S/M in Gravity’s Rainbow
In the final episode of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Thanatz tells Ludwig that “a little S and M never hurt anybody.” “But why,” then, he rhetorically asks, “are we taught to feel reflexive shame whenever the subject comes up?” (751). Thanatz’s answer is simple: the state must manage and claim our submission as resources for itself. Although it’s a question that Thanatz poses to himself, it’s also a question worth turning back on ourselves, since the stigma surrounding s/m might partially account for the scarcity of s/m discussions in Pynchon criticism. Despite frequent and explicit representations of s/m in Gravity’s Rainbow, few have analyzed s/m’s function in the text—either in terms of politics or Pynchon’s postmodern aesthetic. Sado-anarchism has been written off, and scholars remain critical of s/m in Pynchon, reading such representations as a pornographic, misogynist fantasy (Bérubé), a regressive representation of homosexuality (Sears), or a commentary on fascism’s perverse effects (Herman and Weisenburger). A queer approach to Gravity’s Rainbow enables a revision of previous Pynchon criticism and illuminates s/m’s multiplicity of meanings and functions in Pynchon, complementing and complicating work that primarily sees it in negative terms.
While the state’s co-optation of sexuality has been extensively discussed in Pynchon scholarship, the institutional trappings of many s/m scenes have obscured another significant truth. Gravity’s Rainbow is equally concerned with how state co-optations are complicated by characters who reappropriate their institutionally defined roles. Such instances can even be found in the novel’s most fraught s/m scenes: Brigadier General Ernest Pudding’s coprophagic masochism, which “may be partly responsible for the advisory board’s notorious rejection of Gravity’s Rainbow for a Pulitzer Prize” (Schlegel 170), and the s/m practices of Nazi captain Blicero, which Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger describe as “his obsessional and sadomasochistic hetero- and homosexual rape-tortures of Katje and Gottfried” (78).1 A queer reading of these scenes is problematic given their setting within a wartime state of exception in which individual rights and liberties—and thus the ability to consent to such acts—are suspended. And yet these scenes are not strictly structured in either realist or parodic terms. While certainly part of Pynchon’s antitotalitarian screed, they are largely framed as a fantasy scenario Pynchon stages for himself and for us: a pornographic thought experiment, if you will. They operate with their own internal fantasy logic, asking us to suspend our disbelief or moral judgments and inviting us to consider this way of thinking about the world, about love, and about desire. We follow these characters into their fantasy spaces, which are clearly demarcated from the rest of the diegetic world: for Pudding there are the antechambers that ultimately lead him to “his real home” (239), the passing through of which induces an altered state of mind (235); for Blicero, Katje, and Gottfried there is their “game” in “this charmed house in the forest” (99), which becomes the “little Oven-state” (104), “their preserving routine, their shelter, against what outside none of them can bear” (98). In realist terms, there is no question that Katje, Gottfried, and, to a certain extent, Pudding are victims without the power to consent, but in this pornographic fantasy scenario, Pynchon explores the implications of their complicitous pleasures. Like Foucault, Pynchon recognizes that in s/m “a whole new art of sexual practice develops which tries to explore all the internal possibilities of sexual conduct” (Foucault Live 330). As in pornography more generally, both the law and the rules of realism can be suspended in the diegetic world, thus bracketing off questions of consent within the fictional context and allowing Pynchon to explore such erotic relations for what they are: a stigmatized but potentially valuable mode of relationality.
Centering on the queerness of s/m allows us to take seriously Thanatz’s sado-anarchism—the idea that s/m pleasures might be a threat to power and the political status quo (751). In Gravity’s Rainbow, s/m’s potential destabilization of or resistance to hegemonic narratives and state appropriations of s/m make it a rich site for investigating the relation between queer sexuality and Pynchon’s postmodernism, as long as we keep in mind the impracticality of regarding s/m, queerness, and successful resistance to oppression as synonymous. Exploring s/m’s ambiguities in Gravity’s Rainbow reveals that it makes just as much sense to acknowledge the text’s queer pleasures as it does to pathologize them. I should note at the outset that my usage of “queer” does not exclusively signify same-sex relations but erotic practices that fall outside the dominant hetero-/homo- binary, like s/m.2
This focus on attempted reversals of the state’s deployment of sexuality makes the time frame of Pudding’s and Blicero’s s/m significant: both episodes occur early in the narrative’s chronology, prior to VE Day, which is key for understanding the possibilities and limits of s/m’s transgressive politics. The s/m in these scenes differs from the more overt liberatory potential of Margherita Erdmann’s s/m that occurs in the anarchic Zone, which I have argued for elsewhere. The Zone enables Margherita to refashion and explore s/m on her own terms, distinguishing her s/m from Pudding’s and Blicero’s, both of which unfold under the sign of fascism despite the fact that their geographical and political situations are different. These characters’ differing contexts also account for their different agency conditions: Margherita achieves a level of (narrative) agency unmatched by any other sadomasochist in the text, while Pudding’s and Blicero’s are more muted.3 Foucault’s claims about the multidirectional nature of power clarify how Pudding and Blicero attempt disruption, despite their imbrication in state power.
Like postmodernism, which actively works to deconstruct the privileged binaries that structure meaning and language, queerness rejects stable identity categories and binary notions of sexuality and gender.4 This is not to imply that “s/m,” “queerness,” and “postmodernism” are generally interchangeable terms but rather that s/m is the most illustrative manifestation of queerness in Gravity’s Rainbow. Queerness invests in sexual practices, communities, and performances of (dis)identity that destabilize hetero-/homonormative notions of bodies, pleasures, and desires as well as the teleological narratives that secure such hegemonic norms. Ironically, these queer revisions draw from canonical work in Pynchon studies and postmodern theory more generally, namely, Brian McHale’s notion of the ontological dominant.5 My intervention’s potentially discordant reliance on what might be called a Pynchon orthodoxy should be taken as a queer way of “reconceiv[ing] postmodernism’s role in our contemporary critical landscape” (Chetwynd 145) by illuminating the queerness that is embedded in such discourses.
This reading is primarily concerned with how queerness operates within the text itself and thus cannot fully address the history of homosexuality in the Nazi regime or fascism more broadly—though some of Pynchon’s historical sources emphasized such connections. Thus, the most relevant history for this reassessment is that which links the s/m practices of the characters in Gravity’s Rainbow to queer s/m subcultures.6 According to Susan Sontag, by the mid-1970s, the SS had “become a referent of sexual adventurism”: “[M]uch of the imagery of far-out sex” had “been placed under the sign of Nazism” in both pop culture and pornographic literature (101–2). Its 1973 publication situates Gravity’s Rainbow squarely within a decades-long, transnational proliferation of images, texts, and films that explored the taboo power erotics associated with fascistic imagery like Larry Townsend’s erotica, Tom of Finland’s art, Liliana Cavani’s film The Night Porter (1974), and Pier Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). It is this erotic motif across both high art and low that most usefully historicizes my reading of Pynchon, linking it to queer culture and practice.
By desexualizing sado-anarchism and reading it merely as satire, critique, or allegory, critics have sanitized Pynchon’s s/m of its pornographic content and significance within his larger project. These tendencies might be traced back to Lawrence C. Wolfley’s insistence that sado-anarchism is “compromised by the humor of Thanatz’ motive, and by everything we know about him as a character—his name is an allusion to Thanatos, the Freudian term for the death instinct” (877). Wolfley, writing just prior to the AIDS epidemic, could not anticipate the literal ways queerness would be equated with the death instinct, as, for example, in the targeted scapegoating during the 1980s that led New York and San Francisco to permanently close dozens of bath-houses and s/m bars—forever changing the embodied experience of queer sociality. Nationally, this reentrenched the association of s/m, cruising, and queerness with death. However, some queer scholarship has turned this negative association on its head, theorizing the potential of the death drive’s stigma for social and political disruption.
In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman explains how heteronormative society relies on a narrative of futurity and a fetishistic investment in protecting the child at the expense of the queer, whose nonprocreative pleasures are linked to the death drive. Thus, queer jouissance becomes the ultimate threat to heteronormativity’s narrative telos. The sadomasochistic valences embedded in Edelman’s definition of jouissance—that which exceeds the boundaries of identity and meaning, of pleasure and pain (25)—are easily identifiable even though Edelman does not explicitly mention s/m. Viewing sado-anarchism through queer negativity reveals what Wolfley couldn’t see at the time: the clever pun of Thanatz’s name need not compromise the politics of sado-anarchism and might instead reinforce its oppositional potential.
Like Wolfley, Pynchon could not have anticipated the specific ways queerness would be associated with the death drive during the AIDS epidemic. However, it is significant that Pynchon’s representations of homoeroticism and s/m reflect the historical ways that nonprocreative pleasures have been viewed as threats to heteronormativity. Pynchon’s linking of s/m with anti-narrative tendencies and with death prefigures Edelman’s antisocial theory; in both, queerness represents the greatest threat to reproducing the dominant social order. I argue that as an antinarrative force, queerness in Pynchon explores ontological questions such as “what happens when different kinds of worlds are placed in confrontation or when boundaries between worlds are violated” (McHale, Postmodernist 10), thus challenging interpretations of Pynchon’s s/m—like John Hamill’s—that distance s/m from queer pleasures and focus instead on its metaphysical aspects and its relation to institutional entrapment. Queerness understood in an ontological light highlights the tension between individual desires and those of the state, placing public and private worlds in confrontation, like when institutional power co-opts s/m—forcing the private (or sexual) into the public sphere—and when individuals use private s/m fantasies to resist the co-optations of sexual pleasure. Queerness’s centrality to Pynchon’s narrative structure and his construction of queerness as a fraught site of opposition establish the importance of taking seriously Pynchon’s representations of sex and gender. Pynchon’s s/m can be understood as the point where characters’ queer, nonnormative tendencies intersect with the nonnormative narrative tendencies of the text.
From the outset of Pudding’s s/m scene, its institutional framework is apparent: Pointsman uses s/m to distract the aging Pudding, render him ineffectual, and prevent his interference with PISCES. “Pudding will not go back on any of his commitments,” according to Pointsman; “we have made arrangements with him. The details aren’t important” (231); however, the text contradicts that, describing at length Pudding’s ritual submission to Katje. Since Pudding’s death from an E. coli infection fulfills Pointsman’s wish to gain control of PISCES, attributing a queer, disruptive agency to Pudding’s masochism might seem questionable. Though I deal at length with this objection, it’s worth noting here the narrative emphasis on Pudding’s desire for and pleasure in sexual masochism—which establishes at least a degree of sexual agency and makes Pudding’s queer negativity more significant than a mere happy accident for Pointsman.
His nightly ritual also reveals s/m as a mode for coping with the interpretive frustrations that define the postmodern era—though it’s important to distinguish between Pudding’s use of s/m to make sense of postmodern structures, which stands, in McHale’s terms, as a metaphor for the modernist reader making sense of Pynchon’s postmodernist text, and Pudding’s use of s/m as an embrace of queer negativity, which enables him to turn Pointsman’s repressive deployment of sexuality back on itself. Unlike the younger enlisted men, Pudding cannot make sense of his social function, his (lack of) access to power, and newer postmodern formations of knowledge—including weaponry advances and the vast amount of (personal) data that intelligence officers have access to, which changes the nature of war and the individual’s place within military bureaucracy. Pudding’s resistance to these new power structures and PISCES’S unorthodox intelligence work inspires Pointsman’s deployment of sexuality as a means of control.7
Like the modernist reader, Pudding “was brought up to believe in a literal Chain of Command,” and like the modernist reader confronting a postmodernist text, Pudding finds that “the newer geometries confuse him” (78). In McHale’s account, Gravity’s Rainbow deconditions the modernist reader’s pattern-making behavior (Constructing 81) by frustrating modernist interpretive strategies that seek to construct a stable, intelligible whole from fragmented narratives. Such creative anachronism is typically seen in representations of “worldview and ideology,” exemplified in Gravity’s Rainbow by characters like Slothrop or Roger Mexico, whose mentality “seems to flicker back and forth between the 1940s and the 1960s” (McHale, Postmodernist 93). But an equally relevant example would be Pudding, whose masochism allows him to momentarily escape and impose order on the polymorphous organization of power in postmodern culture: PISCES’S “lush maze of initials” that’s for “the New Chaps” (78). Pudding’s ritual becomes an illustrative metanarration that reflects the experience of Pynchon’s extradiegetic readers and links queerness to Pynchon’s postmodern aesthetic. Beyond their metadiscursive significance, Pudding’s pleasures are also narratively relevant.
The narrative’s internal focalization through Pudding reveals his desire to submit (“please … please let her accept …” ), his earnest devotion (“he loves to listen to her speak” ), and his hope “to stay a while longer with his submissive tongue straining upward into her asshole” )—all pleasures that he seems to experience independently of Pointsman’s motives. Pudding even expands the fantasy narrative that Pointsman constructs. When consuming Katje’s excrement, Pudding thinks “of a Negro’s penis, yes he knows it abrogates part of the conditions set, but it will not be denied, the image of a brute African who will make him behave” (238). One could argue that this fantasy isn’t any more outside Pudding’s socially conditioned desires than the scenario Pointsman orchestrates; however, the repeated interweaving of race, power, and sexuality across a variety of characters of different national origins (manifested, for example, in Margherita’s story about “Negro MPS” and Slothrop’s sodium amytal vision of the Roseland Ballroom) seems to indicate less about Pudding’s conditioning and more about Pynchon and the context in which he wrote Gravity’s Rainbow—a moment defined by social shifts linked to the civil rights and liberationist movements. More than an indication of any single character’s relation to race or further evidence of sexual conditioning in the West, this motif can be taken as a commentary on the West’s haunting legacy of colonialism and chattel slavery and its similarity to the racial ideologies of fascism (Herman and Weisenburger 195). In part, the queerness of Pudding’s desire distinguishes the black man of his fantasy from more common racist stereotypes like the idea that “black men were uncivilized, unmanly rapists” who “lusted uncontrollably after white women” (Bederman 46). Although Pudding’s fantasy portrays the African as savage and sexually virile—in line with racist fantasies and fears of black masculinity and of miscegenation—he also queers this insidious stereotype through his desire to worship, to be penetrated by, and to be made to behave for the man in his fantasy. More significantly, such details reveal how the fantasy operates subversively within the narrative: it “abrogates” the set conditions by inserting homosexual, interracial desire into Pointsman’s ritual, further indicating the extent to which Pudding’s sexuality is outside the normative. Pudding’s homoerotic desires are also mediated by coprophagia, reinforcing the link between Pudding and the pleasures of queer abjection.8 By using masochism in ways Pointsman doesn’t anticipate, Pudding disrupts and counteracts the institutional deployment of sexuality as a means of controlling and regulating individuals: he takes for himself the pleasures of playing with power, pleasures that—according to Thanatz—should be reserved for the state.
Pudding’s unanticipated fantasies bear out Foucault’s assertion that power is always being exerted from both the top and bottom; here “top/bottom” can be read in terms of its traditional social signification (i.e., hegemonic institutions of power/individuals), as well as in terms of the s/m binary of dominant/submissive or active/passive sexual roles. Like Foucault, Pynchon identifies sexuality as a disciplinary regime that contains within it the potential to disrupt binary meaning-making systems: Katje, once subservient to Blicero, now wields the power of the sadist, subverting both the binary of dominator/dominated and a patriarchal gender binary that assumes female subservience and associates femininity with the passive/receptive role in intercourse. The novel highlights the multivalent functions of sexuality within society by linking this deconstruction of binary power and language to Pudding’s masochistic pleasure.
Though Katje occupies the position of the dominant sadist, she remains subservient to PISCES, a larger institution of power. Like Pudding, her erotic pleasure seems unaffected by its institutional uses. We learn of Katje’s sexual arousal when she canes Pudding, the “part of her routine she can enjoy” (237), we learn that her initial nervousness has evaporated (238), and we witness the pleasure small agential actions afford her: her smile when Pudding crawls at her command (236), “her toes flexing beneath his tongue” playfully (236), and her desire to moan “at each of his grunts of pain” (237). It might be tempting to assume that her pleasure is even more ancillary to disruption or subversion than Pudding’s. And yet the narrative’s emphasis on both their pleasures within an institutional context anticipates Foucault’s assertion that “pleasure and power do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap, and reinforce one another. They are linked together by complex mechanisms and devices of excitation and incitement” (History 48). By exceeding the conditions set, Katje’s pleasure, like Pudding’s unanticipated fantasies, intervenes in Pointsman’s deployment of sexuality, which was only ever meant to distract Pudding.
Additionally, Pudding’s queering of history and unanticipated fantasies demonstrate how queer sexual practices “gum up the works of the normative structures we call family and nation, gender, race, class, and sexual identity, by changing tempos, by remixing memory and desire” in order to “jam whatever looks like the inevitable” (Freeman 173)—which could just as easily apply to Pynchon’s own disruption of narrative inevitability. Pudding’s internal fantasies—shifting between his memories of Domina Nocturna on the World War I battlefield and his present interaction with Katje playing Domina Nocturna as a dominatrix—evoke a queer temporality in which the past is not treated as stable. Similarly, Pynchon’s encyclopedic novel incorporates the historical fiction genre, revising and “debunking the orthodox version of the past” and “transform[ing] the conventions and norms of historical fiction itself” (McHale, Postmodernist 91). This “paranoiac mode of secret history” manifests in apocryphal history, creative anachronism, and historical fantasy (Postmodernist 92). When supplementing the historical record, apocryphal history “operates in the ‘dark areas’ of history, apparently in conformity to the norms of ‘classic’ historical fiction but in fact parodying them” (Postmodernist 91). Pudding’s ritual of recounting and refiguring World War I history with Katje draws from the official facts and supplements them with personal experience. The narrative context in which Pudding and Katje queer and revise World War I history is itself located in the larger apocryphal history of Gravity’s Rainbow and its narration of the “dark areas” of history that parodies World War II historical fiction. Like the postmodernist historical revisions from which it is impossible to draw a “final conclusion” (Postmodernist 92) and within which Pudding’s s/m is situated, Pudding’s queer temporality frustrates normativity, “gumming up” institutional power strategies and readers’ interpretive strategies.
Pudding’s sexual practice might be the most striking example of Pynchon’s paranoid account of history, where s/m reveals how the past shapes the present and how queer sexual pleasure facilitates an exploration of the relationship between personal history and dominant cultural narratives. Though Michael Bérubé has already linked Pynchon’s pornography to Pynchonian paranoia, there is a fundamental difference between our approaches: most notably, Bérubé’s analysis does not limit “the term ‘pornography’ to sexually explicit representation” (238). His methodology—rooted in Lacan and feminist film theory—redefines “the pornographic” as a practice of “remembering” or, more simply, a desire for (narrative) closure (256). For Bérubé, pornography is “the condition of all language: papering over and denying the lack […] or reconstituting différance into a metaphysics of presence” (264). Privileging s/m’s symbolic significance over and above its erotics misses a key point: how sexuality—its representations, its pleasures, its narration—structures Pynchon’s postmodern world. The uniquely queer treatment of time and history in Pudding’s s/m narrative mirrors the broader postmodernist strategies of Gravity’s Rainbow. Pudding’s s/m accesses queer temporality in terms of its content while also foregrounding the tension between the world according to official historical archives and one “radically dissimilar” to that: “The tension between these two versions induces a form of ontological flicker between the two” (McHale, Postmodernist 91), an ontological flicker that will be repeated when Pudding dies.
The episode ends with Pudding’s reflection that he has nothing to look forward to except paperwork and “a dose of penicillin that Pointsman has ordered him to take, to combat the effects of E. coli. Perhaps, though, tomorrow night … perhaps then. He can’t see how he can hold out much longer. But perhaps, in the hours just before dawn …” (239). For Pudding, “holding out” becomes synonymous with a passive endorsement of the system’s wartime surveillance methods that he vocally opposed; thus, he imagines his own death as a method of opting out of this endorsement and of his daily military routine. We will learn that he “died back in the middle of June of a massive E. coli infection, whining, at the end, ‘Me little Mary hurts …’ over and over. It was just before dawn, as he had wished” (542). Through this act of resistance—“forgetting” to take his penicillin—Pudding escapes the political structures that attempt to control him through their deployment of sexuality. According to Foucault, “where there is power, there is resistance” (History 95); indeed, Pudding subverts and resists institutional power through the very means the system used to exert control.
One could argue that Pudding’s fatal s/m allows the institutional deployment of sexuality to succeed by enabling it to interminably protect itself from Pudding’s meddling; however, such a claim would go against a great deal of Pynchon scholarship surrounding Tyrone Slothrop’s fate, which has been read as a mode of disruption. Indeed, critics have seen the dissolution of Slothrop’s subjectivity as a rare moment when the evasion of power at least marginally succeeds. Even more than Slothrop’s “minimalist claim of negative freedom, deeply alienated and individuated” (Herman and Weisenburger 212), Pudding’s evasion of their system should be taken as a valid mode of resistance because, like other queerness in the novel, it gets consistently linked to communitarian potential: Pudding’s pleasures are linked to a broader history of s/m desires and communities by the multiplicity of literary and cultural allusions to s/m’s rich history found in the antechambers he passes through.9 In much the same way, the encyclopedic compendium of sexological “perversions” documented aboard the Anubis and the ironically named song “Victim in a Vacuum!” reveal how the text persistently signals s/m’s—and, more broadly, queerness’s—communitarian potential. Slothrop’s fate, unlike Pudding’s, is not directly tied to communitarian queer sexual practices that (attempt to) subvert the institutional deployment of sexuality. Furthermore, in Slothrop’s case, institutional power actively pursues his sexual nonnormativity, viewing it as a locus of knowledge that might be “harboring a fundamental secret” (Foucault, History 69), while Pudding’s proclivities are of limited use, benefiting Pointsman alone. After Slothrop’s disappearance the narrative offers no “direct discourse telling his whereabouts, actions, thoughts, and reasons” (Herman and Weisenburger 230), limiting our ability to form hypotheses. In contrast, Pudding reappears late in the narrative as a spiritual member of the Counterforce whose “devotion to culinary pranksterism” inspires “the repulsive stratagem” (729) “by which Mexico and Bodine escape the machinations of the VIPS” (Schlegel 174). Thus, we cannot write off the significance of Pudding’s fatal s/m practice anymore than we can disregard Slothrop’s famed escape.
By choosing to die, Pudding exercises the subversive potential of queer negativity. He refuses to participate in the construction of a social fiction, a refusal that the text’s discursive level reflects by emphasizing the “tension between modes of intelligibility and the apparently unintelligible” (McHale, Constructing 73). Pudding, like Pynchon’s text, frustrates normative narratives and futurity by transgressing the illusory boundary between dominator and dominated, between social subject and unintelligible subjectivity, or more accurately, between social subject and the nonsubjectivity that results from an embrace of queer negativity taken to its logical extreme. Pudding uses sexuality to transgress the boundary between heteronormative and queer, between life and death.
Blicero and Gottfried
Perhaps more than any other part of the text, the Hansel and Gretel episode focalizes the complexities of power’s operations and the fraught potential for subversion that inheres in Pynchon’s representations of queerness. We see this particularly in the slippage between Blicero’s political power and sexual pleasure, between his desire to access and wield power and his masochistic pleasure in abdicating power, the latter achieved by occupying the role of sadist. This slippage is illuminated by José Esteban Muñoz’s characterization of disidentification as “a mode of performance whereby a toxic identity is remade and infiltrated by subjects who have been hailed by such identity categories but have not been able to own such a label” (185). Blicero’s anxiety about successfully performing the role of a Nazi officer is rooted in the dialectical tension between Aryan masculinism and homosexual and sadomasochistic desires.
Blicero relies on his military power while disrupting the manifestation and uses of that power. Muñoz’s theory of disidentification primarily describes how “a subject who has been hailed by injurious speech, a name, or a label, reterritorializes that speech act” (185). Although queer, Blicero has not been interpellated by the state with that “injurious” label, and thus his disidentification is not with an identity deemed toxic to heteronormativity but rather with a majoritarian identity accepted by the state. The strictures of this institutionally defined role elicit a different mode of disidentification for Blicero, whose state-sanctioned identity is toxic to his queerness. It might seem problematic to apply queer of color critique to a sexual scenario involving a Nazi, but Blicero’s disidentificatory practice undermines his Nazi identity from within, vis-à-vis what Muñoz calls “an interiorized passing” through which subjects might (performatively) occupy problematic identities (i.e. homophobic, racist, hypermasculine, etc.) and internally undermine them through parody, as Blicero does in his cross-dressing, gender-bending dominatrix performance.10
Although Blicero’s disruptions occur primarily on the discursive level, they operate materially through drag, which foregrounds gender binaries as social constructs and replaces them with the dominator/dominated binary. By translating the bureaucratic power of his Nazi rank into that of a parodic dominatrix, Blicero’s feminized sexual practice works against the Nazi privileging of hetero- and homomasculinity, his campy costume actively mocking the privileged gender binary.
Despite the tacit sanctioning of certain modes of homoeroticism among the Nazi elite, Blicero’s drag can be read as a subversive disidentificatory performance, since it was primarily “the masculine homosexual [who] was in complete concordance with the state’s anti-Semitic and misogynistic conceptions of masculinity and femininity” (Halberstam 160). Blicero presents himself in “Cuban heels, his penis squashed invisible under a flesh-colored leather jockstrap, over which he wears a false cunt and merkin of sable,” and “tiny blades of stainless steel bristle from lifelike pink humidity” (96–97), crushing the symbol of male power beneath artificial—and weaponized—female genitalia. In heteronormative society, the cunt is constructed as a symbol of weakness because of its vulnerability to penetration; Gravity’s Rainbow inverts this symbol of female difference and disempowerment. Rather than being penetrated, the steel bristles of Blicero’s cunt penetrate Katje’s “lips and tongue” bloodying them and reinforcing her subjugation (97). Through his aggressively sexualized drag, Blicero disidentifies with the Nazi privileging of hypermasculinity while simultaneously using this disidentificatory performance to sexualize and feminize the power associated with his military rank. Ironically, this Nazi rank is what gives him power to play out the queer desires that should ostensibly exclude him from the Nazi regime, as per the targeted enslavement and genocide of homosexuals in the camps. Any disidentificatory subversion problematically relies on Blicero’s interpellation as a Nazi officer and his willingness to exploit that sovereign power for his own queer ends.
As an officer, Blicero can sacrifice his people for the Aryan cause or his own erotic pleasure. Yet despite his military rank, he remains aware of his waning physical and political power as the war nears its end; that he can no longer die a hero’s death is greatly frustrating to him (101). Blicero’s fraught relationship with a “toxic identity” and his inability to embody the idealized Nazi leads to disidentificatory performances that reject Aryan masculinism and its glorification of youths like Gottfried who represent the future figured in the fetishization of the child in the heteronormative narrative. Gottfried is a symbol of the heteronormative system that by the war’s end will condemn the aging Blicero to a slow decline.
Exploiting wartime ontological instability, Blicero redefines Gottfried’s sense of subjectivity. His power over Gottfried, who “kneel[s] naked except for a studded dog collar, masturbating metronomic, at shouted commands from Captain Blicero” (97) calls to mind Foucauldian notions of sexuality as discursive constructs through which power operates as opposed to stable and innate drives (History 103). The discursive construction of sexuality as a transfer point in power relations renders subjects perpetually open to reconstruction. By removing Gottfried from the army barracks to the cottage, Blicero removes Gottfried from the bureaucratic structure that defined the boy’s subjectivity and replaces it with s/m. Through s/m, Blicero strips Gottfried of the privileged subject position that the Aryan glorification of youth has bestowed on him and that is vested in the child by heteronormative ideology.
However, for Gottfried, “the fucking […], the stinging chastisements, his face reflected in the act of kissing the Captain’s boots […] make specific his captivity, which otherwise would hardly be different from Army stifling, Army repression” (105), the phrase “Army repression” hinting that this scenario allows Gottfried to explore “unplanned pleasures” (Foucault Live 189). As Larry Townsend suggests in his influential classic, The Leatherman’s Handbook (1972), “S & M activities are the most uninhibited behavioral situations in which you are ever likely to find yourself. Carrying this to its next logical degree, I think it’s legitimate to ask … Is this the real you?” (126); indeed, it is in Blicero’s game that Gottfried feels “at true ease” (105). In more realist terms, this appears as a choice between two evils, two modes of imprisonment. And yet it’s framed far more ambivalently by Pynchon, who uses Gottfried’s internal focalization to reveal the pleasure and tenderness he feels and the pride he takes in his new life, which seems preferable to army monotony, hinting at how “S/M is the use of a strategic relationship as a source of pleasure (physical pleasure)” (Foucault Live 388). In Blicero’s hands, Gottfried’s stable and state-defined identity disappears, along with his ontological stability (which was already threatened by the war), leaving his body and identity open to penetration and his own innovative exploration. For Foucault, “the deployment of sexuality has its reason for being […] in proliferating, innovating, annexing, creating and penetrating bodies” (History 107, emphasis added), an idea highlighted in Gravity’s Rainbow when Blicero reminds Gottfried of his initial resistance and then acceptance of anal sex: “How tight you were. Until you knew I meant to come inside. Your little rosebud bloomed. You had nothing, not even your mouth’s innocence, to lose …” (106). By linking subjectivity to discursive structures, the narrative initiates a slippage between embodied and discursively constructed subjectivity; destabilizing one necessarily leads to the destabilization of the other, reflecting a tenuous ontology on both the narrative and discursive levels.
This queer ontological disruption on both levels of the text completes its arc in the novel’s final episode, when s/m’s ritual aspects are interwoven with the ritualized firing of rocket 00000. Nestled into the rocket’s tail section, Gottfried recalls his own “eyes pleading, gagged throat trying to say too late what he should have said in the tent last night … deep in the throat, the gullet, where Blicero’s own cock’s head has burst for the last time” (773). Here, queer practice blocks Gottfried’s access to futurity, preventing the production of intelligible narrative, echoing Edelman’s understanding of queerness as that which blocks signification and heteronormative narrative telos. Pynchon’s ellipsis makes visible this absence of signification: the narrator does not indicate what Gottfried should or would have said had his mouth been unoccupied.
The sentence’s structure juxtaposes Gottfried’s unarticulated thoughts with his penetrated throat; between them, in place of articulation, is only an ellipsis. This queer frustration of language, meaning, and narrative reflects the postmodernist equating of “life with discourse, death with silence” (McHale, Postmodernist 228). As a result of fellating Blicero, Gottfried is silenced; unable, or unwilling, to vocally resist Blicero’s narrative, he will die. Though a radio speaker was implanted in Gottfried’s ear, allowing him to hear Blicero, “there’s no return channel from Gottfried to the ground. The exact moment of his death will never be known” (766). These silences are replicated in the text’s structure, which stops short of depicting Gottfried’s death, further demonstrating how Pynchon uses s/m on both the narrative and discursive levels to destabilize the ultimate ontological boundary between life and death.
During the launch of 00000, Blicero calls out German commands. The narrator indicates how “there ought to be big dramatic pauses here […]. But no, the ritual has its velvet grip on them all. So strong, so warm …” (773). Yet the text’s structure undercuts its content; in this section, entitled “The Clearing,” each call and response is separated by lengthy descriptions of setting and detailed dialogue tags, suspending and slowing narrative progression. After Moritz presses the button that initiates the first stage, there is “a pause of 15 seconds while the oxygen tank comes up to pressure,” and then after ignition, “[t]here is a period of four seconds […], four seconds of indeterminacy. The ritual even has a place for that” (773). Here, the narrator emphasizes the importance of these pauses to the sadistic ritual launching of rocket 00000—the terminal, fatal gratification of pleasure toward which Blicero and Gottfried were heading from the beginning. “Sadomasochism plays with and literalizes power as time,” as Elizabeth Freeman puts it, making “the pause itself corporeal” (153). The discursive structure of the 00000 launch models Sadean temporality by slowing down narrative time for both the extradiegetic reader and Gottfried, reflecting how the relation between text and reader is, according to McHale, a reenactment of the s/m relationship, particularly in its “modeling of erotic relations through foregrounded violations of ontological boundaries” (Postmodernist 227). Like Sade, Pynchon draws on philosophical (and scientific) treatises and includes an excessive amount of detail in order to extend and suspend the erotic scene, creating a discursive structure and narrative that produce an endless deferral of gratification. The text’s queer, erotic structure—extending beyond individual instances of s/m—is foregrounded by the Sadean pause’s reappearance during the novel’s conclusion when the rocket is left hovering, its arc incomplete.
Though the launching of 00000 is the climax of Blicero’s s/m practice, it is not the conclusion of his narrative arc. Prior to describing 00000’s launch, the narrator reads “WEISSMANN’S TAROT”: “[L]ook among the successful academics, the Presidential advisers, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors. He is almost surely there. Look high, not low. His future card, the card of what will come, is The World” (764). But how can Blicero ultimately be subsumed by the very systems of institutional power his queerness resists and disidentifies with?11 Does Blicero’s fate and his complicity in the horrific violence carried out by Nazis nullify his disidentificatory use of s/m?
Unlike Margherita’s s/m experiences, which are largely focalized through her perspective, Blicero’s story is generally mediated by the narrator or another character’s memory, underscoring Blicero’s limited access to all types of control, narrative or otherwise. For Blicero, the power of queer (and feminized) s/m has its limits. Though scattered, he remains bound by the system, precisely because his desire to become part of the elect necessitates a faith in legible subjectivity that both Pudding and Margherita were willing to forgo.
Indeed, the final moments of Blicero and Gottfried’s s/m before the rocket launch—when “both are in army clothes. It’s been a long time since either of them dressed as women. It is important that they both be men” (736)—are characterized by hypermasculinity and the absence of Blicero’s subversive feminization of power. In the place of such a feminization of power, we find a queer sexual performance that aligns with 1920s and 1930s German “‘culturalist’ notions of male homosexuality that functioned in terms of the erotic connection between two conventionally masculine men” (Halberstam 156). We might read this alignment with Nazi ideology as Blicero’s last attempt to reconcile his queer desires with his desire for power by performing a type of homoeroticism tacitly accepted in the Third Reich. Out of all the text’s s/m scenes, this one most closely aligns with the hypermasculine s/m styles and militaristic protocol that characterized American gay, male leather cultures after World War II. This fetishization of hypermasculinity—“the leather gear of bike riders with a few paramilitary touches thrown in” (Baldwin 108)—among American leathermen also represented “a kind of rebellious individualism […]. Like other black-clad rebels of the 1950s, the gay leather crowd expressed its own disaffection with post–World War II America, although mainly with its antigay attitudes and staid sexual moralities” (Rubin, “Miracle” 254).
Ironically, this queer subculture rebelliously signals its preference for stigmatized sexuality (s/m) vis-à-vis clothing and accouterments like jackboots and peaked caps that are often associated with the aesthetics of fascism—indeed, they are precisely what Blicero deploys in his final pursuit of fascist power. To reiterate, I am referring to the practice of adopting fashion associated with fascistic imagery, a hypermasculine style like that in Tom of Finland’s art, and not to specific fascist symbols, which go unmentioned in this scene between Blicero and Gottfried.12 After their army s/m, Blicero ultimately cathects his erotic embrace of queer negativity onto Gottfried and foregoes s/m’s subversive potential and pleasures. His scattering across the American elite means that he will be subsumed by the very culture that leathermen felt disaffected with.
Although Blicero’s s/m does not dismantle the system in its entirety, it’s important to acknowledge the complexity of his attempts. From the Hansel and Gretel episode through the 00000 launch, Blicero’s eroticization of the rockets reveals how his sexual pleasures paradoxically gesture toward both s/m’s disruptive potential and its imbrication within systems of control. As a Nazi officer, Blicero should not take pleasure in military failures, such as when the very technology meant to offer protection instead threatens the lives of its creators: “[C]razed, [the rockets] turn at random, whinnying terribly in the sky, turn about and fall according each to its madness so unreachable and, it is feared, incurable” (98). Blicero takes sadistic pleasure in subjugating Katje and Gottfried in the cottage outside of the rocket battery, a location that renders them all equally subjugated to the rockets’ erratic nature. In much the same way that Blicero’s disidentificatory drag relies on his ranking power over Gottfried, his masochistic pleasure in the rockets’ threat is only possible because he’s been stationed as captain of the v-2 battery in Holland. Blicero’s masochistic desires refigure tools of war as personal tools of pleasure, undermining the rockets’ intended political function.13 Like his drag’s disruption of gender roles, Blicero’s pleasure in subjugating himself to the rockets resists Nazi masculinist ideals, rendering him both passive and vulnerable to penetration; it also contains the additional risk (or for Blicero, masochistic pleasure in risk) of losing his military rank, since “the effeminate homosexual was persecuted in Nazi Germany both for his rejection of the heterosexual family and for his embrace of the feminine” (Halberstam 161). Perhaps even more than those disruptions that occur on the discursive level, these two material manifestations of Blicero’s queer pleasure highlight his paradoxical reliance on and disruption of institutional power.
Thanatz explains to Ludwig how the state “needs our submission so that it may remain in power. It needs our lusts after dominance so that it can co-opt us into its own power game. There is no joy in it, only power. I tell you, if S and M could be established universally, at the family level, the State would wither away” (751). The state in Gravity’s Rainbow does not wither away, and critics have read this as a failure of political rebellion, overlooking how sado-anarchism’s political, sexual, and textual functions reveal queerness’s centrality to the novel’s content and structure. Moreover, reading Pynchon’s representations of s/m and sado-anarchism as serious meditations on sex, power, and embodied pleasure situates Gravity’s Rainbow within a broader proliferation of knowledges on sex and sexuality in the post-Stonewall period. In many ways, the novel narratively prefigures Foucault’s theorization of sexuality as a sociohistorical construct. Pynchon’s sado-anarchism theorizes sex and power in a way that is strikingly similar to Foucault’s theorization of the “deployment of sexuality [that] operates according to mobile, polymorphous, and contingent techniques of power” (106) in volume 1 of The History of Sexuality, which was published in France just three years after the U.S. publication of Gravity’s Rainbow. Though Gravity’s Rainbow reflects institutions’ use of sexuality as a technology for control and regulation, the range of discourses concerning sexuality within the novel also construct sexual practice as a tool of resistance (discourse itself being a tool that “undermines and exposes [power], renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart” [History 101]). Echoing Thanatz’s recognition that establishing queer sexuality at the family level would threaten the state, Foucault explains how the family “conveys the law and the juridical dimension in the deployment of sexuality” and how “sexuality has its privileged point of development in the family” (History 108); thus, any queering of pleasures that occurs on this level can potentially disrupt the process of founding social order.
The novel’s encyclopedic scope models the proliferation of discourses concerning sexuality that Foucault analyzes that forces sexuality “to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (History 18). The paranoid history depicted in Gravity’s Rainbow—“a peculiar structure that no one admitted to” (196)—aligns with Foucault’s theorization of sexuality as “a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power” (History 106). Gravity’s Rainbow is itself a great surface network that links embodied pleasure, sexual practices, and scientific and political knowledge—including knowledge about how queerness might respond to the major strategies of power. Indeed, Foucault investigates the operations of power behind scientific records and official historical facts in much the same way that Pynchon’s paranoid history uncovers “layer upon layer of conspiracy behind the official historical facts of the Second World War” (McHale, Postmodernist 91) and, we might add, behind the institutional deployment of sexuality.
Insisting on the pleasures of Pynchon’s pornographic representations—even those that occur within institutional frames—reveals how Pynchon prefigures Foucault’s assertion that “the rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures” (History 157)—that is, that which exceeds the discursive (disciplinary) constraints of sexuality, as defined by official discourses. The possibility of diegetic and extradiegetic queer pleasures challenges Pynchon scholarship that delinks postmodernist narrative subversion from the text’s s/m content—such as Herman and Weisenburger’s reading in which s/m becomes the basis for their dark conclusion: “[Y]our ‘chances for freedom’ were never really chances. That too was a useful fantasy” (221).14 The idea that “the novel imagines no way out from under the dominion of [the] trinity” of technology, capital, and war whose “governing spirits” are Dominus Blicero and Domina Nocturna (Herman and Weisenburger 220) obscures power’s multi-directional operations in Pudding’s and Blicero’s s/m.
Acknowledging the potential queerness of Pynchon’s readers further illuminates how postmodernist subversion and s/m reinforce and structure one another. Indeed, Herman and Weisenburger’s introduction—which identifies “dominance” “as posing the greatest threat to the ‘chances for freedom’ in Pynchon’s storyworld and, arguably, the readers’ as well” (15)—functions as a prophylactic for both critic and reader, protecting us from association with those “salacious but disturbing energies of mock pornographic parodies” (17). By describing “domination” as “freedom’s antonym, defining what threatens the supposedly inherent rights upheld in liberal thought and practice” (15), Herman and Weisenburger discount the pleasure that might inhere in Pynchon’s s/m—either for extradiegetic readers or characters. Recall Gottfried’s enjoyment of “the word bitch, spoken now in a certain tone of voice” (105) or Katje’s suppressed moans when she canes Pudding (237), not to mention Pynchon’s more generalized representation of erotic pain as “the clearest poetry, the endearment of greatest worth” (237). Indeed, previous readings have dismissed the possibility that a reader of Gravity’s Rainbow might have a sexual life in which—as for some of Pynchon’s characters—domination is not experienced as freedom’s antonym but rather as a necessary condition of (sexual) freedom. Pain for s/m practitioners is not an end in and of itself but rather that which signals “the ritual, the anticipation, the profound trust” (Driven-woman 13) that makes s/m practice a valuable exploration of the pleasures of domination and submission.15
While Foucault’s theories focus on the nineteenth-century creation of sexuality and its relation to power, Pynchon’s novel articulates the power/sex dynamics that were contemporary with the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow, illustrating the lasting and pervasive effects of nineteenth-century sexuality discourses on postwar America. Such lasting effects manifest themselves in Pynchon scholarship, which almost invariably deploys the stigmatizing language of official discourses when reading s/m. This critical strategy attempts to rescue Pynchon’s text from its pornographic pleasures by distancing his representations of queer sex from embodied practices and insisting that s/m, or queerness more generally, operates solely as a metaphor or satire in Pynchon. Critics’ quest to discover the “true” (i.e., nonsexual) meaning of s/m or to identify its social origins ironically parallels the work of sexology and psychoanalysis, which seek to uncover root causes in order to “cure” patients. By characterizing s/m as a perversion of normalcy, such discourses—critical and medical—fail to see s/m as a significant structuring agent in a text or a patient—neither of which need to be saved. Highlighting the possibility of pleasure in sexual power games—in Pynchon’s storyworld and among extradiegetic readers—disrupts s/m’s pathologization and challenges the claim that domination invariably forecloses our chances for freedom. Instead, we should see these pleasures as potential vehicles for transgressing institutional power or, at the very least, as overlooked modes of knowledge production; in either case, the queer pleasures of Pynchon’s text become fundamental to his paradigmatic postmodernism.
1. Pudding, a World War I veteran who “must be pushing 80” (78), reenlisted in 1940 and was assigned, to his dismay, to the political warfare unit. Blicero, a reference to a Germanic folk name for death (from “der bleicher,” which means “‘The Bleacher,’ for what death does to bones” (Weisenburger 37)), is the code name for Nazi lieutenant, and later captain, Weissmann.
2. This counters the anti-s/m feminist claim that s/m is a replication of patriarchal gender dynamics. Despite the nominally heterosexual structure of some of Pynchon’s s/m representations, s/m remains fundamentally queer, particularly since “heterosexual S/M is not standard heterosexuality. Straight S/M is stigmatized and persecuted. […] Once someone starts to use whips, ropes, and all the theatre, they are considered to be perverts, not normal” (Rubin, “The Leather Menace” 221).
3. Although there are many ways to reference the distinction between form and content (e.g. “discourse/storyworld,” “fabula/sjužet”), I use “discourse” to refer to structure/form, and “narrative” to refer to the story’s content.
4. Though not coextensive with “postmodernism,” queer theory’s rejection of essentialist notions of gender and sexuality are indebted to postmodernism’s investment in the dissolution of the subject and destabilization of meaning.
5. For McHale, modernists foreground epistemological questions, whereas post-modernists foreground ontological questions, which are reflected in the clustering of thematic and formal qualities associated with postmodernist fiction.
6. For example, Edmund White mentions Pynchon’s “sado-anarchism” in a 1980 interview published in Drummer magazine—America’s first gay leather magazine.
7. Despite Pointsman’s grasps for power in PISCES, he mustn’t be conflated with the newer formations of power; Pointsman is a true Pavlovian and “model of determinist thought and practice serving the ultimate domination of nature and man” (Herman and Weisenburger 7).
8. For an extended discussion of interracial homosexuality and the subversive (queer) potential in embracing the abject, see Scott.
9. This goes against Hamill’s assertion that characters’ retreats to private fantasies leave them vulnerable to “the tyranny of a wider social agency” (53).
10. Muñoz elaborates on “interiorized passing” through reading a performance by the drag queen Vaginal Davis, who takes on the role of “Clarence,” a white supremacist militia man, as “an active disidentification with strictures against cross-racial desire” (104–5) that grafts “aspects of the self that are toxic to the militiaman—blackness, gayness, and transvestitism […] onto this particularly militaristic script of masculinity […], inhabit[ing] and undermin[ing] the militiaman with a fierce sense of parody” (106).
11. This interpretation of Blicero’s tarot—that the launching of the rocket points to his having been absorbed by American institutional power rather than an oppressive apotheosis of his power mania—is based on Weisenburger’s meticulous research on tarot symbolism that indicates how “Weissmann’s tarot points up the end of his romantic desire and its translation into business, into conformity, into the cartelized military industrial sovereignties of the postwar period” (375).
12. We must distinguish between this general aesthetic fetishization of hypermasculinity with fascistic overtones and the much less common practice of adopting “a historically accurate symbol such as the swastika […] in a way that is continuous with the dominant imagery and state-level ideological interests of Third Reich Nazism” or even “choosing a ‘plaything’ that has been recuperated within the living symbolism of current neo-Nazi subgroups” (Wayne 249).
13. That many of the v-2s were constructed by slave laborers from the Dora concentration camp who were “interned for violating paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code, ‘which exacted punishment for certain abnormal sex practices’ (Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler 45)” (Weisenburger 182), further demonstrates the paradox of Blicero’s queer sadomasochism; his masochistic pleasure in the rockets and sadistic sexual relationship with Gottfried rely on a Nazi regime that both exploited and sought to exterminate homosexuals.
14. One might also consider the utility of fantasy in terms of resistant, queer subjectivities. See Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia and Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender (in which she explains how the “critical promise of fantasy” challenges “the contingent limits of what will and will not be called reality” ).
15. See also Mains.
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