Pynchon the Competent Pornographer and the Female Conduit
A woman poses amid masturbating tunnel drillers in the Austrian Alps. In this pre-gangbang warm-up, gazing at “provocative and voracious” siren Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin (AtD 367) has these men standing around “stroking themselves without shame” (656). This desultory facsimile of male sexual camaraderie is reminiscent of much twenty-first-century gonzo porno: the school that turned away from feature-film narrative structures and diegetic segues. A spot-lit single female professional is positioned at the crux of desire for a shadowy convocation of invited amateur male fans: all that is missing is the fluffer tasked with maintaining their hard-ons. Gonzo has reached back a century, and Ruperta has assumed the porn star position, with all the engaged hobbyism of touring English nobility, in a daytime rehearsal for her nocturnal pastime of “being penetrated by a small queue of tunnel hands, often two at a time, who cursed her in unknown tongues” (657). She recounts her submissive encounter to arouse Reef Traverse, and he has rough sex with her without delay.1
Perhaps surprisingly for a novelist resolutely aligned with the counterculture, sexual extremity in his work can be mapped onto contemporary pornographies, after they crossed over from underground stag and loop to mainstream features in the early 1970s up to the 2000s. I have argued elsewhere that Pynchon’s seventh novel, Inherent Vice (2009), uses a 1960s nostalgia trip to normalize, render uncontroversial, the insidious influence of a sexualized mainstream colonized by hard core. Against the Day, however, brazenly exhibits motifs like double penetration and misogynist verbal humiliation, which have become staples of a twenty-first-century internet-streamed hard core, whose on-screen transgressions exceed both the porno-chic era concurrent with Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and the subsequent antiporn backlash that dissipated around the time Vineland was published (1990). Brian McNair uses the term “porno-chic,” taking it from a 1973 New York Times article (Blumenthal), to denote two periods in which pornography was fashionable. The first was the early 1970s: “For a brief time between the flowering of the sexual revolution and the emergence of the antipornography lobbies later in the 1970s the consumption of pornography was not viewed as the shameful obsession of emotionally stunted perverts, nor the sadistic pastime of patriarchal predators, but the valid entertainment choice for mature, sexually liberated, ‘swinging’ society” (Striptease 62). The second began in the early 1990s, “in a radically altered political context informed by feminist and gay liberation ideals” (64). It saw serious porn studies scholarship led by Linda Williams and became the subject of “pastiche, parody and aesthetic appropriation” (64). These are Pynchon’s techniques, as he anachronistically superimposes modern porno tropes on historical storyworlds, scripting power relations far beyond the narrowly sexual.
Pynchon described himself in a 1963 letter as a competent “surrealist, pornographer, word engineer, maybe” (qtd. in Herman and Weisenburger 17). Gravity’s Rainbow’s sexual deviance polarized debate over the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for fiction: the committee’s recommendation was unanimous in favor of Pynchon’s novel, but a squeamish Pulitzer board vetoed it on the grounds that it was “obscene” and “unreadable” (Kihss), a combination familiar from the Ulysses prosecutions and burnings. However, where obscurity had once mitigated obscenity in the eyes of the judiciary, the two charges now apparently compounded one another in the eyes of the commentariat. In a new world of publishers who had helped graphic sexual description in Lawrence Miller, Updike, and Vidal to brave censorial interference, mainstream representations of “vanilla” sexualities had been disarmed, neutered, mainstreamed. As the stag and loop era ebbed and porno-chic features began to appear in mainstream theaters, Gravity’s Rainbow’s much-cited “polymorphous perversity” seemed infinite, attaining “onscenity,” to use Linda Williams’s term. Rekindling cherished period fetishes for complex underwear, cantilevering, and nylon hosiery, the novel superimposes transgressive 1970s BDSM on sepia-tinted stag interludes. Simulacra derived from interbellum film stimulate dark imaginings of domination/submission, long before mainstream cinema countenanced BDSM. Episodes express power through sadomasochistic sex, the adornment and fetishizing of bodies, and myriad variation. Sexual prosthesis binds characters to rockets, plastics, and sex toys, as “technology supersedes humans” (Sears 112), and troilism plugs Tyrone Slothrop, through his conquests, into other male players in the Zone. Bérubé’s reading of pornography in Gravity’s Rainbow as “the enactment and exposure of strategies of power, domination, and control” (266) expresses the critical consensus.2
If Gravity’s Rainbow appeared during the “golden age of porn” (Paasonen and Saarenmaa 23), everything changed in the seventeen-year interval before Vineland, an era of what Brian McNair terms “a then still-hegemonic strand of radical feminism” (Porno x) that condemned pornography as inherently wrong. The time lapse between publication date and the primary time frame of the novel is relatively short, and this pre-internet 1990 take on still-analogue 1984 contains only passing references to the dominant sexual media of those years: print magazines and VHS. Frequent focalization through sardonic fourteen-year-old Prairie Gates (whose most sexual experience is watching friends “playing centerfold” in lingerie ) means there is much less action than usual in Pynchon. Occupied with family ties and domestic consumption in a television era, Vineland retreats from Gravity’s Rainbow’s deviations but nevertheless depicts men making walkie-talkies of Frenesi Gates’s and DL Chastain’s bodies. The mafioso, the nark, and the hippie do not relish conversation in plain sight, but through these mobile, malleable, corruptible women, criminal and federal elects breach walls that hide them from one another and the countercultural preterite. In applying Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of homosociality to Vineland, Molly Hite observes that “[i]n the masculinist upper echelon where relations between men structure ideologies and institutions, sexuality and power are so interwoven that neither can be isolated as the ‘real’ ground of motivation” (137). Vineland is a crucial intermission between porno-chic eras. Though women are still conduits, sexual extremity is reined in dramatically because the dominant medium is prime-time television scrubbed clean of sexual content at a time when Reaganite neoconservativism united under a flag of convenience with antiporn feminism.
Brian McHale calls Against the Day “a virtual library of early twentieth-century entertainment fiction” (20), arguing that throughout his oeuvre Pynchon remediates and appropriates popular genres from the time frame in which his novels are set. These notably include 1940s cinema and stag in Gravity’s Rainbow and the 1980s tube in Vineland, which “imitates the form of a television programme” (Madsen 130). Against the Day was published in the digital porn era, as streaming superseded the sixty- to ninety-minute DVD, bringing unprefaced beginnings and accelerating the drive toward extremity. As Jonathan Meades has pointed out, “The principle of pornography is incremental—there must always be more participants, more contortions” (281).3 The novel leaps a century back in time but incorporates multiple troilisms, the most graphic of which instantly morphs Frenesi’s great-aunt Lake Traverse from virgin bride into objectified package and “fuckmouth whore” (268) at the apex of “homosocial desire” between “pardners” Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno. Against the Day speaks of sex in a vernacular hardened by the new schizoid harshness of twenty-first-century gonzo.
My concern here is to show that Pynchon has not been immune to the pornographic zeitgeist. In Vineland, narcotizing dysfunction spread by the tube means sex is nostalgia driven: the Brock-Frenesi-Weed triangle dates from the end of the 1960s, and though the DL-Takeshi mistaken-identity coitus takes place a few years later, DL’s seductive disguise is a “high-sixties outfit” (152). Conversely, Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day, despite homages to sexual representations from their historical settings, are infused with the porno that was chic when they appeared. Male-to-male communication via the female conduit consistently drives sex in both clashing chronologies. Such networks of control reduce to the agentic state of both female vectors and the male vertices to which they lead. I argue that these architectures within Pynchon’s fictions since Gravity’s Rainbow are blueprinted from patterns of mediated sex prevailing outside them. Hite foregrounds the conduit logic in incorporating feminist theory in Vineland’s retrospective analysis of the 1960s (136–37), writing before internet access logarithmically multiplied and rescripted supply. Those alarmed at this explosion posit spiraling harm to both human medium and consumer, as both female consent and penis ownership are rendered moot. Sometimes obscuring its historical setting, gonzo sex in Against the Day updates the female vector for the age of streaming.
The serpent holding its own tail: it is tempting to interpret the circular orgy aboard the decadent vessel Anubis in Gravity’s Rainbow (467) as an heuristic for the novel’s sexual (dis)organizing principle, given critical accounts of its structure as topological rather than linear, cyclical rather than narrative, almanacic rather than novelistic. In addition to voyeurs who watch from the periphery, there are an even dozen enthusiasts (including two pairs of waiters and schoolgirls) who engage in activities with those most adjacent to them in the ring, including but not limited to “vaginal and anal penetration, fellatio, cunnilingus, and anilingus linking various hetero- and homosexual pairs” (Herman and Weisenburger 51). “[A] wide array of paraphilias” also feature, including “voyeurism, frotteurism (rubbing), sadomasochism, pedophilia, and fetishism” (51). This catalogue, as Herman and Weisenburger note, “could have been lifted straight from Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 classic Psychopathia Sexualis, mentioned earlier in the novel” (51).4
Pynchon concisely narrates this paraphilic ring cycle in a single 250-word sentence sustained by punctuation no stronger than a comma. The infinite variety of this action is often attributed to “polymorphous perversity” (440). Pynchon uses this term once, applying it to the music of Bach, but he derived it from Norman O. Brown’s Life against Death, which foresaw, according to Weisenburger, “the disappearance of history: this would mean simply, the disappearance of repression, the rebirth of a ‘polymorphously perverse’ erotic being that stands beyond guilt and even consciousness and that would embody the childish, ‘mindless pleasures’ Pynchon represents” (249) (the phrase “mindless pleasures” refers to the embryonic title Pynchon used while he was circulating the novel among publishers). This may be construed as a return to innocence: “According to the term Brown takes from Freud, children are polymorphously perverse: nothing is unnatural to them” (Wolfley 12). Countercultural thinking in the 1960s encouraged escape from guilt and consciousness, and hippie ideologies of permissiveness, often speaking in terms of rediscovered childhood, sought to return “that much-abused word ‘pornography’ to its true antiestablishmentarian standing” (Thompson 207), positing boundless erotic utopias devoid of consequences. The Zone is a place of boundlessness: its topography is unstable; it is characterized by lawlessness and a barter economy that invites the commodification of sex; sexual and social codes there have been rescinded or at least suspended. If it were not for all the deprivation, danger, and paranoia, it would be something of a hippie paradise.
It is not the orgy or bacchanal, however, that writes the Zone’s topography. The tighter logic to these sexual chains in the Zone is based on a smaller number: three. Men communicate through female proxies: a distanced troilism. Very frequently when man and woman conjoin there is another male consciousness intruding, albeit not in the room. From the Trystero to Lamont Replevin’s secret sect communicating through coal gas with “secret interconnections” (AtD 607), esoteric media extend tentacles throughout Pynchon’s storyworlds. Women, until Yashmeen Halfcourt breaks the pattern, become such a medium, as heteronormative patriarchy eschews intimate confrontation between men, instead routing interconnection through female bodies and consciousnesses. Analogously, most moving and still-image porno propagates a male-female-male dynamic, as male photographers, filmmakers, and distributors frame images of women for the male gaze.
Out in the Zone, Tyrone Slothrop is the primary vertex of Gravity’s Rainbow’s conduits through sex with the novel’s female leads Katje Borgesius, Geli Tripping, Margherita (Greta) Erdmann and Leni Pökler/Solange (Clerc 14). The only fully developed and recurring female character he does not have sex with is romantic heroine and girl next door Jessica Swanlake. These couplings with a Dutch triple agent, an apprentice witch, a horror film actress (and her young daughter Bianca) and a German Marxist open channels through which Slothrop posts and receives messages to and from physically remote male powers, including Blicero/Weissmann, the White Visitation, Soviet officer Vaslav Tchitcherine, film director Gerhardt von Göll/Der Springer, imposter film producer Karel Miklos Thanatz, Peter Sascha (deceased), and rocket scientist Franz Pökler.5 They put him in indirect touch with German, British, and Russian military and intelligence services, with capitalism, fascism, communism, the rocket, and the beyond. The American lieutenant is the locus of a sexual conference further reaching than Yalta, seeing across the unseeable Zone through a third eye. These mediated conversations instill sex panic in a number of ways: through the conviction that a woman has sought him out to have sex at the behest of an invisible male pimp or director, which is after all the essence of much pornography and/or prostitution, the sense that every utterance requires decoding and that every sexual favor comes at a price, and the consciousness of undetectable connections between people. However, this switchboard of glamorous women (dominatrix-submissive-switch, besotted girlfriend, submissive performer turned showbiz mother to a corrupted teenage daughter, wife compelled by harsh circumstance to turn whore) offers a panoply of excuses for rampant, unleashed female desire and sudden availability. Perversity and duplicity, submissiveness and pandering, a supernaturally induced trance, and dire economic straits set them off.
The awareness at a remove of an uninvolved other during the sexual act (masturbation, intercourse, or other) is the essence of porn-fueled fantasy and therefore of remote-controlled sex. In Pynchon, this phenomenon is most explicitly articulated in Vineland when Brock Vond, the federal manipulator with the weakness for what his colleagues call “radical snatch” (279), addresses co-opted observer-participant Frenesi Gates before she returns to countercultural rallying point Weed Atman: “You’re the medium Weed and I use to communicate, that’s all, this set of holes, pleasantly framed, this little femme scampering back and forth with scented messages tucked in her little secret places” (214). The female body is reduced to a capsule of transmission in this fluid-exchange fantasy from the 1960s, when consciousness of HIV was yet to dawn. In complementary sexualized plotlines, controlling men engineer the downfall of male threats to their hegemony through female emissaries. Brock (socks on like a porn star ) colonizes Frenesi’s submissiveness and dispatches her to destroy Weed. The Mob first abducts DL Chastain, then buys her out of prostitution and white slavery (the erotic trope of white slavery returns in Against the Day in the form of Dahlia Rideout’s early performances) to force her into an assassination attempt on Vond, which degenerates into an abortive farce. Vineland’s triangles interpose women between forces federal, criminal, and countercultural. DL Chastain’s critique of Brock Vond’s homosociality establishes Frenesi as a conduit between not only the prosecutor and the counterculture but also between him and his superiors: “Maybe your mom’s only in there to make it look normal and human so the boys can go on discreetly porkin’ each other” (265–66). Homosociality is dysfunctional here because Brock and Weed and the forces they represent can only speak the same language through this woman.6 Against the Day’s Traverse-Gates genealogy implies it has long, if not always, been so.
Warring clans may broker peace by tendering marriageable princesses to one another, but the opposed Manichean families of anarchy and plutocracy in Against the Day do not make it official. Their submissive daughters neither need nor heed patriarchal instruction; instead, they covertly surrender to the other. Scarsdale Vibe’s niece Dittany gamely pursues Kit, youngest son of Web Traverse, down to the stables when he is a guest at Vibe’s house, shows him a wide range of whips and crops, and settles for a bare hand spanking as a prelude to sex (162). Conversely, Kit’s sister Lake not only marries her father’s plute-sponsored assassin Deuce Kindred but seeks self-erasure in a hard-core threesome with him and his equally thuggish “runninmate” (265) Sloat Fresno. Conversations between the pardners are reminiscent of the kind that take place in the smoker, “the place where men talk about sex without having to worry about what women think” (Williams 162). When Deuce focalizes for a moment, we hear an outlaw’s arrogance: “Women could protest from now till piss flowed uphill, but the truth was, there wasn’t one that didn’t secretly love a killer” (262). This villainous voiceover is one of the crasser expressions of an endlessly recurring Pynchon dynamic.7 Submissive Traverse-Gates women lose agency in the face of male dominance. Lake becomes a “badwoman” who relishes being chained to the bed, harnessed like an animal, derided and double teamed. In their homosocial union the two “badmen” use her so they can have sex in the same room without being homosexual, a dynamic she is not expected to breach: “Only once had she been incautious enough to suggest, ‘Why don’t you boys just leave me out of it and do each other for a change?’ And the shock and outrage in the place, why you could feel it for days” (269). This willing chattel has designed a submissive fantasy with her father’s murderers and is further objectified as her body becomes a compass and melts into American topography and cartography: “They took her down to the Four Corners and put her so one of her knees was in Utah, one in Colorado, one elbow in Arizona and the other in New Mexico—with the point of insertion exactly above the mythical crosshairs itself. Then rotated her all four different ways” (269). Lake’s liminalities include being a geographical intersection point between states, a conduit for inexpressible love between men, and a valve between forces of anarchy and oppression. Much like Humbert’s Lolita, she is transported across borders and loses her bearings. She can fulfill her desires if they have been recorded in the masculine playbook, if they register on the masculine map.
Sadomasochism, Fetishism, Prosthesis
“As for sadomasochism, it is extremely rare in the classic stag film,” Di Lauro and Rabkin confidently assert (97). They concur with critics from porn studies and film studies (Williams, Thompson) that the stag era ended in the early 1970s. Men no longer needed to gather covertly in fraternal societies if they could simply run a finger down the newspaper listings and buy a ticket to see Deep Throat in a mainstream movie theater. Despite their detailed accounts of recurring sexual “perversions” in stag, their viewing suggests the relative dearth of activities later categorized under the umbrella of BDSM, which conflates bondage, discipline, domination, submission sadism, and masochism. Di Lauro and Rabkin attribute the 1970s paradigm change to porn’s compulsion to preserve its own shock impact from the threat of porno-chic: “Why then the mid-70s proliferation of S-M material on all levels—hetero and homo, porno and peep? Sadomasochism’s increasing command of the mainstream pornography market undoubtedly represents an attempt (for commercial rather than aesthetic reasons) to restore a sense of transgression and guilt to a genre weakened by toleration. When pornography was infused with the frisson of illegality, sadomasochism had a more specialised appeal” (97–98).
Against this zeitgeist, Herman and Weisenburger, examining scenes of coprophagia and pedophilia, assert Gravity’s Rainbow’s unrivaled transgressiveness: “In 1973, the text outdid anything then available in the twentieth-century literary canon” (77). However, beyond their shock value, these scenes map power structures in wider military, political, and social macrocosms onto expressions of, or rehearsals for, those relations conducted in private sexual microcosms. Julie Christine Sears makes a strong case that Pynchon equates deviant sexuality with death in Gravity’s Rainbow, but the deviance with which she is concerned is primarily homosexuality/bisexuality. She sees difficulties in Pynchon’s presentation of “the stereotypes of the Cold War period that equated Nazism with homosexuality” (112) and problematizes “deviant sexuality […] as regimented as lockstep marching in military uniforms” (111). Pynchon’s database of perversities is drawn from the source that also inspired contemporary Nazisploitation films including Love Camp 7 (1969), Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS (1974) and The Night Porter (1974).8 Film in this shameless low-brow genre achieved notoriety in the 1970s by fetishistically associating “fascism with non-normative sexuality” and showing willingness “to consider Nazism’s erotic dimensions” (Magilow, Vander Lugt, and Bridges 13). If a sexual act threatens to be absorbed into the pale, having it performed by a Nazi will send it back beyond.
Similarly, pedophilia is another measure of offensiveness in Gravity’s Rainbow’s theaters of sexual power. A sliding moral scale yields doubt about the age of Margherita’s daughter Bianca. When he sees her on the Anubis, Slothrop forges a hebephiliac fantasy in which he casts her in the role of an eleven- or twelve-year-old (463), a construction many commentators, including Herman and Weisenburger, follow. Bernard Duyfhuizen, however, suggests she is between sixteen and seventeen, having been conceived during the filming of Alpdrücken in 1928. Either way, though her youthful age may be designed to rekindle the extinguished guilt Di Lauro and Rabkin posit, it is not salient here. During her punishment ritual performance with her mother, it is accoutrements and accessories that the fetishist Slothrop hears and sees. The engineering encasing her body speaks to him like working machinery: “[S]uspender straps shift and stretch as Bianca kicks her legs, silk stockings squeak together, erotic and audible” (466). Greta’s ruler inscribes the delineated geometries of her body mathematically: “[W]hite centimetre markings and numerals are being left in mirror image against the red stripes with each blow, criss-crossing, building up the skew matrix of pain on Bianca’s flesh” (466–67). Slothrop had earlier patterned Greta’s flesh with a whip at her behest, but she recasts herself for this show, instantly switching all we have previously known about her sexuality and rendering her unrecognizable: “[W]here is the old masochist and monument Slothrop knew back in Berlin?” (466). Slothrop is mentally assembling a database of stimuli for later use, just as Pirate Prentice does in another act of inscription, in an “interpretative gesture” noted by Jessica Lawson (234). Asked to mimic porn performer/consumer and ejaculate on demand so that he can rub seminal fluid into chemically coated paper to unveil a hidden message, Pirate is supplied with the archaic stimulus of an erotic line drawing. As he retrieves a fantasy, not a memory, the eyes, face, and body of the adulterous wife of a past affair are occluded on his mental screen by more dependable stimuli. All he can think about is what she is wearing: “Scorpia sprawled among fat pillows wearing exactly the corselette of Belgian lace, the dark stockings and shoes he daydreamed about often enough but never—‘No, of course he never told her. He never told anyone. Like every young man growing up in England, he was conditioned to get a hardon in the presence of certain fetishes, and then conditioned to feel shame about his new reflexes’” (71–72). It is precisely this nostalgic fantasy of complex underwear and hosiery that entered the contemporary public consciousness in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) with its burlesque fetishism and “aura of carefree decadence for which post–Great War, pre-Hitler Germany is now renowned” (Thompson 60). Posters featured star Liza Minnelli in corset, stockings, suspenders, and bowler hat. Pynchon’s legophilia, a partialist paraphilia, is historiographic: stockings and stays in Against the Day (on the persons of an anthropologist, an actress, and a mathematician) and Gravity’s Rainbow yield chronologically to bare legs and miniskirts in the late 1960s California of Vineland and Inherent Vice. Here, real past erotic experience is accessed through a performance of femininity Scorpia never gave, adorned by period accoutrements she never wore, which precedes the woman herself.
The women of Gravity’s Rainbow are subsumed in cyborg fantasy enactments: their bodies have no natural state in which to exist and are never unaccommodated. The adored part-objects are no longer components of their human body but rather fetishes that adorn it or, as in the coprophagic encounter between Brigadier Earnest Pudding and Katje Borgesius (Domina Nocturna) that so appalled the Pulitzer board, are expelled from it. The body is remade and regendered by prosthesis when Captain Blicero appears in high drag, “his penis squashed invisible under a flesh-coloured leather jockstrap over which he wears a false cunt and merkin of sable” (95). Blicero procures his accoutrements on a covert and highly specialized illegal market, but Pynchon was writing in an era in which such objects emerged from backstreet darkness into public visibility. The over-the-counter sale and marketing of sex toys got under way after former World War II pilot Beate Uhse opened the world’s first sex shop in Germany in 1962, which subsequently grew to become Germany’s largest sex industry concern. The Ann Summers chain of sex shops appeared on UK high streets in 1970, initially designed “to create a sex supermarket based on the German Beate Uhse stores” (Kent and Brown 201). However, even after successive 1960s Supreme Court decisions effectively decriminalized the sex shop, strict zoning regulations limited the spread of this female-friendly, sex-positive model to the United States. The taboo objects still came from nefarious backstreet establishments.
In sex-toy-free Vineland, Frenesi effectively repurposes hypodermics and suppositories, using them as dildos. Masochism causes her to frame her suffering as sexual during her stint as a political prisoner when she is subdued with antipsychotics Stelazine and Thorazine at Brock Vond’s PREP gulag: “I got to like it—I wanted them to come and hold me down, stick needles in me, push things up my ass. Wanted that ritual….” (261). Sex and death are both matters of insertion in her 1960s hippie chick riposte to Brock’s semen-medium fantasy (213–14), a cliché of phallocentricism in left-political and feminist vernacular. Equating homicide and sodomy, she tells the prosecutor that men “prefer to do it by forcing things into each other’s bodies” (214). Accoutrements also expose a chink in Brock’s emotional armor: “[H]e loved Frenesi but did not possess her, and was driven to fetishism in faraway countries as his only outlet” (141). Would-be assassin DL must impersonate Frenesi and requires Aryan prostheses to approach close enough to apply the ninja death touch: lurid makeup, blonde wig and, crucially, tinted contact lenses to reproduce those “fluorescent blue eyes” (141). This eye color is an essential component of mythologized Californian womanhood, which recurs in Inherent Vice, and the key element of disguise. Vond may carry a torch for the novel’s antiheroine, but she is a clonable commodity.
Between 1973 and 2006, mediated sex evolved, incrementally but almost beyond recognition. The internet united dispersed schools of specialized fetishists in image-sharing communities, pandering to every niche micromarket. However, outside all these pockets of perversity, a mainstream (if such a constantly self-erasing concept can ever be applicable to pornography) took shape in the form of a harsh, male-dominant, misogynistic gonzo, often shot as ultra-low-budget male POV by performers doubling as cameramen/directors. Gagging, choking, slapping, insults, facials, and obsessions with large-scale gangbangs and heterosexual anal infested a mainstream more edgy, more transgressive than a BDSM environment predicated on informed consent and prenegotiation.9 This new normative paradigm is encoded in Against the Day, its viciousness most memorably rendered in the way Lake Traverse’s body becomes a battleground between anarchism and corporatism.
Lake’s three brothers each bind themselves to other worlds by gazing on three beautiful women in fetishistic encounters. The youngest, Kit, marries street actress and singer Dahlia, daughter of photographer Merle Rideout with Erlys, yet another traitorous Pynchon woman, who had abandoned her family to run away with if not the circus, then at least a magician. Dally is persuaded to move out of the “white-slave simulation industry” (339) into compromising positions as a sculptor’s model mock-sodomizing a “Well Set-Up Young Man” (897), wearing only infantry boots, distributing her own freshly worn “intimate apparel” to the aristocracy, suffering her toes to be adored by them (899), and masturbating while Clive Crouchmas “sat at his safe distance, watching” (900). Her 1910 career encompasses many tropes common to the sex industry a century later, including the use of prostheses (purely soft core: she is not provided with a dildo), diverse foot fetishisms, the (postal) tendering of preworn underthings, and a purely performative sexuality: girl solo. Jeffrey Severs sees Dally as a working-girl heroine defending her virginity in a predatory world and argues that Pynchon, “while putting threats in her path, wants to keep the story relatively pornography-free as long as possible” (223). Dally’s activities, which maintain her libidinal economic worth by sparing her penetration, are anachronistically aligned with internet-age mediated sex acts targeting niche fetish markets (prosthesis, feet, and used lingerie) or solo performance as low-resistance gateway to later girl-on-girl, boy-girl, threesome, and so on. He rescues the damsel from prostitution then, by a fine line, but not from self-pornography.
No sooner has middle son Frank become entwined with plucky girl anthropologist Wren Provenance than the pair visit a brothel forcing costume changes and subtle mockery of the damsel-in-distress plot. Once ensconced in Jennie Rogers’s House of Mirrors, Wren dons stays and stockings, adopts “one of those looks of insincere dismay you saw in erotic illustrations from time to time,” and assumes an anachronistic voice, lamenting, as she bats her eyelashes, that “you have simply ruined me for everyday bourgeois sexuality. Whatever am I to do?” (276, 277). In this world women must confront the commodification of the body: “Gravity’s Rainbow reads sadomasochism as the model for all state policies. Against the Day reads the sex market as the model for markets in general” (Severs 230). Where Dally defends her virginity and resists abduction into white slavery by lover boy Crouchmas and pimping by Ruperta or the Principessa Spongiatosta, Wren revels in the brothel as a burlesque dress-up playground, a type of dress-up that is not unakin to the porno-chic appropriations of Madonna or Gaga discussed by McNair (Porno). She (or Ruperta or Yashmeen) would not be out of place among the “young women [who] choose, as sexual subjects with free will, to be sex objects, from time to time and in certain circumstances; to play the game of sociosexual interaction using the language and symbols provided to them in the surrounding culture” (McNair, Porno 98). Wren’s burlesque is an instance of Pynchonoid fetish nostalgia, a knowing twenty-first-century postfeminist time traveler reveling in the trappings of a bygone era.
Firstborn Reef, entranced by the sleeping partially clad form of his brother Kit’s bisexual mathematician ally Yashmeen Halfcourt, is masturbating as she awakes: “‘Are you committed to this disgusting activity,’ she inquired […], ‘or might the vagina hold interest for you, beyond the merely notional?’” (858). After upgrading him from voyeur/onanist to sexual partner, she later resorts to display and feeds the prevailing fetish by revealing her “much commented-upon legs in black silk hosiery, which she now pretended to inspect and adjust” (882). Assertive adventuress Yashmeen creates a playful threesome between herself, ultramasculine Reef, and fellatrice Cyprian Lakewood. Her power arises from her verbal dexterity in guiding the narrations that steer this troilism. These games are the only prenegotiated sex in the novel, and although “[p]roceedings had been limited to the two heterosexual legs of the triangle” (881), one day when she is absent these two male polar opposites engage in surprisingly tender sex. Speaking sex opens channels between them unexplored by Sloat and Deuce, Brock and Weed or Tyrone, and all those other men.
The stylized interactions featuring prenegotiated consensual whipping of Brigadier Pudding by Katje Borgesius and of Margherita Erdmann by Tyrone Slothrop may be conceived of as scenes or play, as delineated by this useful definition: “Stressing its performative qualities, the term ‘scene’ is frequently used for the engagement in actual BDSM acts; others choose the term ‘play’, which as well as stressing its separation from the real has the advantage of indicating it is governed by predetermined rules” (Allen 199n). Pudding’s and Erdmann’s whippings dramatize the explicit permission that has been granted to inflict pain: Pudding’s ritual request is an added humiliation, and Margherita ascribes her predilection to her appearances in the films of Gerhardt von Göll. Margherita’s ultimate arousal is being encased in Imipolex and rubbing her face against the gigantic Imipolex penis Dröhne (a robotically named plastics connoisseur) wears over his own (488): a fetish that helps her more closely aspire to becoming the “machine which no one will be able to tell from a human being,” in the words of Rotwang, the inventor in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Conversely, in Against the Day, excepting the Yashmeen-Reef-Cyprian triangle, domination is posited as coercive and consent as at best implicit, with all the implied risk and potential abuse. At no point do we hear Lake Traverse importune her badmen to humiliate her or Ruperta enjoin her tunnel drillers to penetrate her. This sex occurs outside the boundaries of the game, acquiring an edge associated with the possibility of assault, which has not been diffused in speech or in thought.
Pornoscapes: Film, Tube, Internet
Horst Achtfaden is trapped in loops both personal and literal aboard the toilet ship in Gravity’s Rainbow: “He has watched voluptuous Gerda and her Fur Boa go through the same number 178 times since they put him in here, and the thrill is gone” (451). That this hand-cranked peep show stag loop retained its cachet approaching the 177th view is a joke about the efficacy of unvaried repetition in sexual stimulation. Pirate’s mental movie of Scorpia shares stag narrative conventions: it commences in medias res without elaborately plotted foreplay; it is shot in a single setting; it lasts precisely long enough to transport the male beholder from arousal to orgasm, upon which it both culminates and immediately terminates. This microscopic episode in Pynchon’s text can be mapped onto a single-reel blue movie like Gerda’s. Lawrence Wolfley is among many to have mapped the diegetic macrocosm onto the cinematic feature: “For the content of the novel Gravity’s Rainbow is a hypothetical movie” (873).
In a truly stag scene, secretary Maud Chilkes is magnetized by Pavlovian physiologist Ned Pointsman and his control complex. Maud provides an attractive visage and skillful fellatio, her sudden enthusiasm validated by semen swallowing. The visible orgasm trope was certainly not unknown in stag, and according to Di Lauro and Rabkin it “traditionally consists of the man ejaculating on the female’s belly (for the viewer’s benefit)” (89). Nevertheless, Linda Williams has shown that it becomes much more prominent in porno features after 1970, which require external penile ejaculation or the “money shot” as a demonstration of male pleasure: “to prove that not only penetration, but also satisfaction has taken place” (73). The brisk, unprompted routine between Maud and Pointsman is consummate (“bold Maud, this is incredible, taking the pink Pavlovian cock in as far as it will go, chin to collarbone vertical as a sword-swallower, releasing him each time with some small ladylike choking sound” ), and its soundtrack does not include the gagging and slurping noises endemic in later porno. Her conscientious neatness, “swallowing, wastes not a drop” (GR 169), is stag, not the sloppy external money shot of later features. The written text, of course, need not suffer the accusation of fakery (essentially that hard core has been replaced by a less valuable currency: soft core) with which the cinematic text contends. Her covert task accomplished, Maud abruptly disappears from view. This abrupt ending, this absence of narrative closure, is another feature that Williams associates with stag (72), a genre that, if not entirely prenarrative, dispensed with much dramatic content and relied on primitive, linear single-scene plots conceived to fill a ten-minute film reel. Maud appears subsequently only as a view from behind and a brief smile, and there is no attempt to ascribe rationale to her seduction of Pointsman. This “utterand” with a single, sexual purpose in the narrative leads a life otherwise unilluminated by Pynchon, but we might imagine a defense of Maud proceeding along the same lines as Di Lauro and Rabkin’s of the stag: “If women are ‘degraded’ as sex objects in these films it is rarely because they are actively humiliated, but rather because they engage in sex without their larger reality as individuals being acknowledged” (26).10 Gerda and Scorpia’s stag interludes as burlesque stripper and adulteress are mediated through the loop and the line drawing, but Maud the secretary steps suddenly into storyworld reality. These vignettes may evince nostalgia for a time before the explicit escaped the underground to encroach on the mainstream, but we must look to Margherita Erdmann to find a woman asserting sexual agency, if such can be said of her submission.
As film orchestrates sexual response in Pynchon, characters in search of sexual stimulus edit and extract unstimulating or distracting context. Film stimulates only two senses of the five and enhancing the stimulus it provides entails zooming in on partial, cropped sections of images or bites of sound, lopping, looping, and repeating them. Paranoid consciousness recognizes these stimuli as preprogrammed and nonunique, and paranoid tumescence is triggered by repetition of previously studied images and narratives: it is a drilled, conditioned, Pavlovian response. In the daring days of the early sound era, pre–Production Code Hollywood made salacious but euphemistic horror and crime genre flicks, and Weimar cinema was never bound by the code.11 The first feature Gerhardt von Göll (alias Der Springer) makes with the pseudonymous Max Schlepzig and Margherita Erdmann (their pseudonyms are not porn names but are rather adopted to conceal Jewishness) is Alpdrücken (the title means “nightmare dread”). Men leave the film engorged by images of Erdmann and father children, Franz Pökler among them (397). Von Göll is the mendacious manipulator of this icon of passivity, in movies screened under the cover of the horror genre but aspiring to soft core: “I never seemed to move. Not even my face. Ach, those long, long gauze close-ups … it could have been the same frame, over and over. Even running away—I always had to be chased, by monsters, madmen, criminals—still I was so […] stolid, so … monumental. When I wasn’t running I was usually strapped or chained to something” (394). This is not hard core.12 It derives eroticism from repetition, motionlessness, immobility, restraints, and the moment of pause. The movie camera as still camera objectifies. However, the suggestive techniques are those of mainstream cinema: there is neither simulation of sex nor hardcore penetration or ejaculation. Objectification, a commonplace charge of antiporn rhetoric, here paradoxically keeps the film on the right side of the law. The damsel-in-distress plot, familiar from many early twentieth-century detective magazines and designed to circumvent censorship but nevertheless appeal to perverse specialist taste, counts confinement and helplessness, escape and flight among its recurring tropes. An antiporn reading of Alpdrücken might claim that Greta’s performance in it exacerbates damage caused during a prior traumatic experience, that it galvanizes submissive/masochistic proclivities on which her later liaison with reluctant sadist Slothrop is predicated. However, how are we to discern that it is not the experience Margherita undergoes on “footage […] cut out for the release prints” when “jackal men come in to ravish and dismember the captive baroness” (GR 461) that produces this effect?13 Furthermore, is it not Stefania Procalowska’s disparaging assessment (“Margherita’s problem was she enjoyed it too much, chained up in those torture rooms. She couldn’t enjoy it any other way” ) that robs her of agency, denies her the right to assert submissiveness? Alpdrücken, both not-stag and director’s cut stag/slasher flic, gives Erdmann both agency and no agency. For Maxwell, she is culpable for embracing the politics of her own oppression in “adopting strategies of survival in a culture that denies female empowerment” (187). This is a convincing defense of Pynchon’s exhibition of rape against the charge of complicity: “While Gravity’s Rainbow is not an overtly feminist tract, it does in general, indict the masculinist culture for promoting the principles of phallic violence against all of its citizens, especially women and children” (Maxwell 187).
There is neither stag nor porno in Vineland because other media are subsumed by the hegemonic tube. Both Zoyd Wheeler and Frenesi separately masturbate to ostensibly nonsexual tube programs with which they invest a frisson. Frenesi has understandable trouble with the tubal/real distinction since, just as she is settling down to CHiPs, cute real-life law enforcement officers arrive.14 Frenesi’s uniform fetishism accords with the paranoid theory of the television as the political instrument of the cryptofascist right. She fantasizes about a U.S. marshal because “they” have aired CHiPs and countless other cop shows to induce her so to do. Near-universal disapproval kept 1980s mediated sex predominantly obscene/invisible, so Zoyd and Frenesi repurpose the tubal blandness for their own DIY porno.
Ruperta and Lake live within the narrative confines of fin-de-siècle genres but have sex in a twenty-first-century vernacular. McHale treats Against the Day as revisionist reading of the Old West that approaches authenticity by including a gamut of tropes banned by Hollywood, including sexuality, and sees the flagrant homosexuality of Cyprian Latewood as the intentional queering of the British spy novel (23). This overlay of a later sexual landscape, or set of sexual conventions, onto metafictions reinventing historiographic time periods has far-reaching consequences. Pynchon sexualizes or, more specifically, pornifies three of the four plot clusters John Clute distinguishes—the “Western Revenge,” “the Geek Eccentric Scientist,” and “The Flaneur Spy Adventuress”—respecting the chastity of only one (the adolescent Chums of Chance) (287–88).
A wave of twenty-first-century antiporn commentators (Dines, Paul, and Walter among them) have vilified the growth of the San Fernando porn industry powered successively by VHS, DVD, and streaming technologies, accusing it of hijacking and corporatizing sexualities. Individual preferences are preprogrammed into a male-dominant mode that unquestioningly incorporates industry-standard rough sex. David Foster Wallace in “Big Red Son” and Martin Amis in “A Rough Trade” were among the investigative journalists and essayists to catalogue these tendencies around the turn of the millennium, and their voices are appalled. Colonization of the female body by aggressive henchmen acting in a ruthlessly stylized manner both coded by machismo and fostered by mechanisms of corporate control is apparent in work by many directors, among them Gregory Dark and Rob Black (Wallace 27n) and John Stagliano (Amis par. 1). Deuce and Sloat’s double teaming of Lake is a scene from the dirtiest of their movies.
A Competent Pornographer
In Between Men, Sedgwick sets out “to hypothesize the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual—a continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically disrupted” (1–2), an idea that Hite draws on in her interpretation of Vineland. Tyrone Slothrop exchanges messages with distant men through female conduits, a practice articulated by Brock Vond. But it is only in Against the Day’s passage from West to East that this continuum fully emerges into the light. Unreconstructed masculinity in Pynchon’s genre-poached, dime-novel Wild West (McHale 17) follows gonzo hard-core rules, so Sloat and Deuce have to be content with Lake as a pipeline between them. Back East, with assertive Yashmeen at its female apex, the homosocial liaison between Reef, another cowpoke (who is disinclined to consider the passive role), and Cyprian can find genital expression, as “Pynchon takes the ‘shocker’ out of the closet in his version of the spy novel” (McHale 24).
Looking backward from the vantage point of 1973, Pynchon could exceed the bounds stag set itself, because, as Di Lauro and Rabkin suggest, “in literary pornography […] it is possible for the imagination to savour the idea of transgression without having to assimilate the actual images of its realization”; this is why, they point out, pedophilia and sadomasochism are more common in literary pornography than in stag films (96). However, McNair, among others, recognizes that “pornography has to be outside and beyond the mainstream […] to perform its function and retain its value as a commodity” (Striptease, emphasis in the original). Excising informed consent from the diegesis is one way to stay outside and beyond. Katje and Greta enact BDSM rituals with semblances of prenegotiation, though these rituals always map wider power relations, but Lake and Ruperta’s humiliations are not BDSM, just gonzo.
The three novels treated here, respectively, pushed the limits of transgression in a new era of rolled-back literary censorship, retreated from it during the antiporn backlash, and threw around liberal doses of extreme sex after gonzo colonized the mainstream. This countercultural, historiographic novelist has written against a pornoscape first cleared by regulatory retreat and then driven by successive format innovations. Control has always been his subject, and he has used contemporaneous stag, chic, and BDSM tropes to enact hierarchies extending down from Them through women to men. He has traced conditioning back to Them through science and technology, law-making and enforcement, and cinema and the tube, but the gonzo, fetish, and amateur porn in Against the Day comes from the internet, with its pretension of being not just Them but also Us. Either Pynchon reads internet gonzo to distill in Against the Day a model of sexual relations between people or he sources the model from a twenty-first-century mainstream in turn sexualized by that porno. The disturbing point is that this distinction is at best fine. There is no normative dimension. It is also no coincidence that an overused metaphor for unbridled online license is the Wild West.
1. A woman’s erotic account of coupling with another man to stimulate her lover is a recurring cuckolding fetish in Pynchon. See, for example, the story Shasta Fay Hepworth, one among legion microskirted women in Inherent Vice I have catalogued elsewhere, tells Larry “Doc” Sportello (304).
2. See Herman and Weisenburger, who see Gravity’s Rainbow’s pornography as a “withering satire of control”; see also Sears.
3. For Meades, pornography and genealogy are the two chief generators of internet traffic. Pynchon traces the Traverse family line, along with genetic female submissiveness, back four generations from Vineland to Against the Day. David Cowart describes Pynchon’s first “feminist genealogy” in Vineland as “a generational unfolding that proceeds matriarchically from Eula to Sasha to Frenesi to Prairie” (187). Eula Becker married Jess Traverse, son of Reef and Stray, and so Lake is Frenesi’s great-aunt.
4. J. G. Ballard appropriates this sexology pioneer’s surname as a metonym for sexual panoply in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).
5. Slothrop also eventually meets Von Göll, Pökler, Thanatz, and Tchitcherine in person.
6. A counterexample of male-to-male miscommunication is Weed’s cluelessness as to the why or wherefore of repeated summonses to Dr. Larry Elasmo’s dental clinic (228). Ralph Wayvone pursues DL to send a lethal message to Brock (130–32).
7. In Pynchon, not “every woman loves a fascist,” as in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” but those who do are legion, even unto Bleeding Edge’s Jewish protagonist Maxine Tarnow and her “instant docility” (258) in the face of Nicholas Windust’s obtuse sexual advance.
8. See Sontag on the allure of Nazi chic.
9. See Allen for an extended discussion of “informed consent” and the changing representations of BDSM in mainstream cinema: “Whereas explicit BDSM prior to the 1990s was depicted almost universally as deviant and dangerous through being linked to oppressive regimes and the underbelly of society, alternative mainstream formulations became available, with these taking account of its normalcy and the role of willed consent” (196).
10. John Clute coined the term “utterand” to describe the archaic multitude from which Ruperta emerges in Against the Day: “They are utterands: people-shaped utterances who illuminate the stories of the old world that their Author has placed before us in funeral array; they are codes to spell his book with” (289). This is equally applicable to Gravity’s Rainbow.
11. The Hays Code in popular parlance, enforced after 1934.
12. I would quarrel with Bérubé’s application of the term “hard core” (245) to Alpdrücken, a horror film shown in theaters with no fictional sex, his casual assignment of the position of “snuff” film director to Pynchon (264) and his speculation regarding the author’s sexual proclivities (264n). Hard core entails visible erections and penetration, or in Williams’s terms “genital display” and “genital action.” Evidence of “snuff” as a commercial film genre, other than in urban myth, is unforthcoming, and Pynchon’s tastes are neither apparent nor germane.
13. Furthermore, though the ravishing, or imputed gang rape, is apparently hard core and understood as the moment of Bianca’s conception, the dismembering evidently cannot be seen as hard core.
14. This series about the California Highway Patrol, which originally aired from 1977 to 1983, features motorcycle cops in tight breeches and big boots.
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