Earlier this week I discovered Ka’s invitation to write a few blog pieces around favorite quotations. The challenge was framed as three posts, each built around one quotation, or as one post with three quotations. I realized quickly it would be enjoyable to find a few quotes that I like, and to share them and explain my enthusiasm for them, but then found it was quite a difficult task to narrow down my selections. I don’t think in terms of quotations, I discovered, but in terms of tapestries that emerge from multiple vantage points. So, my thought is that I would like to expand the challenge a bit by providing three posts (eventually), each with three quotations from a favorite author or on a favorite subject. Three quotes per author or subject gives me the chance to provide some depth.
And nine feels right, too. It’s baseball season here in America.
For the the first post in this series I want to try and describe one of the reasons I enjoy reading Thomas Pynchon novels. The reason is resonance. Pynchon’s writing stirs me because I experience resonance through his writing to many levels of my own human experience. The strongest resonance I feel is with the idea, interwoven throughout his works, that our world and our selves are not quite solid– that they are smoke and mirror fabrications, akin to a mirage. It is as if our world is arising in or from another, or is itself but the superposition of other, invisible worlds– the merging of far more influences than we can fathom in any particular instant– though we sense their intersection at every turn. These intersections are hidden from plain sight on the one hand, but obvious to behold on the other. What is an apple, a sex toy, a rocket, or the transit of Venus, if not the manifest intersection of hidden realms?
We sense this, don’t we? That our physical senses, faithful agents though they may be, hide as much as they reveal. In the passages I’ve selected– one each from three different novels– I think you will see this theme emerge.
Mason & Dixon
In this passage from Mason & Dixon, Mason is emerging from a cave which he stumbled into out of some blind curiosity, where he found himself faced with the choice of being killed or speaking to a famous ear in a glass case– an ear starved to hear words, words of all kinds and languages… though words containing one’s deepest desires were strongly preferred. Rather than revealing his true desire to be restored to his deceased wife Rebekah– that being too intimate a secret to whisper to such an ear– he requests instead a safe return voyage for his friend Dixon. Then he is permitted to leave the cave…
“Having squirm’d past the last obstacle, Mason finds himself presently at Ground Level in the neglected Garden he glimps’d earlier. The Walls are markedly higher in here than he remembers them from the Street,– whose ev’ry audible Nuance now comes clear to him, near and far, all of equal Loudness, from ev’ry part of the Town,– but invisible…. In its suggestion of Transition between Two Worlds, the space offers an invitation to look into his Soul for a moment, before passing back to the Port-Town he has stepp’d from…a Sailors’ waterfront Chapel, as some would say. He begins, like a Dog, to explore the Walls, proceeding about the stone Perimeter. Bright green Vines with red trumpet-shap’d Flowers, brighter indeed than the Day really allows…no door-ways of any kind…then Rain, salt from the Leagues of Vacant Ocean….
‘I was in a State. I must have found the way out. Unless the real Mason is yet there captive in that exitless Patch, and I but his Representative.’ “
When he next meets Dixon, Dixon describes his experience in a pub on the far side of the world, where “near as he could calculate, at exactly the same instant” the world went silent for a moment, and he heard Mason’s request whispered to him in a strange voice out of the darkness. I love the way diverse points of the world open up and join here, and the way Mason off-handedly supposes he may not be the real Mason at all… I think if we’re honest, we have this feeling as beings in this world. We’re who we are, but the time bound version we carry of ourselves– like a picture in our wallets– is somehow a caricature… I’ve never quite been the localized ‘me’ I thought I was…
In Gravity’s Rainbow, among many, many other things, Pynchon explores a correlation between the locations of the character Slothrop’s one night stands and the sites of German rocket strikes during the London Air Raids of WWII.
“It’s the map that spooks them all, the map Slothrop’s been keeping on his girls. The stars fall in a Poisson distribution, just like the rocket strikes on Roger Mexico’s map of the Robot Blitz.
“But, well, it’s a bit more than the distribution. The two patterns also happen to be identical. They match up square for square. The slides that Teddy Bloat’s been taking of Slothrop’s map have been projected onto Roger’s, and the two images, girl stars and rocket-strike circles, demonstrated to coincide.”
[This next paragraph is from the same passage but out of sequence.]
“Roger Mexico thinks it’s a statistical oddity. But he feels the foundations of that discipline trembling a bit now, deeper than oddity ought to drive. Odd, odd, odd– think of the word, such white finality in its closing clap of the tongue. It implies moving past the tongue stop– moving beyond the zero– and into the other realm. Of course you don’t move past. But you do realize, intellectually, that’s how you ought to be moving.”
Pynchon peeks absurdly here at coincidence and synchronicity, suggesting at one point earlier in the narrative that the geometric correlation between the sites of Slothrop’s affairs and the rocket strikes are due to a reverse causation… He makes love to a woman, and a week later there is a crater in the ground, but oddly it is the rocket strikes that arouse him… Here Pynchon teases apart the idea that our world follows an orderly track, and plays with the myth that influence proceeds in only one direction. Once again he serves up a world that is profoundly not what it seems, where his characters can’t quite fathom themselves, but are struck from time to time with the feeling they ought to be drifting beyond such attempts at straightforward interpretations.
Against the Day
This last passage is taken from Pynchon’s novel Against the Day. (Yes, it is one paragraph in the novel as well!)
“In a dream early one morning, she stood before him holding the object. She was naked, and weeping. ‘Must I then take up the dreadful instrument, and flee to other shores?’ Her voice, without its waking edge of cool sarcasm, defenseless, beckoned him into its sadness. This dream was about Umeki, but also one of those mathematicians’ dreams that surface now and then in the folklore. He saw that if the Q-waves were in any way longitudinal, if they traveled through the Aether in any way like sound traveling through air, then among the set of further analogies to sound, somewhere in the regime, must be music–which, immediately, obligingly, he heard, or received. The message it seemed to convey being ‘Deep among the equations describing the behavior of light, field equations, Vector and Quaternion equations, lies a set of directions, an itinerary, a map to a hidden space. Double refraction appears again and again as a key element, permitting a view into a Creation set just to the side of this one, so close as to overlap, where the membrane between the worlds, in many places, has become too frail, too permeable, for safety…. Within this mirror, within the scalar term, within the daylit and obvious and taken-for-granted has always lain, as if in wait, the dark itinerary, the corrupted pilgrim’s guide, the nameless Station before the first, in the lightless uncreated, where salvation does not yet exist.’ “
This passage contains several of the other, more subtle resonances that I often experience reading Pynchon– too many for me to enumerate well here. Pynchon makes reference to ideas of the aether and the music of the spheres, to quaternion mathematics, and to scalar wave electrodynamics. In some formulations of the mathematics of electricity and magnetism there is indeed a scalar term, but it is kind of a hidden parameter of nature in the sense that it isn’t visible to instruments that rely on more obvious imbalances like the vector-oriented electric field. A scalar variable is like temperature: it has no direction. These are ideas that have been explored by various writers on the “fringe” of science. Quaternions and scalars have a bit of a bad name in the mainstream communities… This makes Pynchon’s use of the term even more interesting, for he is clearly looking into the twilight, where few are willing to look, to the boundaries of what is knowable.
There is a well-known phenomenon called the Aharanov-Bohm effect, in which light passing through particular regions of space will ‘skip a beat’, despite the fact that the electric and magnetic fields in that region of space have a value of zero. Some have interpreted “spooky” results such as this as evidence of the viability of this scalar term. For me, Pynchon’s allusion to nuances of electricity and magnetism as a means of lifting the curtain between worlds is delicious… and his allusion to double refraction reminds me of birefringence, which is a property of some crystals, and relatively recently discovered to be a property of living tissue itself…
My suspicion is other readers have a similar experience– that reading Pynchon causes them to trace out all these hidden threads of their own personally unique web of ideas and discoveries– but with countless other allusions that are lost on me, such is the rich density of Pynchon’s prose. The idea of “two worlds” is not an insignificant one, and as we move ever more deeply into the space of our hearts, I believe we unlock the innate ability to hold multiple worlds together– to draw a bucket of water and embody the meaning and purpose of the heavens both, simultaneously, without losing awareness of one’s own warm breath… And this is the strongest resonance that I feel, whether Pynchon intended it or not…