SIMON DE BOURCIER
Thomas Pynchon frames the sexual abuse of children in Gravity’s Rainbow, Against the Day, and Bleeding Edge in terms of the desirability, exploitation, and commodification of innocence. In Gravity’s Rainbow Shirley Temple, who achieved fame as a child star in the 1930s and thus belongs to the cultural milieu of the novel’s setting, is invoked as the personification of innocence as a desirable commodity. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day children are depicted as precociously sexual and seductive. To critically frame such depictions it is necessary to look at the social and cultural context of the novels’ production. In this essay I draw on Judith Herman’s account of three distinct “discoveries” of child sexual abuse in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and from there move to the cultural representation of such abuse in postwar U.S. culture, paying particular attention to Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita. Seeing Pynchon’s writing against the background of the contested representation of adult-child sexual activity in European and North American culture—repeated attempts to expose the reality of survivors’ experiences of abuse versus efforts to suppress or normalize those experiences—enables us to understand why Gravity Rainbow’s representations of sexually abused children struggle to break out of a limited vocabulary consisting of, on the one hand, the spectacle of desirable innocence personified by Shirley Temple, and on the other, the projection of adult male desire in the figure of the seductive daughter, exemplified by Nabokov’s Lolita.
Censorship was an important factor in the construction of Temple as an image of eroticized innocence, and I further argue here that episodes of child abuse and incest in Pynchon’s fiction often depict sexual desire displaced as if in response to censorship.
Finally, I show that in his later fiction Pynchon adopts a new strategy for the representation of child sexual abuse that moves beyond these two images of girlhood defined by male desire. I argue that the story of the time-traveling Trespassers who menace the Chums of Chance in Against the Day is a coded representation of the sexual abuse of children by adults, a reading strengthened by understanding that the time-travel plot in Bleeding Edge is a return to the same story from a different perspective. This new strategy focuses more on the experience of the abused child than on the desires of the abuser, but in presenting the experience of abused boys rather than girls it still fails to break out of the male point of view.
Bianca and Shirley Temple
Childlike innocence is highly prized in Gravity’s Rainbow, and often linked to sexual desire. Jessica Swanlake “looks only 9 or 10” to Roger Mexico as they make love, her face as she orgasms like that of a child about to cry (122). She, in turn, loves “the back of his bumpy head like a boy of ten’s” (123). They both incite people’s protectiveness because they “look so innocent” (121). Tantivy Mucker-Maffick’s French girlfriend Ghislaine has a “six-year-old face” when she smiles (194); when Geli Tripping smiles at Slothrop “four-year-old happy and not holding a thing back” he decides he can trust her (294).
Zofia Kolbuszewska’s analysis of the way children are used in Gravity’s Rainbow turns out to be, primarily, a study of the uses of innocence. She cites Philippe Ariès’s argument that “the child’s helplessness and fragility, construed as purity, have become an essential part of the modern notion of innocence” (112). For Kolbuszewska, it is innocence consisting of “weakness and purity” that is so erotically arousing for Ned Pointsman (112). The key passage she cites is this: “How Pointsman lusts after them, pretty children. Those drab undershorts of his are full to bursting with need humorlessly, worldly to use their innocence, to write on them new words of himself, his own brown Real-politik dreams, some psychic prostate ever in aching love promised ah hinted but till now … how seductively they lie ranked in their iron bedsteads, their virginal sheets, the darlings so artlessly erotic….” (50).
As Kolbuszewska acknowledges, this passage refers to men Pointsman wishes to use as experimental subjects, who are only metaphorically children (119). One might add that his desire to make use of them is only metaphorically sexual. However, in a novel premised on the literalization of the metaphorical connection between rocket and penis, it is not surprising that Pynchon’s narrative modulates seamlessly into a description of Pointsman’s literal pedophilia: he attempts to pick up children at a bus station, occasionally succeeding in taking one back to his “spermy bed” (51). The narrative emphasizes the smallness of the children’s bodies, mentioning their “little heels” (50). Pointsman’s literal pedophilia is the source of the metaphor that the narrator employs to describe his desire to exploit Spectro’s patients. Moreover, the passage quoted is partly a representation of Pointsman’s own perceptions of the men: “pretty children” and “darlings” are his terms, rendered in free indirect discourse. His sexual desires for children provide the language in which he thinks about the men he wishes to experiment on; conversely, his scientific ambitions provide a channel for his pedophilic desires.
The most frankly sexualized child in Gravity’s Rainbow is Margherita’s daughter, Bianca.1 On board the riverboat Anubis, the protagonist Slothrop first sees Bianca when Margherita, playing the role of “stage mother” (465), prompts her to perform a musical number for the boat’s passengers. Slothrop is expecting—or hoping for—“something sophisticated, bigcity, and wicked” (465), but what Bianca sings is “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” performed “in perfect mimickry of young Shirley Temple” (466). This is not Gravity’s Rainbow’s first reference to Temple. Early in the novel Slothrop receives a “Shirley Temple smile” (24) from a child rescued from a rocket strike: a little girl’s open-hearted beam reminds childless Slothrop of Temple’s cinematic caricature of childhood. Subsequent references grow progressively less innocent: Slothrop has a drink called a Shirley Temple at Raoul de la Perlimpinpin’s party (246), and garlands of “aluminum shavings as curly-bouncy ’n’ bright as Shirley Temple’s head” are draped onto him as prelude to the “fabulous orgy” that he (presumably) daydreams in the Mittelwerke (304).
As Bianca sings, it appears to Slothrop that “her delicate bare arms have begun to grow fatter, her frock shorter,” but despite the “billowings of asexual child-fat” he perceives that her eyes “remain as they were, mocking, dark, her own….” (466). This physical metamorphosis lends the episode the quality of nightmare or hallucination. Slothrop feels himself drawn into a scenario in which he feels sexual desire for not just a very young child but the mawkish caricature of childhood presented in Temple’s films. More disturbing for the reader, however, is the fact that the reason the transformed Bianca still excites his desire is that, in Slothrop’s view, Bianca’s “own” gaze is knowing and consciously sexual, even though she is a child.
The Shirley Temple routine does turn out to be part of a “wicked” performance in keeping with the orgiastic atmosphere aboard the Anubis: Margherita tells Bianca to follow up “On the Good Ship Lollipop” with “Animal Crackers in My Soup”; Bianca refuses, and the obviously staged row that ensues—“It’s an act” (466)—culminates in Margherita physically chastizing her daughter with a steel ruler, provoking renewed sexual activity among the adult onlookers. The point of view remains Slothrop’s throughout: there is no space for Bianca’s consciousness in the description of her “[b]eautiful little-girl buttocks,” the “tender crevice,” the “erotic and audible” squeak of her stockings rubbing together(466) . Pynchon’s parody of the erotic invites more complicity than critique.
According to Ara Osterweil,
In the seventy years since Shirley Temple was America’s sweetheart, the fundamentally pedophilic appeal of her star persona has become increasingly apparent. […] Temple’s body was […] constructed as an intensely erotic spectacle […]. In an era of motion picture history that explicitly forbade the on-screen representation of adult sexuality, the adorable toddler supplanted Mae West as the largest box office draw in the nation. Whereas West’s excessive, undisciplined body had been the bane of censors and was one of the motivating factors of the [Motion Picture] Production Code, the erotic appeal of the body of the child star was inextricable from its supposed innocence. (1)
In Osterweil’s reading, Temple’s childhood innocence is exploited for erotic and commercial purposes by the film industry: “It is clear that Temple’s innocence—and those signature shots of her underpants—were crucial to her erotic appeal” (2). In this Osterweil follows Graham Greene, who was sued by Temple’s parents and 20th Century Fox for his “ribald reviews […] insinuating that the studio had procured Temple for ‘immoral purposes’” (5). Moreover, although the presentation of her image in films served the function of circumventing censorship, appearing as a substitute for the highly eroticized images of adult actresses in pre-Code cinema, the substitution ends up pandering to and gratifying far more troubling desires: “In her own infantile way, Temple was no less irresistible to men than West had been. This displacement of adult sexuality onto the body of a child involved an industrywide fetishization in which Temple’s infantile sexuality was both deliberately manufactured and scrupulously preserved” (2).
The metamorphosis of Bianca into Shirley Temple is part of Gravity’s Rainbow’s wider treatment of innocence as erotic commodity. The dreamlike substitution is ambiguous: on the one hand, it can be read as a scathing critique of the culture of which Temple’s films are a product; on the other, it can be seen as legitimizing Slothrop’s desire for Bianca, whose normal appearance and persona are contrasted with her grotesque appearance as a simulacrum of Temple.
Pynchon’s “Sexy Little Girls” and the “Seductive Daughter” in Postwar U.S. Culture
In his 1976 account of reading Gravity’s Rainbow, David Leverenz confesses to having “idled over the sexy little girls” (229). Few twenty-first-century critics would countenance the phrase “sexy little girls,” let alone hint at deriving personal erotic pleasure from reading about them. What has changed? In the 1970s, new discourses, communities, and identities were forged by the survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Roger Luckhurst draws attention to “the extraordinary achievement of second-wave feminism in forcing the acknowledgement of incest and familial sexual abuse, in the face of professional and general cultural denial” (74). For an insight into both the feminist rewriting of the discourse of sexual abuse and the culture of 1970s America from which it emerged—and which, I suggest, is the context in which we must understand both Leverenz’s remark and Gravity’s Rainbow itself—I turn to Judith Herman’s 1981 study Father-Daughter Incest, written with Lisa Hirschman. Herman approaches the subject from an avowedly feminist perspective, arguing that the “growing awareness” of sexual abuse within families “is largely a result of the women’s liberation movement” (vii).
Herman documents two previous discoveries of widespread sexual abuse within families. In 1896 Sigmund Freud “announced that he had solved the mystery of the female neurosis. At the origin of every case of hysteria, Freud asserted, was a childhood sexual trauma” (9). All his women patients disclosed sexual abuse in childhood, usually committed by their fathers, and this, Freud believed, was the cause of their hysteria. This came to be known as the “seduction theory.” However, Freud “remained so distressed by his seduction theory that within a year he repudiated it entirely” (10). Instead, he formulated the alternative theory of the ubiquity of childhood sexual fantasy about parents, which became the cornerstone of psychoanalysis as we know it.
After the Second World War, Herman explains, incest was “discovered” again by sociologists like Alfred Kinsey (11–12), but the discovery had little impact on public awareness. Kinsey “did as much as he could to minimise its importance” (16). However, the sexual abuse of girls within families was “rediscovered for a third time in the 1970s by the women’s liberation movement,” and “this time, the information could not be suppressed once it was uncovered, for it began to reach the awareness of those who stood in the greatest need of knowledge, namely, the victims themselves” (18).
Herman’s study focuses on the abuse of girls by fathers or other men in a paternal role, but the key characteristics she emphasizes apply to all forms of child sexual abuse. First, “incest is a crime, one for which the adult is fully responsible” (4): “the final choice in the matter of sexual relations between adults and children rests with the adult” (27). Second, “it is always, inevitably, destructive to the child” (4). Long-term effects include guilt, shame, depression, and low self-esteem (30–31). Such “residual psychological damage can be observed lasting into adult life” (31).
Herman cites a range of texts that, despite these facts, promote the idea of the seductive daughter, that is, which place the responsibility for father-daughter incest on the daughter rather than the father, ranging from “professional clinical literature” to men’s magazines (38–39). It is in this context that she introduces Lolita, the 1955 novel about a sexual relationship between a man and his pubescent stepdaughter, into her discussion: “Vladimir Nabokov’s immensely successful novel has been understood on many levels, but on perhaps the simplest level, Lolita is a brilliant apologia for an incestuous father. Humbert Humbert is charming, intelligent, and maddeningly witty in defence of his passion. Since he has expiated his sin by transforming it into art, the reader is permitted to enjoy it, indeed, to revel in it, as he does. And this in no small measure may account for the novel’s enormous popular appeal” (37). Herman concedes that this is the “simplest level” on which Lolita can be read, and it will become clear that her reading does the novel a disservice. Nevertheless, the passage she cites undeniably portrays a consciousness that perceives the victim of abuse as a knowing seductress: “Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! I had thought that months, perhaps years, would elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me” (Nabokov 149–50; qtd. in Herman 36). Herman highlights the similarities between this passage and a pornographic story published in Chic magazine in 1978 in which the first-person narrator describes a sexual encounter with, and initiated by, his thirteen-year-old daughter (38).
Pynchon’s depiction of Bianca fits the pattern of these narratives of the seductive daughter. When Slothrop first sees Bianca, whose mother is already his lover, he desires her sexually, despite her age:
He gets a glimpse of Margherita and her daughter, but there is a density of orgy-goers around them that keeps him at a distance. He knows he’s vulnerable, more than he should be, to pretty little girls, so he reckons it’s just as well, because that Bianca’s a knockout, all right: 11 or 12, dark and lovely, wearing a red chiffon gown, silk stockings and high-heeled slippers, her hair swept up elaborate and flawless and interwoven with a string of pearls to show pendant earrings of crystal twinkling from her tiny lobes … help, help. Why do these things have to keep coming down on him? He can see the obit now in Time magazine—Died, Rocketman, pushing 30, in the Zone, of lust. (463)
Bianca is a pubescent girl, but in this passage, focalized through Slothrop, he in danger from her, not the other way around. The minimal acknowledgment that his desire for her is wrong—“more than he should be”—is subsumed within a narrative in which he, not she, is “vulnerable” and must cry for “help.” Just as Humbert insists that it is Lolita who seduces him, Pynchon presents us with an abuser’s abnegation of responsibility and attempt to blame the victim.
Both Leverenz’s remark about “sexy little girls” and the writing that occasioned it, such as Pynchon’s graphic account of the sexual encounter between Slothrop and Bianca, can be understood, then, as representative of the wider, and deeply problematic, cultural trend in late twentieth-century America that Herman documents.
As Herman’s critique makes clear, the publication and reception of Nabokov’s Lolita are important events in the history of the cultural understanding of child abuse in postwar America. In this section I describe in more detail two ways in which Pynchon’s writing about sexualized children evokes Lolita, using examples from V., Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day. First, I show that Pynchon narrates sexual encounters between men and young girls primarily from the male point of view, conjuring up images of seductive and desirable children. Second, I discuss ways in which these episodes take up motifs pertaining to hell, damnation, and the demonic that run through Nabokov’s novel.
John Dugdale reads V.’s account of the relationship between the “nympholeptic novelist” Porcepic and Mélanie L’Heuremaudit as, primarily, an allusive nod to Nabokov, “Pynchon’s former teacher at Cornell” (96). Dugdale’s argument and—if he is correct—Pynchon’s allusion both depend on an implicit conflation of Nabokov with Humbert. Dugdale’s argument that the Tristero in The Crying of Lot 49 represents a “literary tradition of unpublishable desires […] from incest in Ford […] to nympholepsy in Nabokov” (181) similarly assumes that Lolita is a book about Humbert’s “desires” rather than his stepdaughter’s experience of abuse.
Humbert admits that Lolita—the imaginary object of those desires—is his “own creation,” having “no will, no consciousness—indeed, no life of her own” (Nabokov 68). As Jessica Lawson points out, the victims of Pointsman’s predatory sexual behavior in Gravity’s Rainbow are similarly drained of subjectivity, “blank entities”: “The only access that either the reader or Pointsman have to the sexual object is mediated, always passing first through the filtering circuit of how it affects Pointsman” (242–43). Pynchon is perhaps, like Nabokov, expertly depicting a pedophile’s failure to grant personhood to his victim. However, as Joanna Freer observes, many of the women in Gravity’s Rainbow are also presented as “voiceless objects of male desire” (140). There might seem to be a contradiction between this characterization of the victims of abuse as deprived of subjectivity and, on the other hand, the figure of the seductive daughter, who is represented as possessing agency and responsibility. The point, however, is that her agency and responsibility are phantasmal, fictions in the service of male desire, and the projection of these fictions onto a child is the mechanism by which she is stripped of authentic subjectivity and agency.
Some readers assume that Nabokov—like Humbert—denies Dolores Haze any “life of her own.” Ellen Pifer contends that both those early readers of the novel who argued that “the novel’s design encourages readers to sympathize with the protagonist and artist-figure, Humbert Humbert, to the detriment of the child” as well as more recent critics who claim that “Nabokov’s art encourages the reader’s participation in Humbert’s sexual exploitation of a little girl in order to disguise the author’s own complicity” fail to appreciate “the ways in which Nabokov deploys the devices of artifice to break the reader’s identification with Lolita’s narrator” (186). Humbert is, she maintains, the “most unreliable of narrators,” but the narrative is “designed to reveal what the narrator attempts to conceal, or blindly ignores” (187, emphasis in the original). Specifically, in “Lolita’s first person narrator Nabokov created a character whose voice and vision prove sufficiently complex to reflect, within the frame of the fiction, the identity of the child eclipsed by his desire” (195). Especially significant in the present context is Pifer’s argument that Humbert’s “efforts to attribute his actions to the ‘demonic’ power of the nymphet grow increasingly lame”; in fact, “it is Humbert’s obsessed imagination that is demonic, transforming the helpless child into a figment of his fantasy” (194, 191).
Humbert describes himself as being in “a paradise whose skies [are] the color of hell-flames” (188). This image is richly ambiguous: is Humbert in a blissful place that has only the appearance (“color”) of hell? Does the hellish hue of the “skies” indicate a damnation that is about to fall upon him? Is it Lolita who is in hell? Perhaps the most important implication is that Lolita is, in Humbert’s mind at least, a Fall narrative in which Lolita figures as temptress.
Pynchon, picking up this motif, repeatedly sets episodes of sexualized childhood in locations associated with hell or the underworld. The “Lollipop Lounge” in Against the Day, a “child bordello” where the services of “pre-pubescent houris” are offered to Darby Suckling and Chick Counterfly (398–400), is originally located by the narrator in the Tenderloin district of Manhattan, but a song sung by Angela Grace, a “plump and energetic chanteuse of some ten summers” (399), places it more specifically in “Hell’s Kitchen” (400). The term “houris” likens the child prostitutes to the companions promised to Muslims in the afterlife. When the two Chums leave the bordello accompanied by Angela Grace and her pimp Plug Loafsley, they pass through an arch bearing a quotation from Dante’s Inferno: “I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY” (401). This episode differs from others discussed in this essay because the Chums themselves are not adults. Neither are they exactly children; they are rather of a strange indeterminate age reflecting their status as storybook characters. The Lollipop Lounge episode is in part a parody of films such as Glad Rags to Riches and Kid in Hollywood produced by Jack Hays in the 1930s under the title “Baby Burlesks” in which all-child casts (including a three-year-old Temple) act out adult scenarios parodying Hollywood movies. The name “Lollipop Lounge” alludes to the song “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” made famous by Temple and featured—as I have noted—in the Slothrop/Bianca episode in Gravity’s Rainbow.2 Pynchon perhaps has the 1976 film Bugsy Malone, in which child actors play Prohibition-era gangsters and showgirls, in his sights too. The queasiness created by a young girl playing a highly sexualized adult role such as a nightclub singer (whether Temple in Glad Rags to Riches or Jodie Foster in Bugsy Malone) may be partly mitigated by the fact that the male roles are played by boys of the same age, but not completely. The young actors are still presented to the gaze of adult male viewers in a way that has come to seem less acceptable since the third and decisive “discovery” of sexual abuse described by Herman.
An episode of sexualized childhood in Mason & Dixon also follows the Nabokovian template of seductive daughter and infernal setting. Charles Mason finds himself billeted in the Vroom household, where the lady of the house encourages her daughters to work Mason into a state of sexual excitement so that he will impregnate her slave Austra (65). As part of this intrigue twelve-year-old Els Vroom, who “began long ago the active Pursuit of Lads twice her age” (62), contrives to “reposition her nether Orbs upon Mason’s Lap, to his involuntary, tho’ growing Interest” (64). The agency here is represented as lying entirely with the seductive child rather than the adult male. Mason regards the Cape, where this episode occurs, as “one of the colonies of Hell” (71).
In Gravity’s Rainbow Slothrop has sex with Bianca aboard the Anubis, a boat named after the Egyptian god of the underworld. In Lolita, the question implicitly posed is, is the desiring male engineering his own damnation, or is he inflicting hell on his victim? A close reading of Gravity’s Rainbow shows that while it is Bianca who is trapped in the underworld, the text is ultimately more interested in Slothrop’s fate. When they have sex, the initiative comes from her, but the narrative point of view remains his, and his point of view may be as unreliable as Humbert’s. The tone of the passage is more appropriate to erotica than to testimony about traumatic abuse. It focuses on Slothrop’s sensory impressions: “She smells like soap, flowers, sweat, cunt” (469). There are frequent reminders of her age and size: she is “little Bianca,” a “little girl”; she has “baby rodent hands,” “little feet,” and “pre-subdeb breasts”; her face is “round with baby-fat” (469). The interweaving of this emphasis on Bianca’s immaturity, in particular the repeated word “little,” with a pornographically explicit narrative in which agency is consistently attributed to Bianca rather than to Slothrop—“the little girl takes the head of Slothrop’s cock into her rouged mouth” (469)—makes for uncomfortable reading. The trouble is that Pynchon aims no further than drawing the reader into complicity with Slothrop’s desires. The underworld motif gestures toward a Nabokovian complexity in which the “identity of the child” is visible through the desiring male’s “demonic” imagination (to borrow Pifer’s terms), but in practice any attempt to venture beyond Slothrop’s point of view is half-hearted if not absent. The brief paragraph that describes Bianca’s feelings as Slothrop leaves her, rather than conveying any sense of personhood, layers on tropes that erase her individuality: her feelings are the same as her mother’s, her dreams resemble film, and she is likened, bafflingly, to an abandoned monastery. There is a fleeting reference to an unnamed trauma in her past, but this inconsequential foray into her mind dovetails quickly into Slothrop’s own recollections of leaving behind another girl, back in the United States (471). Indeed, it is for leaving Bianca that, the narrator informs us, Slothrop is “to be counted, after all, among the Zone’s lost” (470) rather than for having sex with a girl of only eleven or twelve. Indeed, despite the text affirming that Slothrop is “lost,” it is Bianca’s voice that is lost in Gravity’s Rainbow. It is she, and not Slothrop, who has “no will, no consciousness—indeed, no life of her own.”
Not only is Slothrop “lost,” but his penis is “unflowering,” like the “barren” staff of the pope in the Tannhäuser legend (470). The sexual act between the adult Slothrop and the child Bianca is problematic, it is implied, less for any emotional or psychological damage it might inflict on her than because it incurs the “hostility” which, as Catharine R. Stimpson notes, Pynchon exhibits towards sexual behaviors (such as homosexuality and cross-dressing) that “sever libido from conception” and are “barren in terms of the future of the race” (80). Slothrop’s behavior toward Bianca does not exemplify “[h]ealthy male sexuality” primarily because it does not “promise fertility” (80).
The episode in which Franz Pökler’s incestuous desires for his daughter are revealed in a fantasy in which she plays the role of the seductive daughter, instigating “hours of amazing incest” (420–21), is focalized through the adult male point of view even more consistently than the encounter between Slothrop and Bianca. Pökler suspects that it is not really his daughter who is being brought to visit him, but a succession of girls impersonating her. If “Ilse” (421) is not his daughter, then his desire for her does not violate the taboo against “real incest” (418). When she climbs into his bed, Ilse addresses Pökler as “Papi” (420): Pynchon sets up an echo between their relationship and the “surrogate daughter/father relationship” (Stimpson 87) of Paola and Pappy Hod in V., which, according to Stimpson, delivers “the mysterious plenitude of sex” but “avoids incest” (87).
In considering the substitution of Ilse for Pökler’s “lost” and “forgotten” wife Leni (418), Osterweil’s reading of Temple is again relevant. She writes that “by continuously featuring her as the child ‘love interest’ or de facto ‘wife’ of a perennially single or widowed adult male, Fox (and later Paramount) constructed Temple as a significantly less problematic romantic partner than her adult female counterparts. Shunning the ‘predatory’ desire of adult women in favor of the devoted adulation of this perennial Daddy’s girl, the manufacture of pedophilic desire disavowed the perceived threat of mature female sexuality” (2). An example of this positioning of Temple as “love interest” for an adult male is found in the 1935 film Curly Top. Edwin Morgan, played by John Boles, is so charmed by Elizabeth, an orphan played by Temple, that he courts and marries her sister Mary in order to bring the child into his home. Throughout the film Temple’s character speaks about Morgan marrying “us” (meaning her and her sister). The conventions of romantic drama are arranged around Morgan and Elizabeth rather than Morgan and Mary. This confusion of familial and romantic roles means that the desires encoded in the film are not only pedophilic but also, more specifically, incestuous.
Pökler imagines a sexual relationship with a young girl who may or may not be his daughter after the breakdown of his relationship with his wife; Slothrop has sex with Bianca after becoming her mother’s lover, just as Nabokov’s Humbert embarks on a sexual relationship with Lolita after marrying her mother. Pynchon’s fiction is full of sexual relationships and desires mapped onto familial relationships, either literally or figuratively: in Against the Day, Chick Counterfly’s stepmother Treacle is “unusually attentive” (1034), Yashmeen Halfcourt insists to herself, in the paternal embrace of her lover Reef, “I am not his child” (962), and Scarsdale Vibe looks at Kit Traverse in a way that is not “fatherly or even foster-fatherly” but full of “desire” (158).
All these relationships participate in an economy of censorship and displacement. Both literal censorship (as in the case of the Motion Picture Production Code that helped create the Shirley Temple phenomenon) and repression in the Freudian sense are circumvented by substituting alternative figures for either the desiring subject or the object of desire or both. Freud himself writes that “the phenomena of censorship and dream-distortion,” that is, the way in which forbidden desires are disguised in dreams, “correspond down to their smallest details” (225). Ilse’s supposed substitution by an imposter who is not really his daughter mitigates, in Pökler’s mind, the wrongness of his desire, but from a child’s point of view such a confusion of roles exacerbates the harm caused by abuse. It is Humbert’s attempt to occupy both the role of father and the role forbidden to a father—that of a lover—that is so toxic for Lolita. As Osterweil shows, a substitution intended to circumvent one form of censorship can open a channel for another, far more dangerous, set of desires to be expressed.
Incest and Innocence in Against the Day
The confusion of familial and sexual roles is the defining characteristic of the relationship between Yashmeen Halfcourt and her adoptive father Auberon Halfcourt in Against the Day. Yashmeen explains to Kit Traverse that after she and her family were sold into slavery, “Major Halfcourt found me in a bazaar in Waziristan and became my second father” (595). She describes their meeting in decidedly erotic language: “To the world here, I enjoy a reputation as ‘my own person’ … yet I am also, ever … his. […] My true memories do not begin until the moment he first saw me in the market—I was a soul impaled, exactly upon the cusp between girl and young woman, a cusp I could literally feel as it penetrated me, as if to bisect me” (596, emphasis in the original). The emphatic “his” is ambiguous: does Yashmeen belong to Halfcourt because he has purchased her, because he adopts her, or because he possesses her sexually? The image of impaling—which alludes to the death of Mélanie in V.—explicitly eroticizes Yashmeen’s immaturity. The same episode is narrated from Halfcourt’s point of view later in the novel. He recalls her “contours” and “her form, already womanly”: “His intent toward the child, he would protest, had never been to dishonor but to rescue. Rescue, however, had many names, and the rope up which a maiden climbed to safety might then be used to bind her most cruelly” (759). The blurring of a benign liberation from slavery with a new possession that is unmistakably erotic, indeed—as Yashmeen’s adult sexual encounters often are—sadomasochistic, is the most striking note of both accounts. As Halfcourt continues to meditate on his feelings for Yashmeen, the narrator stresses their sexual element: Halfcourt recalls “her naked limbs” and “her odors” (760). His use of the word “child” in his description of his feelings to himself as a “passionate attachment to a child” (760) is ambiguous, meaning either a young person or one’s own offspring. In another conversation with Kit, Yashmeen is unable to find the right term to describe her relationship to Halfcourt: “‘My—’ She allowed a dotted quarter-rest. ‘Colonel Halfcourt is involved’” (628). She cannot bring herself to designate him as either her “father” or her “lover” and so refers to him by name and rank instead.
Yashmeen, sold in the slave market, is simultaneously eroticized and, literally, commodified. As Osterweil points out, what is eroticized and commodified in Temple’s films is, specifically, her innocence (1). In Against the Day innocence as a commodity that can be lost, stolen, or traded is associated especially with the Chums of Chance. When the Chums discuss the motivations of the time-traveling Trespassers they have encountered for the first time in the person of “Mr. Ace,” Randolph St. Cosmo suggests that they may be “not pilgrims but raiders,” raising the question of what “particular resource” they seek (416). Lindsay Noseworth is in no doubt: “It’s our innocence […]. They have descended on our shores to hunt us down, capture our innocence, and take it away with them to futurity” (416). I want to suggest that this plotline in Against the Day can be read as, among other things, an extended metaphor for the sexual abuse of children by adults. Rather than remaining in their own time, that is, seeking sexual relationships among their peers, the Trespassers metaphorically travel back in time by turning their attention to children. What attracts them is children’s “innocence,” that is, their inability to genuinely reciprocate sexual feelings, to grant or withhold consent with adult understanding.
Clues to this meaning of the time-travel plot are subtle but abundant. Led by Alonzo Meatman to the house in which he encounters Mr. Ace, Chick Counterfly is unable “to rid himself of an impression, lying deeper than he cared, or was able, to go, of having been psychically interfered with” (414). The phrase “interfered with” does not, despite the opinions of some contributors to the Against the Day wiki, literally mean “sexually abused.” The narrative makes clear exactly what form this psychic interference takes: “[P]ositive expressions of silence and absence [are] being deployed against him,” and “his optic sensorium [is] being locally addressed and systematically deluded” (414, emphasis in the original). However, being “interfered with” is a common euphemism for being sexually abused, and the imposition of silence and of what is understood in retrospect to be delusion are common elements of the experience of abuse. This passage hints, then, at themes of childhood sexual abuse behind its ostensible narrative of time travel and psychic manipulation. Chick later recalls his intuition that the offer made by Mr. Ace “was nothing but a cruel confidence game” (555). This fits the same pattern: the fantastical plot about time travel is narrated in language that would be equally appropriate to describing the experience of sexual abuse.
It starts to look as if Pynchon is more open to examining the experience of abuse from the perspective of the victim when the victim is male. Although Kolbuszewska’s essay “The Use of the Child” is only passingly interested in the ways in which Pynchon depicts, or fails to depict, the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, she does highlight the stark difference in readers’ responses to the sexual exploitation of Bianca and that of Ludwig, a young boy who has “seen a lot of foreign cock” in the Zone (GR 729). She notes that “discussion of Bianca’s age on […] an Internet discussion group […] shows that a deep concern about child molesting makes readers worry about whether child characters are represented as sexually abused” (111) but that “the molesting of Ludwig has not become a topic of heated discussion” (120). This difference reflects both the contrast between the pornographically detailed account Pynchon gives of Bianca’s sexual experiences and the matter-of-fact mention of Ludwig’s and the underlying fact that they are different sexes.
In Against the Day Pynchon also suggests that the raped male is rendered shamefully feminine: “To all appearance resolute, adventurous, manly, the city could not shake the terrible all-night rape, when ‘he’ was forced to submit, surrendering, inadmissibly, blindly feminine, into the Hellfire embrace of ‘her’ beloved. He spent the years afterward forgetting and fabulating and trying to get back some self-respect. But inwardly, deep inside, ‘he’ remained the catamite of Hell, the punk at the disposal of the denizens thereof, the bitch in men’s clothing” (154). This passage represents the effects of sexual abuse in terms familiar from Herman’s account—shame, guilt, low self-esteem—rather than the pornographic narratives she critiques. Readers might find it ethically preferable to Pynchon’s “sexy little girls.” However, in describing the shame of the male victim in terms of his been having been made a “bitch,” that is, shamefully female, it is arguably symptomatic of the sexism that Freer finds undiminished in the later novels (154–56).
Bleeding Edge, like Against the Day, abounds in references to sexualized or sexually abused children. The Deep Web, where some of its action takes place, offers “forbidden expressions of desire, beginning with kiddie porn and growing even more toxic from there” (240). On Halloween, Maxine Tarnow, the novel’s protagonist, encounters a group of youngsters, “none of them in junior high yet,” dressed as “French maids, street hookers, and baby dominatrices” (371). March Kelleher’s ex-husband is living with “some 12-year-old named Sequin” (129). Sequin may be, like the objects of Pointsman’s lust, only figuratively a child (expressing March’s distaste for her ex having taken up with a younger partner), but it all adds up to a portrait of a culture in which children are not protected from adult sexuality. Tallis, March’s daughter, performs an eroticized caricature of childishness: she has “one of these small, sub-Chipmunk voices fatally charming to certain kinds of men” (125), sticks out her lower lip, and pronounces “problem” as “pwobwem” (127).3 Further, she is compared explicitly to Shirley Temple (127).
Moreover, Bleeding Edge revisits Against the Day’s use of time travel as a metaphor for the sexual abuse of children. Maxine learns about time travel on the Deep Web. She enters a virtual representation of a military bunker where she encounters a colonel with a voice “synthesized several generations back” and “lip movements [that] don’t match the words” (242). His face on Maxine’s screen is “broken up sporadically, smeared, pixelated, blown through by winds of noise and forgetfulness, failing links, lost servers” (242). A similar technological glitchiness characterizes Mr. Ace in Against the Day: “A strange electrical drone overtook and blurred Mr. Ace’s voice for an instant. ‘The nzzt Chums of Chance?’” (415). Mr. Ace is apparently a visitor from the future; the colonel is speaking out of the past about a military time-travel program:
“Given the lengthy schooling, the program prefers to recruit children by kidnapping them. Boys, typically. They are taken without consent and systematically rewired. Assigned to secret cadres to be sent on missions back and forth in Time, under orders to create alternative histories which will benefit the higher levels of command who have sent them out.
This is, explicitly, an account of sexual abuse, boys taken “without consent” and “sodomized.” Sodomy is not depicted erotically or pornographically but purely as violence, as when Scarsdale Vibe in Against the Day boasts that the plutocracy “harness and sodomize” the children of the working class (1000). It is noteworthy that the abuse of boys is described thus, as opposed to sexual acts involving girls, which, as we have seen, Pynchon tends to write about in pornographic language, from the adult male point of view. One might tentatively offer the explanation that while Pynchon has, along with the wider culture, moved beyond a discursive framework in which it is normal to depict victims of sexual abuse as seductive, he finds it easier to depict abuse as abuse, to summon the empathy and indignation which that requires, if the victims are male.
The strongest hint that the Montauk time-travel program in Bleeding Edge is the origin of the visitors from the future encountered by the Chums of Chance in Against the Day is the way they are connected by the theme of innocence. The Montauk time travelers are men abused in their own boyhoods who travel back in time to exploit and steal the innocence of other boys. “Those poor innocents,” says Miles Blundell, one of the Chums. “Back at the beginning of this … they must have been boys, so much like us….” (AtD 1023). Maxine imagines her lover Windust as one of the travelers, “an innocent kid, abducted by earth-born aliens” (BE 243). It is clear from these consonances not only that both novels are relating different aspects of the same story but also that Pynchon is more concerned here with the emotional and psychological reality of stolen innocence than with time travel as science fictional novum.
Bianca, the most graphically sexualized of Pynchon’s “sexy little girls” is, above all, a product of her time, an avatar of twentieth-century culture’s icons of erotic girlhood: Shirley Temple, Lolita, the seductive daughter. Although some readers have heard Lolita’s voice behind Humbert’s, Pynchon grants Bianca scant subjectivity behind these reflected identities. All of Pynchon’s abused and sexualized children are enmeshed in an economy of censorship and displacement that blocks one forbidden desire but enables another: Els Vroom becomes a fluff girl for the breeding of slaves; “Ilse” becomes Pökler’s daughter at the price of becoming a substitute for his wife. In the time-travel plot of Against the Day and Bleeding Edge Pynchon begins to write, indirectly, about sexual abuse in language less erotic and more attuned to the discourse of trauma. The fact that the victims are boys rather than girls, however, suggests that, while it has absorbed some of the changed cultural awareness of sexual abuse achieved by the women’s movement, Pynchon’s fiction has yet to fully engage with the experience of women and girls.
1. An argument attributed on pynchonwiki.com to John M. Krafft and Bernard Duyfhuizen suggests that although Slothrop estimates her age as eleven or twelve (GR 463), Bianca must be sixteen or seventeen years old (see http://gravitys-rainbow.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Bianca). However, the Anubis episode, during which the two have sex, presents a hallucinatory reality seen almost entirely through Slothrop’s eyes, in a setting almost mythical in its separation from quotidian space and time. It is legitimate to read it on its own terms rather than demanding consistency with the wider chronology of the novel, and on those terms Bianca is very emphatically a “little girl” rather than an adolescent.
2. The Pynchon wiki suggests that “lollipop” is a slang term for an underage girl, but I have found no corroboration for this.
3. The reference is to characters in the cartoon and feature film franchise Alvin and the Chipmunks (who have high-pitched, sped-up voices) rather than to rodents of the genus tamias.
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———. Bleeding Edge. London: Jonathan Cape, 2013.
———. Gravity’s Rainbow. London: Vintage, 1995.
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