sábado, 25 de maio de 2013

A Supernatural History of Destruction; or, Thomas Pynchon’s Berlin by Eric Bulson

How do you represent a bombed-out city in the novel? That’s the question we need to ask when discussing urban representation in the postwar novel. Not all postwar cities are, of course, in ruins, but in the second half of the twentieth century many novelists were forced to confront historical examples of aerial destruction that would have been unthinkable just a few decades earlier. The V-l flying bombs and V-2 rockets falling on London, the Allied air raids against German cities and towns, and the atomic bombs targeting Hiroshima and Nagasaki are among them: in every case, the destruction was the end result of military strategies engineered to maximize civilian casualties and flatten the built environment as much as possible. Modernism’s flaneurs never had to navigate mounds of rubble or worry about falling bombs. The cities they inhabited, though disorienting at times, were navigable, and they corre­sponded with a topographical plan in which every landmark and street sign could be located. For the postwar flaneur, the blaze created by aerial bombing put an end to the blasé, that disinterested quality Georg Simmel assigned to the “metropolitan” individual at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the postwar environment, the pubs, restaurants, and shops are closed; the streets are filled with trash, bodies, and rubble; and the buildings are bombed-out shells. Homelessness, and the transience it implies, has become another way of being at home in the modern city.[1]

Writing in the wake of the air raids, Thomas Pynchon refused to treat modern cities as convenient spatial systems easily incorporated into nov­els without the burden of their respective pasts. The historical spaces in a novel like Gravity’s Rainbow , therefore, are not just the end result of carefully researched topographical details punctuated by descriptions from a third- person narrator. They occasion some uncomfortable reflection on the associa­tion between spatial rationalization celebrated by modernists and a history of aerial violence in the twentieth century prized by the military-industrial com­plex. “The physical shape of a city,” Pynchon wrote in a letter, “is an infallible due to where the people who built it are at. It has to do with our own deep­est responses to change, death, being human.”[2] Written seven years before Gravity’s Rainbow was published (1973), this candid reflection on urban space privileges the “physical” over the representational. When cities reflect a healthy culture, they are not imagined as abstract blueprints, models, or two- dimensional plans. The spatial layout, then, conceals an organic unity between the political, social, religious, and economic system and its inhabitants. This unity is something that caught Pynchon’s attention when he was researching the Hereros in German Southwest Africa. He was particularly keen on the idea that the religious, social, and political order of their villages reproduced the topography of the cosmos.[3] When General von Trotha arrived with his troops in 1904, he helped orchestrate the genocide of the Hereros, forcing them into the desert, where tens of thousands died of thirst, famine, and bullet wounds. It was a historical event that Pynchon will call a “dress rehearsal for what later happened to the Jews in the ’30’s and ’40’s.”[4]

The cities in Gravity’s Rainbow do indeed reflect where the “people who built” them are at: unfortunately, it is a place that prizes the inhuman over the human, death over life, the necropolis over the metropolis. In his monumen­tal urban history, The City in History, Lewis Mumford documents the rise and fall of cities from their earliest Mesopotamian beginnings, but even he was aware that the twentieth century was unique. Mumford, like Pynchon, was writ­ing about cities in the postwar decades with massive reconstruction projects still under way, but that was not enough to distract either of them from the frightening possibility that a nuclear war could throw civilization back to the Stone Age:

Today the end of our whole megalopolitan civilization is all-too-visibly in sight. Even a misinterpreted group of spots on a radar screen might trigger off a nuclear war that would blast our entire urban civilization out of exis­tence and leave nothing behind to start over with—nothing but death by starvation, pandemic disease, or inexorable cancer from strontium 90 for the thrice miserable refugees who might survive. To build any hopes for the future on such a structure could only occur to the highly trained but humanly under-dimensioned “experts” who have contrived it. Even if this fate does not overtake us, many other forms of death, equally sinister, if more insidious and slow, are already at work.[5]

Pynchon claims never to have read Mumford, but the urban dystopias have much in common with what’s described here: the bomb that Mumford finds so menacing becomes the rocket in Gravity’s Rainbow on its parabolic flight the entire time we are reading the novel. Instead of projecting these horrific visions onto the future, Pynchon looks back at the past, specifically at what actually happened to cities like London and Berlin in the early 1940s: the for­mer savaged by unmanned rockets, the latter by high-explosive and incendi­ary bombs dropped out of airplanes. This backward glance foregrounds bal­listic technologies that would pave the way for a nuclear bomb that could, and would, wipe out tens of thousands of people in an instant, reaching beyond two hundred thousand when you factor in the victims of radioactive fallout.

This fear of a nuclear war in the future, then, gets played out in Pynchon’s cities of the past. He selects real historical examples, aware of the fact that the scope and scale of the destruction could be exponentially worse the next time around. Late in Gravity’s Rainbow , just as the narrative begins to break down into disconnected fragments, we are abruptly thrown into the streets of what are presumably a few bombed-out towns in northern Germany and stumble on a newspaper headline “plastered on the cobblestones”: “MB DRO / ROSHI.” We don’t need all the letters to get the message. Throwing this headline about Hiroshima on German streets, the connection between the two places is hard to miss. The Allied air raids were a dress rehearsal for the bombing of Hiroshima

Figure 1

and Nagasaki, but there is the implicit hope here that history will not repeat itself somewhere else. “At least one moment of passage,” the narrator explains immediately after reprinting this headline, “one it will hurt to lose, ought to be found for every street now indifferently gray with commerce, with war, with repression . . . finding it, learning to cherish what was lost, mightn’t we find some way back?” (fig. I).[6]

The cities of Gravity’s Rainbow required modes of representation that could accommodate histories of destruction.[7] Pynchon could have adapted the cartographic accuracy of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or Alfred Doblin in which streets are named and not described, or the anticartographic space engi­neered by Franz Kafka that employs only the most generic signposts and place- names. Instead, he came up with a third option: a mode of spatial description that captures the specificity of the city without relying on the illusion of an ori­ented topographical perspective organized by a third-person master plotter. Ber­lin was the ideal city for this kind of experiment, since it was so heavily bombed by the Allies but not entirely leveled. We arrive here sometime around July 1945 not long after the German surrender and find Tyrone Slothrop, the ostensible protagonist (if you can call him that), wandering the streets dressed as a cartoon character, Raketemensch (sic Rocketman). It is immediately noticeable that the narrator isn’t sure how to trace Slothrop’s movements; instead of laying out street signs or place-names, the narrator drops placeholders, temporary land­marks, some natural, others manmade, that provide a route through the rubble.

Even then, Berlin is not so easy to navigate. During one of his postwar dérives, Slothrop finds a “trail,” once a street, but he “keeps losing it.” Imme­diately after making this observation, the narrator runs full-throttle into the night, taking us along on a disorienting joyride:

wandering into windowless mazes, tangles of barbed wire holidayed by the deathstorms of last May, then into a strafed and pitted lorry-park he can’t find his way out of for half an hour, a rolling acre of rubber, grease, steel, and spilled petrol, pieces of vehicles pointing at sky or earth no differ­ently than in a peacetime American junkyard, fused into odd, brown Satur­day Evening Post faces, except that they are not folksy so much as down­right sinister. (GR, 435)

Meandering descriptions like this one regularly accompany Slothrop’s steps in the postwar Berlin episodes (confined to the novel’s third section). The over­all effect is not only disorienting, since the direction of his route is unknow­able, but also exhausting, because the sentences, which move forward, are con­stantly sidetracked by random bits of information: the narrative works like a vacuum that sucks up everything in its path, leaving no trace to follow back.

This disoriented and disorienting mode of urban description is precisely what makes the historical reality effect of this novel so apt. The absence of Ber­lin needed to be evoked paradoxically by concrete details that could be specific, generic, oriented, and disoriented all at once. Accurately positioned street signs would have transformed Berlin into a prewar anachronism, since, as Jorg Friedrich points out, the street signs in this city were blown off during the air raids.[8] Pynchon was probably not aware of this historical fact, but he realized on his own that street signs and place-names wouldn’t accurately capture the atmosphere of the place. And what’s worse, a precise topography would have given readers the erroneous idea that there was a totalized urban image in place after the Allies occupied the city. For readers, the disorientation effect of Berlin is a condition of reading, but the representational strategies that Pynchon employs are there to remind us that it is an effect of history. And readers can get to know Berlin, as Walter Benjamin did, only by losing themselves in it.[9]

Urban destruction from Allied air raids radically influenced Pynchon’s experiments with spatial representation. But the disorientation generated from this destruction was one way for him to achieve a degree of historical authen­ticity that would not otherwise have been possible. And there is more to the bombed-out urban space of Gravity’s Rainbow than the anxiety that comes from not knowing exactly where you are. Supernatural beings haunt these cit­ies, and you are as likely to spot a giant angel rising from the wreckage during an air raid as you are to see King Kong defecating in the streets amid piles of rubble. It’s Pynchon’s way of foregrounding the loss behind these events and refusing to let history keep it hidden behind the projection of supernatural forces that inevitably conceal the actions of human beings.

Long before Pynchon was getting readers lost in the postwar urban ruins of Europe, he relied on the guidebooks of Karl Baedeker to find his way. Bae­deker’s little red handbooks, which set the standard for the guidebook industry in the nineteenth century, contained a wealth of information about cities around the globe and were an ideal source for gleaning all kinds of concrete details. By the time he wrote V. (1963), something had changed. Pynchon became crit­ical of Baedeker’s enterprise even if his novels continued to benefit from it. Throughout the novel he explicitly links mass tourism with the history and politics of empire in the nineteenth century. As far as Pynchon is concerned, Baedeker didn’t simply compile guidebooks so that white, well-to-do West­ern tourists could travel to countries in Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia: he reproduced an ideologically saturated, racist perspective that encour­aged human beings to view one another as objects. “There is a joke on all visi­tors to Baedekerland,” one of the locals in V. says to another: “the permanent residents are actually humans in disguise.”[10]

Baedeker also had a history in the twentieth century that Pynchon would find interesting as he prepared to write Gravity’s Rainbow . In retaliation for the March 1942 attack of the Royal Air Force (RAF) on Liibeck, a German city of little strategic importance, Germany unleashed a series of aerial raids on unfortified towns in England. General Gustav von Sturm, an influential Nazi propagandist, selected the targets by following Baedeker’s three-star system, first developed in 1844 to identify the tourist sites that hurried travelers could not miss. The RAF eventually got its revenge on Baedeker and the German Luftwaffe. On December 4,1943, it dropped incendiary bombs on Leipzig and started an enormous blaze across the city: among the buildings lost that night was Karl Baedeker’s original headquarters.

Pynchon may have critiqued the politics and history of the Baedeker, but he still continued to benefit from it for Gravity’s Rainbow The early sec­tions of the plot are set in London during the Blitz, where dozens of characters follow Slothrop around to determine if there is a correspondence between his sexual exploits—some think it’s his erections—and the fall of unmanned V-2 rockets across the city. For his representation of London, Pynchon consulted dozens of sources, but he was also fortunate enough to have Edwin Kennebeck as his copyeditor at Vintage. Kennebeck was in London during the Blitz, and on reading these sections of the novel, he assured Pynchon that the “evo­cation of the scene is totally convincing.”[11] He was also a valuable resource for other reasons: Kennebeck worked as a radio operator on B-17s and made thirty-five bombing runs on German cities, including Dresden. He corrected factual mistakes in the early manuscript about the RAF air raids and contrib­uted overall to the authenticity of the experience from the cockpit.[12]

The space of Gravity’s Rainbow  is truly global, but much of the urban action is concentrated in London and Berlin. And yet you wouldn’t really know about this tale of two cities from the critical tradition, which has devoted most of its attention to London during the V-2 attacks, making occasional for­ays into the nonurban sites of  Peenemünde and Mittelwerke, where the rockets were manufactured.[13] It’s a strange oversight when one considers how decisive Berlin was in configuring the geopolitical world order in the second half of the twentieth century.[14] In Gravity’s Rainbow Berlin is not just another location on the world-historical map: it is the contentious site where the stage for Cold War politics was set for subsequent decades.

The long tradition of ignoring Berlin has had another, perhaps unin­tended, effect on our understanding of Pynchon’s postwar politics. Examin­ing the war from this city forces us to consider the legacy of the Allied air raids across Germany, which killed more than six hundred thousand civil­ians, destroyed three and a half million homes, and left seven million home­less. Berlin is the one place where the destruction of the air wars is imagined in extensive detail from the street. Long before W. G. Sebald’s “Luftkrieg und Literatur” (“Air War and Literature”), Pynchon asked his audience of primar­ily British and American readers to think seriously about the triumphalist ver­sion of the Allied bombing campaign and confront some of the messier ques­tions about whether novelists can or should represent it: How do you represent the destruction of cities and the suffering of civilians? From whose perspec­tive, that of the bomber above or of the bombed below? Is it for the statistician to count the bodies, the number of planes and sorties, the tonnage of bombs? Is it for the historian to figure out the administrative policies that enabled it? Should the documentarían gather and compare eyewitness testimony from both sides?

And what about the novelist? In many ways, Pynchon was free from the conventions that limit the historian. He could incorporate facts, statistics, eye­witness accounts into his novel, yet he was not bound by them. During the recent controversy over Ian McEwan’s questionable use of historical sources for his description of the Blitz in Atonement, Pynchon, who rose to McEwan’s defense, argued that “unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up.” Making the point that history is too important to be left only to the histo­rians, Pynchon continues: “Memoirs of the Blitz have borne indispensable wit­ness, and helped later generations know something of the tragedy and hero­ism of those days. For Mr. McEwan to have put details from one of them to further creative use, acknowledging this openly and often, and then explaining it clearly and honorably, surely merits not our scolding, but our gratitude.”[15] It is this freedom to fictionalize, speculate, and distort the material, in fact, that makes the novelist capable of doing what the historian often cannot, and in Gravity’s Rainbow , long before the McEwan controversy erupted, Pynchon bore witness to the “tragedy and heroism of those days” in his own way, not only showing what it might have been like to bomb an unfortified German city during an Allied air raid but also taking us through the rubble afterward, when the human consequences of the devastation were still being realized.

Before arriving in Berlin’s war-torn streets, readers are abruptly thrust into the cockpit with “Basher” St. Blaise (pun intended), one of the RAF pilots sent across the English Channel to bomb Lübeck on Palm Sunday. Situated on the Baltic coast in northern Germany, this port city was chosen by the Allies for this particular air raid because of its exceptional beauty: in a single morn­ing four hundred tons of bombs were dropped and 62 percent of the buildings were damaged.[16] Sitting miles above the wreckage, St. Blaise can see the flames, but it’s the angel that bothers him the most:

Basher St. Blaise’s angel, miles beyond designating, rising over Lübeck that Palm Sunday with the poison-green domes underneath its feet, an obsessive crossflow of red tiles rushing up and down a thousand peaked roofs as the bombers banked and dived, the Baltic already lost in a pall of incen­diary smoke behind, here was the Angel: ice crystals swept hissing away from the back edges of wings perilously deep, opening as they were moved into new white abyss.. . . For half a minute radio silence broke apart. The traffic being:

St. Blaise: Freakshow Two, did you see that, over.

Wingman: This is Freakshow Two—affirmative.

St. Blaise: Good. (GR, 217)

This passage is typical of Pynchon’s historical adaptations: the angel and the characters may be fictional, but the events, dates, places, and situations (includ­ing the cockpit conversation) are based on hard facts. Lübeck was attacked on Palm Sunday by RAF planes with incendiary and high-explosive bombs.

Even the transcription from the cockpit, though it might seem like a fictional flourish, has a historical precedent. During the war the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and American news agencies such as the Columbia Broad­casting Service embedded journalists with the bombers and then transmitted their reports over the radio. Sitting in the comfort of their own homes, listen­ers met the crew before takeoff, heard a couple of stories about life between flights, and then followed them across the English Channel and over German cities, where the planes unloaded their bombs before returning home.

One broadcast, written and read by Edward R. Murrow, was recorded after a successful night of bombing Berlin, and it provides an interesting point of comparison with the fictional description of St. Blaise and his angel. Everything starts off calmly enough with descriptions of the planes, a few lighthearted jokes between the crew, but somewhere near the coast of Ger­many, the reality of the danger kicks in, and Murrow, who is writing all this down presumably after the fact, begins to falter. He was there, all right, sitting in the plane with the others, but his account makes it clear just how difficult bearing witness from the plane could be:

As we rolled down on the other side, I began to see what was happening to Berlin.
The clouds were gone, and the sticks of incendiaries from the pre­ceding waves made the place look like a badly laid-out city with the street­lights on. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. As Jock [the pilot] hauled the Dog [the plane] up again, I was thrown to the other side of the cockpit. And there below were more incendiaries, glowing white and then turning red. 
The cookies, the four-thousand-pound high explosives, were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad. And then, as we started down again, still held in the lights, I remembered that the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in his belly, and the lights still held us, and 1 was very frightened.[17]

What Sebald said about the live BBC recordings during the war is true here: the cockpit does not provide the best perspective on the events.[18] There are too many distractions, including the searchlights and the smoke, to allow for any reliable account. But even when he tries to get a grip on what's happening, Mur- row lines up one weak metaphor after another. Berlin looks “like a badly laid- out city with the streetlights on”; the falling incendiaries look “like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet”; and the bursting “cookies” remind him of “great sunflowers gone mad.” Everything in this description looks like something else, and yet when you put it all together, the devastation of Berlin is conspicuously absent, nowhere to be found in this eyewitness report.

There’s more to focus on here than evasive metaphors. Murrow’s descrip­tion is an example of the sensationalism intended to attract listeners, who were eager for a visceral experience. But the thrill of the air raid seen from above comes from not being able to see the effects of the incendiaries on Ber­lin and its inhabitants. Indeed, this is something that Murrow understands quite well. “Berlin last night,” he concludes in this broadcast, “wasn’t a pretty sight. In about thirty-five minutes it was hit with about three times the amount of stuff that ever came down on London in a night-long blitz. This is a calcu­lated, remorseless campaign of destruction.”[19] Just at the moment when listen­ers might catch a peek behind the curtain after the smoke has cleared, Murrow, who wasn’t actually in the streets, veers off into numerical calculations that are intended to give his listeners some sense of the air raid’s awesome power. All of it leads to an acknowledgment that there are tremendous human costs to this “campaign of destruction” even if he is still unaware of just what that means. And it’s hard to ignore that his own emphasis on the “remorseless” nature of these attacks implicates the Allies more than he may have intended.

St. Blaise is in a similar situation, but there’s one major difference: he has an angel there with him to “bear witness,” one that rises from the wreckage on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar (GR, 214-15).[20] When the novelist confronts past atrocities, there is this freedom, as Pynchon described it earlier, to imagine how a situation like an air raid might have actually played out: what, after all, would a pilot think, do, and say at such a moment? For one thing, Pynchon is less interested in any objective account of the event than in the psychology of violence that makes it possible. St. Blaise is a cog in the military-industrial machine, and his entire mission depends on a mental and emotional distance that makes killing easier. Eric Hobsbawm argues that aer­ial attacks during World War II were part of the “new impersonality of war­fare” made possible by advances in ballistic and transport technologies. Never before in the history of warfare had killing from a distance been as easy, and the high-explosive bombs, including the incendiaries, proved particularly effective at generating mass casualties. “Mild young men,” Hobsbawm explains, “who could certainly not have wished to plunge a bayonet in the belly of any pregnant village girl, could far more easily drop high explosives on London or Berlin, or nuclear bombs on Nagasaki.”[21]

The angel is a slippery signifier: it could be the projection of St. Blaise’s guilt plastered against the horizon, a figment of his imagination that keeps him from looking down, or a wish fantasy of his own annihilation (fig. 2). Whatever the case, one thing is certain: visions of supernatural figures circu­late throughout Gravity’s Rainbow to identify the unmistakable presence of human actions. There are always justifications for violence, but in the end none of it is accomplished without individuals, who are presumably endowed with reason and intellect. Unfortunately, there are too many historical examples demonstrating how easily both of them can be manipulated to justify acts of extreme violence.

When it begins to look like angels might be behind your actions, it’s prob­ably a good time to reflect on what you’re actually doing. Of course, the ques­tion of responsibility presents enormous difficulties in discussions of the air raids from the Allied perspective: pilots and wingmen were dropping incendi­ary and high-explosive bombs, but few of them witnessed the aftermath. Kurt Vonnegut, who was actually underground during the bombing of Dresden, shocked readers in Slaughterhouse Five (1967) with graphic descriptions of what was left behind, but Pynchon, who was only eight years old at the war’s close, opted for a representational mode that combined documentary evidence, eyewitness reports with supernatural visions. Together they construct a ver­sion of history that some of us might prefer to process as fictions. Yet, try as we might, the angel in the sky and the pilot in the cockpit cannot be disen­tangled from what happened to the inhabitants below. The Angel of Lübeck in this novel makes a brief appearance, but it forces us, if only for a moment, to look backward on the “wreckage” of the past and be reminded of Benja­min’s “Angel of History,” the one he memorably describes facing backward as the “rubble heap” gets higher and higher.[22] If only he knew how prescient his vision of the future would be.

In the Berlin episodes of Gravity’s Rainbow , rubble is everywhere. “Mutilated statues lie under mineral sedation: frock-coated marble torsos of bureaucrats fallen pale in the gutters. Yes, hmm, here we are in the heart of downtown

Figure 2

Berlin” (GR, 368). Shortly after arriving by hot-air balloon from the Harz Mountains, this is one of the first snapshots that Slothrop gets of the German capital: mutilated statues, marble torsos, mineral sedation, and gutters. Pyn­chon was careful with the concrete details he used to represent Berlin at this moment, and critics have noted that he relied as much on early Baedeker guidebooks (from the 1923 edition or earlier) as he did on photographs from Time magazine and the London Times. But no matter how meticulous he was with his sources, the city of Berlin at this moment in history posed a particular challenge. Indeed, parts of the city were still intact, but 70 percent of the buildings had been pulverized, a statistic that might help explain the need for this hesitant “hmm” before the tour through “downtown Berlin” gets under way.[23]

The Allied air raids that began in 1942 and accelerated in the war’s final months helped transform the city into a massive junkyard. Buildings were hol­lowed out, streets were clogged with rubble, and monuments, the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate among them, were “shell-spalled,” to use Pynchon’s phrase. “Here we are in the heart of downtown Berlin,” the narrator exclaims, but, considering the scale of the destruction, “here” is not such an obvious spa­tial indicator. In fact, as we soon discover, the characters aren’t quite sure them­selves where “here” is, and they spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly from one vaguely defined part of the city to another. That wandering, in fact, is what gives these episodes their authenticity: to be in Berlin at this moment in history was synonymous with “belonging and going noplace” (GR, 437).

Ruins are the ideal environment for a postwar flaneur like Slothrop.[24] Instead of using sidewalks or arcades, he wanders through pathways that have recently emerged from the routes of human circulation. In this “City Sacra­mental,” as it is called, “the straight-ruled boulevards built to be marched along are now winding pathways through the waste-piles, their shapes organic now, responding like goat trails to the laws of least discomfort” (GR, 373). Destruc­tion on this scale makes Berlin look as if it has been reduced to a prewar agrar­ian past, and if Henry Morgenthau’s plan had been implemented, it would have been the first step toward the “pastoralization” of Germany, which included deindustrializing and demilitarizing its cities.[25] At this moment, however, before the massive reconstruction of Berlin begins, Slothrop has the opportu­nity for an urban experience very much grounded in a specific time and place, the immediate postwar months, which provided an unsettling glimpse into the extreme violence and destruction caused by a modern war machine.

This image of Berlin as a pastoral landscape also serves as the back­drop for a hallucinated vision of the future. Coming across the Brandenburg Gate for the first time, Slothrop imagines that he has been transported to a thirtieth-century city: “Chunks of the Gate still lie around the street—leaning shell-spalled up in the rainy sky, its silence is colossal, haggard as he pads by flanking it, the Chariot gleaming like coal, driven and still, it is the 30th cen­tury and swashbuckling Rocketman has just landed here to tour the ruins, the high desert-traces of an ancient European order” (67?, 436).[26] As often hap­pens in descriptions of Berlin, the sentences, like the “winding pathways” of the city itself, trail off into ellipses instead of culminating in a final stop. What begins as a more objective third-person survey of the landscape—the broken gate, the silence—is abruptly recast into a sci-fi fantasy taking place, presum­ably, in Slothrop’s head: in this instance, the future is imagined as the past, though both are activated in the present. Slothrop’s character is perfectly suited for just this kind of temporal confusion: he assumes the identity of Raketemensch, the German translation (with the incorrect spelling) for the name of an American comic-book hero who, by 1945, had already been phased out and largely forgotten.[27]

This clash of temporalities and spatialities has another dimension as well if one considers the audience’s perspective when Gravity’s Rainbow was first published. By 1973 a wall (erected in 1961) divided the city into east and west, and the Brandenburg Gate was the site of a very real border complete with barbed wire, armed guards, and towers. Pynchon’s contemporary readers, then, were in a position to appreciate the full significance of this snapshot in the imme­diate postwar months: the gate was open, the Chariot was broken, and there was hope for a new beginning. History would unfold quite differently, but reading this passage now, thirty-seven years later with the Wall down, it also takes on all the qualities of a utopian projection thrown a thousand years into the future.

According to Friedrich, the Allies conducted nineteen air raids between August 1943 and March 1944 that killed 9,390 civilians and 2,690 airmen. Because of Berlin’s wide boulevards and firewalls, it did not experience the firestorms that leveled Hamburg and Dresden, but the damage created by seventeen thousand tons of high-explosive bombs and sixteen thousand tons of incendiaries was extensive.[28] In the air war chronicles Berlin earned the unfortunate distinction of being the most-bombarded German city. But amid all the destruction there is a single street and building address incorporated into the novel with a historical blurb:

The Jacobistrasse and most of its quarter, slums, survived the streetfighting intact, along with its interior darkness, a masonry of shadows that will per­sist whether the sun is up or down. Number 12 is an entire block of tene­ments dating from before the Inflation, five or six stories and a mansarde, five or six Hinterhöfe nested one inside the other—boxes of a practical joker’s gift, nothing in the center but a last hollow courtyard smelling of the same cooking and garbage and piss decades old. Ha, ha! (GR, 436)

Jacobistrasse is a real street in the center of Berlin, and by now critics agree that it alludes to the story of Jacob’s ladder from the book of Genesis. Consid­ering the destruction of Berlin, which has the effect of making the city seem like an archaeological relic from the Old Testament, this associaton makes sense. Jacobistrasse is the space for visions of the divine, which in this instance come in the much-degraded form of a cartoon hero in a costume stolen from a Wagner opera.

There is also the possibility, less obvious, that this street appears in the novel because it is named after Franz G. Jacob, a celebrated Jewish chess mas­ter. Since Slothrop gets this address from a note concealed in a chess piece, this connection makes perfect sense. Yet, whether the allusion is biblical or biographical doesn’t really matter if we want to explain why there would be one postal address in the ruins of Berlin. For that answer, it’s worth consider­ing what actually happens at Jacobistrasse 12. Though Slothrop is displaced, wandering around postwar Europe and never getting back to America, Jaco­bistrasse is the one location where we see him “at home”: he delivers the hash to Säure Bummer and sits still, if only for a night, before going back into the city to find his way to Margherita Erdmann, his occasional companion. Like 7 Eccles Street in Ulysses, Jacobistrasse 12 is a pivot for the narrative, though in a much-condensed form, the one concrete location that provides a beginning and an end for the organization of the city and the closest that Slothrop gets to a nostos in his adopted European home.

Without this particular scene, or this address, Berlin would have been composed only of exterior snapshots of the streets, and Slothrop would not have moved inside an actual building.[29] But there’s more to it than the spatial unity that comes from a concrete location: at Jacobistrasse 12, Slothrop lis­tens to an argument in which Bummer describes the virtues of Rossini over Beethoven, and it is here that the novel generates a message of hope amid all of the death and destruction. “With Rossini,” Bummer declares, “the whole point is that lovers always get together, isolation is overcome, and like it or not that is the one great centripetal movement of the World. Through the machin­eries of greed, pettiness, and the abuse of power, love occurs” (GR, 440). As often happens in Pynchon’s novels, minor characters are the messengers of profound messages. In this case, Bummer’s stoned musings introduce an unex­pected note of optimism that might seem out of place. Yet there it is, stub­bornly planted amid Berlin’s ruins and injecting a sense of hope for the future in an environment that encourages you to abandon it.
Outside, in the streets of Berlin, the characters are unsure of their way. It’s an appropriate response to a place transformed into a wasteland with spires piercing the sky and wide-open, horizontal fields receding into the distance.[30] Even though the air raids have stopped, there is in these pages the lingering fear that they could erupt again without warning. For Slothrop, this fear from below produces a condition of “anti-paranoia,” which makes him feel the “whole city around him going back roofless,” where he imagines himself “vul­nerable, uncentered as he is, and only pasteboard images now of the Listen­ing Enemy left between him and the wet sky” (GR, 434). Another character, Galina, has a similar experience with “anti-paranoia,” though her nightmares involve the “pasteboard model” of a “city-planner’s city,” in which she also imagines herself in the streets “waiting for the annihilation, the blows from the sky” (GR, 341).

The “pasteboard images” and “pasteboard model” used to describe the city allude to an episode from another encyclopedic American novel, Moby- Dick, an appropriate parallel that recounts the self-destructive behavior of a monomaniacal captain who takes his crew on a journey around the globe in search of one white whale. In one of his existential soliloquies, Ahab declares that “all visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks,” using this image of pasteboard to identify that flimsy surface separating himself from the object he hates most of all in the universe.[31] For both Herman Melville and Pynchon, the pasteboard is a manmade material constructed solely to dis­play paranoid and antiparanoid projections alike. But whereas Ahab tracked down and eventually struck into the whale, his pasteboard mask, with a har­poon (before getting tied up in the attached rope and dragged to his death), Slothrop, a century later, was left looking upward for a pasteboard image of a menacing enemy that preferred high-explosive bombs and incendiaries dropped from airplanes.

In the Berlin episodes, characters don’t walk the streets as much as they climb them. And for a simple reason: rubble is everywhere, popping up in descriptions anytime Slothrop turns a corner. There is, strictly speaking, no subgenre of the “rubble novel” to accompany the Trümmerfilm in vogue in the late 1940s, but in these pages it is clear that rubble provided a makeshift stage set, something easily adapted to capture the geography, history, and overall mood of the place. Rubble, however, is not used as a generic signifier for the destruction.[32] Instead, the narrator repeatedly uses encounters with rubble to compile encyclopedic lists that parody epic catalogs (fig. 3):

Mud occupies some streets like flesh. Shell craters brim with rainwater, gleaming in the lights of midwatch work crews clearing debris. Shattered Biedermeier chair, matchless boot, steel eyeglass frame, dog collar (eyes at the edges of the twisting trail watching for sign, for blazing), wine cork, splintered broom, bicycle with one wheel missing, discarded copies of  Tägli­che Rundschau, chalcedony doorknob dyed blue long ago with ferrous fer- rocyanide, scattered piano keys (all white, an octave on B to be exact—or H, in the German nomenclature—the notes of the rejected Locrian mode), the black and amber eye from some stuffed animal.. .. The strewn night. Dogs, spooked and shivering, run behind walls whose tops are broken like fever charts. Somewhere a gas leak warps for a minute into the death and after-rain smells. Ranks of blackened window-sockets run high up the sides of gutted apartment buildings. Chunks of concrete are held aloft by iron reinforcing rod that curls like black spaghetti, whole enormous heaps wiggling omi­nously overhead at your least passing by. (GR, 434)[33]

Instead of avoiding description altogether—a likely option, given the scale of the destruction—the narrator revels in it, taking the most trivial objects and putting them into some kind of order. The impulse is encyclopedic, and the rubble heap resembles a time capsule for future generations interested in what the Germans were reading, writing, and thinking at the time. In this wasteland, the fragments are “shored up” but not as protection from ruin. They are the ruins themselves, what’s leftover in the wake of a destruction waiting to be cleared away.

The narrator occasionally ventures into the realm of metaphor much like Murrow did in his air-raid stories: mud looks like “flesh,” the tops of walls are like “fever charts,” and the iron rods like “black spaghetti.” In these instances metaphor does not make the abstract image more concrete. On the contrary, metaphor in the rubble reaffirms the abstraction; there is no emotion, no beauty, nothing significant to be found here in comparing mud and flesh or iron rods and black spaghetti. The failure of metaphor reflects the failure to find mean­ing in the rubble by poeticizing it. Sure, it’s possible to list every object, one at a time, to break it down into categories and find comparisons, but the result leaves you with nothing complete or meaningful in itself. In fact, this mock- epic rubble list provides a moment of nontranscendence, the impossibility of making the pile of “debris” anything other than what it is.

Rubble is convenient for other reasons as well. It allows the narrator to chart Slothrop’s movement without relying on more conventional street signs or other orientational landmarks. The sentence, in other words, simulates for­ward movement, even if the route is digressive, and gives us a glimpse into an aspect of the city that Slothrop could not possibly process along the way. It’s impossible to know just how many blocks he walks or what intersections he crosses, but that is the point of this particular kind of spatial description. We know Slothrop is moving precisely because the objects pass by: they accumu­late, tangled up in commas, occasionally divided by periods, colons, or ellipses, the most beloved piece of Pynchon punctuation, before being left behind and forgotten. The poignancy of this pile is felt only when we remember that every object here once had an owner.

Objects are the principal landmarks in Berlin. And they are as vague as the geographic ones that pop up whenever Slothrop is found “in the British sec­tor someplace,” or “the American sector,” or “the Russian sector.” During one nightmarish scene Slothrop finds himself near the Tiergarten, before moving “down in the cellar, across the street from a wrecked church” and then “orbiting someplace near the Grosser Stern” (GR, 365). Someplace is a common spa­tial indicator, synonymous at these moments with noplace. The action may be occurring somewhere in the city, but it is nowhere in particular. And here it is worth returning to that first extended glimpse of Berlin that I referenced earlier:

Tanks manoeuvre in the street, chewing parallel ridges of asphalt and stone- dust. Trolls and dryads play in the open spaces. They were blasted back in May out of bridges, out of trees into liberation, and are now long citified. “Oh that drip,” say the subdeb trolls about those who are not as hep, “he just isn’t out of the tree about anything.” Mutilated statues lie under mineral sedation: frock-coated marble torsos of bureaucrats fallen pale in the gutters. Yes, hmm, here we are in the heart of downtown Berlin, really, uh, a little, Jesus Christ what’s that—

“Better watch it,” advises Saure, “it’s kind of rubbery through here.”
“What is that?”

Figure 4

Well, what it is—is? What’s “is”?—is that King Kong, or some crea­ture closely allied, squatting down, evidently just, taking a shit, right in the street! and everything! a-and being ignored, by truckload after truckload of Russian enlisted men in pisscutter caps and dazed smiles, grinding right on by—“Hey!” Slothrop wants to shout, “hey lookit that giant ape\ or whatever it is. You guys? Hey ...” But he doesn’t, luckily. On closer inspection, the crouching monster turns out to be the Reichstag building, shelled out, air- brushed, fire-brushed powdery black on all blastward curves and projec­tions, chalked over its hard echoing insides with Cyrillic initials, and many names of Comrades killed in May. (GR, 368) (fig. 4)

In this supernatural history of destruction anything is possible: smooth-talking “citified” trolls can leave their bridges to play out in the open and the bombed- out Reichstag can resemble a defecating King Kong. The scene itself moves back and forth between the trolls’ quips, Saure’s and Slothrop’s comments, and the narrator popping in and out of Slothrop’s head. No one seems fazed by the trolls, but it is King Kong that frightens them all. He should be somewhere else, New York City maybe, but instead he is right in the middle of the destruc­tion, squatting there in the street.

The aerial bombing, the real force behind the destruction in Berlin, is not mentioned at all, but there is a strange slip here, a small detail in the descrip­tion that belies its presence. Just at the moment when Slothrop and the narrator think they spot King Kong, they entertain the possibility that it could be “some creature closely allied.” “Allied,” of course, can mean “united with,” but, con­sidering the wider context, it can, also reference the Allies, the ones really responsible for what happened to buildings like the Reichstag. Human agents haunt the description, yet the characters themselves can see only the possibility for a supernatural force.

But just when you might think it’s all a big joke, another one of those surreal moments in the novel, the more unsettling reality about the destruction emerges. Shortly after his vision of King Kong, Slothrop spots “enormous loaves of bread dough” in the streets (GR, 368). On closer inspection, he real­izes that it’s not bread dough at all: “By now it’s clear that they’re human bod­ies, dug from beneath today’s rubble, each inside its carefully tagged GI fart- sack. They are rising, they are transubstantiated, and who knows, with summer over and hungry winter coming down, what we’ll be feeding on by Xmas?” (GR, 368). St. Blaise’s angel, Slothrop’s defecating “King Kong,” and the “enor­mous loaves of bread dough” are the visions that mask a disturbing reality about the war’s consequences and, in this particular instance, the Allied bomb­ings that helped accelerate its end. There’s no sentimentality in these pages. That’s just not Pynchon’s style. But these sudden reversals of seeing and not seeing have a way of humanizing the destruction down below, making it appar­ent that the casualties during this operation should be acknowledged.

During this entire Berlin sequence, Slothrop is very much “in the street.” And this generic spatial indicator is another way to say that his perspective is limited and subject to horrific distortions. He’s living alongside the Berlin­ers, who endured the air raids and are now trying to survive in the immedi­ate aftermath. We meet a few of them along the way, but Slothrop believes that they are all victims of the same paranoid conspiracy organized by govern­ments and bureaucracies eager to sacrifice the powerless for their own sake: “What’s kept him moving the whole night, him and the others, the solitary Berliners who come out only in these evacuated hours, belonging and going noplace, is Their unexplained need to keep some marginal population in these wan and preterite places, certainly for economic, though, who knows, maybe emotional reasons too” (GR, 437). In this description and others like it, there is no real difference between the homeless Berliners, who have just been bombed, and the Allied victors who’ve come to take over. At a moment when Pynchon might make some statement or other about the Germans “getting what they deserve,” he instead emphasizes the wretched conditions that they’re living through in the months after the surrender. It is a common gesture in Pynchon’s fiction: he sides with the silent ones, those lost to history, the marginalized, or forgotten populations caught up in that vast and inscrutable industrial-political machine that cares nothing for human life.

The Berlin of Gravity’s Rainbow challenges many of the assumptions often made about how and if the air raids can be represented. As I’ve argued here, Pynchon addressed a subject that was not particularly popular at the time when Gravity’s Rainbow was published. He showed his American and British readers what was left in the wake of the air raids and asked them to consider how the abstraction of space, the distance, and the objectification and alienation that come with it could lead to a violence that seemed as if it may have originated in the actions of angels and oversized apes.

But Gravity’s Rainbow is very much a product of its time and place. It is a Cold War novel written by an American at the end of the 1960s and published at a moment when the United States was involved with Vietnam and a nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed entirely possible. Pynchon admits elsewhere that the threat of The Bomb during these years looms in the background of his novels: “Our common nightmare The Bomb is in there too. . . . There was never anything subliminal about it then or now. Except for that succession of the criminally insane who have enjoyed power since 1945, including the power to do something about it, most of the rest of us poor sheep have always been stuck with simple, standard fear.”[34] Berlin is one place where we find an expres­sion of that “simple, standard fear.” The air raids that destroyed the city were not an aberration in the past. For Pynchon, they prefigured what America would do to Hiroshima on a single day in August 1945, and they were based on the same violent, dehumanizing logic.

That’s why the space of Berlin is so crucial to our understanding of Grav­ity’s Rainbow: it asks us to consider if history had to unfold this way. Novels, of course, can play around with the what-ifs and the roads not taken in history. But that is one way to make us think seriously about how it happens and who makes it. Shortly after leaving the destruction of Berlin behind, Slothrop is on the threshold of a utopian vision in which he begins to imagine the future not as a series of clearly marked street signs but as a nameless “road” moving on ahead somewhere in the distance: “It seems to Tyrone Slothrop that there might be a route back ... maybe for a little while all the fences are down, one road as good as another, the whole space of the Zone cleared, depolarized, and somewhere inside the waste of it a single set of coordinates from which to proceed, without elect, without preterite, without even nationality to fuck it up” (GR, 556).

(In the Zone perimeter) He leads  Slothrop... into heaps of ruins high-crested as the sea (GR, p.554) Zak Smith's Illustrations For Each Page of Gravity's Rainbow

Like all of the great modernist cities of Europe, Berlin had a venerable and highly developed underground infrastructure: sewers, service tunnels, sub­ways. But unlike the Paris sewers, the London Tube, or the Roman catacombs, the German capital was not identified in any mythic or symbolic way with this infrastructure. Rather than based in a physical feature of its subterranean space, the reigning image of subterranean Berlin was metaphorical: the under­world of decadent Weimar culture, a subversive image reinforced during the 1920s by the political identity das rote Berlin (red Berlin). There are material grounds for this difference in underground identity, but in this essay I focus on the Wall that gave the city a metaphorics of space symbolizing the global divi­sions it embodied in a brutally physical manner and the tunnels that, in their very invisibility, were seen both to echo and to subvert that division.

After a brief discussion of the forerunners to this spatial coupling in the spy tunnels under Vienna and Berlin in the immediate postwar period, I sur­vey the use of tunnels as escape routes after the construction of the Wall in 1961 through their depiction in fiction, memoirs, history, and film. I pay par­ticular attention to cinema, for the depiction of the tunnels between Robert Siodmak’s 1962 Germano-Hollywood thriller Escape from East Berlin and Roland Suso Richter’s epic 2001 TV drama Der Tunnel delineates both the unvarying contours of the metaphorics of Wall and tunnel and the changing uses to which those metaphorics have been put.

I am grateful to Andreas Huyssen for his generosity over the years and his profound influence on the direction of my own urban imaginings. In fact, I can trace it to the moment when he introduced me to Walter Benjamin’s essays on Berlin at a time long before I understood the virtue of getting lost.


[1] In this article I develop some ideas about modernism and disorientation that I first began to work through in Novels, Maps, Modernity: The Spatial Imagination, 1850-2000 (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[2] Quoted in David Seed, The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988), 241.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 240.

[5] Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1961), 528.

[6] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), 693. Hereafter cited as GR. The images that accompany this essay are taken from Zak Smith, Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel “Gravity’s Rainbow " (Portland, Or: Tinhouse, 2004). I am very grateful to Zak for his permission to reprint them here.

[7] Pynchon never represents Hiroshima in Gravity’s Rainbow : this headline is about as close as we get to a representation of the city.

[8] Jorg Friedrich, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, trans. Allison Brown (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 319.

[9] See Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[10] Thomas Pynchon, V. (New York: Lippincott, 1963), 78.

 [11]  For all of the Baedeker references in the novel, see Stephen Weisenburger, A "Gravity’s Rainbow " Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988).

[12] This nugget of information was revealed by Gerald Howard, “Pynchon from A to V,” Book- forum, Summer 2005, www.bookforum.com/archive/sum_05/pynchon.html.

[13] Ibid. In one exchange Kennebeck informed Pynchon that B-17 bombing raids took place so early in the morning that they would never be seen flying east in the afternoon. The mistake was corrected in the final version.

[14] For a rare exception, see Christina Jarvis, “The Vietnamization of World War II in Slaugh­terhouse-Five and Gravity's Rainbow” War, Literature and Arts 15 (2003): 95-117.

[15] There are sporadic flashbacks to Depression-era Berlin from the 1930s that involve the story of Franz Pokier, who will become an engineer on the V rockets at  Peenemünde, and his wife, Leni.

[16] Thomas Pynchon, “Words for Ian McEwan,” Daily Telegraph, December 6, 2006.

[17] These statistics taken from Bomber Command, www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/mar42 .html (accessed April 6. 2010).

[18] Edward R. Murrow, “Night Raid on Berlin,” December 3, 1943, history.sandiego.edu/ gen/20th/b/murrow2.html (accessed April 6, 2010). An audio recording is available at the same site. Murrow, who was on the ground in London during the Blitz, flew in more than twenty of these raids.

[19] W. G. Sebald, “Air War and Literature,” in On the Natural History of Destruction, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Random House, 2003), 20.

[20] Murrow, “Night Raid on Berlin.”

[21] It’s the same phrase Pynchon used to describe the Blitz memoirs consulted by McEwan.

[22] Eric Hobsbawm, A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Pantheon, 1994), 50.

[23] In his 2005 translation of Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” Dennis Redmond translates Trümmer as “rubble” (www.efn.org/~dredmond/Theses_on_History.html, accessed August 4,2001).

[24] When visiting Berlin in September 1945, Isaac Deutscher observed that the city had been pulverized, not flattened, because so many buildings had been made with steel girders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see Eric Rentschler, “The Place of Rubble in the Triim- merfilm,” in this issue). For a description of Berlin after the air raids, see Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Vor dem Vorhang: Das geistige Berlin, 1945-1948 (Munich: Hanser, 1995), 15.

[25] Ruins have had a long and complicated past in the history of Western modernity. See Andreas Huyssen, “Nostalgia for Ruins,” Grey Room 23 (2006): 6-21.

[26] Sebald, “Air War and Literature,” 40.

[27] For one of the few articles devoted to Berlin, see Douglas Lannark, “Relocation/Dislocation: Rocketman in Berlin,” Pynchon Notes, Spring-Fall 2008, findarticles.eom/p/artides/mi_6750/ is_54-55/ai_n31524570/?tag=content;coll (accessed April 6, 2010). This kind of dehistoricized reading is quite common. Berlin is emptied of its history and treated as an imaginary setting that allows for all kinds of fictional high jinks.

[28] Rocketman made his first appearance in the premier issue of Scoop Comics (1941). The cover for the 2006 Penguin Classics deluxe edition of Gravity’s Rainbow was done by Frank Miller, the celebrated American comics artist best known for Dark Knight Returns and his Sin City series. Miller’s cover contains the image of a white rocket over a topographical photograph of an unidentifiable landscape.

[29] Friedrich, Fire, 99.

[30] Slothrop also goes inside Margherita’s house, somewhere in the Russian sector, which he identifies only by a “dented pipe” (GR, 443).

[31] Schivelbusch, Vor dem Vorhang, 15, 28-29.

[32] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or. The White Whale (Boston: Page, 1892), 157.

[33] Pynchon uses debris and ruins interchangeably with rubble.

[34] All ellipses here and below are Pynchon’s.

[35] Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner (New York: Vintage, 1995), 6.

In: New German Critique 110, Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer 2010

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