Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

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.


  • Wonderful stuff, Alan. You're right, I think, that the novel is almost suspiciously busy on the 'form' (as it were) of communication, the networks and the sigils and the outwards appearances, and remarkably silent about the content of what is being communicated. I hadn't previously read Mendelson's essay, so hadn't realised his very suggestive point about the post horn, the way it cycles from presence to a kind of lost past. Very interesting. I suppose I wonder if the 'content' of what is being passed back and forth by all these mysterious couriers isn't so much occluded as plain-viewed throughout: it's this sense of loss, of grief. Oedipa in her unhappy marriage; all those dead soldiers you mention, and Pierce Inverarity's demise; Doctor Hilarious's grisly past staffing the Concentration Camps. Entropy, madness, belatedness. The content of these messages is sorrow, isn't it? The final scene gives us one, specialised meaning for the titular 'crying'; but there's a more obvious, human meaning right there in front of us the whole time. Isn't there?

    I'm reminded of another novel from about the same time (published 1963, to this novel's 1966) by another writer living in California: Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Dick plays similarly tricky, if less baroque and literary, games with various possible realities, alt-histories and so on; but although we can never be quite sure what's real and what's not, it's not a turtles-all-the-way-down relativism. There is something underlying all the reality-games and trickiness, and it's unearthed by Joe, Juliana and Tagomi go through accounts of what in our timeline we call the 'Holocaust'. That's the bedrock, in Dick's vision. Towards the end of the novel Tagomi has a kind of dark revelation: 'Down underneath? There is evil. It is actual. Like cement'. This ('evil is not a view') is the ethical heart of the novel, and what justifies, I think, Dick importing the Holocaust into a Pulp SF adventure. Pynchon is also playing with the Holocaust in Lot 49, amongst a great many other things.

  • Adam, thanks much for this — I'm taken by the connection to TMITHC. I wonder if Pynchon read Dick? Or much SF at all? He's working within some of its structures and procedures, but his obvious debts are elsewhere....

    Now, about suffering, about which perhaps the Old Masters were indeed never wrong, but I suspect you may be wrong, because it seems to me that suffering is not the content of any message in CL49, but rather what calls for a message. Suffering is mute, and the role of interpretation is to give it intelligible voice (as when the bone-based ink bears witness against the murderer Angelo). In Genesis 4, God says to Cain, "What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground" — and it's noteworthy that this verse gives to Catholic moral theology the category of peccata clamantia, sins that cry out for God's judgment. But typically they only cry out metaphorically, which is why I think it's such a shiver-inducing moment early in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell when the stone voices of victims and witnesses in York Minster begin indeed to cry out for justice.

    Isn't it all the suffering with which Oedipa is surrounded that makes her long for the communication that will interpret (if not justify) it all?

  • (You may of course end up proving me wrong, but in any case that's an extremely helpful comment.)

  • Well, I wonder about that. I may only be registering that this novel struck me as possessing, if you'll forgive me my vagueness of terminology, a different, more melancholy vibe than perhaps it strikes you. If I'm reading you correctly, this for you is a novel hovering on the edge of meaning, maybe even shimmering with possibility. I'd agree it's a very busy novel, and even in places a funny one, but neither of those qualities seems to me incompatible with a deeper sense of sorrow. The affect I get from the book is sadness (maybe that's just me). And you're quite right to question the PKD link. I've no idea if Pynchon read Dick, although he was a very niche, SF-genre-only writer in the 60s (and quite niche even within genre). Doesn't the introduction to Slow Learner talk about Pynchon's admiration for John Le Carré? I daresay it's more likely he was reading spy stories at this time, and that probably is a more germane context for Lot 49.

  • Adam, I think it's an immensely sad book, and Pynchon withholds any consolations. But I think Oedipa's quest is largely a quest for consolation — or at least distraction from sadness. Whether the Trystero has a message that has the power to console, or whether Oedipa's whole obsession with it is just a way of avoiding thinking about the miseries of life, is perhaps the chief unresolved question of the book. "Your gynecologist has no test for what she was pregnant with," Pynchon says late in the book: could be something healthy and wonderful, could be a monster, could be something stillborn. But something is going on inside her.

    I'm honestly not sure what Pynchon is doing there at the end. I just outlined three possibilities: a plus, a minus, a null. But in her last meditative scene Oedipa seems to imagine only two:

    "She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth."

    Maybe even the revelation of some terrible meaning to History would be consoling, would count as "transcendent." I think of the moment in Gravity's Rainbow when Slothrop starts to suspect that there may be no plot at all, no coherent story, and starts to long for his old familiar paranoia, a story in which he was one of the preterite, reprobate, "second sheep." A story controlled by those whom Pynchon regularly calls Them might be better than no story at all. (That's what Shelley's Prometheus seems to have thought when he says to his tormentors: "Pain is my element, as hate is thine.")

    Anyway, Oedipa is deeply sad, and rightly sad, and we leave her waiting to discover — if it can be discovered — whether the story has "transcendent meaning" or is no story at all, just "the earth." But I do think that the waiting is key. Near the end of *V.* Benny Profane, caught in the endless flow of the sensible world, confesses "I don't think I've learned a goddamn thing." Meanwhile, Stencil, the man of the intelligible world, has plenty of evidence that V. is dead, died on Malta during World War II in her guise as the Bad Priest, and yet he flies away at the end of the book in pointless pursuit of another "possibility." Oedipa at the end of CL49 is neither incapable of understanding nor desperate for a particular meaning: rather, she waits. In that sense she is not like the riddle-solving Oedipus, nor the Oedipus who failed to solve his own riddle, but ratherm maybe, Oedipus at Colonus: coming to some sort of peaceful resignation at the end of long struggle and suffering.

    That's how I think I see it at the moment, anyway.

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