Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

V.2: the progression towards inanimateness

Picking up where we left off:

In the scenes we looked at last time, we saw certain structurally similar ideas being raised, that common structure being the V-shape as signifying both convergence and divergence. And so far we have been especially attentive to the divergence of mirrored time-frames, and the convergence of the animate and inanimate. It’s the latter I want to focus on, in a very spoilery way, here. So caveat lector.

V. has, very roughly speaking, two halves, one set in 1954-1956 and tending to center on Benny Profane, and the other set in various times because it’s comprised of stories told, historical reconstructions made, by Herbert Stencil. (Eventually the two characters converge upon one another before, near the end, diverging again, as though a mirror were set up at the point of a V.) I say that I’m speaking very roughly here because Stencil is doing much of this reconstruction while temporarily attached to the same semicoherent network of friends and acquaintances and frenemies, the Whole Sick Crew, that Benny Profane is also temporarily attached to. So while, when immersed in V., you spend a lot of time reading about events that happen in Egypt in 1898, Florence in 1899, Paris in 1913, South-West Africa in 1922, and Malta in 1919 and 1942-43, in a sense they’re all coming to you via Stencil in New York City in 1955-56. (It is very rarely that one can make a simple declarative statement about events in a Pynchon novel.)

Anyway: Stencil tells his stories, reconstructs history as best he can either grasp or imagine it, in order to discover the identity of a woman whom his father referred to in his journals only as V. As his stories proliferate, V. becomes more than a woman, becomes a place, an image, a series of possibly contradictory symbols. But though all this confusion we discern that Stencil has identified a single woman, moving under various names (Victoria, Vera, Veronica) in most of the places noted above — usually appearing where the vectors of history converge in tension or outright conflict.

In the chapter of the book called “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral” — which may be a reconstruction by Stencil but which I tend to think is read by him, and therefore more reliable, within the frame of the novel, than his own speculations — we see, or seem to see, the death of V.

In Malta during World War II a charismatic figure shows up whom Fausto refers to as the Bad Priest. The Bad Priest seems to be especially interested in warning young people away from sex: he wants girls to become nuns, to “avoid the sensual extremes” of pain (in childbirth) and pleasure (in sexual intercourse), and to pursue Jesus as the only worthwhile Bridegroom; he wants boys to “be like a crystal: beautiful and soulless,” like the rock that is Malta itself. The animate world — “whatever is begotten, born, and dies,” in Yeats’s words — is to be shunned, though perhaps not, as in Yeats, in favor of “monuments of unageing intellect.”

In a German bombing raid the Bad Priest is crushed in a collapsed building beneath a fallen beam. He is not immediately killed, and is found first by a group of children and then by Fausto. Though he asks for help, the children only mock him (while Fausto stands by, doing nothing). They remove his hat, only to find a wig of white hair, which they also remove, revealing on the scalp a tattoo of the Crucifixion — and also revealing that the Bad Priest is a woman. The children systematically and chillingly remove everything from her: first her shoes, which are revealed to contain artificial feet — we learn elsewhere in the book that V., in Malta twenty years earlier, has longed for artificial feet, feet that could be changed — a sapphire stitched into her navel, a glass eye “with an iris in the shape of a clock” — these we also see elsewhere — and false teeth. All these the children take (“She comes apart,” they say) as Fausto looks on. Eventually all that is left is the nude body of a dying woman, a body that looks younger than it should, but is also partly “disassembled.” Without holy water or oil, Fausto, who had once thought of being a priest, administers the sacrament of extreme unction using the woman’s own blood, which wells up in her navel after a boy has pried away the sapphire. Fausto writes to his daughter: “I have been over it, Paola, and over it. I have since attacked myself more scathingly than any of your doubts could. You will say I had forgotten my understanding with God in administering a sacrament only a priest can give.... At the time I only knew that a dying human must be prepared.” (But later he asks of himself: “And why did he not stop the children: or lift the beam?”)

I have related this terrifying and eerie scene at such length because, as I say, I think it is at the very heart of the book; and because V.’s “progression towards inanimateness,” as it is described in the novel’s epilogue, is catalogued here so thoroughly; and because it intensifies, if it does not clarify, Pynchon’s exploration of the difference between the animate and the inanimate.

One book that is clearly very important to Pynchon — he even mentions it himself, twice, in his introduction to his collection of early stories Slow Learner — is The Education of Henry Adams, and especially the chapter called "The Dynamo and the Virgin," set in the year 1900.

It is the Dynamo that builds modern America; it was the Virgin who built Chartres. What strikes Adams in this chapter is that the Virgin is not an image of beauty or taste or sublime holiness but rather an image of power: the Virgin, he realizes, is the force that raised up the walls of Chartres, and deserves to be recognized as such.

The knife-edge along which he must crawl, like Sir Lancelot in the twelfth century, divided two kingdoms of force which had nothing in common but attraction. They were as different as a magnet is from gravitation, supposing one knew what a magnet was, or gravitation, or love. The force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes, and seemed to be as potent as X-rays; but in America neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force — at most as sentiment. No American had ever been truly afraid of either.

But Adams is perhaps on the verge of growing afraid.

As Edward Mendelson points out, V. is the Virgin who gradually transforms herself into the Dynamo, who gradually exchanges the frailties of flesh for the hard cold soullessness of inorganic, inanimate stuff. Perhaps she despises the power that is hers by (human) nature, perhaps she prefers a different source and model of power; we are not told, at least not directly. There is perhaps a hint near the end when she says, “I would so like to have an entire foot that way, a foot of amber and gold, with the veins, perhaps, in intaglio instead of bas-relief. How tiresome to have the same feet: one can only change one’s shoes. But if a girl could have, oh, a lovely rainbow or wardrobe of different-hued, different-sized and -shaped feet....” This suggests a deep-seated impatience with the given, with what I inherit, what I do not will and choose.

One way to describe V., the virgin who has become a dynamo, is as a cyborg, a fundamentally ambiguous fusion of the animate and inanimate: it's impossible to say whether it is primarily a supplementing of flesh by technology or a supplementing of technology by flesh. In this light it's interesting to reflect on an essay Pynchon wrote in 1984 about the Luddites:

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come -- you heard it here first -- when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.

No, we didn't hear it there first. We heard it first when SHROUD spoke back to Benny Profane and said, "Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday."

Oh, and one more thing: SHROUD wears false teeth, and I think I know where they came from.


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