Pynchon’s Inferno

by Charles Hollander

A search for the sources of the well–known paranoia expressed in the works of our best–known recent alumnus author.
Thomas Pynchon ’59 has probably achieved more acclaim for his writing than any other alumnus to leave Cornell since Kurt Vonnegut ’44. Pynchon has remained a mysterious figure, by choice, refusing interviews and pictures. The writer of this article studied literature at Johns Hopkins, is a free-lance writer currently working on a novel, and reports he has never met Thomas Pynchon.

Paranoia in Pynchonfiction is not just an identifying characteristic; it is the driving force. To resonate with it is to see the force fields of his prose gathering energy like cumulus clouds, to have the words practically leap up off the page with the immediacy of a thunderclap and illuminate the brain with the power of a lightning flash.

Although some of the critical writings about Pynchon have focused on his paranoia, they are judgmental, regarding paranoia as something weird and kinky, just a half-step from chainsaw murder. They do not view paranoia sympathetically, or as merely an alternative mode of perception, like extremely devout religiosity.

For Pynchon paranoia is part of a process. Paranoia usually evolves out of a sense of being disinherited and evolves into a need for apocalypse. In his first short story, “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna” ( Epoch, 1959), Pynchon’s major character is Irving Loon, an Ojibwa Indian. The tribe lives so perpetually on the brink of starvation and extinction that they have become convinced that the forces of nature are directed against them. Ojibwa paranoia climaxes in a peculiar psychosis, a personal identification with the Windigo, a destructive, cannibalistic spirit. Briefly, the story ends apocalyptically. Irving Loon slaughters a group of partygoers with an ornamental rifle.

In Pynchon’s only non-fiction piece, “A Journey Into the Mind of Watts” (New York Times Magazine, 1966), he attempts to come to terms with the 1965 violence in Los Angeles. He feels the famous junkheap tower of Simon Rodia, a Watts landmark constructed of discarded debris from the white society, is a metaphor for all the wasted lives that make up the American ghetto everywhere. The blacks, he reasons, feel themselves to be the discarded debris of white society, feel the forces of society are directed against them much as the Ojibwa feel the forces of nature are directed against them. According to Pynchon, the blacks have become paranoid, interpreting all activity of the white leadership, even of the liberal members of the humanist establishment, as denying them their true cultural heritage and as so assimilationist as to be genocidal. The citizens of Watts, in Pynchon’s view, feel they have been disinherited of America’s bounty and disabused of their humanity. The result, in Pynchon’s schema: paranoia, rage, and eventual conflagration.

Pynchon, concerned with history as he is, often writes about the sadness, the tristesse, of the disinherited, the victims in the various situations of his fictions–the Ojibwa, the American blacks, etc. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon writes with a spooky reluctance, as if certain things can not be spoken of, as if they had no name, as if the naming of historical names will go on only through cognate and metaphor, corruptions and low puns which might contain high magic. Indeed, one character is named John Nefastis, “nefastus” meaning nefarious, and a cognate, “nefandous” meaning not to be spoken of. Of the real historical figures alluded to in his mock Jacobean revenge drama, The Courier’s Tragedy, Pynchon says, “It is all a big in-joke. The audience of the time knew.”

The audience of our time knows too. Joseph Borkin, Leonard Mosley, Cleveland Amory, Ferdinand Lundberg, Victor Perlo, Harvey O'Connor, William Manchester, Anthony Sampson, Morton Mintz, Peter Collier, David Horowitz, Woodward and Bernstein have all made careers out of naming names. Pynchon, by writing “Secretaries James and Foster and Senator Joseph” (Lot 49), when he means us to know that it is Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and US Senator Joseph McCarthy he is discussing, uses technique we would expect of a terrified Russian dissident. (And, speaking of paranoia, both Forrestal and McCarthy spent their last days suffering from mental illness, with Forrestal leaping to his death at the US Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland.) Pynchon writes as though he fears for his life, though we seldom hear of writers being incarcerated for their political views (except perhaps Ezra Pound), let alone being assassinated in this country.

As all of us are in these times, Pynchon is sensitized to the notions of assassins and assassinations. He links John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X at one point in Gravity’s Rainbow, “Eventually Jack and Malcolm both got murdered” (688). In another section of Rainbow he creates for us a realm of assassins, a resort, a resting place where they can reduce the terrible stress they live with daily. The characters in this place treat each other kindly, participating in exercises to rid themselves of the guilt, the shame, the self-loathing, the sense of personal responsibility that comes with their professional calling. To sugarcoat the brutality Pynchon uses humor. The resort of assassins is actually a quite funny scene, filled with applications to everyday bureaucratic life, the observations of a Thurberesque voyager in Dante’s Inferno. Pynchon writes:

“The worst part’s the shame,” Sir Stephen tells him. “Getting through that. Then your next step–well, I talk like an old hand, but that’s really only as far as I’ve come, up through the shame. At the moment I’m involved with the ‘Nature of Freedom’ drill you know, wondering if any action of mine is truly my own, or if I always do only what They want me to do [. . . ]’ (541)
“Have I been assigned here?”
“Yes. Are you beginning to see why?”
“‘I’m afraid I am.’ With everything else, these are, after all, people who kill each other […] ‘then I defected for nothing, didn’t I? I mean, if I haven’t really defected at all . . .’ (542)
“[…] No one has ever left the Firm alive, no one in history–and no one ever will.”
“Think of it as a handicap, Prentice, like any other, like missing a limb or having malaria . . . one can still live . . . one learns to get round it, it becomes part of the day– […]
“You don’t, you really don’t trust me?”
“Of course not […] Would you–really–trust any of us?” (543)

Under the black humor, under the parody of manners, Pynchon is evoking a genuine dread that there have been times in history, and the present seems to be one, when cadres of coordinated assassins act in the everyday scheme of things.

In his apparent schema, paranoia should be preceded by feelings of disinheritance. Actually Pynchon does feel somewhat disinherited. Pynchon’s family is a clan of bluebloods who were misguided enough to align themselves with the wrong side during not one, but two American Revolutions, one in the eighteenth century and one in the twentieth century, and who have suffered social and economic reversals as a consequence.

Pynchon’s family is traceable back to the eleventh century. According to one scholar, “The earliest Pynchon on record is one Pinco, ‘sworn brother in war” to Endo, who came to England from Normandy with William the Conqueror.” By 1533 one Nicholas Pynchon was appointed High Sheriff of London, so he must have been on pretty good terms with the Crown.

A century later, in 1630, William Pynchon brought his family and considerable capital to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As a patentee he helped found both Roxbury and Springfield, along with such other notable founding fathers as Miles Morgan, the ancestor of the financier J.P. Morgan. William Pynchon stayed for twenty years until he was forced to leave for writing a religious tract, The Meritorious Price Of Our Redemption, which argued against the prevailing orthodoxy of the Puritans, and which was banned and burned in Boston.

In a commentary in Water’s Genealogical Gleanings (London, 1901), it is noted that from William Pynchon’s son John “are descended all who bear that name in America.” John Pynchon became, along with the Morgans, one of the richest men in New England. One of his descendants, Joseph Pynchon, was groomed to become governor of Connecticut and would have been had he not been loyal to the Crown. The first Thomas Ruggles Pynchon was a physician during the Revolutionary period. His nineteenth century descendent, the Rev. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, was a chemist and an educator, eventually becoming president of Trinity College of Hartford.

In more recent times there was a rather prominent stock brokerage called Pynchon & Co. This house was frequently mentioned by the New York Times during the ‘20s and ‘30s. The Times frequently published abstracts of prestigious Pynchon & Co. publications just as they publish abstracts of the studies of Merrill Lynch today. The titles ranged through such topics as might be of interest to investors: The Aviation Industry (1928, 1929), Survey of Public Utilities (1928), The Gas Industry (1928), and the ambitious Electric Light and Power: A Survey of World Development (1930). The firm was obviously well connected and enjoyed great favor. They had offices in New York (3), Chicago (2), Milwaukee, Battle Creek, London (2), Liverpool, and Paris. They were one of the largest brokerages in the country, if not the world. When Pynchon & Co. talked, people listened; they were, in a word, influential.

In April 1929, Pynchon & Co. announced they would be opening a new Chicago office. By December 1929, after October 24 or the Black Thursday of the stock market crash, the firm had had noticeable reversals. The Times reported that Mrs. Harold Pynchon had to get an injunction to prevent Pynchon & Co. from selling her personal stock to pay the debt of her husband, a high ranking executive in the firm. The senior partner, George M. Pynchon, tried desperately to come up with some technological breakthrough to stem the tide. In 1930 he backed experiments with a “Diesel electric” boat, and a “glider boat.” Neither paid off. By April 1931 the firm was suspended from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and went into receivership. The Irving Trust Co. took charge as receiver. According to the respected financial historian, Ferdinand Lundberg, the Irving Trust Co. was a bank in the Morgan-DuPont sphere at the time.

According to the Times, Pynchon & Co. was the largest brokerage ever to have been suspended from the NYSE. The day after the Exchange announced the suspension of Pynchon & Co., the Times noted a drop in the value of US Steel and Johns Manville stock, two firms closely associated with J.P. Morgan.

The financial writer analyzed the failure as due to Pynchon & Co.’s involvement, together with the Chase Securities Corporation, in Fox Film and General Theaters. The final blow came as the value of Fox Film and General Theaters stock fell under attack and was driven down by large scale selling, or dumping. The Times printed a statement by an official spokesman of the Chase National Bank saying the Chase “was merely in the position of being one of the numerous creditors of the firm [Pynchon & Co.], but had no special interest in its affairs,” sounding oh so much like the pro forma denial of divorcees when queried about the setbacks of their ex-spouses. “I’m not bitter. I wish him/her all the best. Actually, I have no special interest in his/her affairs.”

The Times reported that as of March 1932 Pynchon & Co. had liabilities of $19.7 million, and assets of but $12.8 million, not inconsequential sums when one considers that a new Chevrolet cost about $600 in 1932. Still, Pynchon & Co. went under and there was much subsequent scandal. One Mrs. Helen Delany Pynchon made the news in 1931. It was reported that she was saved from a jail term by the beneficence of her former employer, mining engineer Raymond Brooks, when she was convicted of robbing him of $45,000. Subsequently the George M. Pynchon estate was sold and, no end to ignominy, the estate’s furniture sold at public auction. Some reversal–from contemplating the world’s electric power needs, to having the furniture sold at auction.

We can only infer from the reaction of the stock market to the failure of Pynchon & Co., the use of the Irving Trust Co. as receiver, that the firm was a Morgan satrap. The Pynchons appear to have used to advantage all of their family associations with the J.P. Morgan group, with whom they had shared common interests since the founding of the colonies in 1630. Yet as the J. P. Morgan influence ebbed, the Morgan associates suffered as well. Once again the Pynchon clan had thrown its lot in with the loyalists and lost.

The Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. with whom we are concerned wasn’t born until the sordid and humiliating drama of the Pynchon clan had been played out, 1937. His father, Thomas Sr., is the grandnephew of the president of Trinity College, for whom he was named. Apparently Pynchon Sr. was never in the high-finance circle of the Pynchon family. Rather, Pynchon Sr. was an industrial surveyor by training, and worked for engineering firms most of his adult life, or held state engineering posts. For example, he was, for a time, commissioner of roads for the town of Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Although Thomas Jr. enjoyed the felicities of a middle class upbringing, in his art Pynchon's sympathies are repeatedly with the losers, the victims, the disinherited, and this preoccupation began with his earliest writings. In his short story “The Secret Integration” ( Saturday Evening Post, 1964), there is a speculation that the drifters, the hoboes who ride on freight trains, are someone’s “relatives” who disappeared during the Great Depression. In his short story “Low-lands” (New World Writing, 1960), we are introduced to the first of Pynchon’s secret underground conspiracies, the Sons of the Red Apocalypse, who awaited revolution during the Depression. In Pynchon’s shorter works, where brevity forces his concerns to the surface, he seems more explicitly interested in the victims of the Great Depression, which he hardly mentions in his novels, and their secret plans for return.

In Pynchon’s works railroads and tracks and particularly deserted railroad track beds, become an image of the old industrial order. It is the losers, the disinherited, who people the old railroad tracks, creating hobo villages, whole communities of the dispossessed. In “The Secret Integration,” the relatives who disappeared during the Depression are viewed as possible riders on freight trains. In V., Benny Profane is often moved to sentiment by freight trains which he associates with the Depression. In Lot 49, Oedipa walks along the railroad tracks and has a vision of Americans camped in abandoned Pullman cars, families living in immobilized freight cars (135). Disinherited all.

We have seen that in Pynchon disinheritance leads to paranoia leads to apocalypse, or at least a wish for retaliation. We have groups planning for their moment of opportunity such as The Sons of the Red Apocalypse, The Schwarzkommando, The Tristero, etc. We have seen that Pynchon’s family was aligned with the old order, the J. P. Morgan group, and that Pynchon. & Co. was brought down at the time of the stock market crash in a way that cast some suspicion on the Chase National Bank, one of the Rockefeller banks. We find Pynchon, not in the mountains leading insurrection, a modern “El Desheredado,” an American Che; but at his typewriter seeking revenge.

Pynchon’s writings have much in common with Jonathan Swift’s and Dante Alighieri’s. Both these men were involved in the politics of their day. Dante was eventually banished from Florence, having thrown his lot in with the losing political gang, the White Guelphs. While in exile Dante wrote his Divine Comedy, in which we are given a structure leading us down to hell, up through purgatory, and finally into heaven. Along the way we meet mythical and historical figures who allegorically stand for various religious doctrines and dogmas.

At the same time, many of these figures recognizably mimic living figures of the day, the winners of the political conflict. Under the camouflage of his most lofty poetry, his most theological writings, Dante was sticking it to many of his contemporaries. Throughout the nine circles of Hell stand real historical figures indicted as panderers and seducers, evil counselors, falsifiers, traitors, murderers.

Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels operates so well as a comedy on the narrative level that it is frequently thought of as children’s reading, though it obviously works as a scathing commentary on the adult human condition as well. Only when we immerse ourselves in the documents of the day do we realize that Swift was calling this particular public servant a timid, petty, and frightened Lilliputian; that specific member of Parliament an overbearing and gross Brobdingnagian; this particular scholar a nitpicking ninny of a pedant; and perhaps some very powerful men of his day Yahoos.

In historical perspective this name calling is humorous, even cute, but in his day Gulliver’s Travels was considered so venomous it could easily have gotten Dean Swift clapped in the Tower of London. So grave was this concern that his literary friends, with Pope the leader, devised a means of publishing the book anonymously, with no possible proof of authorship, to avoid prosecution.

Following Dante and Swift, both political losers, Pynchon employs allegory and satire; in particular, he adopts the form of Menippean satire. Menippus of Gadara, a philosopher-slave, invented the form in the first half of the third century BC. It is characterized by a union of humor and philosophy, a looseness of structure, tolerance of digressions, and opportunities for versification, which in Pynchon’s hands become song and limerick. Characters are often reduced to the attitudes or theories, doctrines or dogmas for which they stand, and plot becomes the interplay of these ideas as embodied in the characters representing them. For example, in Gravity’s Rainbow Ned Pointsman stands for Pavlovian conditioning, the view of the human being as a series of stimuli and responses which robs him of his uniqueness; Roger Mexico represents all that is anti-Pavlovian, spontaneity, emotion, love. But the driving force is satire, the holding up of human vices to ridicule.

Pynchon instructs his readers to consider Menippean Satire as his chosen form. At the end of Chapter One of Lot 49 he mentions “the beautiful Spanish exile [painter] Remedios Varo.” This is one of the unfamiliar names he expects us to pursue if we want to understand things more clearly. It turns out that the standard library references do not yield much information about Varo. There was an historical Remedios Varo whose paintings were reproduced by a Mexican press (Mexico, DF, Ediciones Era, 1966).

Why should Pynchon choose to mention a painting by this particularly obscure painter when there are many other “Rapunzel” paintings that might have served his thematic ends as well?

The answer is, that in pursuing the strange name, Varo, we are led to a cognate name, one Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC). Varro was a Roman man of letters, the most prolific writer of his day, and, you guessed it, a political loser turned satirist. Living through the Civil War of the triumvirs, Varro rose to the status of minor noble, only to be ruined when Mark Anthony defeated Pompey. Varro’s property was plundered and more horrors might have befallen him had not Caesar intervened. Caesar raised Varro to the post of Public Librarian and restored his property, but upon Caesar’s death Varro was once again placed on the list of the proscribed. He made eventual peace with the triumvirs, at the cost of his property, and he was allowed to live out his life in study and writing.

At this point Varro wrote widely on history, antiquity, philosophy, grammar, the history and theory of language, rhetoric, law, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, mensuration, agriculture, and naval tactics. It is estimated that he wrote 400 to 600 libri, short essay–like books. Varro also wrote an estimated 150 Menippean Satires. He developed the form into a medley, or mixture of humor, philosophy, song, and rhyme on any topic that struck his fancy at the moment, managing to scoff at all the fad and fashion of the time while avoiding, or submerging, any political bitterness he might have felt.

His leading us from R. Varo to M.T. Varro is a typical example of Pynchon’s method for burying key information, which I term misdirection. We are given a real historical name to check out, Remedios Varo, and upon searching for it the name leads us to a cognate, Marcus Terentius Varro, who only happens to have written 150 Menippean satires, which is Pynchon’s method of alerting us that he has chosen to use the form of the Menippean satire. This misdirection works by virtue of leading us from something in the text to something outside the text, from one name to a cognate of that name, from a painter to a writer, from Varo to Varro to Menippean satire. We shall see more of Pynchon’s misdirection shortly.

This technique puts Pynchon squarely in the tradition of the satirists, along with Swift and Dante. Surely a close reading of V. and Gravity’s Rainbow, and probably Lot 49 as well, though it is so much more compact, would reveal all the characteristics required to call the works Menippean satires. Within the loose structure of this form Pynchon enjoys room to give voice to a range of thematic concerns including disinheritance, paranoia, and the possible return of the disinherited, always identifying with the losers, the victims, the disenfranchised of his works.

He also enters into digressions on behavioral psychology, bureaucracy, psychopathology of sexuality, missile guidance systems, Central Asian alphabets, chemistry, thermodynamics, communication theory, plastic surgery, the pentecost, the relationship of the sacred and the profane. Like Varro, Pynchon’s fund of personal information is vast. It is hard for us to see where he’s going, what he’s doing, at any given moment.

In cryptography there is a rule that says, in effect, the more unexpected a message is, the more information it contains; a series of repetitive messages conveys less information that a series of messages that differ from each other. Hence, among ail of Pynchon’s digressions, puns, acronyms, foreign language smuts, completely fabricated characters and firms, characters and firms whose names are cognates of significant historical figures, there is a wealth of information.

The information is usually encoded and keyed. If the reader has the code, or is a good cryptanalyst, it makes sense: if not, not. Pynchon practically explains that he means his works to be cryptanalyzed in a fantastical passage in Gravity’s Rainbow. Discussing a secret society of people who have been hit by lightning (the enlightened, the illuminati?), he writes:

“ Between congruent and identical there seems to be another class of look-alike [that only the enlightened can discriminate, and they receive a] private monthly magazine A Nickel Saved (which looks perfectly innocent, old Ben Franklin after inflation, unless you know the other half of the proverb: “. . . is a stockpile of nickel.” Making the real quote nickel-magnate Mark Hanna’s: “You have been in politics long enough to know that no man in public office owes the public anything.” So the real title is Long Enough, which Those Who Know, know. The text of each issue of the magazine when transformed this way, yields many interesting messages). To outsiders it’s just a pleasant little club newsletter– […]
But does the Polish undertaker in the rowboat care about busting this code, about secret organizations or recognizable subcultures? No he doesn’t.” (Rainbow 664-5)

Pynchon is telling us that the whole of his works are written in a kind of code because he, like Varro, Dante, and Swift, is running risks by taking potshots at the winners, the disinheritors. If the reader has the code, he gets it, catches on to what Pynchon is saying. Those Who Know, know. If the reader hasn’t the code, Pynchon’s works are like Swift’s, fit for children, dirty limericks to be sung or recited at campus beer parties, cover for the real energy of the novel.

By alluding to Mark Hanna, Pynchon is using misdirection again. It is true that many of Pynchon’s key passages need to be deciphered, cryptanalyzed, as does the very passage in which he urges us to decipher. It is only partly true that Mark Hanna had interest in nickel; his interests and connections were wide and of special meaning for Pynchon. By tracking down the names, like Mark Hanna, in Pynchon’s cryptic passages, the reader may become enlightened. But there is danger, as there is with literal lightning. By tracking down all the leads in Pynchon, the reader may learn more than he ever wished to know.

In Lot 49 the reader is misdirected during Oedipa’s pursuit of the many clues as to the existence of the Tristero. She consults with many “experts” about the history of the European postal systems, who lead her to many “learned” publications. One reference to an “article from an 1865 issue of the famous [bogus?] Bibliotheque des Timbrophiles” leads through a chain of articles to the historical Thurn and Taxis. Following this lead into the French publications about postal history, I discovered a monograph by one Leon Cazes, submitted to the faculty of the University of Paris on June 8, 1900 as a These pur le Doctorat, entitled Le Monopole Postal. In it there was a footnote referring to an older monograph, Historie de la Poste aux Lettres et du Timbre–Poste, Paris, 1876, by one Arthur De Rothschild, in which there is a long discussion of the Thurn and Taxis. ARTHUR ROTHSCHILD!?! Remembering how Remedios Varo led to Marcus Terentius Varro led to Menippean satire, I consulted some histories of the Rothschilds, and yes indeedy phoax, lo and behold misdirection.

In her modern book, The Rothschilds (1973), Virginia Cowles wrote:

“Ever since Waterloo the brothers had concentrated on assembling the best network of intelligence agents on the continent, and organizing the fastest means of transmitting the intelligence from one point to another. All the branches had carrier pigeons trained to fly to the various capitals as occasion demanded; but now Rothschild “stations” were set up on the main European highways to provide fresh horses and carriages for the Rothschild messengers, dressed conspicuously in the blue and yellow family livery. At Calais and Dunkirk boats and skippers in the exclusive pay of the family crossed the Channel in all weather. (71)
The Rothschilds were in a unique position to unearth the most secret secrets, for they were on the closest terms with the princely family of Thurn and Taxis who ran the Central European postal service. The Rothschilds had lent considerable sums of money to the Prince, the hereditary postmaster, who lived at Frankfurt. Consequently the Prince was not at all averse to giving instructions that certain letters should be steamed open, and a precis of the contents sent to old Mayer, who passed on the intelligence to his sons.” (45)

Oedipa’s concern for the Tristero leads us to the relationship of the Thurn and Taxis with the Rothschilds. Further reading of the Rothschild history reveals that they were frequent banking allies of the Morgans from the 1870s through the 1920s and perhaps to this day.

The Rothschilds cooperated with the Morgans in the refinancing of the New York Central Railroad (railroads again) in 1877, and in 1895 the Rothschilds were instrumental in stemming the “free silver” panic which nearly bankrupted the US government. Together with the Morgans, they formed a syndicate of international bankers who came to the rescue, with a tidy profit for themselves of course. In 1918, there was a currency raid on the French franc. In order to stem the tide, the French Rothschilds formed a secret combine with J. P. Morgan, who reasoned that if France were allowed to slide into an economic slump America would suffer as well.

So Pynchon, through Oedipa, misdirects us to French histories of the European postal systems, to the Thurn and Taxis, to the Rothschilds, and to the Morgans in whose sphere of influence Pynchon & Co. held the position of minor noble. Knowing Pynchon’s preoccupation with history, his method of leading by misdirection, and recalling his familial history, we can look at Lot 49 in a new light.

Oversimplistically, the plot of Lot 49 might be summarized as follows: Oedipa Maas one day finds herself the executrix (heiress, inheritor?) of the estate of a former lover and financier; through a series of bizarre revelations she comes to learn about a private mail system which existed for hundreds of years in Europe, the Thurn and Taxis, and an opposition mail system called the Tristero which operated–and may still operate–in secret, attempting to disrupt legitimate postal systems as much as possible. After a while she can’t tell if she has (1) stumbled onto a secret communication network, (2) begun hallucinating this network, (3) stumbled onto a plot against her sanity, or (4) fantasized the whole thing. The book ends as she is about to find out.

There is a great deal of German material in Lot 49, a book that takes place in Southern California. Why are there so many references to the Germans? Pynchon could as easily have used the Japanese, or any other group, as the focus of his imagery. Dr. Hilarious, the Jungian turned Freudian, goes mad envisioning the Israelis are out to get him for his Nazi doctor role in World War II. Pynchon could have him go mad for any number of reasons. Pierce Inverarity uses his Gestapo officer voice to get a laugh out of Oedipa; why not a W.C. Fields bit?

German imagery, particularly that connected with World War II, becomes a leitmotif. There are many direct references to Germany, German architecture, German weapons, German troops forcing American GIs into Lago de Pieta, German heads of state (Bismark, Hitler), German architects (Albert Speer), German furniture (Biedermeyer), German administrators (Adolf Eichmann), and German extermination camps (Buchenwald and Auschwitz). In Lot 49 many of the ideas for Gravity’s Rainbow were apparently gathering in Pynchon’s mind.

By focusing on the winners, the Germans, Pynchon implies the losers, the disinherited, the Rothschilds. Metzger says of Oedipa: “Some people today can drive VW’s, carry a Sony radio in their shirt pocket. Not this one, folks, she wants to right wrongs 20 years after it’s all over. Raise ghosts . . . Forgetting her first loyalty, legal and moral, is to the estate she represents. Not to our boys in uniform, however gallant, whenever they died” (53).

Pynchon is highlighting the curious reality that somehow the Germans, whose population was decimated, whose industrial capacity was crippled, recovered to become the strongest economic force in postwar Europe. Conversely, the Rothschilds, presumably on the winning side of the war, never regained their former preeminence in European finance, as the Morgans never regained theirs in the US. How did this happen? In Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon tries to answer, or hint at answers to, the questions implied in Lot 49. He vaguely identified the “ultimate Plot Which Has No Name . . . The Big One, the century’s master cabal” in V. (210). He pointedly led us to the Rothschilds and the Morgans in Lot 49. In Gravity’s Rainbow he will repeatedly suggest secret industrial and economic liaisons, interlocking conspiracies, paranoia accelerating as we go toward our enlightenment which takes place at, of all places, a petroleum refinery. (520)

For Pynchon, World War II was a monstrous holocaust, a cataclysm of 40 million souls, resulting from a competition among technologies. The old dynasty, the J. P. Morgan dynasty, was built on the technologies of coal, steel, and railroads; the newer Rockefeller dynasty on the technologies of oil (petrochemicals, plastics), aluminum, and aircraft. Pynchon says that World War II was a corporate war reflecting those technologies, that for many their “first loyalty, legal and moral, is to the estate [corporation] she represents. Not to our boys in uniform [the nation-state], however gallant, whenever they died” ( Lot 49, 53).

In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon has to bring up the long ago relationship between Standard Oil and the I.G. Farbenindustrie. Standard Oil and I.G. Farben did arrange to share world markets in 1936, and as an act of good faith, they exchanged some 2,000 patents just prior to World War II. Their multinational character forced them to make arrangements for the contingencies of war.

When World War II erupted, their loyalties were so strongly with each other that the US government had to bring legal action against both the Standard Oil Co. (NJ) and I.G. Farbenindustrie (see Pynchon’s list, Rainbow 538) for illegal monopolistic practices involving gasoline, toluene, and synthetic rubber patents. The US government seized many of these patents ultimately. Standard Oil, it seems, also gave Farben the technology, personnel and equipment for the production of tetraethyl lead, without which there would have been no high octane aircraft fuel, no luftwaffe, and no war. Then Sen. Harry S. Truman, the investigating committee’s chairman, viewed the relationship between these multinational corporations as treasonable.

By referring to this multinational liaison as “the century’s master cabal,” Pynchon is suggesting more than corporate cooperation. He is suggesting that World War II was part of the “Plot Which Has No Name,” the concerted effort by the new dynasty to bring down the old dynasty. This is hinted at again and again in the book. Anyone can go to the 1942 yearbooks in any public library and get the information from just about any newspaper. Anyone who’s interested knows that John Foster Dulles's law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, represented I.G. Farben during the war and after, as well as the Vereinigte Stahlwerke, and the Shroder Trust, formerly Hitler’s financial agent. It is all known, in the New York Times, in the Senate hearings, in current books about that period.

The Senate hearings led to the takeover by the US government of 97 per cent of the stock of the I. G. Farben’s General Aniline and Film Corporation, AGFA, and Ansco (see Pynchon's list, Rainbow 630), and the arrest of several GAF employees as spies by the FBI. These are the hidden “industrial liaisons” (243) which Pynchon suggests again and again. Everyone knows that war between two countries is insufficient grounds to fail to honor international patent rights. Business as usual. Loyalty to country seems a quaint nineteenth century notion in light of today’s multinationals. Pynchon writes:

“This War was never political at all, the politics was all theater, all just to keep the people distracted . . . The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms–it was only staged to look that way–but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite . . . human elite with no right at all to be where they are . . . We have to look for power sources here, and distribution networks we were never taught, routes of power our teachers never imagined, or were encouraged to avoid . . . we have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world . . . to discover the Key, teach the mysteries to others.” (521)

Pynchon’s bitterness and fearfulness come in again, as he discusses the winners of the competition, the disinheritors, “human elite with no right at all to be where they are.” He sounds like his own character, El Desheredado, too strident, too petulant. He would have us believe that the losers are somehow the true nobility, that losing is, itself, ennobling.

In Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon confronts us with hundreds of names, some fictional, some historical, some accurately spelled, some corrupted, some just plain outrageous. Puns are used for cover and for the naming of names. The polylingual pun can serve to flag an item which Pynchon wants us to check out and, at the same time, to render it less accessible. The reader must sort out the silly puns from the paranoid puns. Bartley Gobbitch (9) is partly garbage, Joaquin Stick (9) is walking stick, and Jeremiah “Merciful” Evans (541) is self-explanatory. More arcanely, the law firm of Salitieri, Poore, Nash, De Brutus, and Short (591) refers us to Thomas Hobbes’ famous reminder that without a social compact, man’s life on Earth is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Varo leads to Varro leads to Menippean satire. What other sleights of literary hand does Pynchon have up his sleeve? In Rainbow Tyrone Slothrop begins as plain ole Slothrop, poses as British correspondent Ian Scuffling, poses as a Russian soldier, masquerades as a pig, becomes known as Rocketman (359), Raketemensch (435), and finally Rocky (741). While this anticipated the name of a contemporary film, it is also the nickname of a very influential American family, the Rockefellers. According to Cassell’s German-English dictionary, Mensch is the third preference for the English word “fellow.” Pynchon converts Slothrop to Rocketman to introduce the ambiguity man-mensch-fellow. In Pynchon’s hands Rocketman is Raketemensch is Rocketfellow is Rockefeller.

Slothrop leads us to the Rockefellers much as a proverb from Ben Franklin transforms into a quote from Mark Hanna leads to old John D. Rockefeller, whose schoolchum Hanna was. Hanna was not a “nickel magnate” as Pynchon slyly asserts; if he was any kind of “magnate” it was in Great Lakes shipping. Most definitely he was John D. Rockefeller’s boyhood pal, and later, at the turn of the century, he was US senator from Ohio. He was a leader in Republican politics, known as Rockefeller’s political fundraiser and king maker.

We should remember that Ohio was the hub of Republican politics during the period, and that Cleveland was the seat of the Standard Oil Trust. Mark Hanna was responsible for the political careers of both McKinley and Taft, and his machine was largely instrumental in having each become president.

The closeness of the name Rockefeller and the word rocket allows Pynchon to construct many puns and combinations. Indeed, the Rockefellers use their own name in like manner. They own Rockefeller Center, where the Rockettes dance. They also own Rockresorts, Greenrock Farms, Winrock Farms, Ven-Rock Inc.

Pynchon is leading us to the Rockefellers throughout Rainbow with combination words, puns, and corruptions, Numerous characters call Slothrop Rocky and fella, though never Rocky, fella. Just as the Tristero leads to Thurn and Taxis leads to the Rothschilds leads to the Morgans leads to Pynchon & Co. and to DISINHERITANCE; the Harrimans and the Whitneys (28), Allen Dulles (268), Winthrop (630), Thomas E. Dewey (636), Mark Hanna (664), Richard M. Zhlubb (754), and “Standard Awl” (565) point to the DISINHERITORS. Though he never names them, Those Who Know, know.

And in the playful way, we have a great sentence: “. . . no, never again will she stand at their kitchen sink with a china cup squeaking in her fingers, its small crying-child sound defenseless, meekly resonating BLOWN OUT OF ATTENTION AS THE ROCKET FELL smashing to a clatter of points white and blue across the floor . . .” (628).

Though rockets are bursting upon London for much of the book, Pynchon never uses that phrase, “The Rocket Fell,” but once and it is in his capitals. We are expected to fill in the missing letters as we are expected to understand that a fragment of newsprint reading MB DRO/ROSHI (693) means ATOM BOMB DROPPED/ON HIROSHIMA.

In his way Pynchon has a lot of fun at the expense of the Rockefellers, and who could better afford it? In Lot 49 he has a character named Winthrop (among other things, a Rockefeller, one-time governor of Arkansas) Tremaine as the operator of a “Swastika Shoppe,” and in V. he has one Matilda Winthrop running a whorehouse. In Rainbow Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice reminds us of one Ezra Parmalee Prentice, the husband of Alta Rockefeller. At one point in Rainbow, appropriate to nothing in the dramatic action, Pynchon introduces a scene from a long ago Clark Gable film just so he can call William Powell, as the governor of New York (Nelson A. Rockefeller at the time he was writing), a “condescending jerk” (516).

Some serious thinkers, men not apparently on anyone’s payroll, maintain that oil technology had to supersede coal technology much as the Iron Age superseded the Bronze Age superseded the Stone Age. Other equally reasonable men say no; coal technology was impeded by lack of government subsidy at critical points in its development. Ironically, I. G. Farben in 1926 devised a method for extracting fuel oil from coal, a process just now judged economical enough to use in this country and called shale-oil. Critics say that coal could have kept pace with oil; a fossil fuel is a fossil fuel, a hydrocarbon is a hydrocarbon, they say.

If this is in fact true, then the development of the various technologies were political decisions, not the ineffable hand of history, not the inexorable march of Capital Tee Technology. And that makes Pynchon, relative to Pynchon & Co., ally of J.P. Morgan, an embittered though fantastically gifted loser.

Throughout Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon’s various spokesmen argue Entropy vs Return. Like Teilhard De Chardin, the noted Jesuit scholar, there are those who articulate the inevitability of energy dissipation, that all systems go from states of high energy, to less, to none, following the second law of thermodynamics. Others argue that there is always some chance of renewal, that there is still some dialectic operating in History, Fortune’s Wheel.

Pynchon, by having Slothrop as Rocketfellow disintegrate, implies the oil dynasty will go the parabolic way of all history’s dynasties, and by arguing for Return suggests that maybe the coal and steel boys, the Morgans and the Rothschilds, might be there at the end to pick up the pieces. In the meantime, “Their entire emphasis is now toward silence, impersonation, opposition masquerading as allegiance.”

While Pynchon has fun at the expense of the Rockefellers, he also fears them as much as Byron the Bulb fears the “hit man from the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies” (651), as Tchitcherine fears the sinister “Ripov of the Commissariat for Intelligence Activities” (700). We know that Allen Dulles was once a Rockefeller lawyer and became the director of the CIA, that his brother John Foster Dulles was once the director of the Rockefeller Foundation and became secretary of state; but does that mean that Pynchon really fears assassination at the hands of the CIA for his jokes at the expense of the Rockefellers?

Aren’t the Rockefellers secure? Haven’t they been pretty influential for three or four generations now? Don’t the oil companies control the country, its government, its corporations, institutions, etc.? Aren’t they now the establishment, as pervasive at the J.P. Morgan group was from the Civil War through World War I? Is there an opposition, even a loyalist opposition? If recent elections are any indication, there doesn’t seem to be any.

Pynchon’s allusions to the liaisons between Standard Oil and I. G. Farben lead to one Henry Morgenthau Jr., F.D.R.’s secretary of the treasury, who seized control of the GAF stock in 1942. His father, Henry Morgenthau Sr., had been ambassador to Turkey during the Woodrow Wilson administration, and his son Robert Morgenthau was appointed the US attorney for the Southern District of New York by President John F. Kennedy. President Richard M. Nixon (Zhlubb) worked for six months to drive Robert Morgenthau out of office in 1969, twenty–seven years after the GAF affair. Apparently the dynastic conflict rages on. We may be living through another installment in an American War of the Roses, complete with spies, double agents, agent provocateurs, and the like.

At the time that Pynchon began writing Gravity’s Rainbow, paranoia may have been the appropriate response for all of us to the events of the day. Given Pynchon’s family background, we can see how paranoia came to be a driving force within Pynchon’s writing.

Cornell Alumni News Nov. 1978: 24-30

© all rights reserved, alle Rechte beim Autor, Charles Hollander 1978,
reprinted and set into html by ACHTUNG with permission.

Other Essays on Thomas Pynchon by Charles Hollander

Abrams Remembers Pynchon Pynchon Notes – 36-39 (1995-1996): 179-80.

Pynchon’s Politics: The Presence of an Absence Pynchon Notes 26-27 (1990): 5–59.

Pynchon, JFK and the CIA: Magic Eye Views of The Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon Notes 40-41 (1997): 61–106.

Does McClintic Sphere in V. Stand for Thelonius Monk? — Forthcoming in Notes on Contemporary Literature. From the Thelonius Monk Website.

Where’s Wanda? The Case of the Bag Lady and Thomas Pynchon Critique, Volume 38, No. 2 (Winter 1997): 145–159.

Jokes and Puns in Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon Notes 46-49 (2000–2001): 204–207.

Index Main Page Vorwort-Preface Die Parabel Dekonstruktion Michael D. Bell Summary Biographie Literatur Richard Fariña Robert Frost Galerie Luddism Mason & Dixon Monographien u. Aufsätze Muster – Patterns Schweine Slow Learner Soccer Proverbs for Paranoids Vineland Weiterführende Literatur Wernher von Braun Fay Wray The Wizard of Oz The Zero Pynchon Web-Links

Douglas Adams John Barth Samuel Beckett John Bunyan William Gaddis Ivan Jefremow Wassily Kandinsky Douglas K. Lannark Stanislaw Lem Bert Brecht: Laotse David Mitchell Vladimir Nabokov Victor Pelewin Salman Rushdie J. D. Salinger Neal Stephenson Laurence Sterne Arkadi und Boris Strugatzki William Carlos Williams Ludwig Wittgenstein Frank Zappa

WebLinks: Astro–Literatur Comics Downloads Esoterics Galerie Die Genesis Haikus Homepages Jump Literatur Links Lyrics The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Die Milchstrasse Musik Links News Oldenburg@OL Philosophie Playlist Poesie Postmodernism Science Fiction Short Stories Space Space Links Suchmaschinen Zeitarchiv Zitate Home Impressum Blog Gästebuch Page up/Seitenanfang

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