In a corporate State, a place must be made for innocence, and its many uses. (GR 419)
Soft Bodies; Cheap Thrills
In his 1984 essay “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” Thomas Pynchon argues that literatures of sensation are often barred from the canon, due apparently to an official parsimony regarding the sublimation of literary affect. The gothic genre, for example, suffers, Pynchon laments, “because it use[s] images of death and ghostly survival toward no more responsible end than special effects and cheap thrills” (par. 20, emphasis added). For the tastemakers of the canon, a more aesthetic purpose should be found for such excessive confections as literary death and haunting. But of course, special effects and cheap thrills are the very stuff of mass entertainment, which often deal in the trades of sex and violence. The gothic, as popular as it is literary, is, in John Bowen’s suggestion, filled with such things: “a particularly strange and perverse family of texts which themselves are full of strange families, irrigated with scenes of rape and incest” (par. 1). Pynchon’s investment in popular literatures of sensation is of a piece with the impulse to thrill and violate we find in his own work. In the present essay, the notion of the thrill is central, partly as it relates to violence but chiefly as it pertains to sex and, more particularly, to pornography. The Pynchonian thrill opens what I call the affective or “soft” body, both of the reader and the text. And while I argue for the centrality of pornography to Pynchon’s work, I also consider the modes of resistance and complicity with power and social institutions this genre enacts, as Pynchon deploys it. Questions of whether pornography can ever be a critical discourse, the identity of the bodies it engages, and the nature of the thrills it provides, also steer what follows.
Commenting on violence in Pynchon’s first novel V. (1963), Michael Kowalewski makes some observations that could just as easily apply to sex too, noting that violence, “like so much else in Pynchon’s work, is less a subject than a theater of operations” (236). Not just thematic or metaphorical, violence is a kind of affective performance, a mode of literary production designed to trouble its own boundaries so that content is not wholly sublimated to the function of narrative. Violent scenes “share the page with parodic excesses”—they often are such excesses—and the writer frequently “abdicates any lasting responsibility” for them, as Kowalewski suggests (236). Violence punctuates Pynchon’s texts, he adds, to “rupture what Kurt Mondaugen [in V.] calls ‘the barren touchlessness of the past’” (236). Violent affect, he implies, breaches the text’s touchlessness too.
Think of The Courier’s Tragedy from The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). The (admittedly, faux-) Jacobean play makes a surprising comic connection with the novel’s present owing to the excessive violence it shares with Warner Brothers cartoons: “Every mode of violent death available to Renaissance man, including a lye pit, land mines, a trained falcon with envenom’d talons, is employed. It play[s], as Metzger remark[s] later, like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse” (58). Both The Courier’s Tragedy and the Road Runner, that is, attend to the affective body, which is more outside itself than in. The body is either in the “hands” of the tongue-snipping, eye-plucking Renaissance, with Pynchon’s anachronistic sixteenth-century landmines tossed in as an “excessive” detail, or it’s gripped, like the Coyote, by the repetitious death-driven mechanisms of postindustrial society. One can trace the genealogies of power leading from the authority of the aristocratic family to that of the modern corporate state or private corporation via the modes of violence and control pertinent to them. Indeed, V. attempts to do exactly that, coding such a history as an encroaching “inanimacy” that begins with Machiavelli and culminates with the Cold War. In the “V. in Love” chapter of that novel, the writer concentrates not on violence but on representations of sex as control, providing an erotic performance that is critical too, showing a genealogy of pornography linking the decadence of fin-de-siècle France with Cold War–era Playboy pornification in America.
To exist affectively within any historical formation is, as Gilles Deleuze describes it, to be in “a state of passional suspension in which [the body] exists more outside of itself, more in the abstracted action of the impinging thing and the abstracted context of that action, than within itself” (31). Affect, for Deleuze, is the body’s involuntary openness to sensations and forces operating from beyond itself: it is the body “abstracted” or extended outside its own limits—opened, we might say, onto historicity, for where else does sensation occur? Deconstructing the supposed hermeticism of human self and subjecthood, Deleuze’s permeable bodies share their substance with the environments and actions that impinge on them. For Pynchon, as Kowalewski indicates, the literary text too might be considered an “impinging thing”—one that contains a surplus that is also a site of sensation. And one that offers us historicity as well. Certainly, an endorsement of acts of writing and reading that serve to excite, encroach on, claim or reject us—as pornography is apt to do—is manifest in “Is It Ok to Be a Luddite and offers a means of reading these tendencies in Pynchon’s fiction.
For Pynchon, cheap literary thrills are not confined to any one genre. He imagines them rather as an affective field, or a collective social imaginary, with a residue of religion sometimes appearing as “the miraculous” (“Is It OK?” par. 18), aligning with what Susan Sontag says of pornography in “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967): that it “aims to ‘excite’ in the same way that books which render an extreme form of religious experience aim to ‘convert’” (95). Thrills run from the Great Awakening to the gothic to King Kong and are, in a sense, irrecuperable and nonfungible. They also have a certain relationship to magic, which of course threatens and impinges on us as well. Cheap thrills refer us, Pynchon suggests, to a moment before the consolidation of industrial capital, to an era in which “the laws of nature [have] not been so strictly formulated” (“Is It OK?” par. 18) and in which there are remnants of a folk culture, or precapitalist sociality.
The writer hence dedicates his politics of the literary thrill to the spirit of King Ludd and to working-class resistance to the machines of industrial (re)production: resistance is articulated as a refusal of realism, a prevalence of fantasy, or an investment in what is apparently inutile, momentary, and thrilling. After all, whether as laborer or vandal, the Luddite speaks from outside the capital relationship that determines what counts as real and as serious. Thrills are rooted in an affective economy in which sensations can resist or even criticize codified, bourgeois sentiment and its hegemonic sway.
Nowhere can such thrills be better experienced than in Pynchon’s use of pornography, a genre that, as Andrew Ross has pointed out, is “lower than low” because it refuses the “progressive sublimation” of life into art. Exteriorizing its contents, it provides, rather, “an actualizing, arousing body of inventive impressions” (Ross 200–201). Angela Carter too tells us that pornography “can never be art for art’s sake. Honorably enough, it is always art with work to do” (13). And since the eighteenth century, as Gertrude Himmelfarb notes, pornography has been a subcultural medium for the critique of religious and class norms: satire with a bang. In the pages, etchings, and photographs of subversive and political pornography, she says, “the powerless morph into the powerful” (3), although typically it is the bodies of women that do the heavy lifting. Prior to the 1789 revolution in France, for example, widely circulated pornographic texts and engravings depicting Marie Antoinette as an orgiast, lesbian, adulteress, and perpetrator of incest (for which she was tried by the Revolutionary Criminal Tribunal) formed part of the republican propaganda. As Lynn Hunt suggests, these intimate satires attacked the “many bodies” of the queen: regal, maternal, sexual, and others, driving out notions of the feminine in the conception of the new nation (119).
In an American context, Jesse Alemán and Shelley Streeby note the growth throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century of a popular sensational literature that “swerves away from sentimental didacticism” as well as sentimental fiction, turning its attention to women’s bodies in particular and exploring “intense emotions rather than regulating, refining, or transcending them” (xviii). Alemán and Streeby claim that these affectively saturated works also translate “political, social, and economic questions” (xviii); even Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) might find a place in such a category, they suggest. But how Alemán and Streeby view the gloopy surplus of feeling is unclear. Surely such texts have a primary affinity with and fashion sensations from the burgeoning pornographic sensibility evident both in racy novels for women in America and the new art of photography.
Pornography is the very paradigm of the cheap thrill; like the term “sensation,” a “thrill” can be corporeal or it can be social, slipping between many people. A thriller is a movie, a machine for making thrills, but cheap thrills must come from somewhere lower down the pecking order, somewhere like pornography. And as early as the writing of V., Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger inform us, Pynchon wrote to his friend and editor Faith Sale that his talents were as a “surrealist, pornographer, word engineer, maybe” (17). Later, in the introduction to his collected early stories, Slow Learner (1984), Pynchon considers American pornography of the 1950s in respect of the repressive “excesses of law enforcement” (8) associated with publishing Howl, Lolita, and Tropic of Cancer. The writer considers the chastening, circumlocutory effects these cases had on other authors’ descriptions of sex, including his own overly “fancy” efforts in “The Small Rain” (1959) (10).
He uses Slow Learner to discuss too what he sees as the “widely shared,” masculinized values of Playboy magazine, which was founded in 1953 and which brought a big-budget bourgeois respectability to pornography. In fact, as many commentators suggest, Playboy takes a central place in American postwar constructions of the good life: a postdomestic fantasy space orienting a lifestyle—itself a new term (see Adler)—of gadgety technomasculinity and imagined “pornotopia,” as Beatriz Preciado, borrowing from Steven Marcus (The Other Victorians ), describes it. Clearly, the 1950s were a good time for American men; in Hard Core (1989), Linda Williams points out that Marcus’s pornotopia refers to nineteenth-century pornography and a period that imagined a limitless economy of male libido and endless jizzing (105); Playboy suavely recuperates precisely this patriarchal cultural imaginary but as part of a new image of American men and limitless American power. It’s hard then to see this era of pornography as a minor or subaltern cultural product, as its advocates often plead, when the flagship brand consists of a corporate network with global reach and huge social influence. Pynchon, for his part, claims Playboy informed his creation of Nerissa in “Low-lands” (1960)—a sexualized child-woman, three and a half feet tall and a bona fide cheap thrill, appearing magically from nowhere and condensing for the main character, Dennis Flange, both paternal and heterosexual-erotic feelings. Dennis wants to father children but is too juvenile for a relationship with an adult woman, Pynchon explains in his introduction.
Dubious as this explanation of Dennis already is, Pynchon makes it even more so with an odd, unnecessary prevarication on the matter of whether this female fantasy figure is personal to him: “It would be easy to say that Dennis’s problem was my problem,” Pynchon writes, adding gnomically, “[w]hatever’s fair—but the problem could have been more general” (12). Certainly, the figure of the child-woman had been increasingly prominent in the novels that preceded the publication of Slow Learner, and in his 1985 review of the collection, Richard Poirier describes Pynchon’s first three major works as “heavily populated with barely pubescent bed partners” (19).
Poirier’s right: in Gravity’s Rainbow there is obviously Bianca, who, like Lolita, is “11 or 12, dark and lovely” (550), but there are also Ilse Pökler and Geli Tripping; maybe the Girl Guides in the park, “bent over, unaware, the saucy darlings, of the fatal strips of white cotton knickers thus displayed,” could qualify too. Their “baby-fat buttocks” are, we’re told, “a blow to the Genital Brain” (13). There is also Enzian, the mountain gentian plucked by Blicero. In V., there is Mélanie l’Heuremaudit and Esther, whom Kowalewski calls “a cross between a naif and a nymphette [sic]” (244). In The Crying of Lot 49, John Nefastis tells Oedipa about his TV habits: “I like to watch young stuff. […] There’s something about a little chick that age,” he says; “So does my husband,” Oedipa shoots back (72). One might also include the Vroom girls in Mason & Dixon (1997) in this category, especially twelve-year-old Els, who sexually taunts Mason, “her nether Orbs upon Mason’s Lap, to his involuntary, tho’ growing Interest” (64), as well as the assorted pedophilia and semipedophilia in all the works thereafter.
It is perhaps these representations and the representations of nonconsensual sex in Lot 49 and Against the Day (2006), as well as Pynchon’s presentation of pornographic images of women on illustrated neckties in both Vineland (1990) and Inherent Vice (2009), that accounts for critic Joanna Freer’s discontent with the Slow Learner introduction’s performance of contrition, its now-enlightened and sobered perception that grown men can be “small boys inside” (12). Freer challenges claims made by critics like Jeffrey Severs that women are presented in less adolescent fashion—less pornographically—in Pynchon’s later works, after the first big three (154–56). These are valid concerns. I hope to show that particularly in his more outré, sexological, and pornographic moments, Pynchon in fact steps outside some of these patriarchal or phallogocentric positions, questioning not just the disciplines of bourgeois sentiment but the nature of sex and sexuality themselves.
Incitements to Intercourse
Before we consider some of Pynchon’s particular pornographies, however, we should explore further how the genre functions and some of the politics around it. I’ve described pornographic writing as a conduit for the cheap thrills Pynchon values so much: a writing that fails or does not wish to sublimate life into art. Sontag argues the other way, seeking to gentrify the “serious” literary end of pornography, although she acknowledges its stimulatory aspects and notes, usefully, its irrecuperable thrill or frisson of obscenity. Not simply the secret obedience to the law we find in the deliberate transgression of law, pornography in “the French tradition” from Sade through Lautréamont to Bataille suggests for her that “‘the obscene’ is a primal notion of human consciousness, something much more profound than the backwash of a sick society’s aversion to the body” (103). The obscene has a kind of positive value. And she argues that there is thus no healthy, well-adjusted ground of sexuality such as American Freudianism or sexology might lead us to suppose; the essence of pornography is to perform and affirm dirtiness, dissipation, and self-destruction. “What does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners?—a violation bordering on death, bordering on murder?” asks Bataille, in Death and Sensuality. “Bodies open out to a state of continuity through secret channels that give us a feeling of obscenity” (17).
Conversely, Rae Langton persuasively presents Catharine MacKinnon’s well-known “civil rights” arguments against pornography—that it silences and subordinates women and encourages rape in practice—in terms of performativity too. She draws on J. L. Austin’s theory of performative speech acts, in which words do more than simply mean. Using Austin’s terminology, Langton describes how the “perlocutionary” or persuasive aspects of pornography can encourage an audience to be sexually aroused while, or even through, confirming women’s inferiority and readiness to be subordinated. One immediately thinks of the many s&m sequences in Pynchon’s work in which dominated women experience sexual pleasure: most famously perhaps, Greta Erdmann’s scenes in the making of Alpdrücken (GR 394). Is the pleasure of the text associated with its violence? Langton writes of pornography’s “illocutionary force” (296) too, or the extent to which a speech act, or image, urges, even constitutes a kind of real action, like ranking women as objects in a patriarchal hierarchy or providing a powerful mandate for violent acts. “What is important is whether [pornography] is authoritative in the domain that counts—the domain of speech about sex—and whether it is authoritative for the hearers that count” (312), she argues, pointing out that far from a constituting a subculture, most pornography represents hegemonic, patriarchal perspectives and, citing MacKinnon, that it “sexualizes rape, battery, sexual harassment […] and child sexual abuse; it […] celebrates, promotes, authorizes and legitimates them” (307).
Pornography was a subject of heated debate among second-wave feminists starting in the early 1970s, a debate that reached a crisis with the failure of MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin’s ordinances to the U.S. Supreme Court to legislate against pornography in 1986 (see Watson 547; Morgan 169). But Langton’s argument offers us another way of looking at the performative nature of pornography, one that belongs to another discourse on sexuality associated primarily with Michel Foucault but also with Judith Butler (whose pioneering Gender Trouble  and Bodies That Matter  read gender as performative, producing sex). One does not have to approach pornography from the “domain of speech about sex” or in terms of a dispute about the direct social effects of pornography and its repertoire of representations; instead, it’s possible to “pass behind” this scene to view pornography from another perspective as a type of performativity for which the illocutionary is only supplementary.
A feature of what Foucault in The History of Sexuality (1976) calls (after Bataille) a “general economy of discourse on sex” (11) is that all talk on sex, all thinking about, codifying, repressing, and representing of sex, as well as doing it, proves to be not just reactively or managerially “about” or “of” sex and sexuality but constitutive and productive of these phenomena too. In a much-cited passage, Foucault explains how the history of sexuality is not about the repression, management, or liberating of human nature; rather it constitutes the genealogy of a discursive formation:
Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but 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. (105–6)
Expressing doubt that sex has effectively been repressed for the past three hundred years, Foucault suggests that institutional repressiveness should be regarded as just part of “a general economy of discourses on sex in modern societies since the seventeenth century” (11); what really happened, he says, “was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse” (34).
So the kind of repressiveness Pynchon notes regarding the publication of Howl, Lolita, and Tropic of Cancer and that led to his own “fancy” and oblique writing in “The Small Rain” doesn’t ignore, repress, or overlook sex or talk about sex; it simply acts as a prompt or incitement to code and discuss it in different ways, the result of which is to shift intensities to other locutions, expressions, and institutions. “The Small Rain,” uses no directly sexual terms but instead employs the device of a frog chorus “working itself into a pedal bass” to depict the growing intensity of the act of sex: certainly, this “savage chorus” (SL 50) may be considered part of a wider trope that depicts sex as animalistic and fucking as basic nature, but the amphibious musical metaphor here leads us into unfamiliar territory: a little funny; a little unintentionally funny; a little disturbing and alien. The shift into a ranine (froggy) register doesn’t intensify sexual discourse exactly; rather, it deterritorializes it by giving it over to the frog army.
Meanwhile, although sex and sexuality are not natural objects, we are, Foucault insists, inextricably bound to them. He closes the first volume of his History with a sage reflection on how the many discourses of sex add up to the “austere monarchy of sex” (159). Sex is a discourse, he tells us, that suggests it has a secret to reveal about human nature, just as Freud thought, but its secret is that it has no secret: it is simply an accretion or distribution of points through which power flows, its history a genealogy of that power as exercised by class, church, and, especially in bourgeois modernity, social institutions of administration and education. As society becomes less statist, “softer,” more fluid and neoliberal after the early 1970s, searching to innovate markets and invent consumers, so the discourse and apparatus of sex follows similar patterns of derigidification. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that Deep Throat, made in 1972, “was one of the first hard-core features to be seen by large numbers of women in theaters” and that “it was also one of the first pornographic films to concentrate on the problem of a woman’s pleasure and to suggest that some sexual acts were less than earthshaking” (Williams 25).
Pornography, on this account, is not revelatory or liberatory of sex and sexuality at all. It’s simply another institution—Foucault also names “medicine, psychiatry, prostitution, and pornography” (48)—through which pleasure and power are analyzed and multiplied, extending the network, following the contours of a changing capitalist society. Just as homosexuality is codified into a “species” (43), in Foucault’s memorable phrase, by nineteenth-century medicine and psychiatry, acting in defense of bourgeois marriage and heteronormativity, so too is pornography, along with other “perversions” that come to be classified by the scientists of sex like Krafft-Ebbing and Wilhelm Reich. Pornography emerges in the twentieth century as a field with its own specialized knowledges and categorizations. In the internet age, we are inducted to the universes of “s&m,” “anal,” “teen,” “European,” and so forth. In this sense, Langton’s case for MacKinnon—that pornography underwrites rape and violence against women—is correct. Pornography is a key technology in the invention of sex and sex practices and in the co-optation of violent practices for the discourse of sex; violence, however, can never be at its center, because there is no center.
More surely than any of Pynchon’s other works, Gravity’s Rainbow can be seen in this light as itself a pornographic machine, duly developing its own pornographic knowledge and lexicon. The text provides, for example, a sense of how the (particularly masculine) body and discursive field of sex interact: rollicking hero/antihero Pirate Prentice notices that “[l]ike every young man growing up in England, he was conditioned to get a hardon in the presence of certain fetishes” and wonders whether there might be “somewhere, a dossier,” and whether “They (They?) somehow have managed to monitor everything he saw and read since puberty” (71–72), a thought conjuring an image of armies of penises erecting together. Meanwhile, the novel has its own porno idiolect: Slothrop is an “ass enthusiast” (469); “subdebs” occupy the role later occupied in American fiction by Bret Easton Ellis’s equally pornified “hardbodies” in American Psycho (1991); Bianca’s breasts are “pre-subdeb” (469); and there’s an extended dissertation on women’s stockings (“[A]ny underwear fetishist worth his unwholesome giggle can tell you there is much more here—there is a cosmology” ), among many more categories and subdivisions of sexual knowledge. Bohdana Kurylo notes that the later Foucault refers to pornography as the modern “sexographic writing” sustaining sex’s monarchy and extending its territory, its “Zone.” It’s pornography—“the queen of sexography,” as she says—that makes humans want to “decipher sex as the universal secret” (78), a notion to which we now move.
Pökler in Love
Published in 1992, Michael Bérubé’s Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers provides perhaps the most sustained excursion into Pynchon’s pornographies in the critical field. Inspired by Steven Marcus’s comments from The Other Victorians that all pornographers are screaming inside for the breast from which they were torn and that pornography aims to satisfy this need endlessly, Bérubé uses a Lacanian model to decipher pornography in Pynchon’s work. “Gravity’s Rainbow” he writes, “gives us something like a post-structuralist version of Marcus’s account of (male) deprivation and rage” (245). Working with the notion that the signifier records a desolating maternalized loss as much as it operates symbolically, Bérubé regards Pynchon’s pornography as an attempt to reconstruct edenic plenitude in a broken world, citing as evidence the metaphor of the film stills used to reconstruct Ilse as a continuous “daughter” for Franz, who is interpellated as a desiring subject along the plane of these signifiers. His reading recalls Williams’s work on Edward Muybridge, whose 1880s stop-frame projections of naked and seminaked women introduced a fetishistic desire to know into cinema’s infancy. “We see,” Williams argues, “how an unprecedented conjunction of pleasure and power ‘implants’ a cinematic perversion of fetishism in the prototypical cinema’s first halting steps toward narrative” (39).
But where Williams already sees the part-body and fetish as the locus of desire and knowledge, for Bérubé, pornography in Gravity’s Rainbow is “a regressive anamnesia that recreates illusory, prelapsarian (or prelinguistic) unities through a complex mechanism of dismemberment and reconfiguration” (248, emphases added). Bérubé, in other words, reads pornography romantically. And there is a cultural-nostalgic sense to this interpretation too: he lists the many yearnings for mother ideas and motherlands in the novel, as Squalidozzi does for Argentina.1 Perhaps, indeed, it makes the most sense to interpret Bérubé’s account of pornography in cultural terms. Bérubé’s pornographic anamnesia, that is, wishes exactly to decipher sex as the universal secret, to recall Foucault’s comments; he seeks to open sex up, to reveal it as always already tragic and oedipal, even Proustian. Pornography considered thus is a more or less masculinized and unconscious sidestepping of the thwarted desires of infancy, as Marcus suggests: a dreamlike wish fulfillment that confuses adult sexuality with its earlier organization (in fact, for Freud, anal) and adult women with maternal archetypes.2 Is this really the logic of Gravity’s Rainbow’s pornographized episodes?
Franz Pökler’s desire to fuck “Ilse”—which is as oedipal as the novel gets—is, for example, framed first as indirect confession, as the character imagines Them administrating his happiness, knowing about him, opening a dossier on his quirks: the same concern Pirate voices. We hear Them, imagined by Franz, plotting: “Pökler, now, has mentioned a ‘daughter.’ Yes, yes we know it’s disgusting, one can never tell what they have locked up in there [their minds] with those equations” (420). So when Pökler strikes Ilse for wanting to occupy the bed with him, and the precisely worked money shot hits us—“before she could cry or speak, he had dragged her up on the bed next to him, her dazed little hands already at the buttons of his trousers, her white frock already pulled up above her waist. She had been wearing nothing at all underneath, nothing all day … how I’ve wanted you, she whispered as paternal plow found its way into filial furrow” (420)—there is a sense that all this has “already” been written. Notwithstanding the thrill of this passage, which may indeed owe something to oedipal transgression and may too be an example of the soft body, or shared body inhabited by reader and text, it’s important that this account of “incest” is already logged in Their account book. This sex crime is already catalogued and ratified; nothing is revealed. Underscoring this is the subsequent speculation that Ilse is a different girl in each of Pökler’s furloughs and is hence the fetish of a daughter rather than a real one, which would make this just “play” with incest. Really, then, the episode corresponds to an established example of Foucault’s incitement to discourse.
Echoing Adorno and Horkheimer’s maxim that in capitalism “something is provided for all so that none may escape” (123), Foucault describes how all and any sexual activities, anarchic and uncategorized, become codified and incorporated into mechanisms or networks of control and surveillance: “The implantation of perversions is an instrument-effect: it is through the isolation, intensification, and consolidation of peripheral sexualities that the relations of power to sex and pleasure branched out and multiplied, measured the body, and penetrated modes of conduct. […] Pleasure and power do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap, and reinforce one another” (48). The evasion of oedipal injunctions—despite the cultural ascendancy of the oedipal model and despite the incitement to discourse the breaking of the taboo must thus carry—can be no more central to the truth of sexuality or pornography as its sexographer than any other of the “perversions.” Far from the tragic encounter with loss Béreubé posits, Pökler’s encounter is, rather, the reiteration of a peripheral sexuality in an extant network of possibilities in which all sexualities are, in a sense, peripheral—desire working productively alongside prohibition. If the reader has attached thrills or horrors to the scene, is she not as oedipal as Bérubé, rooted in a Victorian family drama, saturated with the values of the class and epoch that produced it? Are Pökler’s (and our) thrills not in fact closer to that of the fetish?
The pleasure of the fetish—let’s say, “the incest taboo”—is not its instantiation or recuperation of loss; rather, its pleasure arises from the self-consciousness of itself as fetish, as simply an iteration of “sex.” If Foucault suggests and Pynchon shows that sex is not a site of truth but a mediation and experience of discourse and power, then sexual desire itself becomes a type of fetish, but one that replaces nothing nor compensates for anything. Sex is part of an apparatus of power, and pornography—as a lever of that power—offers a particularly clear-eyed view of how discourses and species of sex might function socially. Leni Pökler famously unmasks pieties of motherhood in the novel—“Mothers work for Them!” (219)—while Pynchon’s pornography in the Franz/Ilse scenes presents oedipalism as really another contingent species. Cognitively and affectively, pornography here is working as critique.
Perhaps this explains why the scene is framed as a fantasy. Herman and Weisenburger note that critics of the parallel Slothrop/Bianca scene in Gravity’s Rainbow read it as hallucinatory and ambiguous, avoiding a consideration of its “ethical framing” (78) and its representation of pedophilia. For the reader of a text, the purported ontological status of its narrative moments is surely considerably less important than its gestures linking affects with particular contents. The soft body—that of the reader, in this case—is always open for business with the soft body of the text, even if it’s not sure what it’s getting itself into. In his study of Rat Man, Freud points out that wishes may express themselves as their opposites, but this doesn’t diminish their force. He recounts the wisdom that “it was equally punishable to say, ‘The Emperor is an ass,’ or to disguise the forbidden words by saying ‘If any one says, etc., … then he will have me to reckon with’” (317). The affective charge of the injury to the emperor runs through both phrases, despite their opposite meanings. So it is too with narrative episodes that disavow their own fictional reality or that try to negate what they so palpably seek to realize.
The Self-Induced Orgasm
As I have suggested, Bérubé’s figure of regressive anamnesia works far more effectively as a cultural metaphor than a pornographic one. When Pynchon deploys Vanya, one of the Weimar protorevolutionaries in Gravity’s Rainbow, to denounce culture as pornographic through and through, we see how culture and pornography blur. “[L]ook at the forms of capitalist expression,” Vanya says: “[P]ornographies of love, erotic love, Christian love, boy-and-his-dog, pornographies of sunsets, pornographies of killing, and pornographies of deduction. […] The self-induced orgasm” (155). Stefan Mattessich reads these comments as a parody of the Epic Theatre tradition of Brecht, peeling culture back to investigate its conditions of production (101–2). Arguably, though, Vanya reveals a valuable link between the pornographic and the kitsch: the spectacle or sensation of the sunset, the boy and his dog, killing, can all be consumed with equal self-pleasuring equanimity. As Milan Kundera observes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch” (244). Capitalist culture, he suggests, is overcoded, over-determined, impossible to experience authentically or nonindustrially. The erotic charge penetrating our experience of the sun, the dog, the murders, the deductions, cathects a structure of feeling prepared in advance, its affective payload carefully freighted for us and its distribution circuit overlapping perilously with the pornographic. Perhaps the soft bodies of discourse are melting together, just as capitalism becomes more fluid.
Such a kitsch experience is the cheapest thrill of all, but not one that Pynchon advocates, of course. As Mattessich astutely notes, the writer’s gesture is finally toward the opacity and difficulty of the text itself: “Gravity’s Rainbow does not want to be merely a good commodity, a prop in the theatre of an autoerotic consumption” (102), he says. Rather, it, along with Pynchon’s other works, seeks to generate a different set of affects than those simply reinforcing self-attention or self-congratulation. Can we call this a “good” pornography or a really special effect? For Wes Chapman, “the masturbator, physical or emotional, is the ideal [ideologically defunct] citizen […], unlikely to form the bonds with other people which threaten the effectiveness of the ‘structures favoring death’ by affirming the value of life. Pornography, then, is for Pynchon a means by which the state wields power over its citizens at the micropolitical level” (par. 10). While it’s true, as we have seen, that pornography operates at the micro level, the sense that its forms, tropes, and bodies of knowledge are imposed from the top down, like power nakedly wielded, is precisely what Foucault attempts to dispel by presenting power as productive. Like a kind of Maxwell’s demon or a falling rocket, Foucault’s idea of power orders and distributes effects, retrospectively instantiating causes. Can such redistributions tip over into the critical? Is a textual machine able to intervene in the field of the pornographic in surprising ways?
Turning back to V. to gather together the themes of this essay, we might consider how Pynchon solicits from our soft bodies some thrills that go beyond the masturbatory (even if they include the erotic and pornographic). V. is, on the face of it, one of the least propitious texts in this regard. As Severs points out, the early Pynchon seems cruel to the point of misogyny: “In 1963, [he] felt compelled to portray a virginal girl being raped and killed by the inanimate as proof that modernity had destroyed cyclic renewal on the eve of war” (235). Oddly, though, it’s precisely the pornographic mode V. employs in this section that alerts us to the sociosexual production of the figure of the child-woman and its significances.
The chapter in question, “V. in Love,” written by Stencil, is set in the Third Republic, belle époque Paris of 1913, a moment on the brink of something terrible and invisible to the characters—a time when the sky is always a nacreous yellow and debauched artists hold black masses. And it does indeed make Severs’s point: Mélanie L’Heuremaudit, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, a dancer and naïf of sorts, abandoned by her parents, comes to the city from Normandy to perform Rape of the Chinese Virgins, a thinly veiled Rite of Spring (1913), replete with characters who proxy for Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky, as David Cowart has detailed (165). Mélanie is rendered a fetishized object in a love affair with the novel’s central character V., probably played here by Victoria Wren. Then, in the riot that accompanies the first performance of the ballet, Mélanie dies bloodily, penetrated by a metal pole that is one of the props. She should have been wearing a chastity belt.
Like Pynchon’s writing more generally, though, the chapter is so overdetermined, so laden with potential pretexts and significances, that it would traduce it to isolate one theme so brutally—in this case, the desecration of the White Goddess theme, written about so authoritatively by Judith Chambers. Why not point to the context of the French Empire, made prominent in the orientalism of the chapter and its implied peripheral spaces? Mélanie’s father has “fled to the jungles” (399), for example, reminding us of the 1880s scramble for Africa, which links in turn to the new music of Stravinsky—its modernism and incorporation of the “primitive.” The rise of Freud is documented here too: Itague, who stands in for Diaghilev, has read “the new science of the mind” (408), as have others, and he knows about fetishism. Transnational Paris and its queer sexual adventurers are also central to the plot. Meanwhile, the writer character Gerfaut, “sat by a window, discoursing on how for some reason the young girl—adolescent or younger—had again become the mode in erotic fiction” (402).
These connecting themes, determining and overdetermining one another—referring anachronistically to the American 1950s and 1960s, to Lolita as well as pre–World War I France—seem to produce a complex, self-conscious form of the kind of horizontal, epistemic readings of history for which Foucault is known (see Ligny 174), knotting together empire, art, sex, sexology, and eroticism with encroaching end times. What kind of sexual performativity or incitements to discourse emerge from this web?
First, “V. in Love” seems to operate under the sign of the libertine. Decadent Paris and the context of a social circle “inclined toward sadism, sacrilege, endogamy and homosexuality” (407) encourage this view, echoing the writings of Sade, who hovers behind the text and whose intellectual star, as Sontag notes, rose in the postwar years in which Pynchon was writing (95). Indeed, in the chapter, we enter a stock pornographic scenario that could date from any time in the late eighteenth century to the pre–World War I era, in the form of the almost silent heroine, abandoned by her parents, making her way in the city. This is already cognate with the narratives established in Sade’s Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797–1801), the Bildungsromans of the virtuous lost girl and the libertine, respectively, vastly differing sisters cast into the world as orphans: Mélanie as Justine, and Victoria, or V., as Juliette.
The impresario Itaque, for whose company Mélanie dances, wonders of the girl, for example, “Poor, young, pursued, fatherless. What would Gerfaut make of her? A wanton. In body if he could; in the pages of a manuscript most certainly. Writers had no moral sense” (402). Indeed, Gerfaut is writing a book about a girl called, “Doucette, thirteen and struggled within by passions she could not name. / ‘A child and yet a woman’” (402). His name means “falcon,” and so he joins self-described “peregrine” (or grifter) Max Rowley Bugg, a denizen of the Baedeker Alexandria of chapter 3 on the run from a child sex scandal, and V. too, who, “had found love at last in her peregrinations,” as morphologically linked predators and libertines in the novel (408, emphasis added). Strangely, Pynchon suppresses Itague’s and Satin’s—or Diaghilev’s and Nijinsky’s—historical homosexuality to render them threats to Mélanie as well (although of course the Sadian libertine affirms all sexual identities: “I am polysexual; I love everybody and everything,” proclaims Madame de Saint-Ange in Philosophy in the Boudoir ).
Events are conducted too under the sign of the Apollonian father, also a libertine and Mélanie’s lover, in the Sadian style. Traveling through Paris by taxi, “[t]o her left rose the dome of the Opéra, and tiny Appollo, with his golden lyre … / ‘Papa!’ she screamed” (394). She recalls, no doubt, the scenes in the family home in which “while Madeleine combed the hair of Maman in the other room, Mélanie lay on the wide bed beside [Papa], while he touched her in many places, and she squirmed and fought not to make a sound. It was their game” (394). Incest, alongside acts of homosexuality, is not optional for the libertine. Preempting certain kinds of queer theory and inspiring Bataille in his pursuit of the inutile, the libertine works directly against all proscriptions: “[W]hat right, I ask, has one man to dare to require of another man, either that he reform his tastes or attempt to model them after the social order?,” asks one of the predatory monks in Justine (188). Later, Stencil’s narration, stiff with sexology, reflects on Mélanie’s affair with V.: “Lesbianism, we are prone to think in this Freudian period of history,” he says, “stems from self-love projected on to some other human object. […] Such may have been the case with Mélanie, though who could say: perhaps the spell of incest at Serre Chaude was an indication that her preferences merely lay outside the usual, exogamous-heterosexual pattern which prevailed in 1913” (407).
Much commentary has been generated on Mélanie as fetish; she is directly addressed as “fétiche” by Itague and takes La Jarretière, the garter, as her stage name. I’ve noted the ecstasies Gravity’s Rainbow contemplates regarding such lingerie. Really, Mélanie must be the most fetishized figure in Pynchon’s oeuvre, a sexual body very much opened to the reader through his prose style. Importantly, though, she is a body who imagines herself as a fetish, a body whose sexuality subsists in imagining herself as a fetish. Fantasizing a Hitchcockian tumble down the steep roof of her family home, for example, Mélanie becomes a classically fetishized part-body, a series of sexual nodes and spaces, as she imagines, in delicate pornographese, how, “[h]er skirt would fly above her hips, her black-stockinged legs would writhe […], [the] feeling of roof-tiles rapidly sliding beneath the hard curve of her rump, the wind trapped under her blouse teasing the new breasts. […] [She would] let the dovetailed tiles tease her nipplepoints to an angry red, […] taste the long hair caught against her teeth and tongue, cry out …” (395).
But is the voice that objectifies her her voice? Hanjo Berressem regards her as ventriloquized by the father, just as Itague sees her “function as a mirror” for her father’s ghost (399): “[I]n taking the perspective of her father’s desire in relation to herself, she already inserts herself firmly into a fetish function” (61), Berressem says. But contra such a view, I suggest Mélanie is a character whose mirror constitutes her desiring self: this is where her erotics lie, we are frequently told. Although a naïf, she is not Justine; she is a fetish and a fetishist, as are we all. In fact, she is a profoundly queer figure, fondly recalling her father’s desire, desiring herself, entering into nongenital, scopophilic sexual encounters with V., and dressing “transvestite for the street” (407); yet still she is fifteen, poised between childhood and adulthood, one of the first of Pynchon’s many child-women, and hence an ethical problem.
Foucault discusses the sexualization of the child in the History of Sexuality, noting the convolutions of the bourgeois domestic space and the Victorian family as a provocation for sexualities that work through parents, servants, children: “The power which thus took charge of sexuality set about contacting bodies, caressing them with its eyes, intensifying areas, electrifying surfaces, dramatizing troubled moments. It wrapped the sexual body in its embrace” (44). One might revisit Mélanie’s home to see Madeleine combing the hair of Maman in an act both caressive and potentially sexual; the child is sexualized in this act, although not perhaps yet made a fully determined species of sexuality. Certainly, though, we see the circuits of power and sex that gestate such species. And certainly too our soft bodies are implicated in Pynchon’s erotic/pornographic prose.
So it might be pleasurable for we readers to troll the landscape of V. as a site of unrestrained libertinage, the sexy waif (we’ve already forgotten her age) flickering before our eyes as willing fetish, Pynchon’s textual dismemberments of her body allowing us to participate in the fetish, right up until the shocking moments in the theater. But behind this pornographic vision, something else is at work. “V. in Love,” like the Pökler/Ilse narrative in Gravity’s Rainbow, confronts us with the figure of the child-woman. The chapter’s mise en abyme featuring Gerfaut and the erotic novel about Doucette, in fact, even enacts a kind of reflexive metapornography, intensifying the troubling figure of the eroticized and erotic child. For Pynchon, this is a problem that, we might recall, in the case of “Low-Lands” “could have been more general.” He means surely that the child-woman is less a naturally ready vessel for libertinage than a product of the social-sexual apparatus Foucault writes about: a newly proliferating area of erotic kidultism and a new incitement to discourse. Playboy magazine, as he suggests, has its part to play there. In Pornotopia, Preciado tells us that the Barbie doll, launched in 1959, was modeled on a German sex toy called Lilli and was Hugh Hefner’s vision of ideal femininity. The transformation from Lilli to Mattel’s Barbie was “paradigmatic of a double process of the domestication of public sexuality and pornification of the domestic,” she says (64). And what both Playboy and Mattel achieved was the invention of the “mall-brothel” and the “mall-playground” as simultaneously public and private interiors.
Elsewhere, Simone de Beauvoir was applauding the emergence of a new kind of cinema star in the person of Brigitte Bardot: “She has a kind of spontaneous dignity, something of the gravity of childhood” (32), Beauvoir observes in Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome (1960), also praising Bardot’s Rousseauian naturalness, androgyny, sexual frankness, and appeal. Clearly there is something epistemic here. This sense of Bardot as sexy child—and indeed Beauvoir’s reference to Nabokov’s pseudoscientific notion of the nymphet—taken together with the new spaces of a more pornified modernity signal a wider codification of the child-woman as a new species. Or, as James Kincaid suggests in his study Erotic Innocence (1998), the signs and symptoms of cuteness, attractiveness, and desirability come to be projected onto the guileless, blank faces of children: “[T]he instructions we receive on what to regard as sexually arousing tell us to look for (and often create) this emptiness, to discover the erotic in that which is most susceptible to inscription, the blank page” (16), he writes. His insight suggests a notion of child sexualization as another land grab for neoliberalism: another virgin frontier for desire to conquer, located in new reaches of what Norman Mailer once called “psychic real estate” (106).
Pynchon’s repeated representations of child-women across his novels present us, time and again, with the endless manufacture of sexual identities and exposes the edifices of morality built on and around them that take them as the real oedipal thing. In so doing, he plays a double game, intensifying the pornography of the new species—which was in part made by pornography—at the same time as he critiques such species and exposes them as the extension of sexology. He also provides a frame for historical pornography—Gerfaut is an example—with which to trace some of its genealogical contours. Such a practice demonstrates both the ineluctable grip sexuality has on us—ruled by the monarchy of sex, we can never not be sexual—and also how hard it is to break the loop of an incitement to discourse once it has been sedimented in culture, no matter how deceptively and apparently transgressive this incitement might seem.
There is a sweetly sour redemptive side to all this: when Mélanie shows up again in Against the Day (2006), her grisly demise in “V. in Love” has been commuted, it seems, to rebirth; the viscera wasn’t real: “We used the … raspberry syrup” (1198), she says, Pynchon’s ellipses, as ever, ambiguous, the matter not entirely cleared up. What her death in one novel and rebirth in another have provided her with, however, is something not many child-women in pornography or, indeed, sensational literature get to enjoy: a fulfilled adulthood. Bianca, Ilse, Shirley Temple, even Lolita never get to keep the glamor. They die or they just fade away; the life of this species, as much as it proliferates with such prodigious fecundity in our present culture, is a precarious one indeed.
1. The role of Argentina in the novel is explored with remarkable grace and precision by Samuel Thomas in “The Gaucho Sells Out.”
2. See Freud, “On the Transformation.”
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