Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

In my contemporary literature class yesterday, the one with the newfangled classroom, I discussed two different interpretations of Oedipa's adventure in The Crying of Lot 49. On the one hand, you could argue that she never makes it out that tower -- or at least the metaphor of a tower -- because her experiences don't bring her to any final resolution, that her travels around California in pursuit of information about the Tristero conspiracy are ultimately like the trip she takes to Mexico. "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. "

On the other hand, you could claim, as I did in class, that, while she never arrives at any final resolution, her resolve to take up the search confers a freedom on her that she would otherwise never have tasted. In the end, of course, these two interpretations get slotted into the undecidable binary opposition on which the search for certainty invariably founders:
She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth... Ones and zeroes. So did the couples arrange themselves... Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.
But perhaps the problem lies precisely in a willingness to discount means in pursuit of ends, to exclude middles by holding on to the shimmering mirage of a goal with nothing beyond it, to believe, finally, that it is possible to deploy the phrase "in the end" without telling a lie.

At the end of class I mentioned Pynchon's 1990 novel Vineland, noting that it was in some sense a sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. I didn't have time to explain how the former functions as a critique of the desire for absolutes, a puritanical investment in purity. But I did cite the passage where, at that mafia wedding down on the Peninsula -- somewhere in the vicinity of Saratoga and Atherton -- a reference is made to Deleuze and Guattari's Italian Wedding Fake Book. This was a pretext for reading the famous quotation in Deleuze and Guattari's The Anti-Oedipus where the impulse to seek beginnings and ends is dismissed as an outmoded approach to everyday life:
We live today in the age of partial objects, bricks that have been shattered to bits, and leftovers. We no longer believe in the myth of the existence of fragments that, like pieces of antique statue, are merely waiting for the last one to be turned up, so that they may all be glued back together to create a unity that is precisely the same as the original unity. We no longer believe in a primordial totality that once existed, or in a final totality that awaits us at some future date.
This passage does a great job of explaining why the choice between those two interpretations of Oedipa's adventures derives from all-or-nothing thinking that is its own kind of prison. Not to mention that the image of fragments that can't be glued back together resonates nicely with Walter Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama and highlights of German Romanticism too.

This morning, as I was sitting down to type out Skylar's spelling words for the week, I glanced over at the cookbook holder I'd left on the table with The Anti-Oedipus inside it and found an early passage that matches up ever so nicely with The Crying of Lot 49, suggesting that Pynchon was engaged in the same second-guessing of psychoanalysis that preoccupies Deleuze and Guattari: "A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch." While Oedipa does manage to break free of Dr. Hilarius's couch, she is never able to appreciate her adventures as a means without end. Unless Pynchon one day makes an explicit statement on the matter, it will be impossible to know for certain whether his reference to Deleuze and Guattari in Vineland is meant to function as an endorsement of their philosophical project. Yet, given the fact that the title of their first collaborative venture overlaps with the name of Pynchon's protagonist, it makes sense to presume that the name-checking is both informed and sympathetic. And then there's the intriguing possibility that The Anti-Oedipus might have been composed with the character of Oedipa in mind.
Tags: commonplace book, literature, theory

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