quarta-feira, 28 de novembro de 2012

Rocket Leviathan by Joseph D. Andriano

Evolution Isn’t What It Used to Be: Walter Truett Anderson reminded us in 1996 of what H. G. Wells wrote in his essay “Human Evolution as an Artificial Process” over a century ago. As films like The Creature Walks Among Us and the various Islands of Moreau’s archipelago have shown, human beings are capable (intellectually if not morally) of controlling their own evolution now. Although “the human-animal connection” is “a controversy raging still ... a border war, a batde to maintain a clear demarcation between human life and animal life” (Anderson 83), the new border war is between human and machine.

The new anxiety, the angst of postmodernity, concerns not only the beast within or nearby, but also the machine within or nearby. The inner machine is an obsession of Gardner’s Grendel, the border warrior who recognizes die presence of gene-driven mechanisms (e.g., instincts and reflexes) operating within so-called higher animals. The outer, contiguous machine, the metonymic image of artificial evolution, is much more unsetding because it is so new, so much more complex than a mere stimulus- response system, and (therefore) so unpredictable. As the modern robot makes way for the postmodern cyborg, boundaries between inner and outer, self and other, erode (see Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto”). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, cyberpunk was an especially enthusiastic response to this boundary breakdown.

But even in quotidian existence, prosthetic devices, implants, artificial organs and limbs, electronic larynxes, virtual-reality helmets, palmtop computers—all become part of the human being, newly wired. The cyborg is a creature of the same symbolic import as the beast-man. Both inhabit the disputed borderlands; both disrupt traditional dualisms and hierarchies. (1)

As Kenneth Sherman (874) points out, the reality of the cyborg has made the question What is a human being? even more problematic than it was when Wells blurred the distinction between human and animal in Moreau. Blurred boundaries between human and machine are of course commonplace in science fiction. Hybrids of animal and machine, while less common, also appear. It may seem at first that such images reflect the Cartesian/Pavlovian notion that animals are mere stimulus-response automatons, but more often these monstrous beings assert a continuum between animal, human, and machine, attempting to create a bridge between natural and artificial evolution. (2)

The two complementary texts with which I conclude address this continuum. Both create monstrous images that advance die Leviathan/Behemoth myth into the realm of the cyborganic, both in a cautionary mode, returning us to the progenitor of all modern beast-monsters, Moby-Dick—now transformed into a rocket, as Ishmael prophesied (Melville 233). Further, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) brings us full circle back to Moby-Dick in that it is simultaneously highbrow and lowbrow. While Moby-Dick spawned a myriad of twentieth- century popular-culture icons, Gravity’s Rainbow incorporates them: it is a mythopoetic novel that pretends to be a movie in seventy-three scenes, which keep changing genre, reeling between musical comedy, pornography, melo drama, and science fiction—among others. (3)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) is of course a popular science-fiction movie which also happens to dramatize most of the issues we’ve been considering, placing them at their origin, in Leviathan the dragon/whale. Gravity’s Rainbow is ultimately despairing; Star Trek IV offers us some hope. Taken as a diptych, the texts illustrate Pynchon’s “Manichaean” vision of the Rocket: “two Rockets, good and evil ... a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle” (727).


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, ships were becoming huge and powerful enough to be compared to Leviathan, even though humans themselves and their political organisms had been signified as leviathanic since the 1600s. (4) Technology was finally leviathanic; we had a new dragon, an artificial one, to contend with. “The rocket . . . moved in the midnight waters of space like a pale sea leviathan,” wrote Ray Bradbury (391) in 1948, transferring Jules Verne’s leviathanic submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) to the ocean of space. The Nautilus was first assumed to be a sea monster, another Moby-Dick or Kraken (Verne 3), then a crypto- zoological phenomenon—a new species of whale, perhaps (9)—then a nar-whal (a known species [9]), then finally revealed to be a man-made machine. Verne suggests a continuum between myth and science as well as one be-tween animal, human, and machine. He knew that the submarine is a new kind of machine; since people live within it, they become part of it—it is their world as well as their dragon. The same is true of the Rocket.

Like Ray Bradbury, Thomas Pynchon revealed in Gravity’s Rainbow that Leviathan is now a rocket, but in his bleak vision it never makes it to outer space. He warns that we may never see the “coundess tents”—other worlds —that Ishmael wished to see by riding the rocket-whale into space: the rocket’s path, like the whale’s breach, is a parabola. The rocket never achieves escape velocity for several reasons, all colluding to doom us. My focus is on two of them: behaviorists clinging to the Cartesian/Pavlovian delusion; and white men continuing to erect die Ladder of Being, imposing the delusive myth of separate unequal races upon separate rungs of humanity, dooming us to self-destruction. Pynchon places bodi the sea monster, Grigori the giant octopus, and the land-monster, King Kong, in juxtaposition with the sky- monster, the Rocket/Dragon. (5)

The novel takes place in Europe near the end of World War II, first in London during the blitz, then mainly on the continent just after the war. In terms of the overriding melodrama, the forces of Evil include not only Nazis like Weissmann/Blicero but also British behaviorists like Ned Pointsman, whose psychological warfare agency PISCES (Psychological Intelligence Schemes to Expedite Surrender) is housed in a former asylum called The White Visitation. During the war, PISCES unleashed a psy-war scheme called “Operation Black Wing,” which attempted to demoralize the Germans by creating the illusion, through the use of films, that black South-West Africans were forming rocket-troops called the “Schwarzkommando” to take revenge on Germans for die slaughter of die Hereros in 1904. But now that the war is almost won, PISCES begins waging war on its own countrymen and allies. As part of an elaborate plot against our antihero, the American Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, a giant octopus is conditioned to attack Katje Borgesius, who the plotters hope will be rescued by Slothrop, in whose rocket-dousing erections they are especially interested. Grigori the octopus is conditioned by watching films of Katje. That the cephalopod is able to recog¬nize images on fdm attests to its intelligence, and yet the behaviorist is only interested in turning the “gigantic horror-movie devilfish” (Pynchon 51) into a machine, which he does to all his subjects, dogs and human (he calls them all “foxes”). Like Moreau’s, Pointsman’s whiteness is overdetermined: attention is drawn to his “white face” (52) at the White Visitation. He is really no different from the Nazi Weissmann (“whiteman”): both attempt to control other human beings by malting them less human—either more mechanical or more plastic.

Pynchon then invokes the Andromeda myth at the beginning of Part 2 (179-89), where Katje becomes the sacrificial maiden. When the sea serpent/octopus attacks her, she is on the French Riviera, where Slothrop sees her in the distance dressed in black (suggestive of Andromeda), her blond hair conspicuous (suggestive of Ann Darrow) (186). Then the biggest octo-pus Slothrop has seen outside the movies attacks her, and he must play Perseus. He knocks it over the head with a wine bottle, which does not dissuade it. Teddy Bloat (who made the movies that conditioned the octopus) throws Slothrop a crab, knowing that it is Grigori’s favorite food. Now that Bloat has accomplished Pointsman’s goal, which has been to get Slothrop into a sexual situation with Katje (in the hopes of determining a correlation between his erections and the Presence of the Rocket), the octopus may be withdrawn. Slothrop notices diat the drooling octopus is “not in good mental health” (187) because it seems completely mechanical, going instantly for the crab he got from Bloat.

The behaviorist control addicts conscript a monster myth to facilitate their plan, the mechanization of humanity, which will then be easier to control. Slothrop, as he begins to suspect a plot against him, nonces that human voices “begin to take on a touch of metal” (188). Because of the original bizarre experiment which conditioned Slothrop’s erections in the presence of die mysterious plastic Imipolex, he has already become more of a machine. “Like a rocket whose valves, under remote control, open and close at prearranged moments” (197), Slothrop, who later even dresses as a rocket, is never able to overcome the initial conditioning, although his actions are always unpredictable enough to foil his enemies. He never becomes completely mechanical because organic systems, both in animals and in humans, eventually get too complex ever to be reduced to mere stimulus-response mechanisms. This is what ultimately drives Pointsman insane.

During an outing at the seashore just after victory has been declared in Europe, Pointsman wonders what will become of PISCES “now drat Surrender has been Expedited” (272). With him are his statistician Roger Mexico and his girlfriend Jessica Swanlake (two of the forces of Good in the novel). Worried that PISCES will be subsumed under some existing intelligence agency, and that he will dierefore lose control of the Slothrop case to the Soviets or die Americans, Pointsman also knows diat he doesn’t really have control at all: Slothrop continues to elude him. When Pointsman starts acting strangely, telling his companions he is hallucinating, Jessica reacts by going into “her Fay Wray number. This is a kind of protective paralysis, akin to your own response when the moray eel jumps you from the ceiling” (275).

Pointsman’s sudden insanity is as unexpected as a moray eel on a ceiling, or “the Fist of die Ape” suddenly breaking into a room thought to be safe. Pynchon then rhapsodizes on King Kong (275), ending the coda with the revelation that the Schwarzkommando are the true children of the “black scapeape,” that they do indeed exist, furies of vengeance against white sup-remacists, imperialists, colonists, control addicts. After reminding us that we cast Kong down “like Lucifer from the tallest erection in the world” (275; italics added), Pynchon writes of the Rocket: “Beyond simple steel erection, [it] was an entire system won away from the feminine darkness” (324; italics added).

Here, Leviathan (as Kong and Lucifer) sheds light on the technology that subdues and subsumes him; the energy that builds the skyscraper and the rocket is that of the demonic male, sublimated and polarized. British behaviorist and German rocket scientist, though enemies in a political subsystem, are part of the same larger system, the Rocket cartel that asserts the ascendancy of White over Black, whether race or gender. The milk-white breasts of blond Katje, when she is victimized, darken to a color called “nigger” (94).

Katje’s victimizer is not, of course, King Kong (a victim himself), but Weissmann, the Nazi officer “bleached” of all humanity, who has (before Pointsman) gone insane, calling himself Captain Blicero. Like Moreau, he is the great white monster, inverse of Kong, known also by his teeth (94): Katje, who will be likened to Fay Wray (277), flashing back to her ordeal as Blicero’s sex-slave (along with Gottfried, a transvestite whom Blicero would eventually launch in the Rocket), remembers those teeth as “long, terrible, veined with bright brown rot” (94). Ironically, the ultimate white suprema-cist Blicero “reverted to some ancestral version of himself’ (465), becoming the black monster, the demonic male who launches the Schwarzgerat. The Rocket of Death that cannot make it to the stars contains a victim cross- dressed in a fetishistic plastic, Imipolex, “the material of the future” (488).

Gottfried is a travesty of what should be in the rocket: a union of animal, man/woman, and machine. The rocket’s path will remain a parabola, will never become a hyperbola, unless all these elements are harmonized. Instead, Gottfried is an experimental lab animal, a tortured transvestite, and a cyborg grotesque. And die “white visitation” is to blame:

[W]hat is this death but a whitening, a carrying of whiteness to ultrawhite, what is it but bleaches, detergents, oxidizers, abrasives— . . . Blicker, Bleicherode, Bleacher, Blicero . . . rarefying the Caucasian pallor to an abolition of pigment. (759)

The enemy in Gravity’s Rainbow is anyone who erects the Ladder of Perfection, positing an Elite, viewing evolution as the progressive sloughing off of dark animality. This sinister view takes extreme form in Imipolex creator Laslo Jamfs goal—the transcendence of covalent carbon bonding, the creation of immortal artificial life from bivalent silicon bonding, purged of the black feces of organicism and death: “feelings about blackness were tied to feelings about shit, and feelings about shit to feelings about putrefaction and death” (276; cf. “Shit ’n’ Shinola,” 687-88).

The “counterforce” in the novel is any force that attempts to disrupt hierarchic thinking, whether racial or even chemical, thinking that attempts to transcend the dark animal, the muddy organic. To demote the animal to automaton is, ironically, tantamount to dooming ourselves to mere mechanisms. When Katje Borgesius discovers the films of herself that were used to condition octopus Grigori, she also finds films of Grigori watching the films: a “tangled hierarchy” (Douglas Hofstadter’s term) that disrupts the linear hierarchy of man over beast. A parallel is also drawn between Franz Polder’s arousal while watching a pornographic film and Grigori’s conditioning: obviously since both humans and animals can be conditioned, no essential difference separates them.

A tangled continuum, not a rigid ladder, bridges the gap between animal, human, and machine. Slothrop, the preterite, is both pig- man (568;575) and rocket-creature (629): he becomes—like his Puritan ancestor William who wrote the heretical tract On Pretention—a fork in our road, an intersection (625), like Grendel before him, a symbol of our recognition that we are part predictable mechanism, part unpredictable system, evolving but not necessarily rising out of the muck.

Toward the end of the novel, in a surrealistic representation of Slothrop’s unconscious dreads, he dreams that he is Fay Wray (“In the Transvestite’s Toilet,” 688-90). By this time our antihero has begun to disintegrate, scattering his psychic seed back to Mother Earth, who welcomes him. So we are not only in Slothrop’s unconscious, we are in everyone’s. Here the sexes merge again, and Slothrop finds himself “wearing a blonde wig and the same long flowing white cross-banded number Fay Wray wears in her screentest scene with Robert Armstrong on the boat” (688).

Slothrop didn’t choose this gown “only out of some repressed desire to be sodomized, unimaginably, by a gigantic black ape”; he chose it because he represents us all—our unconscious need for propitiation, our collective guilt for victimizing Kong’s children, all humans who are treated as “niggers” in the false dichotomy of “shit ‘n’ shinola.” The moving blank verse poem that follows in Fay Wray’s voice is more than just one woman’s confession of fascination with Denham’s “gun and camera,” both of which shoot to make “the unreal reel” (689).

The pun on shooting creates a parable of evolution in which men have learned to make weapons out of tools—an inversion of "The Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001 when bone became weapon first, then weapon became rocket, which is clearly a tool in that film. It remains a weapon in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Fay Wray/Slothrop’s poem mythologizes evolution from dragons—tyrannosaurus and “buzzing serpent”—to “the night’s one Shape,” King Kong, to Denham and his machines. But then, interrupting the poem, the ape “taps Slothrop on the ass, hands him ... a bomb, with a lit fuse.” The ape has his revenge on man in the transvestite’s toilet. Slothrop cross-dressed is (like Gottfried) a travesty of androgyny, intimating Pynchon’s recognition of the failed attempt at androgyny in King Kong.

Kong hands the bomb back to Denham. No matter how hard people try to convince themselves that homicidal and even genocidal aggression is bestial, Kong reminds them that it is not he but they who build guns, bombs, and rockets. The Sherman Tank’s headlights are likened to Kong’s eyes (247) because it is a mechanical Behemoth, which is not merely a metaphor but a metonym for artificial evolution. Leviathan works the same way: the serpent with its tail in mouth has been transformed in Kekule’s famous dream. That he was able to deduce the ringed shape of the benzene molecule from such a dream seems on the surface harmless enough, until the structure becomes “a blueprint” for new chemicals that aid and abet “secular power”:

“Kekule dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used” (412).

The cyclical vision that the world-dragon has always represented is appropriated by “a System whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back. . . .” This “new serpent” (413), providing knowledge that allows us to assemble new molecules, is not evil in itself; only when coiled about the Ladder of Being, in service of linear progressivism and “bivalent thinking,” does it become evil. The Rocket falls back to earth in a parabolic path only when its base is a rigidly straight line. Our marriage with the rocket is secure; there’s no turning back. But if we continue to repudiate our bond with the octopus and the ape—treating them as something we have left a few rungs behind us on the Ladder of Being—then the rocket will take us not to the stars, but to the dust. Leviathan will lie rotting on the Terminal Beach.


The crisis in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (directed by Leonard Nimoy) concerns a gigantic interstellar probe of mysterious origin whose transmissions somehow drain nearby starships and even whole planets of energy. It arrives in Earth orbit, where (apparently unaware of its effects) it begins devastating the planet. Kirk and his crew, using the Klingon bird of prey they acquired in Star Trek III, warp-speed to Earth after discovering that the probe’s transmissions are songs sung by humpback whales.

The probe (a dark cylinder which, in one shot revealing sunlight reflecting off its surface, looks like a white whale in space) is attempting to communicate with humpbacks, not realizing that they have been extinct since the twenty-first century, thanks to die shortsighted greed of mankind. The only hope to save the earth from the probe is to go back in time (to our epoch) and transport some humpback whales to the twenty-third century to communicate with the probe.

Several gently satiric and comic scenes inevitably ensue from this weird scenario. “It’s a wonder these people ever got out of the twentieth century,” McCoy quips. And Spock, dressed in Vulcan monkish robes conspicuous even on a San Francisco streetcar, quiets down a mid-1980s punk with blaring radio by giving him die Vulcan zap-touch, for which everyone applauds him. But the film’s moral (it is perhaps the most didactic of the Star Trek films) is much more somber. Even as imaginative a writer as Herman Melville could not imagine a time when whales would be hunted to extinction (384);

but we have arrived at such a time. The blue whale came the closest to extinction, and remains extremely endangered. Although with the help of the “save the whales” movement the humpback has made something of a comeback, Nimoy is reminding us not to get too complacently self-congratulatory about our success. The whale may still be doomed. “It’s ironic,” Kirk remarks, “when man was killing these creatures, he was destroying his own future.” He is referring literally to the probe, but the ecological commentary is clear.

Although the two films share this cautionary aspect, Star Trek IV inverts Orca’s relentlessly grim tone. Both films feature a cetacean couple with the female pregnant. Her tragedy in Orca becomes comedy here: her name is Grade, her mate is George. In both films, the whales are attacked by hunters, but after Kirk and the crew intervene, the whales elude their predators. These scenes are informed with humor and pathos, as opposed to Oreo’s melodramatic bathos. Like the earlier film, this one contains a cetologist to keep the viewer informed. As she is giving a tour at a San Francisco aquarium, she must answer die question, “Is it true that whales attack people, like in Moby-Dick" She debunks that particular myth, at least as it applies to humpback whales. Implicit in her denial is a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy, an evolutionary mythology. We wish evolution worked this way: sharkish Leviathans like Moby-Dick and Orca evolve into docile Behemoths like George and Gracie. As ferocious leviathan King Kong gave birth to his docile behemoth son, so the aggressive sperm whale makes way for the bovine humpback. When Spock searches the ship’s computer, a sperm whale comes up first, then is immediately followed by a humpback. The film makes the same suggestion concerning our machines: destructive weapons can evolve into constructive tools: Klingon bird of prey becomes Greenpeace ship.

The film ends happily, of course, as all Star Treks do. With the help of the cute cetologist, Kirk and his crew save the world by successfully trans-porting the whales into the future. The probe talks to them and the energy drain ceases. The whales breach ecstatically in the ocean, free to roam over the globe and to renew their kind. What is perhaps most extraordinary about the film (other than its fine comic touch) is its cosmic vision, both in space and in time. After beaming the whales on board the ship, Scotty reports to Kirk, “Admiral, there be whales here.” Surely this is an allusion to the ancient cartographer’s warning, “Here there be dragons.” But it is no longer a warning of danger; it is a recognition of kinship—between dragons and whales, whales and humans, and dragons and humans. The whale is our bosom serpent. The Klingon vessel becomes the newest icon of evolutionary mythology. It looks like a dragon, but it is no longer predatory, no longer used for the Klingon’s avowed purpose: “We have the right to preserve our race.” This shortsighted vision of racial preservation is supplanted by the global, ecological vision of the preservation of diverse interrelated species.

Evolution at first appears to be viewed progressively in the film, with predatory Leviathan supplanted by docile Behemoth (humpback instead of sperm whale or orca). The reality, however, is more likely embodied in the probe, a cybernetic rocket-whale (whose origin is never known) traversing the ocean of interstellar space. The probe is Leviathan evolved: inscrutable, impenetrable, apparently dismissing humankind as inferior to the whale, which it recognizes as kin. The probe’s lack of respect for humans should remind us of our own callous indifference to creatures we have considered “below” us on the Scale of Nature. Star Trek TV: The Voyage Home, like Moby-Dick and Orca, is a fable of identity, reminding us of our kinship with the Beast, whom we therefore ought to treat as kin. Appropriation of the Klingon bird of prey may seem to imply that higher moral values comprise a progressive evolutionary advance over aggressive behavior (Huxley, not de Waal), but the icon of the cetoid probe makes that assumption problematic. The cybernetic leviathan suggests that the future path of evolution through artificial selection toward the cyborganic is morally neutral, like the probe itself. Its destructive potential must be checked from without; there is nothing inherently progressive in die process of evolution itself.

In Gravity’s Rainbow, the Rocket-Leviathan never realizes Ishmael’s vision of the “coundess tents” of space. But in the optimistic vision of Star Trek IV, Leviathan (in the form of the humpback whale, which resembles a rock-et) is seen at the end both sporting again in the water and hovering (in the form of the probe) among the stars because we finally got it right: we didn’t go to the stars after trashing our world. Nor was it necessary for Kirk and his crew to defeat the Klingons in battle. It was only necessary for our heroes to save the whales. The conceit of beaming whales into the leviathanic ship and taking them into the future says it all: the animal nearby us needs to be with us, within our own dragon-ship to the future—if there is to be a future.

The mythology of Leviathan/Behemoth, then, in its post-Darwinian manifestation, completely dismantles the Ladder of Being—doing so more and more explicitly with the growth of ecological awareness—planting in-stead the bushy family Tree of Life. While the Darwinian element in the myth is rarely “pure” Darwinism, the tale of the beast monster keeps getting told and retold because it helps us come to terms with our own evolution. If one subscribes to the false synthesis that equates evolution with progress, one is bound to assert the Otherness of the monster, identifying it with “lower” forms of life like serpents and fish. But if one is open to the notion that evolution is what binds us all, that somewhere on the tree is a cross of intersection, a common ancestor, then the monster is welcome as part of the Self. While we may feel more empathy for those creatures that share our branch on the tree—the great apes—we must nevertheless remember that other branches—including sharks and whales—are crucial to the vitality of the tree.
When read as fables of evolutionary biology, our monster myths, no less than zoology or paleontology, allow us to explore the Tree of Life. As fables of human identity acting out our anxieties and fears concerning our own animal nature, our monster tales provide us with a richly metaphorical—and metonymic—means of exploring the tortuous path of our evolution, both as it may have occurred in the past and as it may develop in the future.


1. As Donna Haraway put it in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” a “cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (154). Accepting the cyborg as essentially non-monstrous involves the same disruption of dualistic/hierarchic thinking that embracing the anthropoid beast involves: “certain dualisms have been persistent in Western traditions; they have been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of color, nature, workers, animals—in short, domination of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self’ (177).
2. Examples of monstrous images yoking together animal, human, and machine abound in genre science fiction. Texts relevant to the present discussion include Stanisiaw Lem’s The Cyberiad (trans. 1974), Philip José Farmer’s The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1971), and Ian Watson’s The Jonah Kit (1975).
3. For more on the role of film in Pynchon’s book, see Clerc and Simmon. For more on the importance of King Kong in particular, see Cowart. For the best overview of Pynchon’s use of myth, see Kathryn Hume’s book.
4. See Simpson and Wiener, eds., The OED (8: 869). Leviathanic humans appeared in print in 1607; leviathanic states (with Hobbes) in 1651; leviathanic ships in 1801.
5. See Caesar (160): Pynchon uses the monstrous to create “a vision of life at one with its most primal. .. processes,” which must of course include evolution. Although much has been written on both race and monstrosity in the novel, they are rarely placed in an explicitly evolutionary context.

In: Immortal monster : the mythological evolution of the fantastic beast in modern fiction and film. Greenwood Press, 1999, pp.155-165.

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