terça-feira, 12 de março de 2013

Frye, Derrida, Pynchon, and the Apocalyptic Space of Postmodern Fiction by David Robson

The end? Say it with missiles then . . .

—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern fiction Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) repre­sents an apocalyptic space at once historical, imaginative, theoretical, and “fabulously textual.”1 Apocalyptic space is always textual, but never more so than in the American script. For the Puritan settlers, historical space was textualized because the experience of the New World had been typologically prefigured in the Bible. When the Puritans fled persecu­tion, they repeated Exodus: America was the “New English Canaan.” But the Bible provided more than just textual types to be enacted or repeated in history; the biblical mythos completely engulfs history providing an account of primal origins and visions of the end. In the absence of either millennial or cataclysmic fulfillment, however, Puritan space remained the space of signification, where more discourse would predict, invoke, envision, explain, rationalize, or reevaluate the absence or imminence of apocalyptic fulfillment.

Even William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-50) — that semi­nal document that provides the American myth of origins of the Pilgrim Fathers — demonstrates the ever-present apocalyptic phenomenon of the repetition of the end: what Frank Kermode has referred to as “literal dis- confirmation . . . thwarted by typology.”2 Early in this historical docu­ment Bradford recounts how the community, facing persecution in En­gland and dissolution in Holland, decides to move “to some other place,” not, of course, for reasons of “newfangledness . . . but for sundry weighty and solid reasons”: the fulfilling of their Christian providential destiny.3 This “other place” is named and colonized: it is America, “vast and un­peopled.”4 By the end of his account, however, it is clear that the millen­nial dream (as Bradford conceived it, at least) was not coming true. The pilgrim community had begun to scatter; the remnant, once again, “be­gan seriously to think whether it were not better jointly to remove to some other place.”5 Thus the pattern repeats, but it is not a ritual repetition that subsumes historical difference into an archetypal sameness or identity (as in cyclical myths of eternal return of the sort Mircea Eliade has ana­lyzed) .6 Rather, the typological repetitions that punctuate the more lin­ear apocalyptic mythos entail a different sort of negotiation of identity and difference, one in which disconfirmation (or the failure of the attain­ment of apocalyptic closure), far from discrediting or invalidating the defining mythos or promise, serves to propel that mythos forward, often in a redefined and expanded form. Kermode remarks that the failure of apocalyptic promises does not mean those promises were false; they were merely true “in a different sense.”7 Literal disconfirmation thus becomes the opportunity for the recasting of the typological net: the intransigent otherness of history must be recontained. If New England failed to resolve into the Promised Land, “some other place” would be found, and the Puritan eschatological hopes would reconstitute themselves as America expanded across the continent invoking a more secularized but still universalist discourse of manifest destiny or progress, which, in time, would entail American returns to the Old World, forays into the Third World, and voyages to the Moon.

The way in which such pursuits of the millennium can become ex­ercises in empire, power, and control is a central theme of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow . A character in the novel, one Major Weissmann (also known as “Blicero”), who commands a V-2 rocket battery during the closing months of the Second World War, meditates on America’s ominous role in this unfolding apocalyptic mythos:

“America was the edge of the World. A message for Europe, continent-sized, inescapable. Europe had found the site for its Kingdom of Death, that special Death the West had invented. Savages had their waste regions, Kalaharis, lakes so misty they could not see the other side. But Europe had gone deeper —into obsession, addiction, away from all the savage innocences. America was a gift from the invisible powers, a way of returning. But Europe refused it. [ . . . ]

“In Africa, Asia, Amerindia, Oceania, Europe came and established its order of Analysis and Death. What it could not use, it killed or altered. In time the death- colonies grew strong enough to break away. But the impulse to empire, the mission to propagate death, the structure of it, kept on. Now we are in the last phase. American Death has come to occupy Europe. It has learned empire from its old metropolis. But now we have only the structure left us, none of the great rainbow plumes, no fittings of gold, no epic marches over alkali seas.”8

Such is one vision of the negative pole of apocalypse in which the typological fulfillment of history is just another name for the endless series of acts of imperialism. But apocalypse means revelation, and al­though apocalyptic discourse aims to define, contain, and domesticate otherness, it also serves to reveal the other. It is this revelatory or irreducibly prophetic dimension of apocalyptic discourse that prevents its perfect coalescence with any particular historical, political, or institutional man­ifestation. Apocalyptic discourse is usually profoundly hostile to the status quo. Its meanings and referents always exceed what “is” and point toward what is “other” than what is, and this other dimension can be a source of prophetic hope of liberation: projected wish reflected back as the possibility of salvation.

Weissmann, to return to my example from the diegesis of Gravity’s Rainbow , perceives the trajectory of death into which Western culture is locked and to which, as an SS officer, he contributes. But he desires to be something more than a functionary in this destructive apocalyptic my­thos; he desires to escape the repeated patterns of conquest and em­braces a more radical apocalyptic hope for a kind of dark transcendence: “ ‘I want to break out— to leave this cycle of infection and death. I want to be taken in love: so taken that you and I, and death, and life, will be gath­ered, inseparable, into the radiance of what we would become. . . (724). He makes this “creative” affirmation at the moment just prior to the launching of a V-2 rocket, which he has specially modified to contain his lover, Gottfried, whom he is addressing. This launch is the culminat­ing gesture in a relationship that has included sadomasochistic rituals — rituals that function to domesticate or master the larger horrors of the expanding deathkingdom that surrounds them. This launch presumably (and quite irrationally) will deliver them from the oppressions of the “real” into an “other” sort of hyperreal apocalyptic space. Gottfried seems to understand Blicero’s desperate hope for salvation as he listens silently: “This is so more-than-real ... he feels he must keep every word, that none must be lost. Blicero’s words have become precious to him. He understands that Blicero wants to give, without expecting anything back, give away what he loves. He believes that he exists for Blicero, even if the others have all ceased to, that in the new kingdom they pass through now, he is the only other living inhabitant” (721-722). Beyond the repeated gestures of choreographed sex and violence, Gottfried has

also felt more, worshipfully more past these arrangements for penetration, the style [ . . . ] all become theatre as he approached the gates of that Other King­dom [ . . . ] there have to be these too, lovers whose genitals are consecrated to shit, to endings, to the desperate nights in the streets when connection proceeds out of all personal control, proceeds or fails, a gathering of fallen — as many in acts of death as in acts of life — or a sentence to be alone for another night. . . . Are they to be denied, passed over, all of them? (722)

I doubt Pynchon endorses Weissmann’s morbidly romantic desire for transcendence (and its bizarre technologically facilitated means), yet again and again within the diegesis characters express a wistful hope that apocalypse can be “worshipfully more” than just a synonym for the final­ity of destruction. The novel’s obsession with technologies of destruction makes it seem nihilistic or fatalistic, but the acknowledgment of such grimly literal possibilities does not exclude other, romantic possibilities. As Northrop Frye reminds us —employing an especially apposite fig­ure — “In romance violence and sexuality are used as rocket propulsions, so to speak, in an ascending movement” toward regained identity.9 This necessarily entails a movement into figuration or, as Norman O. Brown has it, a movement “against gravity; against the gravity of literalism, which keeps our feet on the ground.”10 Weissmann is skeptical about the ability of the literal conquest of gravity via technology to usher in a new order: “ ‘Is the cycle over now, and a new one ready to begin? Will our new Edge, our new Deathkingdom, be the Moon?’ ” (723). Such a literal attainment of the apocalyptic referent (the Moon as the site of the millennium) would be just another instance of conquest and colonization. What is new, and what prompts another lyric celebration, is the possibility of inhabiting an apocalyptic space:

“ . . . no, they weren’t really spacemen. Out here, they wanted to dive between the worlds, to fall, turn, reach and swing on journeys curved through the shining, through the winter nights of space — their dreams were of rendezvous, of cosmic trapeze acts carried on in loneliness, in sterile grace, in certain knowledge that no one would ever be watching, that loved ones had been lost forever. ...” (723)

The pastoralism of conventional Promised Land imagery gives way, here, to something much colder: a post-romantic, postmodern, post-Apollo space program version of the artifice of eternity (via Rilke’s Tenth Elegy and Kubrick’s 2001).11

Frye acknowledges that the “creative” pole of apocalypse seems inev­itably shadowed by what he calls the “paranoia principle”: the lingering suspicion that any religious vision or imaginative hypothesis that tran­scends ideology really does nothing of the kind, but is merely subjective projection.12 In Gravity’s Rainbow the prophetic and the paranoid are invariably conflated. Certainly the apocalyptic dreams of Weissman be­tray a fair degree of psychopathology, although, Pynchon implies, in a culture for whom the crowning technological achievement is rocket- borne weapons, Weissmann is perhaps less abnormal than representa­tive. By any standard, however, Weissmann’s fusion of Eros and Thanatos in a glorious, phallic, techno-suicide could hardly be a universally valid symbol of apocalyptic fulfillment.

Gravity’s Rainbow explicitly links the blend of paranoia and religion with the American strand of Puritanism. The ancestry of the novel’s central character, Tyrone Slothrop, is traced “back to 1630 when Gover­nor Winthrop came over to America on the Arbella, flagship of a great Puritan flotilla that year, on which the first American Slothrop had been a mess cook or something” (204). Like his ancestors, Tyrone Slothrop possesses “a Puritan reflex of seeking other orders behind the visible, also known as paranoia” (188). This reflex has a specifically hermeneutic orientation, and entails a hermeneutic problematizing of the given in an attempt to uncover its real (or at least, “other”) meaning:

[Slothrop] will learn to hear quote marks in the speech of others. It is a bookish kind of reflex, maybe he’s genetically predisposed — all those earlier Slothrops packing Bibles around the blue hilltops as part of their gear, memorizing chapter and verse the structures of Arks, Temples, Visionary Thrones — all the materials and dimensions. Data behind which always, nearer or farther, was the numinous certainty of God. (241-242)

Slothrop is a postmodern Puritan. Rather than entering the previously uncharted natural landscape and reading its significance via the Bible, Slothrop enters the Zone: the overdetermined or hyperreal space of “endless simulation” (489) that is the European theater of operations in the closing months of the Second World War; a space of shifting borders, multiple and overlapping jurisdictions (political, military, economic); a space where “nature” is merely one significant level among many. Sloth­rop has no master text through which he reads this postmodern land­scape, but there is no question that the landscape signifies: “Signs will find him here in the Zone, and ancestors will reassert themselves” (281). It is not that Slothrop imposes his reading on the Zone; on the contrary, the Zone seems to read him.

Slothrop has an ambiguous attitude toward the proliferating intima­tions of the looming, ominous forces that surround him. At the recently liberated Casino Hermann Goering he backs away from the uncanny atmosphere of its Forbidden Wing, “retreating from yet facing the Pres­ence feared and wanted” (203), and soon he is “snuggling up, masturbatorily scared-elated, to the disagreeable chance that exactly such Con­trol might already have been put over him” (209). Slothrop is a sort of reluctant Puritan unwilling to decipher the extent to which he is in­scribed and implicated in some larger defining mythos: “He gets back to the Casino just as big globular raindrops, thick as honey, begin to splat into giant asterisks on the pavement, inviting him to look down at the bottom of the text of the day, where footnotes will explain all. He isn’t about to look. Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any kind of sense at day’s end. He just runs” (204). Such unwillingness to read the signs of the times is a conventional element of biblical (or Bible- influenced) apocalyptic scenarios, since “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2 [Revised Standard Version]). In the context of Gravity’s Rainbow , however, it is the V-2 rocket that functions as the apocalyptic Word: “the one Word that rips apart the day. ...” (25).

Such an interdependence of technology and apocalypse is not a new phenomenon with postmodernism. The medium by which the Word is disseminated is never simply the “spirit” but always involves technologies of communication, transportation, commerce, and other manifestations of secular power — including weaponry — and this was certainly true of the Puritan New World adventure. The Protestant Reformation itself was facilitated in part by a development in what Walter Ong has called “the technologizing of the word.”18 In a very literal and practical way, the printing press allowed for the Christian Bible to be disseminated in a manner that allowed a closer and (the reformers believed) more im­mediate and spiritual interaction between individual believer and text, an interaction that prompted a questioning of the modes and forms of institutional and doctrinal mediation that for a millennium had been controlled by the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the essentially secular development of print technology — “the Word made printer’s ink” (Grav­ity’s Rainbow 571) — released a liberating and revelatory otherness in the official sacred Word and triggered a spiritual revolution. If, as Derrida suggests, the Bomb is also a technological incarnation of the word—with its “technologies of delivery, sending, dispatching, of the missile in gen­eral, of mission, missive, emission, and transmission”14 —then it can be read as another unforeseen but nevertheless typologically explicable ad­vance in the “Puritan hopes for the Word” (571).

This is precisely what Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan suggest in their essay “The New Jeremiad: Gravity’s Rainbow In their view, “the controlling idea of [the novel] is that the world’s present predicament — the system of global terror dominated by ICBMs — threatens to fulfill in historical time the apocalyptic and millennial visions which prevailed in the Puritan culture of colonial New England.” They suggest that, for Pynchon, “the rocket borne atomic dawn” is the most likely antitype to the Puritan type.15


Gravity’s Rainbow, however, does not give us a literalistic account of nuclear war. While containing plenty of accurate historical detail, it is also surrealistic, rife with narrative disjunctions, dazzling in its range of tone, fabulously complex in plot, erudite beyond any reader, ontologically and epistemologically unstable, and pluralistic. It exemplifies what Jean-Franfois Lyotard calls the postmodern “process of complexification”16 associated with technoscientific development; in Fredric Jame­son’s terms, the novel is an example of “high tech paranoia” literature, which attempts “to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system.”17 Or, as the novel’s first page self-reflexively announces, “this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into” (3). If this progress takes us toward a center —if there is a “still center of the order of words”18 that is Gravity’s Rainbow — that center can only be the problematic one evoked by the term “apocalypse.”

Critics like Smith and Tôlôlyan deduce that Gravity’s Rainbow  is “all about” the Bomb, even if it does not deal directly with it. In this reading, the V-2 rocket, which is the central symbol of the novel, is a displacement of the Bomb: it is more comprehensible, something that can be negoti­ated by consciousness more easily than the thought of nuclear annihila­tion (so often associated with “the unthinkable” and which Derrida calls “that unassimilable wholly other”).19 The link, however, can be con­ceived of in less stricdy metaphorical and more metonymic terms: the V-2 rocket is a stage in the chain of technological development culminating in nuclear missiles. Both “can penetrate, from the sky, at any given point. Nowhere is safe” (Gravity’s Rainbow 728). Thus they have an almost divine omnipotence, and seem to violate limitations of space and time, project­ing those beneath their trajectory into the space of the hear-after: “a rocket will hit before they can hear it coming. Biblical [ . . . ] spooky as an old northern fairy tale” (54). The brute repetition of rocket strikes sug­gests the dawning of a new order: “they will watch their system falling apart, watch those singularities begin to come more and more often, pro­claiming another dispensation out of the tissue of old-fashioned time” (752). The bomb strikes that punctuate Part 1 modulate into celebratory champagne corks popping in Part 2, but the suggestion is made (by an unanchored paranoid voice), that “peace,” announced with V-E Day, is no longer an accurate term to describe the situation: “There’s something still on, don’t call it a ‘war’ if it makes you nervous, maybe the death rate’s gone down a point or two, beer in cans is back at last and there were a lot of people in Trafalgar Square one night not so long ago . . . but Their enterprise goes on” (628). This ominous “enterprise” is an aspect of the new dispensation born with the Second World War: the world of multina­tional cartels, the military-industrial complex, the Cold War, and perhaps most importantly, our nuclear predicament. This nuclear predicament intimates the grim closure of our historical trajectory and, like the Bible for the Puritans, inscribes everything leading up to the cataclysmic end within its mythos — a mythos of secular scripture, indeed. Gravity’s Rain­bow documents the launching point of this historical trajectory.

The novel does contain references to “the Bomb” but they are dis­placed, scattered, or fragmented. In a séance the spirit of Walter Rathenau — described as the “prophet and architect of the cartelized state” (164)—parenthetically refers to “cosmic bombs” (167), and in a par­ticularly dense section later in the novel a punning reference to a priest’s “Critical Mass” is glossed for us: “get it? not too many did in 1945, the Cosmic Bomb was still trembling in its earliness, not yet revealed to the People, so you heard the term only in the very superhepcat-to-hepcat exchanges” (539). In the final section Slothrop glimpses “a scrap of newspaper headline, with a wirephoto of a giant white cock, dangling in the sky straight downward out of a white pubic bush” (693). This is a photo of a nuclear blast, and if we fill in the missing letters of the head­line — if we reassemble the shattered Word — it reads, “BOMB DROPPED HIROSHIMA.” A Japanese ensign named Morituri, weary of the war, wants merely to return to his wife and kids, “ ‘and once I’m there,’ ” he says, “ ‘never [ . . . ] leave Hiroshima again’ ” (480) — a remark that un­dercuts the strategy of the retreat to the local as a response to the op­pressiveness of the totalizing closure of metanarratives.20 An American colonel getting a haircut weaves into his monologue a reference to the altered quality of the sunsets: “ ‘Do you suppose something has exploded somewhere? Really —somewhere in the East? Another Krakatoa? An­other name at least that exotic . . . the colors are so different now. [ . . . ] Is there information for us? Deep questions, and disturbing ones’ ” (642). Finally, the closing moments of the novel seem to depict a nuclear rocket descending toward the Orpheus Theatre in Los Angeles during the Nixon years — a rocket that has metamorphosed from Weissmann’s modified V-2 launched on the Luneburg Heath.

These oblique and fragmentary evocations of the nuclear bomb sup­plement and expand the ethos surrounding the V-2 rocket, which is the central historical focus of the narrative. No matter how self-referential and overdetermined Gravity’s Rainbow might be it does not seal itself off completely from historical reference and enter some sort of realm of pure fantasy (as sci-fi novels can) or textual play (as does Finnegans Wake). Rather, as with typological interpretation, the historical (or “literal” level, as the medieval exegetes called it) becomes an integral level in the field of signification: not the ground of meaning, being, or reference, perhaps, but not unimportant or absent, either.

Northrop Frye, whose own critical system adapts the medieval prin­ciple of the four levels of interpretation, or “polysemous meaning,” as Dante called it, associates the very fact of polysemy with the element of delight, pleasure, or exuberance in literature.21 As he sees it, litera­ture has “a relation to reality which is neither direct nor negative, but potential” and thus “the reality-principle is subordinate to [and sub­sumed by] the pleasure-principle.”22 What literature yields ideally, then, is not knowledge of the real, but recreation, or re-creation according to the forms of human desire and imagination. Its limits are, like those of dream, “not the real, but the conceivable.”23

Analogously, poststructuralism has much to say about the element of play in signification. The Derridean commentator Christopher Nor­ris, however, cautions against misreading Derrida to make him the pa­tron saint of the “ ‘anything goes’ school of postmodern hermeneutic thought.” Norris insists that “to deconstruct naive or commonsense ideas of how language hooks up with reality is not to suggest that it should henceforth be seen as a realm of open-ended textual ‘freeplay’ or float­ing signifiers devoid of referential content.”24 If there is an element of jouissance in the play of signification, there also exists something more ominous. In Writing and Difference Derrida poses the question, “Is not the center, the absence of play and difference, another name for death?”25 If so (and Derrida’s remarks on apocalypse confirm this), then the desire for a center is an aspect of a death wish. But such a desire is not easily escaped. As in Freud’s psychoanalytic formulations, where the element of Thanatos is interwoven with the economies of desire (including the plea­sure principle), so in Derrida’s poststructuralist formulation the desire for a center is not merely an unhealthy aberration that contaminates the freedom of the play of signification; rather it is an important “function of play itself” possibly “the indestructible itself”: “And in the repetition or return of play, how could the phantom of the center not call to us? It is here that the hesitation between writing as decentering and writing as an affirmation of play is infinite.”26 Such a space of hesitation, but with the stakes raised incalculably high by the Bomb, is the apocalyptic space of the nuclear epoch: “the épochè suspending judgment before the absolute decision.”27 Thus, for both Frye and Derrida —and Pynchon —the play of signification has a limit, and that limit is apocalypse.

The following passage gives a good indication of the extent to which Gravity’s Rainbow is thoroughly polysemous (if not polymorphously per­verse) in its use of the symbol of the Rocket:

[T]he Rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it —in combat, in tunnel, on paper—it must survive heresies shining, unconfoundable . . . and heretics there will be: Gnostics who have been taken in a rush of wind and fire to chambers of the Rocket-throne . . . Kabbalists who study the Rocket as Torah, letter by letter — rivets, burner cup and brass rose, its text is theirs to permute and combine into new revelations, always unfolding . . . Manichaeans who see two Rockets, good and evil, who speak together in the sacred idiolalia of the Primal Twins (some say their names are Enzian and Blicero) of a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle. (727)

In other contexts the Rocket is identified as the Word, “incoming mail” (6), information, spectacle, Presence, an icon, the Other, the phallus, Technology, the crowning achievement of the order of reason, a vehicle of romantic transcendence, a “terminal orgasm” (223), an image on a screen, a new star, a descending angel, a parable, Scripture, “a babyjesus, with endless committees of Herods out to destroy it in infancy” (464), a “pyrotechnic Cross” (751), an equation (“that elegant blend of philoso­phy and hardware” [239]), and the Tower card in the Tarot pack, which signifies, we are told, “a system which, by its nature, must sooner or later fall” (747).

What can criticism do in the face of such wild overdetermination? Jacques Derrida, employing imagery that resonates nicely for anyone familiar with Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), suggests that apoc­alyptic discourse “is a challenge to the established receivability of mes­sages and to the policing of destination, in short to the postal police or the monopoly of posts.” “By its very tone, the mixing of voices, genres, and codes, apocalyptic discourse can also, in dislocating destinations, dismantle the dominant contract or concordat.”28 In short, it poses a definitive if not subversive challenge to any critical approach, pushing it to an apocalyptic limit of its own.

Of course, a critic may simply refuse to take up the challenge and be dismissive. The critical response generated in the mid-sixties toward the “apocalyptism” of much contemporary fiction was often dismissive and occasionally quite hostile. For example, in his 1966 article “The Apoc­alyptic Temper,” Robert Alter condemns the “apocalyptic postures” in the works of such writers as Ralph Ellison, John Barth, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon.29 The pernicious progenitor of these works, in Alter’s estimation, is the Book of Revelation — the most “inhuman” and “spir­itually irresponsible” book of the Bible.30 In a remark that reveals his bias toward realism in the novel, Alter decries the way in which these “comic- apocalyptic novelists ... fill their worlds with the rattling skeletons of satiric hypotheses in place of fully fleshed characters.”31

Far from seeing apocalypse as spiritually irresponsible, Northrop Frye sees it as constituting the spiritual and imaginative core of the Bible — and of literary experience. For Frye, “spiritual” always centrally means “meta­phorical,”32 and the metaphors employed in apocalyptic texts constitute “a form of imaginative comprehension.”33 Beyond this, Frye would re­gard the condemnation of any text because it is filled with “rattling skel­etons of satiric hypotheses” as senseless because, from his point of view, literature is hypothesis, and his understanding of mimesis is of a more visionary and radical sort. For Frye, mimesis entails not an imitation of nature, but “an emancipation of externality into image, nature into art.”34 Beyond the descriptive, formal, and archetypal phases of literary symbol­ism is the anagogic phase in which this emancipation or transfiguration of nature is most obvious, and it is this phase that Frye specifically associates with apocalypse:

When we pass into anagogy, nature becomes, not the container, but the thing contained, and the archetypal universal symbols, the city, the garden, the quest, the marriage, are no longer the desirable forms that man constructs inside na­ture, but are themselves the forms of nature. Nature is now inside the mind of an infinite man who builds his cities out of the Milky Way. This is not reality, but it is the conceivable or imaginative limit of desire, which is infinite, eternal, and hence apocalyptic. By an apocalypse I mean primarily the imaginative conception of the whole of nature as the content of an infinite and eternal living body which, if not human, is closer to being human than to being inanimate. (Anatomy 119)

This Blakean apocalyptic man is at the center of Frye’s controversial conception of literature as a “total form” or an autonomous “order of words” (118). It is identified with the Logos understood as “the universal creative word which is all words” and, in The Great Code, is associated specifically with Christ.35

It is suggestive to compare Frye’s apocalyptic/textual space —a space that subsumes reference: “it does not describe or represent a separate content of revelation”36 —with the poststructural textual space Derrida evokes in his famous affirmation, “ There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte]."37 Derridean “writing” is apoc­alyptic since “what opens meaning and language is writing as the disap­pearance of natural presence.”38 Both theorists articulate notions of a sort of textual space (and textual temporality) that profoundly prob- lematizes any simple conception of linguistic reference or literary mi­mesis. Both conceptions are useful for understanding the dynamics of apocalyptic texts, and especially in delineating the problematics of the apocalyptic referent.

Like Frye, Derrida makes use of a notion of “text in the unlimited sense,”39 but he does so not to reveal the omnipresence or omnipotence of any Logos, but to reveal the radically contingent, unstable, self-subverting nature of “textuality” itself. Linguistic difference rather than the identity of the Word is the governing category. In a manner diametrically opposed to that of Frye, poststructuralist Derrida seems to take a funda­mental centerlessness as the starting point for an examination of the dynamics of the textual field, which may indeed have more in common with “an endless series of free associations” than with a Fryean “real structure,”40 and it is precisely the totalizing impulse within literary, aes­thetic, philosophical or political constructs that Derrida programmat­ically deconstructs.

Derrida’s antilogocentric orientation would make him anti-apocalyp- tic if apocalypse were considered only in Frye’s terms (which clearly represent the positive pole). But how would the negative pole of apoc­alypse, associated with “literal” destruction, fit in to Derrida’s “textualist” scheme? How does one take apocalypse literally? Derrida’s 1984 essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now” attempts to answer this question with particu­lar reference to the possibility of nuclear war. As might be expected, the apocalyptic referent strains the theory of language that attempts to grasp it. For Derrida, all linguistic reference is problematic, the referent itself being an effect of the differential structure of language rather than a “given” that language mirrors. The apocalyptic referent, however, is so radically “other” that the very field of textuality itself—which is acknowl­edged as a field of difference, contingency, in short, the field of the play of the word and its other — cannot accommodate, negotiate, or otherwise trace the dynamic of this other. In simplest terms, nuclear war cannot be just another element within the textual play of signification. Derrida is thus forced into an astonishing reversal of terminology — a reversal that leads to pronouncements strangely analogous to those of Northrop Frye. Derrida characterizes the nuclear apocalyptic referent as “the absolute referent, the horizon and the condition of all the others.”41 For Derrida, however, if the center is to be thought, it would not be a Fryean vision of infinite form, but “a thought of finitude," specifically, “the total destruc­tion of the archive, if not of the human habitat.”42

Thus, the textual spaces articulated by both Frye and Derrida — the “real structure” of the order of words and the space of signification or différance— have apocalypse at their centers. A useful image, which em­bodies this contrast, is provided in Derrida’s suggestion that the back­ground against which the radical act of finitude (nuclear war) “cuts its figure . . . [is] the possibility of an infinite intellect which creates its own objects rather than inventing them.”43 This is Frye’s Blakean “infinite man who builds his cities out of the Milky Way.” Derrida deconstructs or ironically inverts this creature, substituting a figure who owes more to Beckett than to Blake: the nuclear space of hesitation, Derrida suggests, “occurs within a ‘who knows?’ without subject or knowledge,”44 or, even more grimly and with a greater emphasis on finitude, apocalypse would be “the auto-destruction of the autos itself”45 — Frye’s infinite man blow­ing himself to bits. This contemporary theoretical configuration of the exploding word may be rooted historically in a post-Hiroshima world, but the roots run deeper than that: it is consistent with the double-edged symbolism of biblical apocalyptic revelations, including the smashed tab­lets of Sinai, the deferred Kingdom of Israel in exile, or Christ as the crucified Logos. The revealed Word, it seems, is always the shattered Word.

Both Frye and Derrida acknowledge that apocalypse, for the time be­ing, at least, functions as an absent center. Frye’s Logos of criticism clearly is religious in its scope, but Frye insists that it does not resolve into an ontological personality or religious presence: “Between religion’s ‘this is’ and poetry’s ‘but suppose this is,’ there must always be some kind of tension, until the possible and the actual meet at infinity.”46 It is precisely imaginative culture’s power of hypothesis — the power it has to conceive and reveal a wholly other to juxtapose against any institutionally sanc­tioned Holy Presence — that prevents any sort of full closure (this side of infinity, at least). And for Derrida, since the irreversible destruction of nuclear war has not taken place, it exists only in discourse (broadly understood) , and thus the essential feature of the nuclear epoch is “that of being fabulously textual,”47

The apocalyptic/textual spaces delineated by both Frye and Derrida help map out the postmodern apocalyptic space of Gravity’s Rainbow , a space centered on the quasi-theological, Holy/wholly other: “the one Word that rips apart the day” (25). Gravity’s Rainbow encodes within itself both a thematic and formal awareness of both poles of apocalypse: the creative energies of desire that can transfigure the real (Eros-apocalypse), and the element of death within the play of signification (in the broadest sense) that potentially can obliterate the real (Thanatos-apocalypse).

I will conclude this discussion by examining a revelation experienced by another of the novel’s central characters, Enzian, leader of the black rocket troops known as the Schwarzkommando, who is attempting to recenter his displaced people around the rather dubious Logos of a scavenged V-2 rocket. Enzian is a postmodern Moses leading his exiled people in the postmodern desert. He has a revelation while riding his motorcycle through the Zone: the apocalyptic space that is the devastated German industrial landscape.

Zoom uphill slantwise toward a rampart of wasted, knotted, fused, and scorched girderwork, stacks, pipes, ducting, windings, fairings, insulators reconfigured by all the bombing, grease-stained pebblery on the ground rushing by a mile a minute and wait, wait, say what, say ''reconfigured,’' now?
There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away — there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on . . . modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides — ''sides ?” — had always agreed on . . . (520)

Enzian had assumed that the “holy Text” for his messianic enterprise “had to be the Rocket,” but wonders “if I’m riding through it, the Real Text, right now, if this is it”:

— the bombing was the exact industrial process of conversion, each release of energy placed exactly in space and time, each shockwave plotted in advance to bring precisely tonight’s wreck into being thus decoding the Text, thus coding, re­coding, redecoding the holy Text . . . If it is in working order, what is it meant to do? The engineers who built it as a refinery never knew there were any further steps to be taken. Their design was “finalized,” and they could forget it.
It means this War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted . . . secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology ... by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that needed the energy-burst of war [. . . .] (520-521)

Just as the deluge of the Old Testament entails a symbolic erasure and réinscription of nature such that nature becomes a signifier of something more radically other (the power and presence of Yahweh), so does the bombing of the industrial landscape — its literal destruction — actually constitute (as Enzian sees it) its deconstruction, part of an ongoing pro­cess of “coding, recoding, redecoding” of the “holy Text” (521). Politics and the political mode of understanding history are reduced to “the­atre,” and metaphors of theatre and film function throughout the novel as another mode of deconstructing or placing historical reference under erasure to reveal more expansive — and more paranoid — significance.

Enzian’s attempt to read the text of his historical situation leaves him caught in a spiral of paranoid speculation, a seemingly endless attempt to seize and name the other. His paranoid “reasonings” are structured as a dialogue or pseudo-dialectical drive toward the “truth.” Yet they culmi­nate not in certainty but in something more like hysteria and collapse, a sort of final negation that leaves a blank where final revelation should be. Specifically, after political explanations of the war are negated, Enzian seems to reach a conclusion: the real impetus for war stems from the needs of technology, needs “which are understood only by the ruling elite ...” (521). The subsequent paragraph, however, immediately ne­gates this conclusion: “Yes but Technology only responds [ . . . ] ‘All very well to talk about having a monster by the tail, but do you think we’d’ve had the Rocket if someone, some specific somebody with a name and a penis hadn’t wanted to chuck a ton of Amatol 300 miles and blow up a block full of civilians? Go ahead, capitalize the T on technology, deify it if it’ll make you feel less responsible — but it puts you in with the neutered, brother’ ” (521). The only thing that seems certain is that there is a plot to be deciphered, a plot that requires radically new modes of interpreta­tion: “we have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reduc­ing the error, trying to learn the real function . . . zeroing in on what incalculable plot? [ . . . ] the planetary mission [ . . . ] waiting for its Kab- balists and new alchemists to discover the Key, teach the mysteries to others ...” (521). But this Kabbalistic mood of resignation and dedica­tion to the mystery is not the final word. It is still unclear to Enzian which ruin/text deserves his attention, that in Hamburg “or another make- believe ‘ruin,’ in another city? Another country ? YAAAGGGGHHHHH!” (521).

If this is an apocalypse of the mind (to borrow Emerson’s phrase) it is not one that reveals the romantic coalescence, unity, and identity of consciousness and nature in an apocalyptic harmony of the poetic Word. Rather, it is almost the inverse of this: the mutual disunity of conscious­ness and landscape in an uncentered and highly unstable space of tex- tuality. As always, the apocalyptic space of mediation is charged with both apocalyptic poles. In this instance, the negative pole is associated with the “literal” fact of wartime devastation. This devastation is not fully apoc­alyptic, in Derrida’s sense, since it does not yet entail the total destruction of the archive: there is still signification; total (nuclear) apocalypse may perhaps be implicit in the logic of escalating technologies of weaponry, but as yet apocalypse can only be “the signified referent” not “the real referent.”48 We are still in the space of the “fabulously textual,” and thus Enzian can still “read” the devastation. Moving further up the positive pole, we do not find, in this instance, an unequivocally “positive” affirma­tion or wish-fulfillment vision of the real transfigured by the energies of imagination and desire. Instead we get paranoid fantasies of more expan­sive orders of control and significance, which, if not reassuring, at least demonstrate a perversely creative power of speculation. The precise na­ture of the referent evoked remains highly ambiguous — as is always the case with the apocalyptic referent.

Enzian speaks with the voice of the paranoid and the prophet. It is also the voice of someone who has taken too many drugs. The paragraph that follows immediately upon Enzian’s barbaric yawp (“YAAAGGGG- HHHHH!”) tells us, in a more sober and seemingly omniscient narra­tor’s voice, “Well, this is stimulant talk here, yes Enzian’s been stuffing down Nazi surplus Pervitins these days like popcorn at the movies” (521- 522). This observation is followed by the text of a song, one of many that occur throughout the novel and routinely shatter whatever vestige of novelistic realism might be emerging at any given point.

Just a daredevil Desox-yephedrine Daddy
With m’pockets full o’ happee daze, 
Zoomin’ through the Zone, where the wild dogs roam, 
Givin’ all m’dreams away . . . (522)

Such a moment of glib playfulness completes the movement of supple­mentation away from the literal (the devastated industrial landscape) to the self-reflexively comic sphere of verbal play (“Don’tcha ephedrine of me, my honey, / Swoon just to hear my name — ” [522]). Playful and humorous as these lines are, they also function to destabilize any sense of ontological grounding for the narrative (in the historically real, in Enzian as a coherent “round” character, in any of his visions or countervisions, or in a centered narrator’s perspective). In Derridean terms this could be seen as a dissolve of the real in textuality; in Frye’s terms, it could be an apocalyptic moment of the transfiguration of the real by the imaginative energies of language. It also exemplifies the stylistic means by which Pynchon’s own text “permute[s] and combine [s] into new revelations, always unfolding” (727).


1. Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Mis­siles, Seven Missives),” Diacritics 14 (Summer 1984): 23.

2. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 9.

3. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation [1630-50], ed. Samuel Eliot Mor- ison (New York: Knopf, 1952), 23.

4. Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 25

5. Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 333; emphasis mine.

6. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954).

7. Kermode, Sense of an Ending 29.

8. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), 722. Because this novel is full of ellipses, those that I have inserted into quoted passages are in square brackets.

9. Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cam­bridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976), 183.

10. Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 259.

11. Weissmann has had firsthand experience of colonialism at its genocidal worst: he served with the German forces that brutally quelled the Herero uprising in the colony of South-West Africa in 1922. And he brought his copy of Rilke with him: “Of all Rilke’s poetry it’s this Tenth Elegy he most loves” (98).

12. Northrop Frye, The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), 130. Richard Hillman makes a similar point about the practice of criticism or analysis:

Psychological endeavors are always partially paranoid because, asjung says, the psyche offers no outside objective standpoint. We are always caught in our own vision of things. Moreover, our professional calling depends on the para­noid ability to detect, suspect, interpret, to make strange connections among events. . . . Each time we open a meaning we invite in the paranoid potential. Psychology walks the borderline between meaning and paranoia: psycholo­gists, too, are borderline cases. (On Paranoia, [Ascona, Switzerland: Eranos Foundation, 1986], 34)

13. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982).

14. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 24.

15. Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan, “The New Jeremiad: Gravity’s Rain­bow," in Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. Richard Pearce (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), 169.

16. Jean-François Lyotard, “Note on the Meaning of ‘Post-’ ” in Postmodernism: A Reader, ed. Thomas Docherty (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 49.

17. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capital­ism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 80.

18. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957), 117.

19. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 28. Similarly, Peter Schwenger suggests that if Gravity’s Rainbow can be read as a sort of dream, then the “latent content ... is summed up in Hiroshima” (Letter Bomb: Nuclear Holocaust and the Exploding Word [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992], 59).

20. Jean-Franfois Lyotard, “The Postmodern Condition,” in After Philosophy: End or Transformation?ed. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCar­thy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987).

21. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 93.

22. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 93, 75.

23. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 119.

24. Christopher Norris, Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 17.

25. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 1978), 297.

26. Derrida, Writing and Difference, 297.

27. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 27.

28. Jacques Derrida, “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philoso­phy,” trans. John P. Leavey,Jr., Oxford Literary Review 6, no. 2 (1984): 29-30.

29. Robert Alter, “The Apocalyptic Temper,” Commentary 41 (June 1966): 62.

30. Alter, “Apocalyptic Temper,” 62.

31. Alter, “Apocalyptic Temper,” 63. David Thorburn levels very similar crit­icisms against Gravity’s Rainbow  in “A Dissent on Pynchon,” his Commentary review of the novel (September 1973). Both Alter and Thorburn follow the lead of Martin Buber’s essay “Prophecy, Apocalyptic, and the Historical Hour,” (in Pointing the Way [New York: Harper and Row, 1957]). Buber regards prophecy as a genuine call to responsible action in the face of the exigencies of history. Apoc­alyptic, as he sees it, is a rather decadent form that assumes an iron determinism that precludes the possibility of meaningful existential action. It is suggestive to contrast this Jewish critical response to apocalypse with that of Northrop Frye, whose radical Protestant inclinations lead him to focus much more on its emancipatory possibilities.

32. Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Toronto: Academic Press, 1982), 56.

33. Northrop Frye, rev. of The Rhetoric of Romanticism, by Paul de Man, Times Literary Supplement (17January 1986): 51.

34. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 113; emphasis mine.

35. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 125, and The Great Code, 166.

36. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 125.

37. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Bal­timore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 158.

38. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 159.

39. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 26.

40. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 118.

41. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 28.

42. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 30, 28.

43. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 30.

44. Derrida, Writing and Difference, 297.

45. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 30.

46. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 127-128.

47. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 23.

48. Derrida, “No Apocalypse,” 23.

In: Postmodern Apocalypse. Theory and Cultural Practice at the End. Edited by
Richard Dellamora. Pennsylvania, 1995, pp. 61-78.

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