This post was first going to be just a comment on the first (and previously, only) post on this blog, prompted by a column providing a case in point to part of my contention in my post on 9/11 [Dana Milbank, “The Weakest Generation?” in The Washington Post]. Especially as yet another 9/11 anniversary was looming. Then I saw the news that there was a new novel from Thomas Pynchon, The Bleeding Edge, released, not coincidentally, on 9/11. Also just before Banned Books Week (last week) and Pynchon has more than a few connections to banned books. And disaster loomed as the possibility of a job that might have obviated Not My Job reared its ugly head. Fortunately, this fate was averted, and the blog abides. This is a post about all the above.
The Bleeding Edge was released on 9/11/2013 because (according to one review) 9/11 is one of its themes. Which is interesting for me, as it was lines from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow I first thought of when I heard the news on 9/11/2001:
There is a Hand to turn the time,
Though thy Glass today be run,
Till the Light that hath brought the Towers low
Find the last poor Preterite one . . .
Of course, then I thought of its first, much more apt line of the book: “A screaming comes across the sky—” (and why didn’t I think of that line first?) in reference to the V-2 rockets whose arc is referenced in the novel’s title. My first reaction to the idea of a Pynchon novel about 9/11, apart from the rockets and the Towers Brought Low, is that it seems a little redundant, because the narratives of 9/11 already seem Pynchon-esque (minus the jokes). A little truth-being-stranger-than-fiction…
The lines between 9/11 and the lines from Gravity’s Rainbow may seem tenuous to anyone else. But maybe they were just there, in my case, because they’re always there. Because I was haunted by Gravity’s Rainbow for a long time—not in a literary sense. In an actual sense.
Which brings us to Banned Books Week. There’s every reason to think I’m about to talk about Gravity’s Rainbow in this connection, because, as Theodore Kharpertian notes in A Hand To Turn The Time (1997): “Gravity’s Rainbow … has been a source of awe, bewilderment, and disgust to its readers.” There are truly disgusting things in this novel, and this book must have been banned in more than a few places. But it’s a banned book penned by an actual person fictionalized in Gravity’s Rainbow that I’m thinking of. Pynchon draws Gravity’s Rainbow with to its cataclysmic conclusion with the suggestion that readers join in song (above) one “They never taught anyone to sing, a hymn by William Slothrop, centuries forgotten…” The character William Slothrop introduced early on in the novel as the 17th century ancestor of the protagonist of Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop:
He wrote a long tract … called On Preterition. It had to be published in England, and is among the first books to’ve been not only banned but also ceremonially burned in Boston. Nobody wanted to hear about all the Preterite, the many God passes over when he chooses a few for salvation. William argued holiness for these ‘second Sheep,’ without whom there’d be no elect. You can bet the Elect in Boston were pissed off about that. And it got worse. William felt that what Jesus was for the elect, Judas Iscariot was for the Preterite. Everything in the Creation has its equal and opposite counterpart. How can Jesus be an exception? Could we feel for him anything but horror in the face of the unnatural, the extracreational? Well, if he is the son of man, and if what we feel is not horror but love, then we have to love Judas too. Right? How William avoided being burned for heresy, nobody knows.
‘William Slothrop,’ then turns out to be a fictionalized version of the historical 17th century William Pynchon, who did indeed write an heretical book, which was not only ‘banned’ but publicly burned. Under the banner of “Celebrate Banned Books Week,” a web page from the Springfield City Library in Massachusetts proclaims, “Another Springfield First! The first book banned in the New England colonies was written by William Pynchon, founder of Springfield, Massachusetts.” Its actual content (I have yet to read it myself) falls somewhat short of the later Pynchon’s canonization of Judas, but it was enough to provoke a strong reaction from the Puritan orthodoxy. The book was “The Meritorious Price of our Redemption” (1650) and as the Springfield City Library page notes, “It was said at the time that the title page itself was sufficient to prove the heretical nature of the arguments…” Anyone with a passing familiarity with reformation doctrines will recognize that any concession to merit represented a creeping Roman influence. And as a former Congregationalist and Catholic convert, I appreciate that my antecedent had Catholic tendencies as well.
I didn’t learn about Thomas Pynchon’s fictionalized ancestor from the Springfield City Library. (And interestingly, the Springfield City Library’s web page on William Pynchon has no reference to William’s famous descendent!) It was actually as I was reading Gravity’s Rainbow for the first time, when I was about 23, and visiting my grandparents’ house in Riverside, Connecticut to help with organization before the house was sold. We went through various things, most of which were already identified, including a photocopy of a portrait
that had hung on the wall of their living room for years, some (previously) nameless (to me) Puritan ancestor, who I learned was William Pynchon: witch trial judge, founder of Springfield, and author of an heretical book. It seemed incredibly obvious, however unlikely, that Pynchon had fictionalized our apparently mutual ancestor.
Finding oneself, so to speak, in the story, is unusual enough. To be found (or lost?) in this novel, however, had a unique set of considerations. Because it was not, after all, a mindless pleasure, and maybe the opposite, something like the rocket, aimed at the reader, with explosive intent. In a novel with historical paranoia as a major theme, the discovery of oneself in the novel, is disconcerting, just as it was for Constant Slothrop:
On the old schist of a tombstone in the Congregational churchyard back Home in Mingeborough, Massachusetts, the hand of God emerges from a cloud, the edges of the figure here and there eroded by 200 years of seasons’ fire and ice chisels at work, and the inscription reading:
In Memory of Conftant Slothrop, who died March ye 4th 1766, in ye 29th year of his age.
Death is a debt to nature due, Which I have paid, and fo muft you.
Constant saw, and not only with his heart, that stone hand pointing out of the secular clouds, pointing directly at him…