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.

listening, then transmitting

“It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.” … He did not pause then so much as wait, as one might before a telegraph sounder, for some affirmation from the far invisible.

— Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

In a comment on an earlier post someone asked me how the work of David L. Schindler and Michael Hanby relates to my project on Anthropocene theology. It’s a good question, and I’m going to answer it here by painting with a pretty broad brush.

In works like this and this, Schindler and Hanby do something quite legitimate and often valuable: as Catholic theologians, they assume that Magisterial teaching and Holy Tradition are adequate to the interpretation of this moment, as they are to every moment, in human history; and they seek to discover and then communicate the ways that that is so.

There are other projects which do something similar, though perhaps in less theologically conservative ways: see, for instance, the essays in this excellent collection on transhumanism — a phenomenon related to but largely distinct from posthumanism. Speaking quite generally, we can say that these scholars share with Schindler and Hanby share an interest in finding out out what theology has to say to, and about, technological modernity.

My project is rather different in that I am going to try to listen to both the anxieties and the hopes of the Anthropocene world and allow them to speak back to theology. In this endeavor writers like Thomas Pynchon are actually more important than the self-proclaimed priests and prophets of a New Order — the Kevin Kellys and Ray Kurzweils — because they make elaborate contrapuntal compositions that capture much of the complexity of living within a world that feels both anthropocentric and (necessarily, I argue) posthuman.

Now, I wouldn’t be doing this project if I didn’t think that Christianity has something to say to the Anthropocene world. But precisely what it has to say is something I want to be patient about discovering. I need to be sure I can tune fairly precisely to those frequencies before I attempt to transmit messages along them.

Not incidentally, I consider it a very good omen that this long essay on Christianity and transhumanism appeared just as I was beginning these posts. I’ll have more to say about Meghan O’Gieblyn’s essay, but for now I’d just like to note that this is not the first example I’ve seen of a strangely smooth transition from an extremely conservative (essentially fundamentalist) religious context to some kind of post-condition — the locus classicus for this kind of thing is Michael Warner’s brilliant essay “Tongues Untied,” which concerns how Warner transitioned from a “teenage fundamentalist” to a “queer atheist intellectual” — which, it turns out, spolier alert, is not nearly as great a transition as others might think.

Tolkien’s riddles

The Riddles of the Hobbit is a riddling book about a riddling writer, a philological exercise concerning the works of a philologist. I wish there were more books like this. Literary critics tend to stick firmly (ruthlessly) with the standard critical idiom even when the texts they’re writing about are fundamentally incompatible with that idiom. I admire Adam for letting Tolkien’s habits of mind pull his (Adam’s) prose into an eccentric orbit. There’s a very funny imaginary dialogue between the Sphinx and Oedipus in which Oedipus refuses the Sphinx’s interpretation of its own riddle (“your riddle mixes metaphor and literal application in an inconsistent manner”); and an especially nice turn near the end where Adam comments that “the early medieval romance Ringe describes its hero as ’ane hubbity-duppety fellowe yclepit Fraodo, þat wiþ greete heorte did þe Ringe of powre destrowe” — to which he adds, in a helpful footnote, the information that “There is, of course, no actual medieval romance entitled Ringe.”

But these are not mere jokes, though they’re good jokes: they’re also ways of reflecting on riddling and the pursuit of riddles (including the kind of riddle-pursuit that in humanistic scholarship we call “source-hunting”). The book offers much more sober insights into Tolkien’s tale-telling and language-playing habits, too, but it always wears its critical hat at a rakish angle. I loved it and felt that it did more to get me thinking tolkienially (to coin a term) than almost anything I’ve read about old JRRT, Tom Shippey’s wonderful work alone excepted.

Here I just want to take up one of the secondary themes in the book, which is the relation between Tolkien’s preference for riddles and his deep commitment to a religion, Catholic Christianity, which has at its heart certain mysteries. Adam is quite clear that riddles and mysteries are not the same, but he doesn’t say what I’m going to say here, which is that each is the mirror image of the other. The proper relation between riddle and mystery is absolute opposition.

We can start with two points. First, Adam quotes Robin Chapman Stacey’s claim that “riddles function, in almost every culture in which they appear, as a means by which one person lays claim to power over another”; and second, at one point he pauses to comment that “one of the things this book is trying to do is … to engage imaginative ingenuity as the proper idiom of riddles.” Putting these two points together we see that in contests of riddles ingenuity is the form that power takes: especially since, as Adam also points out, the stakes of riddle-games are so often life and death, to pose a riddle to someone — and equally to accept a riddle-challenge — is to bet your life than you are more ingenious than the other person.

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

Paul returns to this theme in the very last verses of the letter to the Romans, where he looks forward again to the apokalypsin mystēriou — the unveiling of the mystery, the sacramentum. And when will this happen? In 1 Timothy 6 we learn that God the Father will bring the “manifestation” or “revealing” of Jesus Christ, kairois idiois, in his own good time, at the opportune moment. And that cannot be forced or hurried or even known by anyone else.

It sounds like I’m preaching a sermon here, but I’m actually trying to lay out a semantic field, one part of which is occupied by riddles, enigmas, which human beings can at least in principle solve, and the other part of which is occupied by mysteries that are not even in principle soluble, by obscurity that we cannot dissipate: rather we must wait for God to unveil those mysteries in his own time. This is the sense in which I claim that riddles and mysteries oppose one another.

I said in my previous post that Pynchon is a riddling writer, but he is also concerned with those insoluble obscurities that cannot be fought but must simply be waited out. Thus in the last paragraph of Inherent Vice Doc Sportello is simply waiting out a thick California coastal fog — and hoping that when it clears there will be something else there, something other and better than the world he knows. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa Maas — Oedipa! — simply takes a deep breath and awaits what the “crying of Lot 49” will reveal. And in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Pynchon’s fiction, the passage that I think will give my book on Pynchon its title, we hear a (relatively minor) character say:

“It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.” … He did not pause then so much as wait, as one might before a telegraph sounder, for some affirmation from the far invisible.

Waiting — waiting “for some affirmation from the far invisible” — not striving. No ingenuity here; just patient hope.

After all this it is interesting to return to The Hobbit, and especially the conclusion of the riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum. Bilbo wins “more by luck (as it seemed) than by wits,” Tolkien says in his Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, and in more than one way. First of all, he can only even get his last chance to stump Gollum because, in trying to ask for more Time to think, he stumbles on the answer to the game’s penultimate riddle. (He finds the answer but never knows the answer.) And then, of course, “What have I got in my pocket?” is even more problematic, within the rules of the game, than the Sphinx’s inconsistencies. Again from the Prologue to LOTR: “The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere ‘question’ and not a ‘riddle’ according to the strict rules of the Game; but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise.” And by so accepting Gollum put himself in a position where his power over Bilbo — his superior physical strength and shrewdness of riddling — are trumped by … well, by something else.

If what Bilbo has is luck it is extraordinary luck — too extraordinary for Gandalf to accept that explanation, as he says to Frodo: “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it.” In fact, then, the riddle-game is resolved not by ingenuity (which Bilbo lacks), and not even by luck, but by some unnamed force who has decided that the kairos moment, the Appointed Time, has come. What we have in Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring is not cleverness or skill or bravery or any other human virtue, but an apokalypsin mystēriou, the unveiling of a mystery. The riddle-game marks the end, in this tale, of the sovereignty of riddling.

Pynchon’s riddles

In the opening chapters of Against the Day Pynchon hints at certain oddities in the space/time continuum of the book. Consider this:

The Chums of Chance could have been granted no more appropriate form of “ground-leave” than the Chicago Fair, as the great national celebration possessed the exact degree of fictitiousness to permit the boys access and agency. The harsh nonfictional world waited outside the White City’s limits, held off for this brief summer, making the entire commemorative season beside Lake Michigan at once dream-like and real.

As though the Chums come from some other world, some (to us) fictional world, and cam only have “access and agency” in a place as fanciful and make-believe as the White City of the World’s Columbian Exhibition.

Just a couple of pages later we are introduced to the detective Lew Basnight:

Lew looked around. Was it still Chicago? As he began again to walk, the first thing he noticed was how few of the streets here followed the familiar grid pattern of the rest of town— everything was on the skew, narrow lanes radiating starwise from small plazas, tramlines with hairpin turns that carried passengers abruptly back the way they’d been coming, increasing chances for traffic collisions, and not a name he could recognize on any of the street-signs, even those of better-traveled thoroughfares … foreign languages, it seemed. Not for the first time, he experienced a kind of waking swoon, which not so much propelled as allowed him entry into an urban setting, like the world he had left but differing in particulars which were not slow to reveal themselves.

“Like the world he had left” but somehow not that world. It is a theme which recurs throughout the novel, which seems particularly interested in thin places conceived not on the model of Celtic spirituality but arising from the creation of modern physics, from the theories of relativity to the multiverse hypothesis. And as he had done in Mason & Dixon Pynchon seems to be suggesting that the work of science does not reveal the world we live in but actually brings it into being — with somewhat different worlds being brought into being in the universes next door, into which and out of which his characters sometimes slip.

The language I’m using here — “suggest,” “seem,” “hint” — indicate that this is a riddling sort of book, and indeed Pynchon is a riddling sort of writer. I think of a verse from Auden: “When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?” Pynchon seems always to prefer “going round” because “where we are” is also where we might not be. Perhaps more apt still would be the great conclusion of Wallace Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”:

                                             A more severe, 

More harassing master would extemporize 

Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory 

Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, 

In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, 

The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.

The intricate evasions of as — evasions which are also revelatory, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

And then as I was reflecting on Pynchon as the great Riddler what should turn up in my mailbox but a copy of Adam Roberts’s The Riddles of the Hobbit? I shall comment on that in my next post.

fear and loathing in recent American history

It’s been said — I wish I knew who said it first — that fantasy is always about disenchantment, about the draining of magic from the world. Certainly disenchantment is one of Pynchon’s obsessions, and the fantastic elements of his stories tend to emphasize loss. There’s a moment late in Mason & Dixon, when our heroes are returning from their adventures in the wilderness, and they discover that their companion the poet Timothy Tox is accompanied by a Golem:

But as ’twill prove, the closer they escort Mr. Tox to the Metropolis, the less Evidence for his Creature’s existence will they be given, till at length they must believe that the Poet has either pass’d, like some Indian Youth at the Onset of Manhood, under the Protection of a potent tho’ invisible Spirit,— or gone mad.

The city’s powerful engines of disenchantment overwhelm and dissipate the magic that arises from the unregulated wilderness. Experiences of the supernatural must thereafter be either invisible, indiscernible to the Sensorium, or a token of insanity. And then after a while those who had had such experiences wonder whether they even happened at all. They eventually “fade into the light of common day.”

Where has it gone, the glory and the dream? And can it be recaptured? This sense of being in-between haunts Pynchon’s fiction: I find myself thinking of Matthew Arnold “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.”

I think one cause of this tendency in Pynchon’s fiction is generational. Pynchon is roughly the same age as Ken Kesey, who once said that he was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie — that is, his life fell between two excited and excitable movements of countercultural possibility. Kesey tried to overcome that in-betweenness by main force — the main force of an artificial community, the LSD-fueled Merry Pranksters. And of course it didn’t work; it couldn’t have worked. There are a lot of people like the post-Pranksters Kesey in Pynchon’s fiction: old druggies like Zoyd Wheeler or Doc Sportello, becalmed, in the doldrums, waiting out the coastal fog as Doc does at the end of Inherent Vice, hoping for something, anything, to happen. Pynchon’s characters are often half-remembering or hoping to remember some idealized past, some lost Lemuria or Atlantis, and half-watching for some Vision to appear on the horizon of the future. The Second Life-like video game DeepArcher in Bleeding Edge is an attempt to enforce this Vision by the main force of digital technology: the technological sublime, accessible always to the connected user!

In the Sixties the “connected users” were potheads and acidheads, and if Kesey was the chief Merry Prankster of such secular hope in the latter part of the decade, following the pioneering work of Timothy Leary, its dark Joker was Hunter S. Thompson. An early paragraph in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas goes,

The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

If that won’t immanentize the Eschaton, what will?

But Thompson actually knows that it’s all bullshit, that he is continuing practices and habits that he doesn’t believe in any more. At one point he pauses in his wild trip through Vegas to say,

We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. After West Point and the Priesthood, LSD must have seemed entirely logical to him… but there is not much satisfaction in knowing that he blew it very badly for himself, because he took too many others down with him.

And Thompson is one of those. Elsewhere in the book he writes the true epitaph of the Sixties, in a passage whose tone might be quite recognizable to those on today’s left trying to reckon with Trump, in a passage that Thomas Pynchon could have written:

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

growth and form

D Arcy Wentworth Thompson 1860 1948In my previous post I explored some of the biological contexts of the idea of morphosis, form-changing, in Pynchon’s work. But I also hinted at the moral, the theological, and the literary-imaginative uses of the immensely rich concept of form.  In light of all this it’s worth noting that by general consent the most remarkable endeavor in the history of biological morphology is D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s massive and magisterial On Growth and Form — over 1100 pages in its second edition of 1942.

Pretty much everything about Thompson is fascinating, but I’d like to call particular attention to the fact that he was a classicist as well as a biologist and mathematician. Legend has it that at the University of St. Andrews he was offered his choice of professorships in classics, mathematics, or zoology (though his very versatility, and the unpredictable views it spawned, meant that he was never hired at Oxford or Cambridge, though he applied several times for jobs at those universities).

He became a hero and model to, among other scholars, Stephen Jay Gould, who in 1971 published a wonderful essay about Thompson — and published it in New Literary History, later to become the leading journal of literary theory. In that essay, a revised version of Gould’s senior undergraduate thesis at Antioch College, Gould comments that

D’Arcy Thompson’s mathematics has a curious ring. We find none of the differential equations and mathematical statistics that adorn modern work in ecology or population genetics; we read, instead, of the partitioning of space, the tetrakaidekahedron, the Miraldi angle, the logarithmic spiral and the golden ratio. Numbers rarely enter equations; rather, they exemplify geometry. For D’Arcy Thompson was a Greek mathematician with 20th century material and insights. Growth and Form is the synthesis of his two lives: eminent classicist and eminent zoologist. As he stated in a Presidential Address to the Classical Association (1929): “Science and the Classics is my theme today; it could hardly be otherwise. For all I know, and do, and well nigh all I love and care for (outside of home and friends) lies within one or the other; and the fact that I have loved them both has colored all my life, and enlarged my curiosity and multiplied my inlets to happiness.” 

(“Multiplied my inlets to happiness” — what a delightful phrase.) The geometrical character of Thompson’s biological mathematics keeps him close to the sensually accessible character of actual creatures: he uses geometry to describe things we can actually see. And this positions his work within the same ambit as literature and ordinary language, something he was quite aware of. Gould’s essay takes as its epigraph at important sentence from the latter pages of On Growth and Form: “Our own study of organic form, which we call by Goethe’s name of Morphology, is but a portion of that wider Science of Form which deals with the forms assumed by matter under all aspects and conditions, and, in a still wider sense, with forms which are theoretically imaginable” (emphasis mine).

This notion of a “wider Science of Form” was immensely attractive to Gould. In The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, his attempt, published just weeks before his death in 2002, to write his own magnum opus along the lines of On Growth and Form, Gould makes an interesting comment on the sources of his mature thinking about evolution:

I read the great European structuralist literatures in writing my book on Ontogeny and Phylogeny. I don’t see how anyone could read, from Goethe and Geoffroy down through Severtzov, Remane and Riedl, without developing some appreciation for the plausibility, or at least for the sheer intellectual power, of morphological explanations outside the domain of Darwinian functionalism — although my resulting book, for the last time in my career, stuck closely to selectionist orthodoxy, while describing these alternatives in an accurate and sympathetic manner.

That “selectionist orthodoxy,” which he would later call “Darwinian fundamentalism,” became for him the chief enemy of a truly universal science of form, the kind of thing that Thompson had imagined, an account that could potentially be equally useful in illuminating the structure of crystals, the petal arrangements of roses, the  shape of a novel’s plot.

I don’t yet know, but I have a suspicion that meditation on these themes will be useful to me as I try to come to grips with Thomas Pynchon’s body of work. And I have this sinking feeling that at some point I’m going to have to reckon with Goethe’s role in this history….


Here’s a passage from my review of Adam Roberts’s edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria:

As the culmination of the long repudiation of [David] Hartley’s thought, Coleridge famously opposes this Imagination (later divided into Primary and Secondary) to the “Fancy,” which “has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.” The Fancy indeed merely plays with the “counters” that have been given it by the memory; “it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.” If we were reliant only on the Fancy, we would indeed be Hartleian beings, shuffling our fixed and defined impressions like cardboard coins; but as beings made in the image of God, Coleridge says, we can do more: “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”

The importance of this distinction is evident from Coleridge’s redeployment of it in other terms elsewhere in the Biographia: “Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις [morphosis], not ποíησις [poiesis]” — shaping, not making. Roberts, whose background in classics serves him very well as an annotator of Coleridge, points out that “when Coleridge uses [morphosis] in the Biographia he has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the King James version translates as ‘form’” — mere form, as it were, mere appearance. And it may be also that Coleridge is thinking of the New Testament uses of poiesis and its near relations as well: for instance, when Paul writes of human beings (Eph. 2:10) as poiesis theou — “God’s workmanship”; God’s poem.

(Not incidentally, Adam’s blog is called Morphosis.) I’ve just discovered in my Great Pynchon Re-Read that the word “Morphosis” is used five times in Mason & Dixon, though not, it seems, in Coleridge’s sense of the term. Here’s the best example:

If you look at the OED entry for the word here’s what you see:

(You might have to right-click or control-click on the image and open it in a new window or tab to see it properly.) The very bottom is the first relevant thing here, since, in the passage earlier cited from Mason & Dixon, the apostrophe at the beginning of the word suggests that it is an abbreviation of “Metamorphosis” — and indeed, all five uses in the novel employ the apostrophe. 
But it’s also worth noting that Maskelyne — this is Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811 — clearly uses the word in a pejorative sense: morphosis is “veering into error.” (I can’t help being reminded here of the root meaning of hamartia — the New Testament word for sin, and Aristotle’s word for some trait of the tragic hero that no one has ever been able reliably to identify — is to “miss the mark.” This is all very Pynchonian, who is obsessed with vectors, especially tragic ones.) And most of the meanings of morphosis listed in the OED are either subtly or clearly pejorative: John Owen’s identification of Catholicism as an inadequate morphosis of true faith, which is clearly derived from the biblical meaning of mere semblance; but also the medical sense of a “pathological” or “morbid” change of form — the most obvious example of which being a malignant tumor, which is nothing other than unchecked morphosis: the healthy organ does not so change, but rather retains a stability of form and function. 
What makes all this especially interesting for the reader of Mason & Dixon is that three of the five uses of the term occur within a few pages, and all refer to Vaucanson’s famous Digesting Duck, who plays a significant role in the story by virtue of having become animate and articulate: the duck refers to this as his ‘Morphosis. And this should call to mind an earlier post about the Bad Priest in V. and her “progression towards inanimateness.” To be animate, to be organic, is necessarily to undergo morphosis, and so life itself, in this account of things, is therefore intrinsically malignant, cancerous. 
The view shared by the Bad Priest and the animate duck is perhaps the opposite of that articulated in the famous closing sentence of Darwin’s Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (form being, of course, μορϕή). For the Bad Priest evolving, changing, is itself an evil — perhaps the root of all evil — and certainly not something to take delight in, as Darwin did. 

And this preference for the inanimate over the animate may be interrogated from another perspective as well. In a wonderful essay from many years ago — one which I cannot, alas, find online — Wendell Berry describes his encounter with an advertisement celebrating a John Deere tractor as an “earth space capsule” that fully isolates its driver from the outside world with all its changes of weather. Berry finds it both curious and sad that farmers, of all people, would desire to be so separated from the natural world. And he comments, more generally, 

Of course, the only real way to get this sort of freedom and safety—to escape the hassles of earthly life—is to die. And what I think we see in these advertisements is an appeal to a desire to be dead that is evidently felt by many people. These ads are addressed to the perfect consumers: the self-consumers, who have found nothing of interest here on earth, nothing to so, and are impatient to be shed of earthly concerns.

After all, the perfect “earth space capsule” is the coffin. 
Pynchon’s novels return again and again to this fear or hatred of organic life, of time and change, not to celebrate it, but to understand it. I suspect that for him this repulsion is at the heart of technological society, of a culture-wide compulsion to trust in and defer to the inorganic and the human-made — which is, ultimately, a form of idolatry: as the Psalmist says, “They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.” 
There is much more to be said about all this, and I hope to say some of it in this book on Pynchon and theology that I am trying to write. For now I’ll just note that my respect for Pynchon’s acuity on all these matters — respect that was already verging on awe — has just been significantly increased by my reading of Jessica Riskin’s astonishing book The Restless Clock. I can’t say too much more, because I have just written a lengthy review of Riskin for John Wilson’s forthcoming joint Education and Culture, and I’ll link to that review in due course (probably in a couple of months); but the combination of reading Riskin and reading Pynchon has seriously altered my understanding of the last five hundred years of intellectual and cultural history, and has significantly intensified my belief that the only truly theological account of modernity is one deeply immersed in the technological history of this past half-millennium. 

brief Pynchon update

Well … I know I said I was going to stop blogging my way through Pynchon, but I am grateful for the comments I’ve been getting (both on this blog and via email) — they really help me to think through these issues. So I need to find a way to keep getting those benefits without, as an editor put it to me the other day, “giving away the farm” — that is, putting all my best ideas here and thereby making a book superfluous. So after taking a bit of a break to read some other things — I am rather pynchoned-out at the moment — I’ll be back with thoughts on Mason & Dixon and then Against the Day. (I have many, many thoughts about Gravity’s Rainbow, but those are giving-away-the-farm sorts of thoughts.)

does Pynchon write good novels?

(the other two I’m reading digitally)

Reading Pynchon — especially in the large quantities I am ingesting this holiday season — is a peculiar experience for this long-time lover of fiction, because, I find, I don’t know whether Pynchon writes good novels. Indeed, it’s not obvious that he writes novels at all. I do not doubt for a moment that he is a great genius and that his ideas reward all the attention you choose to give them; I’m not questioning that; every step further into his fiction reaffirms that judgment; but his books are very peculiarly made and I can’t say with any confidence whether they are well made. I could only make such a judgment if I were confident that I know precisely what Pynchon is trying to do, and I lack that confidence.

Some critics have argued that Pynchon writes Menippean satires rather than novels, and I’m sympathetic to that argument — indeed, I have said the same about C. S. Lewis, who shares with Pynchon an interest in the drama of ideas and tends also to create characters who are embodiments and mouthpieces of ideas. Northrop Frye’s comment that “the novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect” is exceptionally pertinent to Pynchon, I think.

But even granted that genre identifier, I still find myself in a constant state of puzzlement about what Pynchon is trying to do at any given point in any given book. I’m in Vineland right now, and I’m finding, to paraphrase what someone famously said about Wagner’s operas, some magnificent moments and some really brutal half-hours. So, to cite a fresh example, why, why, in the middle of the book, do we get page after page of the adventures of Vato and Blood, the proprietors of V&B Tow? They have, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to do with anything — they’re just what, in a review of Against the Day, Louis Menand calls “Pynchonian wallpaper.” It gets tiresome enough in a 400-page book like Vineland, so I am trying to prepare myself for dealing with it in a book three times as long.

Now, let me make a distinction here: also in Vineland we hear a good deal about birds — never at the forefront of tha narrative, but often in the background, eating dog food or watching, from outside a window, what this book invariably calls the Tube, or being alarmed by human violence, or whatever. At the moment I have no firm idea why they’re there, and I may never feel that I’ve figured it out, but there is clearly some purpose to their frequent appearances. I can say the same about Pynchon’s use (elsewhere but esp[ecially in this book) of multiple levels of nested flashbacks. But Vato and Blood’s inability to sort out the lyrics of the songs they try to sing together? Useless crap, as far as I can tell.

Maybe that useless crap was fun to write, though. Reading Pynchon, I think that he always has some very clear sense of what a given book is fundamentally about, what he wants to accomplish with it, but I also feel that he just indulges himself sometimes, in a what-the-hell-I’m-Thomas-effing-Pynchon spirit. And if so, then that makes his books less well-made, less coherent and beautiful as aesthetic objects. I once heard the philosopher Nick Wolterstorff comment that his sense of what makes for a good, strong argument was shaped by his having come from generations of woodworkers and cabinetmakers, arts in which he himself was instructed: a sound argument for Nick needs to fit together precisely, to have smooth and tight joints. No image could be less appropriate to a Pynchon novel, which seems to be thrown together any which way and yet clearly rises to a towering height and shows no signs of toppling over.

Which is another way of saying that the techniques of artistic making employed by Pynchon are obscure to me: Not only am I often confused about what he’s trying to do, I can’t even see what tools he’s using to do it. In his great book on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, John Bishop cites a comment by friend of Joyce’s who was helping him insert ever more obscure foreign words into the text, but whose suggestions were sometimes met by a pause, and then: “I can’t use it.” Bishop notes that this enigmatic response suggests that Joyce’s methods were “darkly principled”: he had a thought-out rationale, but it wasn’t one he was sharing even with those who had come to help him. I can’t help wondering if many of Pynchon’s most inexplicable passages aren’t also and equally “darkly principled.” But even if they are, in a hundred years I could never guess what Vato and Blood are doing in Vineland.

a change of plan

Re-reading Gravity’s Rainbow — for the first time in decades — has been a remarkable experience. Among other things, I had forgotten how dark the book is and how interested in bizarre sexual practices. But if rereading his first two novels had already begun to reward my intuition that Pynchon was going to help me understand the technological history of modernity, GR has exceeded all my hopes. In fact, one scene in particular illuminated a great deal that had been in darkness to me, and after reading it I began to discern the order and shape of the intellectual landscape in new and exciting ways. A narrative, a kind of critical theological meditation on the emergence and development of the modern world, started to come together in my mind.

But see, I can’t talk about that here. Because now all this stuff is going to have to be a book, and editors don’t like it when the key elements of a book are already available for free online. And truth be told, I am reluctant to put this new understanding forth in half-baked ways. I need to get to work on organizing and developing it properly, with clarity and scholarly depth.

So the Great Pynchon Read-Through is going to continue, but I won’t be blogging it — at least, not the central insights that emerge from it (I might follow some more rabbit trails). My apologies to the three of you who care.

Tomorrow: a recapitulation of my year in technology.