering theory of the transmission of messages, there is a larger field which includes not only the study of language but the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society, the development of computing machines and other such automata, certain reflections upon psychology and the nervous system, and a tentative new theory of scientific method.

I find this ambition very interesting, and couldn't help trotting down some of those rabbit trails. For instance, Wiener praises very highly a book called Design for a Brain by an English psychiatrist called Ross Ashby, and it turns out you can download that book from the Internet Archive. So I did, and read that too, and it's fascinating to discover that Ashby is one of the first people to conceive of the brain as a kind of computing machine — and to describe the kind of behavior we call "conscious" as something that emerges from a relatively small set of rules, so that the brain is mechanistic but also adaptable. So Ashby anticipates a good deal of later reflection on emergent behavior as well as the deeply misleading notion that brains are computers. You can even see the New Atheists' denial of free will embryonically present in Ashby. (Curiously, Ashby says he believes in consciousness and may even believe in free will, but he thinks such hypotheses unnecessary to explain the design and functioning of the human brain, as Laplace in explaining celestial mechanics had no need for the hypothesis of God's existence.)

It's very important to note that — and this is a topic I have written about before — the ambitions of cybernetics arise from a series of solutions to problems of warfare during World War II, from the encrypting of secret messages to the aiming of artillery. Those who had acquired the know-how to win the war claimed on that ground the privilege of directing the postwar world. The details of these ambitions, of their successes and failures, are traced in a truly remarkable book by Ronald R. Kline, The Cybernetics Moment. Here's a passage from the Introduction to that book in which Kline describes a photograph of most of the key figures in cybernetics that features the anthropologist Margaret Mead front and center:

It might seem odd to today's readers that Margaret Mead sat in a prominent place at the now famous Macy conferences and that she would be remembered a half century later as one of the founders of cybernetics. Why would a world-renowned anthropologist with no expertise or apparent interest in mathematics, engineering, and neuroscience attend all ten meetings, recruit social scientists for the meetings, and undertake the tedious job of editing the proceedings? When the group was first organized, Mead shared the enthusiasm of her husband Gregory Bateson that cybernetics would bring the rigor of the physical sciences to the social sciences. They thought cybernetic models could realistically explain the behavior of humans and society because they contained the information feedback loops that existed in all organisms. This belief was reflected in the original title of the meetings: "Conference on Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biology and the Social Sciences." Everything that Bateson wrote after the Macy conferences – on a wide range of subjects from psychiatry to animal learning – testified to his belief in the power of cybernetics to transform human ways of knowing. The conferences convinced Mead that the universal language of cybernetics might be able to bridge disciplinary boundaries in the social sciences. The presence of Mead and Bateson among the mathematicians, natural scientists, and engineers in the group photo symbolizes the interdisciplinary allure of cybernetics and information theory....

In the 1950s, scientists were excited that Wiener and Shannon had defined the amount of information transmitted in communication systems with a formula mathematically equivalent to entropy (a measure of the degradation of energy). Defining information in terms of one of the pillars of physics convinced many researchers that information theory could bridge the physical, biological, and social sciences. The allure of cybernetics rested on its promise to model mathematically the purposeful behavior of all organisms, as well as inanimate systems. Because cybernetics included information theory in its purview, its proponents thought it was more universal then Shannon's theory, that it applied to all fields of knowledge.

This enthusiasm led scientists, engineers, journalists, and other writers in the United States to adopt these concepts and metaphors to an extent that is still evident today.... The traces of cybernetics and information theory thus permeate the sciences, technology, and culture of our daily lives.

Emphases mine. By the way, some elements of this history have featured in writings here at The New Atlantis: see essays and posts by Adam Keiper, Charles T. Rubin, and David Frantz, among others.

So, after this long detour, back to Pynchon. I think Pynchon's early fiction demonstrates a complicated and ambivalent response to the claims of cybernetics and information theory. There's no doubt that he owes a lot to his reading of these thinkers, and indeed I would argue that you could see V. and The Crying of Lot 49 as a kind of cybernetic diptych, with the former focusing on entropy as a concept in thermodynamics and the latter on entropy as a concept in information theory.

And I am also inclined to see Pynchon's recurrent interest in marginal and chaotic figures, tricksters and buffoons, as an implicit critique of the mechanistic models of thinking and language articulated by Ashby and Wiener. The Whole Sick Crew in V. are indeed kinda sick — as one marginal member of the group rightly says, "there is no one of us you can point to and call well" — but they are also exemplary of what Michael Bakhtin called the human surplus, that which is left over after the scientists and mechanists have made all their calculations, that which the calculations of cybernetics can never quite account for. In this light, Pynchon's praise of Kerouac's On the Road as one of the great American novels makes a lot of sense. Pynchon stands at the intersection of Kerouac and Wiener, the Beats and the Cyberneticists.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The brilliance of Judge Woolsey

From Louis Menand’s New Yorker essay on literary books banned for obscenity:

“The term “obscene” is a conundrum. Is an expression obscene because it’s arousing or because it’s gross? Is the relevant affect lust (a pleasurable feeling) or disgust (an unpleasant one)? Brennan tried to split the difference with a new term. “Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest,” he wrote.

The Supreme Court had used “prurient” only once before in its history. That was in Mutual v. Ohio, decided in 1915, when the Court held that motion pictures are not protected by the First Amendment—the decision overturned in the Miracle case. In Mutual, the Court noted that “a prurient interest may be excited and appealed to” by movies, but made no more of it. Brennan cited Mutual, but he saw fit to add definitions of “prurient” from other sources as well: a “tendency to excite lustful thoughts,” a “shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion,” and an expression “substantially beyond customary limits of candor.”

Possibly sensing that the scattershot nature of his definitions simply provided prosecutors with more weapons, Brennan tackled the problem from another direction. He defined what would not count as obscenity. “All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance—unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion—have the full protection of the guaranties,” he wrote. “Implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.””

I wish Menand here had mentioned an earlier notorious incident in this history, Judge John M. Woolsey’s 1933 decision to allow Joyce’s Ulysses to be published in the United States. Woolsey’s reasoning is superior to that employed by Justice Brennan, and some of the later arguments that Menand describes could have been handled more effectively if Woolsey had been more frequently invoked. Woolsey demonstrated that the laws against “obscenity” are misnamed: they’re really meant to be laws against pornography. If you look at their contexts, such laws are always seeking to ban books that arouse people sexually. But for Woolsey, who thought about these matters philologically, “obscenity” is a much broader concept and may not even overlap that much with pornography. He argued that pornography has one main, usually exclusive, purpose: sexual arousal. But one may write an obscene book — an offensive, a shocking book — for many reasons. (For instance, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” is obscene, and obscene in a righteous cause.)

So, Judge Woolsey argued, to the question “Is Ulysses obscene?” the literally correct answer is Yes. But the laws do not really mean to prohibit the publication of obscenity — they use that word carelessly and inaccurately. They mean to prohibit the publication of pornography, so the proper question to ask here is “Is Ulysses pornographic?” And the answer, to Woolsey, is clearly and obviously No. Therefore, he ruled, Ulysses may be published in the United States of America.

It was a decision both brilliant and correct, but because its logic had been largely forgotten by the time of the trials that Menand describes, those debates were muddier than they had to be.

Pynchon, Henry Adams, and the twentieth century

I mentioned in a previous post Pynchon's interest in The Education of Henry Adams, and I think that interest might profitably be linked with certain others. In his introduction to Slow Learner Pynchon describes his early reading of the novels of John Buchan and how from Buchan and other writers of thrillers he learned to be interested in a particular period of history:

The net effect [of reading many books in this genre] was eventually to build up in my uncritical brain a peculiar shadowy vision of the history preceding the two world wars. Political decision-making and official documents did not figure in this nearly as much as lurking, spying, false identities, psychological games…. My reading at the time also included many Victorians, allowing World War I in my imagination to assume the shape of that attractive nuisance so dear to adolescent minds, the apocalyptic showdown.

(I wonder whether he read The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers — a superb example of the genre. I bet he did. )

It's noteworthy, first, that this is the period in which several of Stencil's historical reconstructions in V. are set, and likewise the whole of Against the Day (that behemoth which looms before me). And it is precisely the period that Henry Adams describes in The Education. Moreover, in that aforementioned chapter on “The Dyanamo and the Virgin” Adams's chief interlocutor is Samuel Pierpoint Langley, one of the pioneers of aviation, who designed and built airships — and one of the chief plots of Against the Day features the group of teen airshipmen called the Chums of Chance.

So while the contrast between the Virgin and the Dynamo is clearly vital to Pynchon, it's really the whole period that captured his imagination, in a way that he has never really got over. He seems, like Virginia Woolf though for very different reasons, to have concluded that at some point in the early twentieth century human nature changed — or perhaps the world itself changed.

We'll get back into these questions when we get to Against the Day, but Louis Menand — who may be the most insightful critic of Pynchon now that Edward Mendelson has for lo these many years been occupied by other things — wrote in his review of of the novel:

I can’t do the math, but I think that the idea behind “Against the Day” is something like this: An enormous technological leap occurred in the decades around 1900. This advance was fired by some mixed-up combination of abstract mathematical speculation, capitalist greed, global geopolitical power struggle, and sheer mysticism. We know (roughly) how it all turned out, but if we had been living in those years it would have been impossible to sort out the fantastical possibilities from the plausible ones. Maybe we could split time and be in two places at once, or travel backward and forward at will, or maintain parallel lives in parallel universes. It turns out (so far) that we can’t. But we did split the atom—an achievement that must once have seemed equally far-fetched. “Against the Day” is a kind of inventory of the possibilities inherent in a particular moment in the history of the imagination. It is like a work of science fiction written in 1900.

Reading this I'm reminded of C. S. Lewis's comment in his great history of sixteenth-century literature that while the distinctions among science, magic, and alchemy all seem pretty straightforward to us, they did not seem nearly so straightforward five hundred years ago, when a single figure might practice all of them with no sense that he was engaged in multiple and conflicting activities.

We'll see, when we get to the Behemoth, whether like Menand I see it as a book largely about possibilities now foreclosed that were once open — a book that writes the past as though it were the future. But for now I just want to register the point that this sense of being stuck somehow between past and future, of trying to navigate what one has inherited while simultaneously watching much of that inheritance evoporate in the heat of an increasingly technological society, and of not knowing what exactly to think about all the changes and what they mean — all this is in Henry Adams, and it's no wonder he was (is?) so important to Pynchon.