Reading Pynchon #4

David Cowart’s Thomas Pynchon & the Dark Passages of History (2011, details here) is made up of chapters published at different times, from the late-1970s to one (‘The Historiographer Historicized: Pynchon and Literary History’, 189ff, offered here as a conclusion of sorts) that has also been published, in a shorter version, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (Dalsgaard, Herman & McHale eds, 2012). Dark Passages discusses all of Pynchon’s work but I shall confine myself to comments on Against the Day (AtD, 2006).

Chapter 6 (‘Pynchon, Genealogy, History’) begins by emphasising ‘the centrality of historical questions’ to Pynchon’s work (159), and Cowart here brings in Foucault. Indeed, the chapter heading echoes Foucault’s own ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (in The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, Paul Rabinow ed, 1984), an essay cited when Cowart refers to Foucault’s use of genealogy as a kind of historiography: ‘gray, meticulous and patiently documentary’ (160). Previously Cowart has focused his attention on the content of Pynchon’s novels, hence the importance accorded German culture in Chapter 3 (57ff). Now, to put it in perhaps simplistic terms, he addresses form to describe the work of genealogy: ‘the genealogist-historian lays bare the play of power that so swiftly seeks to disguise its workings’ (160). Hence, ‘readers who find the overall point of Against the Day elusive’ might still ‘recognise the technique as that of the genealogist’ (160); and then, a few pages on, ‘Pynchon … aspires to the calling of fictive genealogist, the most historically meticulous of storytellers’ (164). But what does this mean? Cowart has already concluded the reference to Foucault’s work by suggesting that Pynchon, the novelist, might be better at ‘imagining a world in which various oppressive forces can be countered, dismantled, resisted’ (161); and one might ask if this is what Pynchon, indeed, is – and always has been – about. Nonetheless, for Cowart, the novelist enjoys a licence denied the historian/genealogist (ie Foucault); and so ‘what hybridizes Pynchon’s work is his contempt for objective distance, his passion for justice-based chronicle’ (165). It is the ‘justice-based chronicle’ – ‘Pynchon insists on writing the history of the marginalized or, as he calls them, the preterite’ – that gives the novelist an advantage here.

With regard to AtD Cowart now goes on to refer to Scarsdale Vibe’s lengthy speech, the ‘orgy of self-congratulation’ (168) that opens Chapter 67 in AtD. He concludes that ‘the author makes his political views clear, but such extravagance is balanced and framed by incremental intimations of other ideas the more powerful for their oblique presentation’ (169). Here we see, juxtaposed, the real beliefs of the text’s author – which pre-exist the text but shape the writing of character (‘Pynchon makes no effort to temper the expression of his disgust’) – and ‘other ideas’, the ‘oblique presentation’ of which will emphasise the role of the canny reader in deciphering the text: one must ‘peel the onion of appearances’ (169). Do these ‘other ideas’ also belong to the author? Presumably so, but Cowart appears to distinguish between the mere content of Vibe’s speech and another kind of expression: the example he gives is AtD’s use of ‘artful indirection’ in the writing of World War I (170), eg Franz Ferdinand’s visit to the United States rather than his assassination (171, followed on 173 by War references that ‘do not gather to a narrative climax’ but ‘fall as solitary pebbles in history’s great, echoing bucket’). Given the way Cowart moves rapidly from Vibe’s speech to a consideration of the writing of War, we might ask if, indeed, we are expected to conclude that ‘artful indirection’ is absent from the passage that features Vibe’s speech.

At the start of Chapter 67 (AtD, 1000-1001) Vibe addresses a like-minded audience (the L.A.H.D.I.D.A.) of rich white men. On 1000 the narrative indicates (‘Scarsdale well into what by now was his customary stem-winder’) that some at least will have heard it all before: hence ‘the expected arm gesture’. The speech is a performance, a rehearsal of agreement; however, on 1001 it ends with Vibe betraying the distance between him and Foley Walker. Vibe speaks generally of those ‘whose future … was always to toil for us’ and then avoids eye-contact with Walker. The latter (‘attentive back in the shadows’) might now be aligned with the ‘observer’ of the opening paragraph on 1000, implicitly an outsider called upon to interpret what he sees, an outsider with whom the reader might be positioned. If we read the speech as no more than the author’s heavy-handed signposting of political views we miss the substance. On these two pages, then, the speech constructs the general while the narrative disrupts that overview with the writing of agency (a feature of the text that I shall discuss in my next post). If nothing else we might also recall the times when AtD offers that kind of political statement, or history lesson, as a speech delivered by a character: as examples, consider the narrative function of speeches by the Cohen (230-231), Ratty (808-809 and 937-938) and Danilo (828).

What Foucault calls effective history ‘deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations’ (‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,’ 88). One can indeed see here the strategy adopted by AtD, where the content of the Vibe speech (and the others indicated above) is challenged in the writing; and one would have liked more than the brief references to Foucault that do appear in Dark Passages (Foucault does not feature at all in Chapter 5, ‘The Luddite Vision: Mason & Dixon’, originally published in 1999; and should also be considered influential in the writing of Vineland and Slow Learner).

Which is not to say that Pynchon has been directly influenced; it would matter little if he announced he had never heard of Foucault, let alone read his work. Concluding his discussion of V, Cowart offers Pynchon as ‘one of [the] most important harbingers’ of  Said’s postcolonialism and White’s postmodern historiography (56), intellectual developments he associates with the 1970s, although that should not lead us to suppose that Said and White have been directly influenced by their reading of Pynchon. Elsewhere, Cowart relates Pynchon’s work to the history of criticism, specifically Watt (23) and Frye (200) in the 1950s; and White is also discussed in relation to Frye (45). In such passages Dark Passages starts to outline the manner in which the Pynchon-text emerged (and has continued to re-emerge). However, given the genesis of the book over more than 30 years, it is not surprising that there are two brief references to Shawn Smith’s Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (2005); and no references to Amy J Elias’ description of a metahistorical romance in Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (2001), even though Cowart does mention the challenge postmodernism poses to historical fiction (161-162, with implicitly a reference to the effective history outlined by Foucault).


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