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Some Comfort Passages Are Plush With Irony - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
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.

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Mode: mettle-sheathed
Muse: Boys Peel Out - Mercury Rev - Boces

15 comments or Leave a comment
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: January 24th, 2006 01:12 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I fucking love that passage. Love that final chain of ors, the whole long sentence leading to. Really I just love that book. But you know that. I could say so much more.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 25th, 2006 02:47 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
His chains of ors are chains d'or.
From: bobo_amargo Date: January 24th, 2006 01:46 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Federico Philatelic

I think of Fellini's _Giulietta degli spiriti_ (I use the Italian spelling to remind us that the protagonist has the same name as Fellini's wife, who, not incidentally, plays her). And then _Nights of Cabiria_ before it.

I think of these, though, only because you made the connection for me. Grazie!
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 25th, 2006 02:54 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Federico Philatelic

I was thinking of those two. Maybe we can arrange a dispersed viewing sometime!
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 25th, 2006 11:03 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

(Movie-)Going Diasporic

Now that the proposal is out there, I'm definitely about due for another viewing of both of these Massina classics. And, though I'm slightly ashamed to admit it, I've just become a member of Netflix, which'll make it easy -- or easier -- to snag 'em. (My shame consists in the thought that I've been getting my videos and DVDs from two small, locally owned shops in SF for fifteen years. After moving to a fairly remote spot in SOMA and carless, I find it pretty difficult to get to either of them.)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 26th, 2006 01:00 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: (Movie-)Going Diasporic

Let's do it!
hollsterhambone From: hollsterhambone Date: January 24th, 2006 02:48 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I participated in class for the first time in a significant way after reading The Crying of Lot 49. I don't know what it was about that book, even still, that prompted me to join in the discussion, but I ended up being really invested and actually saying things that even I, afterwards, couldn't sabotage myself for saying. It's always going to be an important book for me.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 25th, 2006 02:55 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
A lot of people feel that way, I think. I know I do. But there are a lot who can't abide it in the least as well. It's one of those all-or-nothing texts.
From: cut_dead Date: January 24th, 2006 03:14 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
It's been a couple of years since I've read The Crying of Lot 49, and I've really been taken by how wonderfully layered the narrative is, and the things left unsaid.

While not necessary to be drawn in by the passage, having a visual of the painting being described strengthens the appreciation of what is written.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 25th, 2006 02:56 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I agree about the visual helping. I taught them in tandem today, word and image. It didn't work quite the way I wanted, but was still productive. Layering -- or perhaps nesting -- is one of the things we'll be talking about.
katieengl From: katieengl Date: January 25th, 2006 12:38 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)


I had something to say about this whole thing today, but as it didnt sound particularly witty or relavent i didnt. Thats the trouble with being me: you can never pin down what youre thinking to the point that you can say anything relavent.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 25th, 2006 01:03 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: hmmm

Now, now. You have many good things to say. With conviction and feeling too!
frostedfuckhead From: frostedfuckhead Date: January 25th, 2006 04:35 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
damn. that passage is fucking great. i've never read the book... guess i should get on that at some point.

i particularly enjoyed reading it within the context of gender roles and (as always for me) unconscious archetypal expressions.
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 31st, 2006 07:31 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Broken Bugles

It occurs to me that the closest cinematic equivalent in my opinion to Pynchon's novel is the recent "Broken Flowers" by Jim Jarmusch. From the characters' laughably obvious literary names (Don John, Lolita, Winston, and so on) to the superabundance of the signifying color (pink in this case) to the curious domestic detective work, the film journeys on a similar path as the novel. Besides, I like to think of Oedipa and Bill Murray as somewhat romantically compatible. And if the wonderful depiction of California is absent in the film, it is only missing literally.

Then again, the basic plot of "Crying" gets replayed over and over again in contemporary narratives--maybe that is why the novel resonates with so many--because it is about resonating.

If you haven't seen "Broken Flowers," give it a try as a companion piece.

James L.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 31st, 2006 08:07 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Broken Bugles

That makes a lot of sense. Sharp thinking! I didn't like Broken Flowers as much as many did, but loved certain parts. I thought it went downhill in the last third.

Also, as far as the Pynchon comparison goes, the fact that Oedipa is described as possibly pregnant with meaning makes a nice parallel to the paternity narrative.

Thanks for writing!
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