Monthly Archives: April 2012

I shall speculate a little more on the way Pynchon has used the tourism trope to organise the narrative of Against the Day.

In ‘Plots, Pilgrimage and the Politics of Genre in Against the Day’ (in Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupt Pilgrim’s Guide, 2011) Amy J Elias develops her reading of metahistorical romance in Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (2001). The metahistorical romance renders representation problematic, asking how we know what we know; the pilgrimage offers a narrative towards a goal that can never be reached, one always elsewhere, precisely because we can take no reading for granted. In my last post the historical sublime was related specifically to the representation of war. However, in Chapter 40 (AtD: 568ff), Dally has just arrived at Venice and the historical sublime is expressed as a function of tourism: ‘that irregular seethe of history reduced to a few simple ideas’ (574). Later, with reference to Venetian history, Hunter speaks of ‘a hundred forms of bourgeois literalism, leading to its ultimate embodiment, the tourist’ (579).

On 568, as Dally arrives in Venice, the narrative describes her reaction to a tourist speaking ‘in a vilely mucous specimen of British Accent’ (568). An outsider herself, Dally wishes to distance herself from

… this pest and his replicas in their thousands, they were like the gnats who rose in clouds here at nightfall, their purpose to infest the Venetian summer, to enhance its splendour with earthly annoyance, to pass quickly as they must, driven off, forgotten. (568)

One might see the ‘effusive companion’ here as doubling Dally for, immediately preceding this passage, we have read her own reaction to ‘the pure Venetian evening …’ etc, explicitly a representation: the scene given as ‘the blue-green shadows, the lavenders, ultramarines, siennas and umbers of the sky’ might be recalled later when we find Hunter ‘work[ing] at getting Venice “down”, as he put it’ (575). However, on 568, both passages have emphasised the failure of representation, by drawing attention to the sound of the tourist’s voice and the sight that has so affected Dally, one that has been put into words we are not given access to. Subsequently, on 575, a reference to the Chums again emphasises representation with ‘stories about [the Campanile’s] fall had multiplied’ and ‘reports of an encounter in the sky’. Certainly the reader should remember the event from earlier in the novel; but the account offered here by ‘[s]treet urchins and lucciole’ reminds us that this is Dally’s highly subjective reading, one dependent on her own response to Venice. Put simply, she has no access to the reader’s recollection of 255-257.

In her discussion of quest, picaresque and pilgrimage, Elias emphasises the importance of movement in Against the Day and notes that ‘the system of pilgrimage complexly reconfigures time and space’ (Elias 2011: 34); her discussion here could be illustrated by Dally’s progress through this chapter.

By 574 she has been left alone in Venice, ‘earning a living …, putting to use the many light-handed and quick-fingered skills and the fast talk that went with them …’ etc, even taking advantage now of those same tourists as they pause ‘on the way to better-known landmarks around town’. From Dally’s point of view, tourists are

changing [Venice] from a real city to a hollow and now and then outright-failed impersonation of itself, all the centuries of that irregular seethe of history reduced to a few simple ideas, and a seasonal human inundation just able to grasp them.

A page later, on 575, Dally is distanced from ‘the American girls, breezing along the Riva without a care …’ etc, her own gaze juxtaposed to ‘the covetous gazes of naval officers, guides, and waiters’. Moreover, by this time, of course, Dally is in disguise, ‘brown from the sun’ and ‘dress[ing] these days as a boy’; hence, when the following paragraph announces that ‘[i]t was not quite the Venice older folks remembered’, one might add that Dally also has been transformed as she ‘escaped all male attention other than that directed at boys’. Further, one might say she has replicated Kit’s descent ‘into the engine spaces of the Stupendica’ on 516.

In my last post on recent Pynchon criticism I briefly compared the introductions to Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives (ed Pöhlmann, 2010) and Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupt Pilgrim’s Guide (ed Severs & Leise, 2011).

In A Corrupt Pilgrim’s Guide the first group of essays is gathered under the heading ‘Narrative Strategies’ and this is where we find ‘Plots, Pilgrimage and the Politics of Genre in Against the Day’ by Amy J Elias, author of Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (2001), where she describes a metahistorical romance based on the radical historiography associated with Foucault and White. In her contribution to Corrupt Pilgrim’s Guide she argues that pilgrimage becomes an alternative to both hero quest and picaresque, ‘a form of journey narrative with a chronotope appropriate for our own time’ (Elias 2011: 32). Pilgrimage, then, is a way of understanding the postmodern narrative. In keeping with Severs’ Introduction, Elias here focuses on character, noting that the quest requires some kind of character development, lacking here; and the picaresque, while ‘eschew[ing] depth of characterisation’ (30), borrows from both realism and romance without ever resolving that contradiction (32).

According to Elias in Sublime Desire the metahistorical romance comes in the final part of the twentieth century, a response of sorts to war, Holocaust and nuclear weapons. As such it resists any notion of Western progress, but it also rejects the modernist alternative of alienation. The historical sublime is that which cannot be represented, bringing into play deferral and allusion: any discussion of history will expose it as a narrative, which means there are always alternative versions, and alternatives to those alternatives (Elias 2001: 51ff). Further, in her contribution (‘History’) to The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (eds Dalsgaard, Herman & McHale, 2012), Elias develops the concept of the sublime subjunctive as a way of describing the way the narrative is organised round the opposition of alternative, not to say conflicting, narratives (Elias 2012: 129).

To discuss the usefulness of these ideas I shall now briefly consider Pynchon’s writing of warfare in Against the Day. Elias (2011: 32) says that the pilgrimage is ‘directed to a shrine site’ and, by way of example, ‘Reef, Cyprian and Yashmeen travel from one secular, tourist “shrine” to another – Venice, the Riviera – until they arrive at the military-industrial complex’s true shrine of death in the Balkans’ (33). I cite this passage because, in my previous post on Pynchon criticism, I commented on the frequent use of tourism in Pynchon’s writing. Moreover, my ongoing explication of the novel has just come to the end of Chapter 64 and I have in mind the sections following Reef/Yashmeen’s separation from Cyprian (AtD 962ff). As Reef puts it to Cyprian just before they leave him: ‘Figure on heading west, through the mountains to the Adriatic coast. Any hot springs, hotel de luxes up that way you could recommend?’ (961). Their goal (the shrine their pilgrimage takes them towards) is whatever constitutes safety and, upon reaching Corfu, ‘the first thing they did was go to the Church of St. Spiridion, patron saint of the island, and light candles and offer thanks’ (972). A page later, surprised, Yashmeen finds her father, who says he has been waiting for them, knowing they would end up at Corfu (973). The point of course is that their journey has been unpredictable and inscrutable/unreadable, and yet, as Auberon Halfcourt explains it here, anything but.

Further, we might consider the way the narrative has been organised. The characters we follow are always located in relation to the war, ie action that is always elsewhere, even if ‘[e]ach day brought them closer to the horizon of the unimaginable’ (964; although, on the one occasion when Reef’s personal safety might be said to be threatened, he is rescued by Ramiz and the narrative tells us it has something to do with the Chums of Chance, 969-970).

Most clearly, the writing brings representation into question by emphasising discourse. There is ‘a storm of fearful hearsay from gatherings at street corners and well-heads’ (963), the first reference here to the way the war is constructed through talk. A page later there is the aftermath of, ‘[a]ccording to rumor’, defeat for the Turks with evidence in the form of ‘Turkish soldiers either cut off from their units or in flight’; ‘Monastir was said to be a Serbian objective now’ (964). In the same section, there is the precarious nature of ‘collective dreams’ leading to ‘a popular, perhaps someday a national, delusion’ (964). Finally, ‘as if they were only out here on holiday’ (968, recalling Reef’s suggestion on 961 that this might be some kind of tourist jaunt), there are ‘postal cards illustrated with scenes of the War’; ‘[s]ome of the photographs showed terrible scenes of slaughter and mutilation, reproduced not in simple black and white but varying shades of green’ (968), as close as we come to that which cannot be represented.

Possibly the Daily Telegraph regards this interview with Andrew Hall, AQA’s chief executive, as a confession, the largest of the exam boards admitting their role in lowering A-Level standards. In particular, apparently according to Hall, although he isn’t quoted directly here, unlimited resits have led to grade inflation: last summer (2011) resits pushed the number of A-grades from 19% to 24%. This interview, in fact, contains very little that Hall has not said before (for example, here, with some indication of resit numbers).


The problem appears to be as follows. Curriculum 2000 introduced two-tier A-Levels made up of exams at AS (Advanced Subsidiary) after one year, and then at A2 at the end of the second year. Each component is worth 50% of the total, but final grades might be dependent – some would say heavily so – on students resitting first-year exams in the second year. On the face of it, then, one can see the logic of Hall’s suggestion that AS weighting should be reduced from 50% to 25%. The AS is no more than a 17+ exam; designed for the typical 17-year-old, it should be taken at the end of Year 12, after which time it becomes obsolete. Such reasoning is tied to notions of fixed ability, and this might help explain why there is already a weighting in favour of A2: the A* grade will only be awarded when students score 90% in A2 exams, no matter how well they have done in AS exams.


My response to this argument is twofold. Firstly, to say that students resit ‘easier’ exams to ‘unfairly’ boost their final grades is to ignore the possibility that, with a limited amount of time available, these resit students lose marks they might otherwise have gained in A2 exams. The view that AS resits produce grade inflation, then, rests on the assumption that the individual’s score on A2 units will remain steady, with or without resits. However, one should consider the possibility that, if they prepare properly for resits, they will likely devote less time to study at the higher level and, as a consequence, do less well in A2 exams. In effect they swap marks in one exam for marks in another.


It might well be the case that, in this trade-off, the resit marks gained exceed the A2 marks lost; if so, there might still be a case against grade inflation. This brings me to my second point. Here, as an example of what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, one might consider the possibility that improvement in AS resits is based, at least in part, on the experience of having worked on A2 units for one term (if resitting in January of the A2 year) or longer (if resitting in the summer). Students improve marks in resits because they resit while studying other units at a higher level; and their achievement, described thus, is quite valid.