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.