After the Catastrophe

January 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve posted much of this elsewhere, so it may be redundant for some of you. But new days bring new blogs & new readers, and, what do you know, I still quite like the piece. One of my better attempts, I think, at fusing intellectual honesty & creative reading, and something I remain proud to showcase a second time.

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I’ve set for myself here quite a challenge. For starters, I will be focusing on two radically different authors. While I am not so bold as to say one cannot imagine two more different stylists of the American novel, when it comes to Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy we are definitely dealing with different animals. On the one hand, we have the verbose virtuoso of paranoia and postmodernism, Thomas Pynchon, whose novels are usually enjoyed as a kind of “ride” we are asked to enjoy (or not). Characters and plots multiply; subplots converge and diverge, emerge and vanish. On the other hand, we have the grim reaper of American letters, Cormac McCarthy, who is more often found to trade in visceral evocations of violence and masochism than he does paranoia. Ordinarily, this might suggest we‘d be better served looking at the authors and their work separately. While there is supreme value in doing precisely that, and indeed it is probably the right way to go in most cases, I find fascinating their shared vision of a world facing catastrophe and ruin.

Against the Day

For Thomas Pynchon, though the catastrophe (specifically, but not exclusively, World War I) has yet to happen, it looms throughout his novel. Indeed, even when it occurs, it occurs “off-stage,” as it were, obliquely observed from above by the Chums of Chance an outfit of explorers and inter-dimensional do-gooders who are modeled on the stereotypical dime-store boyhood adventure novels of old. (It was at one time an imperative that the Chums help out whoever asked and in whatever way they could. By the end of the novel, however, when much of the world has finally descended to all varieties of hell, the Chums for the most part stay separated and invisible. This is due in part to no longer being asked to help, but also because those who need help largely do not realize it because they are the ones inflicting their own suffering.) The full weight of what is to come -– and by this, I want to highlight that for Pynchon, there is no “One Thing,” and thus no capital-C Catastrophe, but rather a state or condition of catastrophe, with merely gradations of degree along the way — manages even to pierce the time-continuum and forcibly project into the past emissaries of a futuristic/parallel world upended by humanity‘s own self-made destruction.

It is, as it were, not a question of If the catastrophe will happen, but When. Visions and visitors of the future serve only to confirm what we already know, even if this knowledge is ultimately only acknowledged after the fact (& thus, always, too late):

It had become quite unpleasant that night. This city, even on the best of days, had always been known for its background rumble of anxiety. Anyone who wittingly dwelt here gambled daily that whatever was to happen would proceed slowly enough to allow at least one consultation with somebody — that “there would always be time,” as citizens like to put it. But that quarterless nightfall, events were moving too fast even to take in, forget about examine, or analyze, or in fact do much of anything but run from, and hope you could avoid getting killed. That’s about as closely as anybody was thinking it through–everyone in town, most inconveniently at the same time, suffered that Panic fear. Down the years of boom and corruption, they’d been warned, repeatedly, about just such possibility. The city more and more vertical, the population growing in density, all hostages to just such an incursion. . . . Who outside the city would have imagined them as victims taken by surprise — who, for that matter, inside it? Though many in the aftermath did profit briefly by assuming just that affecting pose. (p. 151)

Everyone in town seemed to know what the creature was — to have known all along, a story taken so for granted that its coming-true was the last thing anybody expected — including what its pitiless gifts would mean for any populace they might be unleashed upon — whereas, oddly, none of the men of science who had brought it here, the old polar hands, living only a few metal corridors away, all of its journey south, had so much as guessed. (p. 151)

The beauty of Pynchon‘s novel, amidst the maddening and frustrating parts, of which there are many, is that every time you think he is bent on identifying that against which one must struggle -– i.e., the big, ominous They that populates the background of his most famous novels -– he pulls back. This is not, however, to say that in doing so he is pulling punches. On the contrary, I would contend that in doing so he shows the extent of the unfolding catastrophe. Whether it is by way of the Tunguska Event, World War I, the Ludlow Massacre during the Colorado Coal Field War of 1913-14, or even the decay of people‘s belief in fiction, the catastrophe, as characterized in Against the Day, is borne largely of humanity‘s technological and economic aspirations. These aspirations typically coalesce in individuals or corporate entities and in general are powered by a radical instrumentalization of people, their labour, and most fundamentally, the very core of their existence, time -– all directed toward the sustaining of progress, by way of desire and necessity. Even more, when the catastrophe occurs (as with the creature depicted in the blockquotes above), when the plurality of effects catch up to causes in a tipping point of violence and devastation, the most pernicious aspect is that our instrumentalization makes it all ultimately forgettable. Humanity‘s powers of adaptation and/or rationalization, in effect, do not always work to its favor.

It went on for a month. Those who had taken it for a cosmic sign cringed beneath the sky each nightfall, imagining ever more extravagant disasters. Others, for whom orange did not seem an appropriately apocalyptic shade, sat outdoors on public benches, reading calmly, growing used to the curious pallor. As nights went on and nothing happened and the phenomenon slowly faded to the accustomed deeper violets again, most had difficulty remembering the earlier rise of heart, the sense of overture and possibility, and went back once again to seeking only orgasm, hallucination, stupor, sleep, to fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day. (p. 805)

The Road

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy offers a distinct, though complementary, twist on this vision of the catastrophe, which in the context of his novel has already taken place. McCarthy employs a kind of scorched-earth poetic here that even his magisterial and critically adored Blood Meridian does not rival. Both are poetic marvels, to be sure, but there is a profound sparseness to the former that the parched bleakness of the latter does not even try to conceive. Where, for example, the much-noted violence of Blood Meridian is overwhelming in its being so graphically detailed, The Road is most haunting in what goes unsaid between the pauses that take the place of chapter divisions.

Like Pynchon, McCarthy is content to not say too much about the specifics of what the catastrophe actually is; or, more precisely, what caused it. Again, the specificity of the Event, in this instance, a flash of light in the distance and a sudden shudder of the earth, diminishes in significance compared to the response to it. In McCarthy‘s rendering, the immediate response is that men, women, and children worldwide are left to their own devices. The structures of power and hierarchy that governed life, be they political or religious, have been denied; or, perhaps, if you will, unveiled as being illusorily inadequate at the end of the day/end of days. Most (unsurprisingly) died; others banded together in ruthlessly survivalistic hordes willing both to harvest and kill other humans for food (a new kind of instrumentalization: of the physical body itself). The rest, like the father and son whose story is told here, merely survived. But, significantly, to what end, when the end has been reached? Their survival, we learn, is contingent upon moving along the road, but to nowhere in particular.

“It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.”

While both Pynchon and McCarthy offer insightful critiques of the self-destructive tendencies of contemporary culture, they do so most powerfully in their evaluations of human sociality. It is in these, I argue, that the apocalypse –- whether it has already occurred historically or will have already occurred retroactively in its future realizations (bend your head around that bending of temporality) -– is most powerfully evoked.

Preliminarily, however, it is important to flag what this sociality does not do. Neither author is particularly concerned to demonstrate a hope that relationships or love have the capacity to save us, either from what comes or what has already come. For both, sociality flags a Being-with-others that ultimately supersedes the solitary nature of Being. For Pynchon and McCarthy, to resist instrumentalization, and thus to exist in any meaningful sense, is to transcend/transgress, immanently (which is to say, bodily), those existing powers whose authority extends even to their own self-willed destruction. This, they seem to be saying, is possible only in the midst of the seemingly miraculous bonds and acts of love that occur within and in spite of their instrumentalized debasement.

Examples of this sociality abound in Against the Day, but the most compelling is without a doubt the example of Cyprian Latewood. With time, I suspect he may well become regarded as Pynchon‘s most psychologically rich character ever constructed. (And this despite the fact he doesn‘t become a major part of the novel until around page 500!)

He first takes the stage as a homosexual boy deeply in love with a female classmate, Yashmeen Halfcourt. After his time at university, and upon Yashmeen‘s departure from his life, he becomes a prostitute and a British spy, a dual-role that finds him eventually reunited with Yashmeen and her lover, Reef Traverse. In the course of their truly bizarre adventures, the trio engage in all manner of ménage-a-trios –- their carnal mode, I would contend, of dealing with “a world every day more stultified, which expected salvation in codes and government, ever more willing to settle for suburban narratives and diminished payoffs” (p. 876-77).

Cyprian‘s role in this strike against stultifying normativity, however, is all the more peculiar, in that his place as the submissive/dominated partner (and even sexual “mediator” — i.e., transferring Reef’s ejaculate to Yashmeen by way of his mouth) in their sexual play embodies and more firmly affirms his path to humiliated self-negation. All this is a notable departure from Pynchon‘s presentation of sado-masochist/domination-submission sexual relationships in Gravity’s Rainbow, which there tend toward modeling the totalitarian nature of state power. Here, rather, we find it to be a strike against such power:

Most who met him found it difficult to reconcile [Cyprian’s] appetite for sexual debasement — its specific carnality — with what had to be termed a religious surrender of the self. Then Yashmeen entered the picture, had a look, and understood in a pulsebeat, in the simple elegant turn of a wrist, what she was looking at. (p. 876)

It was more than the usual history of flogging one expected from British schoolboys of all ages. It was almost an indifference to self, in which desire was directed at passing beyond the conditions of the self — at first she thought, as other women on the face of it might, well then it’s only self-hatred isn’t it, perhaps a class thing — but no, that wasn’t it. Cyprian took altogether too much pleasure in what she obliged him to do. “Hate? no — I don’t know what this is,” he protested, peering in dismay at his naked form in the mirror, “except that it’s yours. . . .” (p. 877)

Something similar is occurring, albeit minus the sex of course, in The Road. For here, too, there is a reciprocity of being-with that does not so much denigrate the significance of the individual as make it eminently more complex. If here the father/”the man” only truly lives through his son/”the boy,” a typical enough dialectic, the son lives most fully through his acute awareness of, his ability to touch & be touched by, others -– an awareness that the father does not, and apparently cannot, share.

It may sound at first maudlin, but for Pynchon and McCarthy love is all that ultimately matters in a world gone to hell, and is the only way to resist/transgress self-destruction. Such a love leads to a kind of self-abnegation that does not collapse in on itself -– i.e., in the language of my days as a theologian, a fully incarnate divinity in the form of finite relations and relativity (“He tried to talk to God but the best was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn‘t forget. The woman said that was alright. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time” [The Road, 241].)

This is no simple redemption of the darkness, and thus no promise of a new day that is better than the last one. For, make no mistake, the day that follows the catastrophe, whether it lasts hours or a series of lifetimes, is the last one — until, as ever, there is something else, even the last things rarely last so long. There is not even so much as a messianic recapitulation, which has found considerable appeal in continental philosophical circles of late. The redemption here, rather, is completely, and thus in all of its complexity, of the darkness: the darkness redeemed as darkness by darkness. In this darkness that is finally death is the most honest way to understand life —  is the only honest way to live.

Thus unfolds the fullness of life, which incorporates both the violence and horror of killing and being killed & the joy of loving and being loved, into an alternative schema of subjectivity & survival — a transitioning beyond the concern for the maintenance of the individual self, toward something far more mysterious. Or as McCarthy concludes his novel:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins whimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. (p. 241)

§ 3 Responses to After the Catastrophe

  • Guido Nius says:

    I haven’t read McCarthy and I admit I had to abandon ‘Against The Day’ early because I didn’t want to be taken for another long, long ride.

    But this struck me:

    “He tried to talk to God but the best was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn‘t forget. The woman said that was alright. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time”

    In all of the darkness this is a pretty bright thing to say (if I understand it well outside of the context). It reminds me of something by Faulkner (it’s quoted here: with some personal thoughts on it) in focusing away from an individual’s permanence as individual. A lot of the anxiety (and in fact a lot of mess) is related to people wanting to leave their mark. If the continuity of love, i.e. interpersonal relations, is a natural way of continuity, stuff would be less stressy.

    The focus would move away from forcing changes to relying on the fact that changes will materialize. This is a very optimistic thought, I know, & probably very far from the authors but I think it holds promise if not also some water.

    • Brad Johnson says:

      Guido, both novels, in a way, are strikingly optimistic in a way, non-normative though this way may be. So, yeah, I’d agree with you assessment there.

      Mark, yes. Cyprian is, I think, Pynchon’s richest creation to date. So much more that can be said about him. Entire volumes, I suspect, could & should be written about that character alone. Slothrop has always gotten the lionshare of attention in the Pynchon oeuvre. It may be time for a reappraisal.

  • Mark Kohut says:

    I like it. I think there is een more that you did not choose to get into re Cyprian–you had your key points to make–regarding his carrying of Danilo(?) and his blooming into acceptance…

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