Czech translation courtesy of Daniela Milton
Russian translation courtesy of Timur Kadirov of Genchi Wallpaper
Copyright © 1996 Wes Chapman
Like everything else in Gravity's Rainbow, the drawing resists rigid interpretation. The culvert where the drawing is found is the place where Geli Tripping will find Tchitcherine and turn him away from his obsessive quest to kill his half-brother Enzian; we could take the drawing as a foreshadowing of this event. In this interpretation, the man would be Tchitcherine, the flower would be Enzian (enzian is the German word, after all, for gentian-flower), and the elf-woman would be Geli, approaching to work her magic. If this interpretation is correct, then the drawing is a powerful symbol of the possibility for good in Pynchon's universe, for Geli's diversion of Tchitcherine is an important instance in the book where the power of love triumphs over a character's obsession with destruction.
If human beings have stepped out of the role of firer, then the rocket has begun to fire itself, according to its own needs; technocracy has grown so far out of control that it no longer seems to serve human motives at all. The Buddha in the culvert scene thus again suggests the surrender of the personal and human to the technocracy, to Blicero's "structures favoring death."
The masturbator, physical or emotional, is the ideal citizen: isolated from others by the steady stream of images which seems to be available for every need -- not only sexual needs, but spiritual ("pornographies of Christian love"), aesthetic ("pornographies of sunsets"), and intellectual ("ah, that sigh when we guess the murderer") -- he or she is unlikely to form the bonds with other people which threaten the effectiveness of the "structures favoring death" by affirming the value of life.
No, of course, he never told her. He never told anyone. Like every young man growing up in England, he was conditioned to get a hardon in the presence of certain fetishes, and then conditioned to feel shame about his new reflexes. Could there be, somewhere, a dossier, could They (They?) somehow have managed to monitor everything he saw and read since puberty . . . how else would They know? (GR 71-2)
There is a vicious political cycle operating here. On the one hand, Pirate Prentice's complicity with the "structures favoring death" is assured by his response to the sexualization of those structures (he literally gets his orders by ejaculating on Their exciting new military equipment). On the other hand, his sexuality has been conditioned by the images which They have been providing him all his life. For Thomas Pynchon as for Oscar Wilde, life imitates art; the several discourses of society -- movies, books, opera, popular music, etc. -- create those who consume them. In Gravity's Rainbow, Von Göll's propaganda film about black troops in Germany precedes reports from Germany about the Schwarzkommando, as if the film had literally given life to the people. The gang-rape scene from Alpdrücken spawns shadow-children, both the literal flesh and blood kind like Ilse and a series of replays: Margherita Erdmann, continuing her history of becoming the roles she plays, replays the scene with Slothrop, who in turn finds that "someone has already educated him" in the fine art of sexual cruelty (GR 395-6).
Pynchon's rewriting of cultural codes, a replication-with-a-difference similar to the "repetitive signifying" advocated by Butler, also implies a "subversion of identity." The narrative of Slothrop's quest for identity, for example, does not end, as we feel such a quest story should, with a climactic realization, but with his gradual dispersal until he is "scattered all over the Zone" (GR 712). As Molly Hite puts it,
The analogy between Butler's parody and Pynchon's extends only so far, however, because of the differences between their cultural positions. Butler is a lesbian feminist; the "subversive repetition" she has in mind is drag, which, "[i]n imitating gender . . . implicitly reveals the imitative nature of gender itself -- as well as its contingency" (137). But this reading of drag applies only within its cultural context. A straight male who, in the company of other men, dresses up in women's clothes in mockery of women is surely reinforcing the "naturalness" of gender roles within that circle of men by emphasizing the Otherness of women. Butler acknowledges this when she writes that "[p]arody by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony" (139). I would argue that one of the most significant factors in deciding whether repetitions subvert or reinforce the status quo is the cultural context of the act of repetition, including the cultural position of the person performing the repetition. The drag performer, by subverting codes of gender and sexuality, opens up a space for an alternate sexual identity disallowed by hegemonic culture. The performer brings a particular sexual history to the performance, and thus is prepared to occupy the space consituted in the act of performance. But what cultural space is opened up by a performance of subversive repetition by a straight male, whose identity is thoroughly legitimated by the hegemonic culture? The space which straight men are prepared to occupy by their sexual histories is simply their usual cultural positions. This is why Slothrop must simply disperse at the end of the novel; as power operates in and through his identity, and there is no alternate identity for him to occupy, his only political recourse is to cease to occupy any subject position whatsoever. What R.W. Connell calls "exit politics" -- the attempt "to oppose patriarchy and . . . to exit from the worlds of hegemonic and complicit masculinity" (220) -- is imaginable only if there is an alternate state or position to which to exit.
As in her discussions with Pynchon, Beal here minimizes the distinction between plants and animals on the one hand and "non-living" beings like minerals; if the "only difference" between them is the ability to reproduce, then in other ways they are the same (so, perhaps, rocks are sentient, as Beal had argued to Pynchon earlier).
For Beal, man has turned away from the earth to "violence and annihilation," just as for Pynchon humanity has turned away from the Titans to the "structures favoring death." But for Beal, this turning away is specifically coded according to gender; the "man" in the previous sentence refers to men, not to humanity. Conversely, women are a key part of the Earth's counter-struggle: the earth is triggering in women, who are open to the message of survival because they "have always known all things are alike and precious," a "genetic reflex for species survival," which consists of a disentanglement from "male violence and annihilation." In Gravity's Rainbow, the genderedness of Beal's vision is lost; the Titans in Greek mythology were half male and half female.
The word you in this passage, as throughout the book, disallows the reader any distance from the objectifying, abusive attitudes which it critiques. But to the extent that this passage and others like it assume that the narrative's you and we include everyone, it falsifies the actual positions of men and women with respect to social discourses. I doubt very much that many female readers can feel comfortable identifying with the "you" who says "count me in" and "probably some hooker." Men are by far the greater consumers of pornography; men constitute by far the larger proportion of rapists and sexual abusers; women are far more frequently the victims of rape and sexual abuse. "We" may all have been at the movies, as the narrator says, but we have been watching different shows, and more importantly have watching the shows from quite different cultural positions. Gravity's Rainbow conceals this positionality with its dizzying profusion of discourses; what Susan Bordo calls the postmodern "dream of being everywhere" collapses in key moments to a "view from nowhere" which is in fact a male-centered view (143).
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1For example, Victor Seidler is openly hostile to post- structuralist theories of gender construction, in part because they make it difficult for men to "recognize the poverty of one's experiences and relationships," discounting the very category of experience as "exclusively a construction of language or discourse" (xii-xiii). back
2In the introduction to Against the Tide, Michael Kimmel distinguishes among three kinds of response to feminism: anti-feminist, masculinist, and pro-feminist (9-15). These categories, I would argue, are useful for characterizing direct male responses to feminism, but require the addition of an additional category, that of anti-masculinist, to take account of indirect responses to and appropriations of feminism, such as Pynchon's. Feminism has entered into men's consciousness in subtle and concealed ways; the results have often been positions which call for a redefinition or repudiation of masculinity but which are not necessarily feminist. For discussion of an early example, see my "Blake, Wollstonecraft and the Inconsistency of Oothoon," forthcoming in the Summer 1997 issue of Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. back
3The male-authored texts Modleski discusses date from the 1980's, but I see this particular era of "feminism without women" as part of movement with longer historical roots. (In my discussion below, I will mention only texts which respond to or appropriate the most recent wave of feminism and thus fall approximately into the same historical moment as the texts discussed by Modleski, but texts by writers such as William Blake and James Joyce can be seen as examples of the same phenomenon associated with earlier feminist movements.) Early Men's Liberation texts such as Warren Farrell's The Liberated Man (1974) and Jack Nichols' Men's Liberation (1975), roughly contemporary with Gravity's Rainbow, are predicated on the assumption that gender is socially constructed, and are suffused with an anxiety about gender (sometimes in the form of overcompensation, as when Farrell attempts to negate the idea that "women's liberations is a threat to men (italics in original) by outlining "twenty-one specific areas in which men can benefit from what is now called women's liberation" 175). Texts like these, along with writings by Derrida and Lacan (for discussion of whose appropriation of "woman" see Heath 4, 6-7), are important male-authored pretexts for the outpouring of male gender criticism in the 1980's. Jonathan Culler's "Reading as a Woman" in On Deconstruction (a text which does not seem to me to reveal significant gender anxiety) is the earliest Anglo-American male-authored text I know of (besides Pynchon's) which deconstructs gender. Jardine and Smith's Men in Feminism (1987), some essays of which are discussed by Modleski, was a high point of male self-consciousness of gender anxiety, focusing to a considerable degree on the "impossibility" of men's relationship with feminism identified by Stephen Heath in "Male Feminism" (1984) and on women's skepticism towards male feminism, exemplified by Elaine Showalter's "Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year" (1983). This "impossibility" is discounted by Joseph A. Boone in "Of Me(n) and Feminism: Who(se) is the Sex That Writes," the opening essay in Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism (1990), a volume which, aside from the opening and closing essays, consists not of feminist criticism but of male-centered gender criticism. The distinction is made clearly in Claridge and Langland's Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism (1990), despite that volume's origin in an MLA panel called "Male Feminist Voices." Although in general male gender critics have followed this trend away from feminist criticism toward gender criticism, issues of gender anxiety still resurface in such texts as Roger Horrock's Masculinity in Crisis (1994) and R.W. Connell's Masculinities (1995). back
4Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 733. References to Gravity's Rainbow are id in the text, abbreviated GR. back
5Slothrop and Geli Tripping also create huge shadow-figures in the sky when they stand (and dance, and make love) on the Brocken at sunrise (I am indebted to Molly Hite for making the connection between this scene and the impassive figures associated with the Palm Sunday raid). As are so many scenes which feature Geli, this is a scene of ambiguous possibility; Geli and Slothrop in effect occupy the same position as the Palm Sunday bombers, but within that position they make love, they attend to their own pleasure rather than the needs of Blicero's deathkingdom. This ambiguity is reinforced by the passage's reference to Titans, an image the ambivalent political value of which I will discuss below. Clearly the impassive figures in the sky, angels of death though they may be, are not all-powerful, even if their influence is inescapable. back
6See "Against the Avant: Pynchon's Products, Pynchon's Pornographies" in Marginal Forces/Culture Centers: Tolson, Pynchon and the Politics of the Canon, in which, reading Pynchonian pornographies as a form of "anamnesia," Michael Berube also argues that pornographies are crucial in forming and controlling sexual identities (252-255). back
7I am implicitly disagreeing here, albeit mildly, with Marjorie Kaufman's conclusions in "Brunnhilde and the Chemists: Women in Gravity's Rainbow," surprisingly one of the few critical works on this novel to use an explicitly feminist methodology. Kaufman takes issue with a letter by Adrienne Rich which asks, "What are the themes of domination and enslavement, prurience and idealism, male physical perfection and death, 'control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort,' 'the turning of people into things.' . . . the objectification of the body as separate from the emotions -- what are these but masculinist, virilist, patriarchal values?" (225). Kaufman replies that "If what Ms. Rich means is that male-oriented literature supports those 'themes' as positive values, then Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow can be read as a thinly disguised treatise written to support the views of radical feminism and its analyses of 'patriarchal history' and 'patriarchal society'" (225). She continues on to say that "such a reading commits violence to the novel," asserting that "Ms. Rich's conflation of events turns the complex world into a simplistic dogma of sexual means and ends" (225). While I agree that an image must be read in a particular context, and that the political valence of an image can be complex, I don't find it "simplistic" to ask whether a preponderance of masculinist images carries a load of political baggage regardless of how any individual image is used or undercut. back
8Given the scarcity of biographical data on Pynchon, it is difficult to identify precisely just how indebted Pynchon was intellectually to the feminist movements of the 1960's. Although Beal is the only feminist directly identified, I suspect that Pynchon's debts to the feminist movement were both broad and deep, for there were several feminists interested, as Pynchon was, in the confluence of sexuality and militarism. A few well-known examples: in the "SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto," Valerie Solanis lists a series of crimes for which the male, because of his "obsession to compensate for not being female" is responsible; the first of these is "War" (578). In "No More Miss America!," woman's objectification as sex symbol is linked directly with the military: "The highlight of [Miss America's] reign each year is a cheerleader-tour of American troops abroad-last year she went to Vietnam to pep-talk our husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends into dying and killing with a better spirit. . . . The Living Bra and the Dead Soldier" (586). The fact that Geli Tripping is a witch may allude to the "phenomenon" (the word is Robin Morgan's, 603) of WITCH, a loose collection of feminist groups or perhaps simply a style of feminism of the late 1960's. As for other feminist groups of the time, for the WITCH covens patriarchy, militarism, and economic exploitation were interlinked; thus the Washington D.C. WITCH coven hexed "the United Fruit Company's oppressive policy on the Third World and on secretaries in its offices at home ('Bananas and rifles, sugar and death,/ War for profit, tarantulas' breath/ United Fruit makes lots of loot/ The CIA is in its boot')" (Morgan 604, Morgan's emphasis). Gravity's Rainbow does not directly allude to the documents identified above, and Pynchon may never have read them. However, they show that some of the gender issues that Pynchon was interested in were current in feminist circles at the time; Pynchon, presumably living within some kind of countercultural network at the time, could have been exposed to these issues from similar sources. If this is so, then what I identify later in this essay as a marginalization of women's issues is all the more acute. back
9I am indebted to Stuart Moulthrop for making this connection. back
10I am indebted to Molly Hite for pointing out to me the implicit maleness of the "you" in the novel, but see Bernard Duyfhuizen's "A Suspension Forever at the hinge of Doubt: The Reader-Trap of Bianca in Gravity's Rainbow." back
11Modleski, discussing the masochistic element in some male feminist criticism, notes that the masochist does not necessarily cede power to the punitive mother nor call into disrupt the hidden power of the law of the father (69-74). back
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Boone, Joseph A. "Of Me(n) and Feminism: Who(se) is the Sex That Writes." In Boone and Cadden, 11-25.
---, and Michael Cadden. Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. New York: Routledge, 1990.
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---. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
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Kaufman, Michael. "Men, Feminism, and Men's Contradictory Experiences of Power." Theorizing Masculinities. Ed. Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994. 142-163.
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"No More Miss America!" In Morgan 584-7.
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Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. Trans. C. F. MacIntyre. Berkeley: U of California P, 1961.
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Solanis, Valerie. "The SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto." Excerpted in Morgan, 577-583.
Tololyan, Khachig. "War as Background in Gravity's Rainbow." In Clerc, 31-67.
Copyright © 1996 Wes Chapman