Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Prolegomena to any future metaphysics

John (the keeper of commonplacebook) and I have considered attempting a joint read-through of Gravity’s Rainbow, and we read The Crying of Lot 49 as a propaedeutic to this activity. Here is a post he wrote in response to that book. The first part of my response to the book (though not really to John) follows; I shall post it in installments. Certain readers of this page may find my essay insufficiently engagiert, especially given that it concerns a book that so obviously foregrounds social and political themes. As I shall read it for the purposes of Fort Kant, Pynchon’s text argues for the unconditional value of subjectivity, and in this respect defends a sort of deontological ethics, which, if you go in for this sort of thing, must be the starting point of any just social arrangement. (I think this is what the Chávez quote from yesterday's post is suggesting.) The mode of The Crying of Lot 49 is not philosophical but archival; its care for intelligent life is expressed in the sadness of knowing that the subjective and imaginative lives of others cannot be preserved. To be sure, what circulates through individual minds is largely borrowed from social discourses that have real effects in terms of power. But however it is mediated and determined, whatever images and fragments of discourse constitute it, the phenomenon of having a world is real. Its content cannot be reduced to the subject’s role in economic relations, and its value is absolute.

1. Let us make some connections, though our conclusion may be that our capacity for making connections is more interesting than any particular connections we might make

I’m the sort of reader who stars and returns to those passages of a novel that suggest that it has a symbolic order, and that this order is immanent in the world; passages broad enough in their reach to suggest that one can see through their gels the whole of creation, but open enough to suggest that the constellation of their connections can never be completed; those passages where the author, following an impulse more poetic or philosophical than novelistic, spirals off from the narrative into a phantasmagoric succession of images that overloads the part of our brain that makes sense of figurative language, a rhapsodic moment of vision that promises the truth of the novel but ranges too far into the unsayable for us to bring home any stable, sentence-shaped meaning, that, like psychoactive drugs, allows us to make too many connections at once.

It is natural, then, that I am drawn to Thomas Pynchon, who both indulges the desire for such experience and thematizes it in his multiply iterated texts, any careful reading of which enacts those movements of self-consciousness and visions of surplus meaning in which thinking touches but cannot hold on to its own essence, in which we seem to glimpse the place where metaphor is made, only to find that our representation of it is another figurative construct, the transcendent agent of which we can depict in so many forms but never lay bare.

The Crying of Lot 49is such a concatenation of overlapping, heterogeneous visionary moments, with little non-visionary matter outside of their kaleidoscopic view that could confirm or falsify the patterns they suggest. Our experience as readers is formally the same as that of the protagonist: “Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knows how many parts.” Our attempts to synthesize the text’s proliferating meanings might amount to nothing, each dawning gestalt dissolving back into mere data.
Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back.
The Crying of Lot 49 doesn’t assign this sort of experience a stable value, either epistemologically or morally. Critics make much of the problems of knowledge that the book poses, and we can debate the veridicality of Oedipa’s experiences of connection, speculate on what grounds their apparent coherence, and, by reflexive extension of these concerns, speculate on own position as interpreters of texts. But what’s I’m interested in here is the book’s concern with the place of such experiences in the life of human beings.

The text has a misanthropic mode that pathologizes experiences of meaning, as well as a humanistic one that affirms them as life’s sole value. The compositional strategy of the book’s misanthropic mode is sinister metafiction, and it effects a psychosis of recursion that leaves us as bleary-eyed and overwatched as Oedipa after her night of revelatory encounters and discoveries in the Bay Area.

But the private eye sooner or later has to get beat up on. This night’s profusion of post horns, this malignant, deliberate replication, was their way of beating up. They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.
In this passage Precision Pynch puts himself forth as the sort of evil genius (though not a Maxwellian demon—more on that in the next installment) that Joyce famously aspired to be, packing Ulysses with almost-but-not-quite coherent goodies to tantalize the professors for generations to come, enacting a nerdy kind of bullyism that befits the failed scholar (one subspecies of the man of ressentiment). He knows the ganglia of our optimism (because they are his, too, though he’s found a more tasteful way of dealing with philosophical temptations than producing criticism), and he has crafted through malignant, deliberate replication the perfect object of theoretical literary criticism; a book that has in excess all the markings of something knowable and masterable but that eludes coherent summary or explanation; a book that promises to confirm all conjectures and to falsify none; a self-decomposing and -reconstituting work that suggests as many possibilities as it closes off. (And unlike those purported metafictions that dwell on the situation of the writer and recursively reinscribe the MFA candidate a dozen different ways in the course of one photocopied short story to be distributed for next week’s workshop, and that suggest that the only fictions worth being anxious about were those produced by writers, I think Pynchon’s text succeeds in erasing distinctions between the fictional and the metafictional.)

The book is cruel to critics not just in the sort of reading it enforces but in what it asserts about them. It expresses fondness for conspiracy theorists, and a great deal for ordinary spinners of extraordinary fantasy, but none for the literary scholar (though its suitable unsuitability to scholarship must be interpreted as a sort of gift). This contempt is expressed in several ways, but Randolph Driblette, the director who stages the version of The Courier’s Tragedy that Oedipa watches in San Narciso, gets in the worst dig against those who would interpret literature. He chastises Oedipa for her persistent and literal-minded and “scholarly” interest in what the original text of the Wharfinger play says about the Trystero assassins: “You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible.” The play doesn’t exist in the text, but in Driblette’s mind, he claims, and though he lends his cosmic vision to the audience for a time, his intellectual property is ultimately inscrutable and unavailable for research.

You could fall in love with me, you can talk to my shrink, you can hide a tape recorder in my bedroom, see what I talk about from wherever I am when I sleep. You want to do that? You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several […]. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth. Wharfinger supplied words and a yarn. I gave them life. That’s it.
The force of this last accusation ripples through the rest of the novel: you could waste your life that way and never touch the truth. Driblette’s intentions are unavailable, to Oedipa, to us, and to himself—this is the meaning of his suicide—and Oedipa would never get closer to them than she already was in watching the play. Whatever truth there might have been in The Courier’s Tragedy was spent in its performance, a temporary staging of meaning, and it cannot be recovered or reconstructed, made present and made whole again.

The same, of course, is true of human life. In the next installment, we shall consider further the suggestion that the capacity to see meanings in things is not a form of psychosis, but the basis of any possible authentic experience.


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