Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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Some Comfort Passages Are Plush With Irony

Tomorrow I start teaching Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 for the first time since 2000. Reading it over again has made me very happy. It's great to return to something you love and see it from a new perspective. After yesterday's "performance art" photo shoot -- I posted one shot and Kim a number of others -- whose results I decided to title "Prisoner of the Domestic," this passage from early in the novel -- or novella, if you abide by the Falkentheorie -- acquired new force, tying together various conversations she and I have been having about patriarchy, gender stereotypes, and the attempt to illuminate them through art:
As things developed, she was to have all manner of revelations. Hardly about Pierce Inverarity, or herself; but about what remained yet had somehow, before this, stayed away. There had hung the sense of buffering, insulation, she had noticed the absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, just perceptibly out of focus, that the projectionist refused to fix. And she had also gently conned herself into the curious, Rapunzel-like role of a pensive girl somehow, magically, prisoner among the pines and salt fogs of Kinneret, looking for somebody to say hey, let down your hair. When it turned out to be Pierce she'd happily pulled out the pins and curlers and down it tumbled in its whispering, dainty avalanche, only when Pierce had got maybe halfway up, her lovely hair turned, through some sinister sorcery, into a great unanchored wig, and down he fell, on his ass. But dauntless, perhaps using one of his many credit cards for a shim, he'd slipped the lock on her tower door and come up the conchlike stairs, which, had true guile come more naturally to him, he'd have done to begin with. But all that had then gone on between them had really never escaped the confinement of that tower. In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central painting of a triptych were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world.

Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she'd wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there'd been no escape. What did she so desire to escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?
You learn a lot typing in passages. That's why good creative writing teachers make their students do the work even today, when digital culture makes the activity seem a little like driving an Amish buggy to the supermarket. I had all sorts of thoughts while engaged in the process. First, I decided that this passage can be read as a pithy critique of narratives like Pretty Woman. Then I noted Nabokov's influence, wondering if Pynchon actually had a class with him at Cornell or not and resolving to do a fact-check later. Then I started thinking about the Italian Neo-Realist films that have been interesting me lately, many of which feature a female protagonist even though their creators were hyperbolically male. I particularly want to watch or rewatch those that have a current or former prostitute as their main character. Does that subject matter merely indicate the transposition of operatic narratives to cinema? Or is something else going on when directors like Fellini center on that sort of character? Then I remembered seeing a Criterion edition of a mid-60s Suzuki film with a similar storyline at Borders the other day and decided it would be better to do a cross-cultural comparison. Finally, I came back to a comment I made earlier today in which I suggested that Antonioni's Red Desert, whose protagonist is trapped by the domestic much like Pynchon's Oedipa Maas is before she transforms into a detective, should be regarded as a companion piece to his Blow-Up, itself the closest cinematic equivalent to The Crying of Lot 49 that I can come up with. Had I not sat down to type in this passage I adore, I wouldn't have had all of those thoughts in sequence and I certainly wouldn't have recorded them in this manner. To be sure, what I began as an expression of mute admiration -- I do so love Pynchon's prose here -- has morphed into something with a more complex emotional character. Reflection has a way of discovering the sour aftertaste in everything sweet. But I'd rather have that kind of pleasure then the simple sort any day.
Tags: commonplace book, film, gender, literature
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  • AdSenseless

    One of the strangest things for me about starting up Souciant is that the site was designed for running ads. In all the years that I was involved…

  • For Those Who Care a Lot

    One of the things I was doing during the time I was mostly absent from Live Journal was trying to get a new publication off the ground. I kept…

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