The Negative of Darkness

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Book Reviews / Reflections

I finished the novel V. by Thomas Pynchon a week or so ago. I’ve now read all of his novel length works except for Bleeding Edge, but I won’t be able to muster any intelligent commentary on them. That will happen, if ever—and likely not even then—after I read them a second time. It took me a while to master the art of just accepting the fact that comprehensive narrative understanding is not the point, that the point is immersion into a tumult of fleeting, divergent and yet somehow intertwined narratives in which the part is the whole, and the whole but a ghost.

Like life itself, there’s too much to unpack, and no place to put it anyway. Scenes whistle past as time impales us. History is a riverbed, dried and cracked, strewn with the debris of whatever blitzkrieg modernity just ransacked the region, turned its profit, and left it for dead. We are bright-eyed explorers of this broken realm, drunken on the illusion there’s something to find here. Distended machinery parts sparkle in the sun, raven feathers drop from the sky, and an engorged human eye watches our every move through the periscope of a submarine sunk fathoms deep into sand. The owner of this eye concurs, there’s nothing to be found here. Nothing but us.

What I like about Pynchon is that he’s right. There’s no bottom in these novels, no bedrock. And this is the modern, (or post-modern), plight. We are grounded in nothing greater. Our greatest intellectual achievements have left us stranded in an increasingly dehumanized and artificial environment. But somehow, in the midst of this garish terrain, a part of me emerges that I cannot reduce. A depth appears. This part of me comprehends that the negative image to Pynchon’s paranoid, rollicking carnival is a place suffused with light. That place lives in us. Reading Pynchon is like looking over the edge, and just when that sense of falling threatens, and my stomach flutters, I remember this is a dream. It is one place I can fly.

A wonder of Pynchon’s writing is the subtle connectivity that looms invisible behind the work: we sense it here and there, in worlds’ broken and bereft where no greater meaning may obtain, but correlations supervene over chaos nonetheless. Consider this passage about the German radio scientist Mondaugen:

Mondaugen was here as part of a program having to do with atmospheric radio disturbances: sferics, for short. During the Great War one H. Barkhausen, listening in on telephone messages among the Allied forces, heard a series of falling tones, much like a slide whistle descending in pitch. Each of these “whistlers” (as Barkhausen named them) lasted only about a second and seemed to be in the low or audio-frequency range. As it turned out, the whistler was only the first of a family of sferics whose taxonomy was to include clicks, hooks, risers, nose-whistlers, and one like a warbling of birds called the dawn chorus. No one knew exactly what caused any of them. Some said sunspots, others lightning bursts; but everyone agreed that in there someplace was the earth’s magnetic field, so a plan evolved to keep a record of sferics at different latitudes. Mondaugen, near the bottom of the list, drew South-West Africa, and was ordered to set up his equipment as close to 28°S as he conveniently could.

The categorization of these sferics is a taxonomy of the inexplicable, the formal distinctions suggesting a comprehension of phenomena that ultimately reduces to nothing at all. These signals could be utterly random, or they could be precisely ordered by forces we just don’t understand. This is the madness Pynchon offers. What are they, then? It is into this breech, I think, that the light in me pours. Like any great work of art, Pynchon’s novels allow us to inhabit them differently, based on who we are, and somehow, for me, the baroque and broken spectacles he creates offer an abode for the unformed knowing in me to take shape, if only for an instant.

When faced with the perpetually flowering madness of nothing at all, I discover a ground.

Isn’t life a little like this? The mystic acknowledges deeper meaning in those very places and patterns that the modern sensibility has simply skipped over, or else usurped for the purpose of pleasure, idolatry, and a fleeting sophistication. Mondaugen attempts to do his work recording the sferics from a German estate in South Africa that has become a non-stop carnival—Fasching, as Pynchon describes it, a very real German celebration prior to Lent in which eating, drinking and merriment precede the pending sacrifice and vigil. But what if there is no pending vigil to ground this celebration? What if there is only the unbroken excess of orgiastic pleasure, wine, food, and the odd bit of sport from the rooftops of the estate, where onlookers watch clumsy colonial biplanes strafe the natives? The picture Pynchon paints is absurdly hollow, but somehow, as I said, the negative image of this is the fullness of life’s meaning. I don’t know how it happens, but it happens.

Pynchon’s novels dissolve into a sort of mist. There is the sense of an arc, and with a bit of focus on your own experience as a reader, certain elements may be unearthed and brought to the light. Those may be a bit different for each of us, but if five hundred of us noted our impressions, certain elements would likely emerge. That said, to get anywhere we might have to agree on which passages to explore. The incident above with Mondaugen, while rich with commentary, is but one thread of a five hundred and fifty page work. How does this passage relate to the whole? There are certainly thematic linkages to other passages in the novel, for sure, but ultimately this novel is neither about Mondaugen, nor not about Mondaugen. And herein lies the dilemma. For those hoping for the evolution of a classical protagonist, or the resolving of some mystery, it just doesn’t happen really.

In the failure to over-simplify, and the tendency to elevate certain human conditions to the extremes, Pynchon makes room for the exploration of what’s really at play here: the soul of the modern world. Has modernity reduced us to the level of automatons? What is the role of love and compassion, ultimately, in our societies? And what good is a world of unchecked technological pursuit if the essence of what it is to be human is somehow left behind? My heart has answers to these questions even if my mind does not, and when I read Pynchon, my mind is distracted enough for my heart to share its wisdom with me. This, for me, is the beauty of his work: there is a space for me to enter.


  1. Thanks Michael. I continue to marvel at how you think and explore the world. I didn’t track most of what your wrote except the summary of how the mind was distracted so the heart can speak and light enter. That I can relate to. May our hearts lead us to love, compassion, and harmony.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Brad! As far as tracking what I wrote, I suppose it’s impossible to do so without a glimpse or two into Pynchon’s writing. If you found my descriptions interesting, but a little impenetrable, then I guess I was successful because that is how I experience Pynchon honestly. There’s a sense of traversing from one bit of lunacy to another. I have to read passages multiple times to pick up how we just leapt from A to D, but that is just Pynchon’s thing. But you got the real point of it! Somehow, in confronting this strange landscape–it’s almost like traveling to a foreign country–some part of me fills up the space.


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  2. I never felt up to tackling Pynchon — I struggle without a narrative, a story — but your post here gives me a strong sense of his value. What I get from your take is a strong sense of Yin and Yang, which fundamentally as well as metaphorically is about light and dark.

    Since childhood I’ve had one foot firmly placed in the world of science, but I’ve never ascribed to scientism. My childhood also gave me a spiritual place to put a foot, and much of my life has been a process of reconciling the two. (As an aside, I’ve been told the first two words I learned were “light” and “star” — both of which have had interesting echoes throughout my life.)

    Stephen Hawking (along with other scientists) famously said the universe leaves no room for God. Sean Carroll wrote a paper saying much the same thing. But, of course, the Creator isn’t found inside the Creation. The same would apply to the putative advanced civilization that made the VR in which we are just sims. 🙂

    The problem with scientism is that it assumes a cold materialism that leaves no room for deeper mysteries, but I take a lot of heart in that science is unable (at least so far) to answer some very basic questions: What is Time? Why is there “something it is like” to have a brain? What physics, or metaphysics, made it all happen? Why is there anything at all? Pretty basic questions that our technological advances distract us from.

    As an aside, at least regarding actual light, the Yin and Yang of light and dark is a “cup” pair (as in full and empty). That is, dark is the absence of light. This in contrast to “true” Yin and Yang pairs such as male-female, north-south, positive-negative (charge). One is not the absence of the other. With true pairs, there is a third option: none or neutral or other. With cup pairs, there is just the infamous half-full glass.

    But by extension, the darkness of modern culture is an empty cup that can only be filled with some kind of light.

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    • Some lovely thoughts here, Wyrd! Thank you. I liked what you wrote about cup pairs and about “true Yin and Yang pairs” that are actually a trinity. It reminded me of my interest in Walter Russell, who in his writing described a still and unchanging neutrality that balanced the dynamic polarities of form. And I think this is a difficulty for scientism–(not science itself which as a form of inquiry has evolved and will continue to evolve)–namely, that a cold materialism as you describe it can only study effects. One effect can be another’s cause, but effects that beget effects is a chain of effects without a true cause. And that is because true cause is the third element in the polarized exchange. But we can only observe imbalance, because imbalance is what carries the desire (or charge) of seeking to return to balance, and when it does so truly it disappears…

      The cup pair idea is new to me, but resonates with my experience of Pynchon and the notion of light and darkness. I almost wrote in this piece a metaphor about there being a line–on one side there is light and the other dark, and that when I read Pynchon I’m looking at the line from one side, but feeling the other. Because they are reversed somehow, or inside out. But yes, I think there’s something to this.

      I won’t say I understand his writing any more than I can say I truly understand life. Haha. But they both inspire me and quicken my sense of inspiration and belonging in something greater. And that may be my fault more than Pynchon’s–that may not have been his intention at all–but somehow it happens. And it happens in these places where the knowable is shown to be empty, and the unknowable just behind it, rattles the sky…


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      • Indeed!

        One of the many things that fascinates me about the Yin-Yang is that the curved line in the symbol is meant to symbolize the fuzzy line between them. The line absolutely exists, if one is far enough on one side or the other, it’s very clear, but the closer one comes, the fuzzier it becomes. (A bit like the Mandelbrot, which also fascinates me.) The dots, of course, symbolize that each side contains a bit of the other.

        There is such a thing as positive evil — a true Yin-Yang pair compared to positive good and to being neutral. But per the old saying about evil succeeding when good people do nothing, there is also the darkness that is the absence of light, which I take as more what you’re saying here. Our modern culture is empty of light in many regards!

        As far as how you take Pynchon, that’s the weird thing about art. It’s created (usually) from one perspective but invariably seen from another. (I say “usually” because some abstract artists I’ve spoken with have claimed to have no real point of view, they just paint or draw unconsciously with the express idea that those who view it bring their own perspectives. I’m also reminded of the infamous briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Even Tarantino had no definition of what was in it.)

        As an aside, talking about looking into the dark, a quote I made up a while back: “It is true that if one gazes into the abyss that it gazes back. But if one is strong enough one can get used to it, even become friends with it.” 😀

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