Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

the Rathenau seance

The most distinctive element of Thomas Pynchon’s account of modernity, and the element that makes it so vital, is its uniting of theological and technological reflection. Though this truth is rarely acknowledged, a properly theological account of modernity will also be a technological account; a usefully technological one will also be theological. That Pynchon seeks the union of these two typically divergent perspectives made quite explicit in one of the most important scenes in Gravity’s Rainbow, a séance in which a group of Germans from “the corporate Nazi crowd,” makers of armaments, attempt to contact the spirit of Walter Rathenau, who had been Foreign Minister in the Weimar government until his assassination by a reactionary terrorist group, Organization Consul, in 1922.

There are certain obvious reasons why these people might want to hear from Rathenau. He had been “prophet and architect of the cartelized state. From what began as a tiny bureau at the War Office in Berlin, he had coordinated Germany’s economy during the World War, controlling supplies, quotas and prices, cutting across and demolishing the barriers of secrecy and property that separated firm from firm—a corporate Bismarck, before whose power no account book was too privileged, no agreement too clandestine.” But he was not merely a wielder of great power: “he was a philosopher with a vision of the postwar State. He saw the war in progress as a world revolution, out of which would rise neither Red communism nor an unhindered Right, but a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority.” A philosopher, then, of a world in which government is subordinate to commerce, in which the titans of industry are the real power behind the throne: a Hegel of Taylorism.

So the interest of the corporate Nazis in Rathenau is easily explained. And yet there is something else: “Generaldirektor Smaragd and colleagues are not here to be told what even the masses believe. It might almost — if one were paranoid enough — seem to be a collaboration here, between both sides of the Wall, matter and spirit. What is it they know that the powerless do not? What terrible structure behind the appearances of diversity and enterprise?” An obscurely portentous question, one to reflect on.

The medium succeeds in reaching Rathenau, who speaks at some length and gives explicit instructions to the group. Near the end of their conversation, he sums up his appeal to them in an especially powerful and provocative way:

“These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs. All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth — I know I presume — you must look into the technology of these matters. Even into the hearts of certain molecules — it is they after all which dictate temperatures, pressures, rates of flow, costs, profits, the shapes of towers… .

“You must ask two questions. First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control? (167)

I am tempted to say that any theology adequate to the Anthropocene era will be an extended commentary on this passage.

What Rathenau says here seems to be self-contradictory. On the one hand he speaks dismissively of “secular history” as a “diversionary tactic”; but then he counsels these titans of industry to “look into the technology of these matters.” In our typical understanding, inquiry into technology, exploration of its power, simply is secular history: to account for events in the world by reference to technology is to assume — and here we employ Max Weber’s famous phrase — the disenchantment of the world.

But this is not how Rathenau sees it (or Pynchon either). If to “look into technology” — “even into the hearts of certain molecules,” molecules that have been created by scientists, as we shall later see — is a refusal of secular history, then the clear and troubling implication is that technology is not a set of disenchanted tools or instruments but rather what the Apostle Paul would call a Power: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). It is not clear whether Rathenau thinks that this Power is one for his industrialists to struggle against — perhaps he rather wishes them to harness or cooperate with it — but it is clear that for him there is nothing “secular” about the Power that is technology. If Hegel wrote the Phänomenologie des Geistes, the spirit of Walter Rathenau is asking his listeners to write the Phänomenologie des technologischen Geistes — the phenomenology of technological Spirit.

At some point in the early 1960s, Pynchon wrote a letter to his former Cornell roommate Jules Siegel, which Siegel later published, noting that “Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend”:

When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, ‘Southern California’s special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.’ …

“The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn’t prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

“Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescenses, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn’t know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself.”

Pynchon’s fiction is devoted to inventorying the many ways in which "the world” abandons our souls, and the various forces it abandons them to. That body of work is primarily, and profoundly, diagnostic in character. It is not the novelist’s job, Pynchon seems to think, to prescribe a treatment, though he suggests a few, and suggests further that the motion of our lives may not be Brownian, that is, random, the product of mere entropy. It is at this pivot from diagnosis to prescription — this point of a great V — where Pynchon’s fiction intersects with Christian theology.

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