An Absent Center -- A Present Potential: Apocalypse, Ending, and the Last Delta-t of Possibility
Jacques Derrida, No Apocalypse, Not Now
In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode writes, "The moments we call crises are endings and beginnings" (Kermode 96). If ever the ending of a work of literature proved worthy of the name crisis, that work is surely Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Indeed, the novel's 760 pages of contradiction, double-meaning, and tension are made manifest, enigmatically revealed, in its final words. A great deal of the synthetic meaning of the work as a whole, then, hinges on what we make of its ending. Does Gravity's Rainbow, as Richard Locke wrote in his original New York Times Book Review, give itself over to a death-wish? Does this thanatos suffocate any possibility for a different future? Or does Pynchon leave space for us to construct an alternative reading, one that may not be completely positive, but is at least not entirely despairing? How can we read the double trajectories of hope and doom that culminate in a hymn sung at the movies while a weapon of mass destruction descends overhead?
The ambitious and dubious project of coming to terms with the ending of Gravity's Rainbow is one that must be informed by the whole of its enterprise. A positive or negative interpretation of its final words "Now everybody " is contingent on the novel's central threat of death and annihilation, embodied in the V-2 rocket and translated in its last moments as the nuclear threat. Additionally, its reading must incorporate the moments of opposition and points of exploitation, both serious and farcical, that surface throughout the narrative's course. These textual supports, absent and present, anchor the end and demonstrate that the final chapter does not annul, but rather, fulfills the work as a whole. Its words make incarnate the mood that swathes Gravity's Rainbow's entire structure from the very beginning. I would like to suggest that for all its bleakness, this is a mood that still leaves space for positive action.
Beginning with the screams of the post-impact V-2 rocket in London and ending with a nuclear missile careening down towards a Los Angeles movie theater thirty years later, the whole of Gravity's Rainbow is structured around an invisible moment of impact. This unfulfilled but ceaselessly influential discourse of apocalypse informs all the structure and events that are realized within its pages. That is, the devastation of the V-2 or the total annihilation of the bomb does not only hang over the narrative, but constructs it from the inside out.
Since its first printing, scholarship on Gravity's Rainbow has utilized poststructuralist theories of textual deconstruction to analyze the work's labyrinthine and endlessly multiplying layers of meaning. However, for all of Pynchon's interest in language and representation (which is undeniable), the center of the novel ultimately cannot be resolved through this theoretical framework. In fact, Derrida's own writing on apocalyptic discourse admits this limitation of deconstruction, calling attention to the present but hidden axis around which the play of signification always circles. In "Frye, Derrida, Pynchon, and the Apocalyptic Space of Postmodern Fiction," David Robson cites the French theorist's Writing and Difference: "Derrida writes, 'Is not the center, the absence of play and difference, another name for death?'" (Robson 69).
In other words, the death at the center of Gravity's Rainbow, like the death at the hub of all discourse, cannot be deconstructed; it does not participate in games of the sign. According to Robson's analysis, Derrida's "No Apocalypse, Not Now" imagines nuclear war as the most radically other other, the only entity that cannot join in linguistic play "'the absolute referent, the horizon and the condition of all the others'" (Robson 72).
Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending illustrates that this supposedly uniquely contemporary crisis, the nuclear fin de siecle, is in fact a repetition and reenactment of an age-old pattern of epoch-differentiation. He observes:
It is commonplace to talk about our historical situation as uniquely terrible...But can it really be so? It seems doubtful that our crisis, our relation to the future and to the past, is one of the most important differences between us and our predecessors If the evidence looks good to us, so it did to them. Perhaps if we have a terrible privilege it is merely that we are alive and are going to die, all at once or one at a time. (Kermode 95)
Kermode identifies crisis with endings and beginnings, the markers that separate our specific point in time from its span as a whole. His "The Modern Apocalypse" demonstrates that eschatological discourse, though evolved from imaginary armies in the sky to self-annihilation at the push of a button, has always defined our sense of time. Our "crisis," then, the absolute nuclear referent, is essentially no different from the eternal attempt to make sense of time. His analysis of the various ways that groups have attempted to write the future based on the decoding of the past makes clear that there has always been the urge to exist in a moment of historical importance. And after all, what could be more important than to exist at history's end? That point is the only temporal moment that satisfactorily and totally defines an era without the muddy confusion of transition, thus positioning the human subject squarely in the midst of a securely defined present.
Apocalyptic discourse nuclear or Biblical is in a unique position in that as the ultimate other, it is unable to be represented, and yet, as it still has not irrupted into the space of the real, it can exist only in representation. At best, it is a marker that interrupts discursive space as a radically unknown border. Accordingly, Pynchon at once denies it rendering and relies upon its textual existence to give shape to the play of signification. This paradox, though, while problematic, also complements the novel's thematics that is, it supports the notion that Gravity's Rainbow is a novel around, but not about, death. The absent impact of the V-2 is not accidental; it is a linguistic necessity with thematic ramifications. To directly confront annihilation, to attempt to textually assimilate that destruction, would be a grammatologically impossible undertaking. Not coincidentally, this lack of confrontation also provides a space, an invisible and infra-thin ring around the nucleus of obliteration, that may foster the potential to resist.
Every ending is a kind of textual death that cannot be definitive, because each must preserve this empty and unknowable discursive space. Three of the most disturbing and problematic endings of Gravity's Rainbow prove this principle of uncertainty: that of Gottfried, Slothrop, and the novel itself. These instances the launch of a lover, the unraveling of a man, and the stop of a text effectively reveal the underpinnings of Pynchon's construction of an ending. That is, they demonstrate his refusal to terminate, his penchant for and dependence on the inconclusive conclusion.
Although the narrative trajectories of Gravity's Rainbow are many, it is clear that Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop provides one of the strongest, if not the strongest, points of intersection and stations of action. The map of his sexual conquests is the supposed impetus of the plot, and it is largely in his footsteps that we traverse and experience the Zone. As the novel veers to a close, however, and as the pieces of the 00000 fall in place, Slothrop's individual actions occupy less and less of the diegesis. The narrative becomes overwhelmed by the conflicts within the Schwarzkommando, the Rocket, forces of the international conspiracy, and Tchitcherine, among other plotlines, all of which squeeze Slothrop to the fringes. In the "The Counterforce" (Part IV), the one man we knew was on the run, the one who should actually have an interest in said counterforce, is missing in action. He never exactly exits the plot, though; on the contrary, he dissolves into it.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when and where we last witness "Slothrop qua Slothrop" (738), but in Episode 12, Pynchon provides his last encounter with Bodine. At this point he has almost entirely dissipated, and Bodine must struggle to hold him together:
Seaman Bodine looks up suddenly, canny, unshaven face stung by all the smoke and unawareness in the room. He's looking straight at Slothrop (being one of the few who can still see Slothrop as any integral creature any more. Most of the others gave up long ago trying to hold him together, even as a concept "It's just got too remote"'s what they usually say). Does Bodine now feel his own strength may someday soon not be enough either: that soon, like all the others, he'll have to let go? (Pynchon 740-1)
And later, the narrator informs us:
But knowing his [Slothrop's] tarot, we would expect to look among the Humility, among the gray and preterite souls, to look for him adrift in the hostile light of the sky, the darkness of the sea (Pynchon 742)
After his incarnations as foreign correspondent Ian Scuffling, Rocketman, and Plechazunga, Slothrop becomes nothing. He can be found drifting, having joined the mass of undifferentiated "preterite souls," passed over by history and by the narrative itself. This slow evaporation points to the power of the Zone to rewrite its terrain, to engage and affect the human elements that attempt to write it. It is one of the novel's multiple examples of the structural forces that shape even as they are shaped, of the intermingling of organic and inorganic, and the influence exerted by the inhuman element.
Two ways (of many, doubtless) to understand this relationship between the Zone and Slothrop's scattering are in terms of forgetting and undoing. There is evident hopelessness and loss in the dispersal he does not transcend the forces that have plagued him, nor is his unraveling a successful escape or evasion of the conspiracy that has tracked him since his infancy. On the contrary, he as an active subject is forgotten, by both the Zone itself and by those who exist within it. Bodine struggles, but like all the others, ultimately has no choice but to let go and release him from his individual self into a kind of collective cultural myth. The circulating legends of his escapades replace him, and his being as a discrete agent yields to an oral tradition of embellished stories exchanged in darkened bars over drinks. No one recognizes the material Slothrop any longer; his body gives way to a diffuse, shadowy knowledge of Scuffling, Rocketman, or that crazy American G.I. who delivered hash across European borders. Indeed, it is "the unawareness in the room" that discharges him from the physical world. This "unawareness" a lack of self-awareness, perhaps, or a lack of awareness for anything outside the self, or both is palpable enough to sting Bodine (Pynchon 740). Nonetheless, what smarts here is actually distance, a biting detachment, the fact that "It's just got too remote" (Pynchon 740). Bodine faces that which the others have before him the fact that Slothrop isn't just fading physically, but is actually moving farther away. Physical and temporal dimensions of memory are both incorporated into this community forgetting, one that destroys the individual man while enabling his trace, ineffable and immaterial, to linger.
Slothrop disappears because he is let go abandoned first by the conspiracy, which loses interest in him per se, then by his contacts (even Roger finds himself "caring less about Slothrop"), and at last by Bodine (Pynchon 630). He does not even belong to himself (not that it's clear that he ever did). By Section IV, a gradual process of colonization leaves him fully occupied by the Zone, the terrain of his person divided. Whereas once his nostalgia was not his own, now he possesses not even his own body (Pynchon 303). He is not even a "he" of which to speak. It seems that the spoils of this war, this corporate take-over and struggle between preterite and elite, are human identity and agency. This is the "something different in mind" that they have for Slothrop not death, exactly, but certainly not life in any customary form (Pynchon 688). They drive him to the space between the binary poles, where he wanders off to join the sunset, anything but heroic.
But before he is "let go," Slothrop is fragmented. He actually breaks, and it is the pieces that are dissolved into the narrative structures, the spaces between words, and the cracks of the Zone. Even Germany itself, carved up into American, French, and Russian territories, has become a composite of informational routes and military domains that mirror and enable this fracturing.
Slothrop now observes his coalition with hopes for success and hopes for disaster about equally high (and no, that doesn't cancel out to apathy it makes a loud dissonance that dovetails inside you sharp as knives). (Pynchon, 676)
Conflicting pressure from the force and counterforce meets within Slothrop, and the pressure cracks his being. His hopes for disaster and success collide, "sharp as knives," and he begins to come unglued. Whatever it is that holds a human being together is no match for the Zone and its actors; in fact, in the paranoid analysis, any rebellion against his manipulation would have been just another part of the master plan, anyway. His hopes for disaster and success are really just hopes for something, for an end to the indeterminacy and mistrust that have plagued him in the postwar period. In this way, perhaps Slothrop's "hopes for disaster" is the same kind of attempt to write the future that Kermode discusses in The Sense of an Ending. Perhaps it is his longing to arrive at the zero or one, to have the sense of enclosure in time that eludes life as long as it lasts. If that is the case, Slothrop's postwar plight is far more universal than it may at first appear.
As he is wont to do, Pynchon undercuts a serious interpretation of the Lieutenant's disbanding with the humor of his Elvis-esque sighting on a record album photograph. However, while the American's end is fantastic, improbable, and to a literal mind, absurd, it is not farcical. This isn't the grotesque humor of a walking adenoid or an ape in the men's bathroom. Rather, the legends bearing his name, the regenerated pieces of the original Slothrop, are bittersweet. Pynchon is far from sentimental, but of equal consequence is his resistance of mockery and disgrace. In fact, Slothrop is accorded far more dignity in dispersal than he ever was in his jaunts through brothels, parties, and orgies.
The dissolution also acts as a crucial counterweight to the momentum that the book fiercely gathers as it rushes to a close. As the pieces of the 00000 swiftly coalesce and the drive to destruction accelerates, the reader can sense the novel narrowing around a single point. In Richard Locke's review, he rightly identifies this increasing energy and pace, the narrowing down on the singularity of the launch. Yet as the screws turn tighter inward, there is also a movement of falling apart. The sexual metaphor applies, particularly given Pynchon's obvious interest in the eroticism of violence, the Rocket, the text, and just about everything else. One simply feels that the last episode's concurrent coming together and blowing apart is orgasmic, or at least ought to be. Its sexual build, however, is denied catharsis; indeed, it edges up to the brink of breaking and then retracts, waits, flies apart. Slothrop's dissemination throughout the Zone is a crucial weight on the centrifugal side, one that helps prevent the novel from closing in on itself. In this way, his own scattering also operates as a narrative undoing, a literary device that surpasses its human origin.
While Slothrop's ending physically expands the singularity of death, Gottfried's narrows towards its horizon. Weissman (Blicero)'s submissive lover, he approaches his end entombed in the 00000 V-2 that has been constructed to hold him. While earlier passages indicate that at one time, Herero leader Oberst Enzian had been chosen for the honor of immolation, the text claims Gottfried as the Rocket's own:
Stuff him in. Not a Procrustean bed, but modified to take him. The two, boy and Rocket, concurrently designed. (Pynchon, 750)
Ensconced in this metal womb, wrapped in a shroud of Imipolex-G, he is launched into the sky, chosen to fulfill the death-wish of the Schwarzkommando and the European powers. This shivering, shaking boy sheathed in white literally launches the novel into the future, across time and space, from the Luneberg Heath in post-WWII Germany to Los Angeles in the 1970s. The "Ascent" of Part IV, Episode 12 seamlessly morphs into an alternate "Descent"; a V-2 is shot up into the air, and a nuclear warhead comes screaming soundlessly down. The reader never knows exactly what happens to Gottfried his death is assumed, but not textualized. The bleached whiteness of the rocket's arc leaves us both a void, the presence of that which cannot signify, and a purified blank page. In other words, Pynchon writes immediately up to and around his demise, but does not make it manifest. Although it structures the last section from the inside out, molding the interior space of the rocket, sculpting the terrifying narrative of "Ascent," it is never stated. The chilling "Now" that ends the passage, as "The first star hangs between his feet," leaves off just before Gottfried would plummet to the earth. His crash is certain, but its representation is spared (Pynchon 760).
Slothrop falls apart because he is forgotten. Gottfried, on the other hand, finds that he cannot remember. Inside the Rocket, he tries to recall times with Blicero and finds he cannot, the material images growing distorted as the distance to the ground increases. From the V-2, everything grows whiter and whiter, and despite desperate attempts, Gottfried cannot conjure up images to write on top of this blankness. And to those on the ground, he appears as a blankness, too: "But the flame is too bright for anyone to see Gottfried inside, except now as an erotic category" (Pynchon 758). The Rocket erases the boy even as it obfuscates his memory. "The knife cuts through the apple like a knife cutting an apple. Everything is where it is, no clearer than usual, but certainly more present" (Pynchon 758). Here, Weissman's surrogate son and sexual servant is taken to a space beyond metaphor or comparison, where that which is not present cannot be held onto for any length of time. In this sanctum, memory, let alone the ability to project the past to the future, scarcely exists. As the moment of crisis looms, Gottfried is unable to locate himself in past time.
While the rocket climbs into the air, "He thinks of their [his and Blicero's] love in illustrations for children," imagining their sadomasochistic affair as an innocent bedtime story (Pynchon 759). Their parasitic and abusive, though terribly human, relationship can still seem innocent to Gottfried, whose naïveté comes across as overwhelmingly tragic. Nevertheless, he cannot maintain even these simple, elemental figures in his mind. For the speed of the rocket, his eyes cannot make out the blurry shapes of the outside world; despite attempted CATCH after CATCH, his memory cannot grasp the images that elude him.
... now he is far away, seated, at the end of an olive room, past shapes going out of focus, shapes Gottfried can't identify as friend or enemy, between him and where did he it's already gone, no  the black CATCH you've let a number of them go by, Gottfried, important ones you didn't want to miss you know this is the last time CATCH when did the roaring stop? (Pynchon 759)
Whose is the voice that taunts Gottfried? The narrator's? His own internal monologue? Or is it the echoes of Weissman, haunting him from their last sexual encounter, the night before? Whosever it is, the boy-lover rushing to meet his death refuses to cry out in response. He only tries to hold onto the refrain of Blicero's last words to him, those concerning the shadows of the evening star, "The single point, and the shadow that has just gathered you in its sweep" (Pynchon 760). Commanding him to "Always remember," for all the rest of his short, doomed life, the narration then abandons him in the sky, obliterates him in a blankness that is manifest lack, total forgetting.
Throughout the course of Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon develops the notion of the delta-t: the infinitely shrinking space that continually divides itself, but that never achieves zero. Likewise, endlessly and infinitely plummeting, traveling, and dividing, into smaller and smaller pieces and intervals of time, Gottfried, Slothrop, and the missile never reach zero. The thematic implications of such calculus are, obviously, enormous. Understood in its pure form, the delta-t means that there has to be an alternative to destruction and nuclear annihilation. In one sense, the rocket cannot fall. At the least, its impact lies on the unrepresentable border of apocalypse, renderings its imagining an impossible act.
The final scene insinuates as much. In the duration of this delta-t, the narrator remarks, there is time to touch your neighbor, or yourself, time to follow the bouncing ball. There is time for all these things because the rocket will always leave you time, because it will approximate but never meet the zero limit. Just as the apocalypse cannot be textually manifested, nor can it come to pass in the space of the mathematical real. As evidenced by Gottfried's case, the awareness of the impending ending is what brackets history, what defines the curve of the arc above the x-axis, defining the present, as well. It is this possibility of apocalypse in the imaginary, not its fulfillment in the real, that maintains history.
Of course, it would be foolish to even intimate that Gravity's Rainbow's endings are optimistic. The delta-t isn't a neat trick that Pynchon employs to suspend the machinations of time and space and save humanity. In fact, on page 760, he describes it as "the last delta-t," implying a final achievement of zero, of impact. It appears that the approach of the limit simultaneously offers contradictory possibilities; the rocket both falls and does not fall. To be sure, it cannot be un-launched; at the same time, however, Pynchon does not choose to write the end of history. At the very least, there is time for another song.
And the song that Pynchon chooses is a hymn, a hymn to the preterite, written by none other than Tyrone Slothrop's ancestor William. The hymn's words celebrate a Hand that lives on, "Though they Glass today be run," a Hand that will survive the choir until each last preterite soul has been found and the Riders put to rest. In other words, it a hymn that praises the existence of a God that will survive whatever disaster may befall this world, and indicates faith in the perpetuity of time. The narrator leaves off at the chorus, and the reason for so doing is entirely ambiguous. Possibly the missile falls, and his words are cut off, or possibly he is waiting for us to join in. It is a chorus of screaming, maybe, the screams of the Rocket, the audience, the readers, that connects the novel back to its first sentence. Or perhaps it is a song that we must write on the page ourselves. But in either case, we already know the words, don't we? Haven't we known them all along, just like the "closeup of a face, a face we all know" on the blank movie screen (Pynchon 760)?
The lack of affirmation is not its negation or denial and like Slothrop's own contradictory impulses, the pull of opposition does not cancel out to nihilism, or even apathy. While we are not given the comforting "Yes" that concludes Ulysses, we are given a silent, clean page on which to write the future. It is my opinion that the final dash, the last character of the novel, acts as an indexical sign, an intake of breath. But instead of marking the intrusion of the real into the textual space, it fires us out of the words and into the questions that haunt the real. The "Now everybody" also establishes a textual link to Gottfried's ending, which culminates in the simple and similarly marked "Now". The hyphenated "Now"s, joined across time and space, connect the passages to each other, bending around the bulge of undisclosed death.
This textual network suggests, then, that Gottfried's take-off into the future is somehow intended to fulfill Blicero's desire to occupy a post-apocalyptic world of which Los Angeles (and the U.S.) in the 1970s, under Richard Nixon, certainly seems a likely candidate. In this vein, David Robson discusses Weissman's "radical apocalyptic hope for a kind of dark transcendence" (Robson 63). He writes:
This launch presumably (and quite irrationally) will deliver them [Blicero and Gottfried] from the oppressions of the "real" into an "other" sort of hyperreal apocalyptic space. Gottfried seems to understand Blicero' desperate hope for salvation (Robson 63)
The notion of the hyperreal is derived from Baudrillard's writings and refers to the "always already" simulatory nature of discourse (Berressem 44). That is, the images of present discourse are "already produced according to an earlier imaginary projection based on the structure of operational and economic simulation," in which the imaginary determines the content of the real (Berressem 45). The hyperreal interferes with the operation of the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary, for its simulation prevents the real's assertion within the "psychic apparatus" (Berressem 45).
In Blicero's vision of apocalypse, then, the ending of one reality jumps off into a space mapped from simulations from the previous space. He and Gottfried, in this way, can use the 00000 to access a post-apocalyptic world that they have already inscribed from the past. However, these projections (again, related to Kermode's temporal definitions) do not produce an original future, but one that is already a simulation. This negative transcendence is the nightmarish terrain of the Rocket cult made material in the skyscrapers, freeways, and pathological culture of America.
At this intersection of the real and the text, the blank space into which we are inaugurated by the last hyphen, we are invited to inscribe our own ideas for the future. In the time of the delta-t, which will last forever and for only an instant, we must confront Blicero's terrifying hope. The final moment of hesitation, the plunge into an unknown space with which Pynchon leaves us, forces us to acknowledge that in some way, the bomb has already dropped. We are not only living in the shadow of the Rocket, but in the rubble of its explosion. Although the narrative narrows in on the singularity of the launch, the pinhead towards which everything is spiraling inwards, the descent opens and spins out, both away from and towards eradication. The contemporaneous futures that Pynchon releases indicate that, like his vision of World War II, the future will exist between zero and one. There is neither promise nor doom; the inevitabilities of the binary system cannot hope to satisfy the multiple directions that can be taken in the space of the delta-t.
Of course, the last ten pages of Gravity's Rainbow and the paradox of the Rocket's fall are hardly the only instances of space for alternative action. In fact, the novel offers many moments that both resist autonomously and inform the fractures of opposition in the various endings. The exchange between Katje and Enzian in Episode 4, Section IV, is one such example of aperture. It provides, if not a revision of history, then at least an entrance into an as-yet undetermined future. And in Pynchon's world, that the chance to write your own future may be the closest approximation of hope to be found in Gravity's Rainbow's endings.
Blicero's ex-lovers, both double-agents, meet for the first time black and white, male and female, preterite. Their conversation is motivated by a mutual interest in finding Slothrop and a shared concern for Weissman, who is slowly dying for the Rocket. Most remarkable about this scene is its surprising tenderness and vulnerability. Where one might expect competitiveness or bitterness, there is only sadness and a strangling need for compassion. Enzian, after his earlier talk of eradicating history, of using the Schwarzkommando program of racial suicide to exist outside of time, remarks to Katje,
"The Blicero I loved was a very young man, in love with empire, poetry, his own arrogance. Those all must have been important to me once. What I am now grew from that. A former self is a fool, an insufferable ass, but he's still human, you'd no more turn him out than you'd turn out any other kind of cripple, would you?"
He seems to be asking her [Katje] for real advice. Are these the sorts of problems that occupy his time? What about the Rocket, the Empty Ones, the perilous infancy of his nation? (Pynchon 660)
What about them, indeed? While Enzian is not sentimental, he certainly exhibits human qualities. He identifies this former self as worthy of kindness precisely for this humanity, because he has a history whose past time has informed his present person. Standing outside of his own story, scanning an imaginary vista, observing "at a certain elevation and distance," he recognizes the need for that very trajectory (Pynchon 660). Additionally, he claims a root for his detachment from the immediate Schwarzkommando troops and, indeed, the world, calling himself
"An estranged figurewho has lost everything else but this vantage. There is no heart, anywhere now, no human heart in which I exist." (Pynchon 660)
The resonances between Slothrop's ending and this scene are striking. Here, Oberst expresses the idea that his disassociation is contingent on the fact that he is unloved and forgotten, that he exists outside of any "human heart." In some way, that forgetting both pushes him above, physically removed, and outside of time, as well. Earlier, Katje began a sentence with, "Slothrop and I Everything is so remote now" (Pynchon 659). Like Bodine, she cannot close the distance or reconstruct the memory of that which has transgressed the material and receded into the void. But her attempt suggests, at the very least, the impulse to build instead of destroy, her desire to evade "easy work, cheap exits," and her willingness to go "all the way in" (Pynchon 662).
While Pynchon casts suspicion on the sincerity of their tête-à-tête (he describes Katje's mention of Slothrop as "As if making a surprise confession," 659), the narrator is largely subdued and willing to let the actors' words stand. He observes,
But Enzian risks what former lovers risk whenever the Beloved is present, in fact or in word: deepest possibilities for shame, for sense of loss renewed, for humiliation and mockery. Shall she mock? Has he made that too easy and then, turning, counted on her for fair play? Can she be as honest as he, without risking too much? (Pynchon, 659)
In some way, we are also asked what to make of Enzian if we will mock or trust him the same as he is asked what to make of Katje. And just as Enzian chooses to weep over her story ("the saddest of all," 661), so the narrator compels us to accept the tenderness of this unusually human moment. Refraining from flippancy, the narrative voice seems to tread carefully and weigh each moment. Naturally, there is doubtful and suspicious commentary, prohibiting an uncritical acceptance of simple harmony and good liberal humanism; however, this doesn't undo what it presents. So often in Gravity's Rainbow a simple aside from the narrator the innuendo that Slothrop's map was false, for example will cause whole narrative threads to unravel, calling into question the veracity of whatever has been presented previously. Here, though, the most severe questioning we receive is sexual suggestion and at this point in the novel, the presence of the erotic is hardly enough to disrupt the honesty of a moment. If anything, remarks like, "Oh, ho. Here's whatcha came for, folks," authenticate the scene, using eros as a marker of humanity (Pynchon 661). Even the song-and-dance tap routine no longer detracts; instead, it fits into a narrative style that we have come to accept and expect.
The openness of this episode, however, is not blindly optimistic. A terrible air of tragedy hangs over the exchange; Katje and Enzian, although open to each other, can never really connect. The third to last paragraph asserts:
Feedback, smile-to-smile, adjustments, waverings: what it damps out to is we will never know each other. Beaming, strangers, la-la-la, off to listen to the end of a man we both loved and we're strangers at the movies, condemned to separate rows, aisles, exits, homegoings. (Pynchon 663)
We will never know each other. For all the vulnerability and crying, for all the latent hope of rebuilding and the fighting, the accusations and the grasping it all notwithstanding, they will never know each other. To be known is to be close at hand, to be discrete and stable. To be known is to exist in a human heart, to be remembered. To be known is to survive.
Katje and Enzian, then, cannot save each other, just as Slothrop, Gottfried, and Blicero couldn't be saved by anyone or anything. Pynchon creates openings in the passage and then seems to seal them with this grim and desperate sentence of "separate rows, aisles, exits, homegoings" another audience image, but one in which the threat does not concern leaving the theater alive, but where to wander to, alone, when the show is over. Yet then the last sentence of the episode pokes another perplexing slit into the narrative fabric: "There are things to hold on to" (Pynchon 663). The narrative voice trails into the distance, and Episode 5 begins with a bang, answering our unexpressed question ("You will want cause and effect. All right," 663), leaping into a typically heterogeneous and far-reaching digression. Effectively, Pynchon allows the implication of hope to be the final word on Katje and Enzian. While there is no promise and the forecast of their particular fates is certainly forbidding, we know that at least there are things to hold on to that the novel and the V-2 have not yet taken away.
Of course, this last line is also a reference back to page 659, when Enzian tried to reassure Katje. They both laughed, out of absurdity or desperation, at the idea that, as the Herero claimed, "None of it may look real, but some of it is. Really" (Pynchon 659). It seems that the repetition of this extract as the last line, coupled with the indeterminacy embedded in the points of ellipsis, redeems its potential. It repeats as a trailing echo, a wistful, inconclusive strain of what is not now but may be if not for Enzian or Katje, then for others, somewhere, somehow. The narrator does not subvert or mock its hope, nor does he endorse it. He simply whispers, wary of the deepest possibilities for shame that lie in this ill-fated affirmation. The "There are things to hold on to," like the "Now" and "Now everybody" of the last page, empties into a paradoxical blankness that the reader must fill with both a positive and negative response, a despondent resistance that cannot be ignored. The last words of Gravity's Rainbow do not finish writing history; at the end of Episode 4, Pynchon does not even finish writing the sentence.
Throughout the novel, Enzian serves as a locus of contradiction who, like in the Katje exchange, often subverts the will to destruction that characterizes the Rocket cult. In fact, in Episode 6 of In the Zone (Section III), Enzian and Slothrop have a revealing conversation on the preterite, the contingency of their own existences, and the Herero mantra Mba-kayere ("I am passed over"). These moments open not only Enzian himself, but the narrative field to an uncertainty that quietly pushes against the would-be inevitability of destruction.
It is worth noting that it is within the Schwarzkommando, at the heart of the death-drive, enmeshed in a strategy of racial suicide, that this hope lies. In the deepest trenches of thanatos, where we would expect to find the most blanched and bleak desolation, we happen upon jokes ("All anyone knows about you [Slothrop] is that you keep showing up," 364), philosophical doubt ("the slightest shift in the probabilities and we're gone schnapp! like that," 362), and a meditation on the "small thingsdust that gets in a timera film of grease" (362) that dictate and alter the course of life.
The location of this most developed and sustained space of resistance cannot be coincidental. Indeed, it seems that Pynchon is making a very specific and pointed commentary on the close connection between the will to self-annihilation and quest for salvation. There is a reason that Springer/Van Goll, Gustav, Bodine, or even Pirate Prentice do not ask these questions. They are all tied not to the death drive itself, but to its effects the market forces, the profit derived thereof, the swooping gestures of the counterforce. They feed off of the will to destruction, perpetuating it, but do not set its wheels in motion. They are structural elements whose power lies at interfaces of trade and exchange, whether human or capital they are the war, the buying and selling.
Oberst Enzian, however, is the human element, the builder-destroyer; profoundly and inextricably entangled in the war, he is not mapped literally onto it. The drive to self-extinction that marks his project runs deeper than currents of alliance and flows of corporate money Enzian is seated not only at the (tenuous) center of his men, but at the heart of the thanatos that congeals in international transactions. And embedded in the Schwarzkommando's rhetoric is, like in Blicero's, a negative transcendence the desire for a post-apocalyptic dark salvation. Their program of racial self-annihilation is tied directly to a veiled discourse of dark hope (which, as we know from Gottfried's ascent, bleaches to white) that haunts and configures the novel. Unlike Blicero, though, who gives himself over to apocalyptic desire, Enzian gravitates towards a more literal salvation. As we see in the Katje exchange, he repositions himself in time, finds his history, and recognizes, though he may not grasp, the things he can hold on to. The success or failure of his resistance notwithstanding, the marriage of the will to life with the drive to death is of tremendous importance, a counterweight to the horrifying momentum of obliteration that culminates in Part IV. It does not merely reposition surface alignments, but strikes to the core of the novel's motivating thrusts.
In his New York Times review, Richard Locke describes this onslaught of thanatos, claiming that, the "spaced-out comedy becomes too juvenile and self-indulgent to function as a real alternative," thereby condemning the book to hopelessness and death (Locke 4). Unfortunately, as this quote makes clear, Locke mischaracterizes and underestimates the narrative points of resistance that open the ending to an alternative reading. He sees nothing but the annihilation of the bomb and a prescription of doom both of which are evident in the text, surely, but not singularly. In opposition to Locke, I would like to claim that the farce of the "spaced-out comedy," far from being "juvenile and self-indulgent," operates as a space of positive apocalypse. According to Norman Frye's system of understanding apocalyptic discourse, as laid out by David Robson,
...apocalypse means revelation, and although apocalyptic discourse aims to define, contain, and domesticate otherness, it also serves to reveal the other. It is this revelatory or irreducibly prophetic dimension of apocalyptic discourse that prevents its perfect coalescence with any particular historical, political, or institutional manifestation. Apocalyptic discourse is usually profoundly hostile to the status quo. Its meanings and referents always exceed what "is" and point toward what is "other" than what is, and this other dimension can be a source of prophetic hope of liberation: projected wish fulfillment back as the possibility of salvation. (Robson 63)
It seems that there are two ways to look at farce. The first is that expressed in this excerpt: as a rewriting of history, a pointing towards that which is "'other than what is.'" In these terms, the farcical moments of Gravity's Rainbow creatively rehearse and exploit the status quo for a different end, one on the preterite's mixed-up and multiple terms. In the opposite sense, farce is nihilistic. It happens at the end of history, after the course has been run. Its grotesque, often slapstick humor is nothing but a series of mad pratfalls and futile chase scenes. However, not only does that construction of farce as mere circuitous futility invalidate the actual existence of farce (i.e., if it is happening, clearly history isn't over yet), but it is contrary to its use by Pynchon.
After all, there is no farce in Gravity's Rainbow when things are actually approaching their ends Gottfried's, Slothrop's, and the novel's limits are not treated in grotesque or outlandish ways. They are fantastic to be sure (and a negative fantastic at that, one that associates the human/inhuman interface with death), but they are not farcical. Instead, Pynchon's narrative indicates that he utilizes farce during the unfolding of history, at moments of creative and positive resistance that at once echo ominously and cut open in suggestive ways. Of course, there are tragic elements of farce simply because Gustav and Saure are shoveling cocaine up their noses during a grossly comedic argument does not mean that they've won. But in the end, that's not really the point. The push-and-pull of thanatos and resistance isn't a zero-sum game; in fact, the mere existence of pressure points of resistance is what is at stake. In contrast to Blicero's eroticized negative apocalypse, farce works in a positive space that proliferates meaning and offers choices for the future.
Like the tensions in Slothrop's scattering, Gottfried's ascent, and the Los Angeles movie theater hymn, farce provides an alternative lens through which to understand the last delta-t. It is akin to Katje and Enzian's dialogue, a manifestation of the flow between the zero and the one. All these variations, these spaces of action, prove that though the Rocket looms overhead, the page is still blank. We are not at the end. There is still time...
Berresem, Hanjo. Pynchon's Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Locke, Richard. "One of the Longest, Most Difficult, Most Ambitious Novels in Years." New York Times Book Review. 11 March 1973. http://www.hyperarts.com/pynchon/gravity/reviews.html.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. Originally published 1973.
Robson, David. "Frye, Derrida, Pynchon, and the Apocalyptic Space of Postmodern Fiction," in Richard Dellamora, ed.Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Christine Smallwood is a senior Honors English major. This paper was written for Professor Peter Schmidt's English 052B: American Fiction: Melville and Pynchon. It was the winner of the Philip M. Hicks Prize for Literary Criticism Essay.