The Karmic Middle Path of Vineland’s Female Characters
Vineland (1990) constitutes a sustained engagement with both feminism and Buddhism, yet scholarship on the novel has only examined these subjects in isolation from one another. On the one hand, although Vineland has been read as a “meditation on power and gender” (Hite 136), an ecofeminist narrative that “problematizes all ideologies based on binary thought” (Ostrander 122), and a critique of feminist separatism that “works to destabilize the equation between gender and biological sex” (Freer 149), readings of sex, gender, and power in the novel have largely ignored Pynchon’s numerous references to Buddhism. On the other hand, scholars interested in these Buddhist references have interpreted them through their textual association with the martial arts either as the basis for a “preterite spirituality” (McClure 49) divorced from considerations of gender and sex or else as evidence of Pynchon’s “Occidental fascination with Oriental folkways” (Carroll 256) or his “Tarantino-esque fetish for ‘ass-kicking’ women” (Thomas 138). I argue, however, that Pynchon’s portrayal of Buddhism, feminism, and sexual and gender politics cannot be fully appreciated without attention to the way that these discourses mutually inflect and reinforce one another. Pynchon’s novel contributes to debates in Buddhist feminism that are specific to the novel’s setting in the 1980s and yet that assume broader implications over the course of the narrative for his presentation of the relationship between sex, gender, and power.
It is no accident that Vineland, set in California in the summer of 1984, portrays feminism and Buddhism as intimately intertwined. The mid-1980s are regarded as a turning point in the history of American Buddhism, owing to a series of sex scandals that received widespread media coverage and severely compromised the reputation of many of the most prominent Buddhist practice centers in the United States. Early in 1984, Richard Baker was forced to step down as abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center when it became known that he had misappropriated funds and carried on secret sexual relationships with his female students. As the most famous Zen institution in the country owing to the influence of its founder, Shunryu Suzuki, whose Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970) was already on its way to becoming a Western spiritual classic, the San Francisco Zen Center and its scandal quickly became a symptom of the more general failure of American Buddhism to provide the enlightenment it had promised its first wave of converts in the 1960s. Soon afterward both Taizan Maezumi, head of the Los Angeles Zen Center, and Soen Sa Nim, founder of the Kwan Um Zen School in Rhode Island, were revealed to have had sexual affairs with female students while pretending to lead strictly moral and celibate lives. In 1988 the Vajradhatu community of Tibetan Buddhism in Colorado was shocked to discover that Osel Tendzin, a master well known for his “crazy wisdom” brand of open sexuality, had been sleeping with male and female students for years after being diagnosed with AIDS. By the time Tendzin’s activities became public knowledge, America’s countercultural honeymoon with Buddhism had already ended. Rather than continue trying to replicate the rigidly hierarchal and patriarchal master/student relationships that characterized Buddhist teaching in the East, American practitioners began calling for more democratic institutional structures capable of providing significant leadership roles for women.1
Foremost among those advocating for change were feminist practitioners and academics such as Sandy Boucher, Rita Gross, and Diana Paul, who argued that importing the male-dominated structure of Buddhist institutions into the United States amounted to reinforcing ideas about karma that were denigrating to women. Common to many Brahmanical forms of Indian thought, the notion that birth in a female body was evidence of negative karma accrued in past lives exerted considerable influence on the shape and evolution of Buddhist institutions, where it was repeatedly used to explain why positions of authority were reserved for men. In place of this traditional concept of karma, which establishes a universal, causal relationship between sexual difference, gender identity, and moral activity in past lives, Buddhist feminists advocated attention to more uniquely Buddhist concepts such as “no-self” (in Sanskrit, anatman) and emptiness (sunyata) that disrupt, through their denial of an essential self, attempts to link identity to sexual difference. They further argued that counteracting the exploitation of women in the Buddhist sangha (or community of practitioners) requires reimagining karma as a cause and effect relationship not between past and future lives but between social institutions and individuals in the present (Gross 145).
I argue here that Vineland reflects and develops connections between Buddhism, sex, and power circulating in the media and academic discourse at the time of Pynchon’s writing. Through its depiction of female monasticism via the Kunoichi Sisterhood, gender role reversal through DL’s ninja magic, guru/student sexual relations in Weed Atman’s leadership of PR3, and its revisionist commentary on karma via the Thanatoids, Vineland seizes on themes central to Buddhist feminist texts of the period such as Diana Paul’s Women in Buddhism (1979), Sandy Boucher’s Turning the Wheel (1988), and Karma Lekshe Tsomo’s Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha (1988). Yet although I follow precedents set by Molly Hite and Joanna Freer, who use internal evidence from Vineland to establish Pynchon’s familiarity with a range of feminist writings from the 1970s and 1980s (Hite 136–37, Freer 149), my interpretation does not depend on Pynchon having read any specific work of Buddhist feminism. Rather, my main purpose in contextualizing Vineland relative to these arguments is to show how Buddhist thought illuminates Pynchon’s seemingly contradictory insistence that there is no essential relationship between sex and gender even as women often appear predestined, in his fiction, to occupy subordinate and objectified positions relative to men. While this tension recurs throughout Pynchon’s later work in particular (as Chetwynd, Freer, and Maragos reveal in their introduction to this volume), Vineland dramatizes this tension directly through the narrative arcs of its two main female characters, DL Chastain and Frenesi Gates. Where DL’s narrative emphasizes the “ultimate truth” of sex and gender in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, which consists in freedom from fixed forms and characteristics, Frenesi’s narrative underscores the “contingent truth” that sexual difference and gender identity are always determined by individual karma. Even in Frenesi’s story, however, Pynchon historicizes the workings of karma, opening a middle path between these narratives that encourages the reader to see gender roles as influenced by social institutions and ideologies rather than natural or universal laws.
DL Chastain and the Emptiness of Gender
Darryl Louise (DL) Chastain is the obvious character with which to begin discussion of the relationship between Buddhism, gender, and power in Vineland. As revealed in a series of flashbacks that make up much of the core of the novel, DL learns judo and jujitsu as a young girl while growing up on a military base in Japan after the end of World War II. As she quickly discovers, knowledge of the martial arts not only shields her from the beatings which her father regularly inflicts on her mother but also instills a meditative discipline that enables her to overcome the “powerlessness and sooner or later self-poisoning hatred” (121) that children brought up around domestic abuse often experience. This sense of empowerment is amplified when she is recruited to train with Inoshiro Sensei, a ninjitsu master whose martial and magical techniques inspire the “radical conclusion that her body belonged to her” (128). DL’s hard-won self-confidence enables her to negotiate the numerous challenges she faces after becoming the de facto security guard for 24fps, a countercultural film collective dedicated to publicizing evidence of government suppression in 1960s California. When her friend and sometime lover Frenesi Gates is imprisoned by Brock Vond in a secret government compound, DL calmly deploys a range of ninja skills, including invisibility and mind manipulation, in order to rescue her (252–57). When DL herself is captured and sold into slavery as a high-priced call girl in Japan, she copes with her situation by “meditating, finding inside herself the way back to shelter she’d wondered more than once if she’d lost for good” (140). Yet after accepting her role as a sex worker in order to avenge herself on Vond, she mistakenly applies the ninja death touch to Takeshi Fumimota, incurring a karmic debt that changes the course of her life. Seeking refuge at the Kunoichi Sisterhood retreat in California, DL is sentenced by the head ninjette to work as Takeshi’s sidekick in the “karmic adjustment business” (172) he carries out for the Thanatoids, a ghostly community trapped in the Tibetan Buddhist bardo state between death and rebirth. In the final pages of Vineland, DL reflects on her past in light of the three unwholesome motivations or “poisons”—greed, ill will, and delusion—that in a Buddhist understanding of karma must be overcome if one is to escape self-attachment and rebirth in future lives. While DL acknowledges this traditional view of karma, she also suspects that it does not fully explain the trajectory of her life: “Had it only been […] that many years of what the Buddha calls ‘passion, enmity, folly’? Suppose that she’d been meant, all the time, to be paying attention to something else entirely?” (380).
John A. McClure reads Vineland as “the story of DL’s Progress” (51) in which she uses the martial arts, an inherently impure and “preterite” form of Buddhist spirituality, to survive the collapse of 1960s countercultural idealism. While McClure’s reading effectively links Pynchon’s presentation of Buddhism to strategies of resistance articulated by Gary Snyder, it oversimplifies the gender politics embedded in DL’s story. McClure’s answer to DL’s final question about the three poisons is that the “something else” to which she should have paid attention is “not ‘enlightenment’ or even her soul, but Takeshi himself, a partner and friend whom DL learns to love” (55). This heteronormative interpretation makes no reference to DL’s lesbian relationship with Frenesi, her experiences as a sex worker, or her use of ninja magic to free her friend from Vond. By ignoring these aspects of DL’s story and portraying her most traditional female role—that of partner and lover to a man—as the solution to her concerns about karma, McClure’s argument belies the spirit of Pynchon’s novel, which goes to great lengths to unsettle traditional representations of karma as a cosmic support for the social status quo. In a world that contains Thanatoids, a thriving karmic adjustment business, and DL’s gender-defying acts of magic, her final question should not be addressed without examining how her story contributes to the novel’s critique of karma as a regulatory principle for defining gender roles.
A first step toward answering DL’s question is to recognize that her use of magic to challenge heteronormative values aligns her with a long tradition of female bodhisattvas exclusive to the Mahayana Buddhist canon. For Buddhist feminists, the significance of this tradition is that it teaches the emptiness of gender identity and sexual difference, often through supernatural transformations of women into men and men into women. One such object lesson occurs in the Vimalakirti Sutra when Shariputra, the Buddha’s foremost disciple, asks a bodhisattva goddess why she does not use her powers to transform herself into a man. Motivated by a traditional understanding of karma, Shariputra assumes that female embodiment is a negative state from which any enlightened being would seek to escape. In response, the goddess changes Shariputra’s form into that of a woman, then offers this teaching: “Shariputra, who is not a woman, appears in a woman’s body. And the same is true of all women—though they appear in women’s bodies, they are not women. Therefore the Buddha teaches that all phenomena are neither male nor female” (91). The point of this lesson is not that sexual and gender difference do not exist but rather that the fact of their existence is only one of two truths—the “conventional” as opposed to “ultimate” truth as defined in Mahayana philosophy. While the unenlightened fixate on the conventional truth of forms and characteristics, the enlightened bodhisattva can appreciate this truth while also seeing the ultimate truth of emptiness, the fact that there are no fixed essences or characteristics to be found in any subject or object. Indeed, it is the bodhisattva’s task to walk this middle path between the conventional and the ultimate, leading others to awakening. As Rita Gross observes, emptiness is “the only Buddhist concept to have been used in classical Buddhist texts to criticize Buddhist practices of gender discrimination” (174).
In Vineland, Pynchon foregrounds connections between Buddhist spirituality and ninjitsu because the latter, by virtue of its Hollywood association with supernatural powers, provides a ready framework for introducing the kinds of magical gender performance found in Mahayana Buddhist sutras. One of the most conspicuous features of DL’s magic is that it renders her ambiguous with regard to sex and gender. DL and Frenesi first meet when the latter is threatened by oncoming riot police in Berkeley: “Oh, I need Superman, she prayed, Tarzan on that vine” (116). When DL mysteriously arrives on motorcycle moments later, Frenesi assumes her helmeted rescuer is a man: “With her bare thighs Frenesi gripped the leather hips of her benefactor, finding that she’d also pressed her face against the fragrant leather back—she never thought it might be a woman she hugged this way” (117). Later, in her more elaborate efforts to free Frenesi from Vond’s compound, DL again plays the part of a masked male superhero. After using a “nonlethal taste of the Kunoichi Death Kiss” to extract information from a young female prisoner, DL emulates Zorro: “Spanish guitars ringing in her mind, DL slipped the girl’s shirt off and with a black-gloved finger traced a big letter Z—above, between, below her breasts” (254). By portraying DL as a protector who comes to the magical aid of Frenesi and others, Pynchon aligns her not only with the goddess of the Vimalakirti Sutra but with the most famous sex-changing bodhisattva of all, Avalokiteśvara (known as Guanyin in China and Kannon in Japan), whose name means “regarder of the cries of the world.” First described in the Lotus Sutra as a divine being with the ability to adopt whatever gender and social role best serves those in need, Avalokiteśvara became widely worshipped in Pure Land Buddhism for intervening in the lives of women, mitigating the pain of childbirth, arranged marriages, and sexual assault (Reed 176). The bodhisattva ideal represented by Avalokiteśvara provides context both for DL’s gender-defying magic and her development as a character who uses magic to help and protect others—especially other women. As her story makes clear, DL does not develop this capacity spontaneously or easily. Her early training in the martial arts endows her with self-confidence but little in the way of compassion. While still living with her parents she displays a “sadistic” habit of inciting her father’s violence against her mother—a habit driven by DL’s anger at her mother’s refusal to seek help for herself (125). Given her age and upbringing it is difficult to fault her for this reaction, but it showcases the later importance of the Kunoichi Sisterhood in steering DL along the bodhisattva path. It is not until she enters the ninjette sangha led by Sister Rochelle that DL learns to practice more than an instrumental version of her sensei’s teachings.
Although the Kunoichi retreat is initially described as a “sort of Esalen Institute for lady asskickers” (107), subsequent details suggest that it conflates features of two of the most famous Zen monasteries in California: Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Los Padres National Forest, and Shasta Abbey in Mount Shasta. The torturous dirt road leading up to the retreat (107, 161) and the fact that the sisters sell “cucumber brandy” (107) evoke Tassajara, the monastery established in 1967 by Shunryu Suzuki, who was known to his students and readers as the “crooked cucumber.”2 At the same time, the retreat’s white-washed buildings, combined with the fact that it is led by a woman, call to mind Shasta Abbey, established by Jiyu Kennett in 1970 and the only American monastery founded by a woman at the time Vineland was published. More important than identifying real-world analogues for the fictional retreat, however, is recognizing that as an all-female practice community, the Kunoichi Sisterhood has no counterpart in American Buddhism and represents an idealized vision of the female sangha celebrated by Buddhist feminists. While it may appear strange to speak of idealism in relation to the Kunoichi, whose interests appear at least as mercantile as spiritual, their offering of “fantasy marathons for devotees of the Orient, group rates on Kiddie Ninja Weekends, help for rejected disciples of Zen (‘No bamboo sticks—ever!’ promised the ads in Psychology Today) and other Eastern methods” (107) echoes a strategy that female monasteries in Japan and Korea have adopted in order to survive. Surveying the history of Zen convents in Japan, Grace Schireson notes that because Buddhist nuns have always received fewer donations from the lay population than monks, they have compensated by providing “different services that are not specifically spiritual offerings” such as child and elder care and classes in flower arranging, sewing, and calligraphy (212). Additionally, Pynchon seems to have designed the Kunoichi in response to real-world feminist complaints about the patriarchal and racial constitution of American practice centers. Their promise not to use “bamboo sticks” in retraining Zen students reflects the fact that many American women regarded the traditional kyosaku (training stick) as little more than a prop for macho posturing (Boucher 8, 222). Similarly, the racial and ethnic makeup of the ninjettes, “most of them non-Asian, many were actually black, a-and Mexican too!” (108), answers bell hooks’s repeated calls for a more racially diverse American Buddhist sangha (44).
In the context of DL’s development as a character, however, the most important aspect of the Kunoichi Sisterhood is that it demystifies the magic of ninjitsu as a form of attention benefiting others rather than oneself. Sister Rochelle, the head ninjette, manifests this teaching the first time she appears to Prairie and DL, emerging out of the shadows of the coffee lounge. Although Prairie assumes Rochelle’s invisibility is a “magical gift,” the head nun explains that by memorizing the movement of light on floors and walls, she had “come to know the room so completely that she could impersonate it, in its full transparency and emptiness” (111). In Rochelle’s view, attending to the unity of detail and emptiness is the antidote for those who fixate on enlightenment as a “big transcendent moment” (112). This fundamentally Mahayanist teaching on the inseparability of contingent and ultimate truth transforms the self-involved DL into the bodhisattva-like protector she becomes in her work for 24fps and, later, the Thanatoids. It is also this teaching with which Rochelle reproaches DL when she returns from her attempt to kill Vond: “Living as always let’s say at a certain distance from the reality of others, you descended […] again into the corrupted world, and instead of paying attention, taking the time, getting prepared, you had to be a reckless bitch and go rushing through the outward forms” (154). DL’s fundamental crime consists not in attacking Takeshi but in failing to attend to the details of her “corrupted world” as a sex worker, which might have enabled a compassionate rather than violent response. Such a possibility is explicitly spelled out in the Vimalakirti Sutra, which makes clear that a bodhisattva can save others even in the form of a prostitute:
Sometimes he shows himself as a woman of pleasure,
enticing those prone to lechery.
First he catches them with the hook of desire,
then leads them to the Buddha way. (102)
Sister Rochelle’s attitude betrays a more general Buddhist ambivalence about prostitution as a transgressive gender role that poses karmic dangers while also providing unique opportunities to educate oneself and others about the folly of sexual attachment (Faure 130–31).
Yet while Sister Rochelle’s teaching proves valuable as a framework for gauging DL’s moral and spiritual progress, it also reveals the limitations of the bodhisattva ideal for purposes of feminist critique. This is because, in her address to DL’s experiences as a sex worker, Rochelle offers a neat explanation of her student’s failure that amounts to blaming the victim. By holding DL to an otherworldly standard of compassion and focus, Rochelle omits any consideration of the broader cultural and institutional forces at work in her kidnapping and exploitation. Sadly, Pynchon’s fictional rendering of the international sex trade appears equally oblivious to these issues. Although the narrative attributes DL’s abduction to connections between the yakuza and the mafia (132), its account of the event and her subsequent auctioning into sex slavery does not elaborate on this international network but focuses instead on the remarkably nonchalant attitude DL adopts throughout. Realizing that she has been kidnapped, DL merely wonders whether “being sold into white slavery would turn out to be at all beneficial as a career step” (135); later, preparing for the slave auction, she reminds herself to “[j]ust relax and have fun” (137). Yet while these scenes clearly lack cultural and psychological depth, the fact that they perfectly set up DL for Sister Rochelle’s criticism raises questions about what is missing more generally in DL’s story of magical self-transformation. DL’s fear, at the end of the novel, that she should have been paying attention to “something else” suggests that for all her individual efforts to overcome “passion, enmity, folly” (380), her training as a would-be bodhisattva has not encouraged her to consider the social, structural, or institutional nature of these karmic poisons. For Buddhist feminists such as Gross and hooks, social change is impossible without a consideration of how prejudice and inequity are perpetuated at the collective as well as individual level. For the reader of Vineland, this means that answering DL’s final question necessitates juxtaposing her magical narrative with that of her decidedly nonmagical counterpart, Frenesi Gates.
David R. Loy argues that reimagining the three poisons of karmic identity—greed, ill will, and delusion—comprises an urgent task for socially engaged Buddhists and Buddhist feminists (87–88). According to Loy, the problem of the three poisons is not that they determine an individual’s birth or social station in a future life but that they collectively shape Western societies in the present. Greed, ill will, and delusion have become institutionalized in the form of corporate capitalism, the military, and the mass media, respectively (89); in these institutional forms they are able to play the role of governing ideologies. If the traditional task of Buddhism is to overcome attachment to the individual ego or atman, socially engaged Buddhism must recognize that “[w]e not only have group egos; there are institutionalized egos” (88).
Vineland represents collective karma in the form of the Thanatoid community, whose membership consists of confused, ghostly individuals caught between death and life as defined in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In creating the Thanatoids, Pynchon seems to have been inspired by the therapeutic “conscious dying” movement that developed in the United States and England in the early 1980s, which popularized Tibetan Buddhism among the terminally ill (Sedgwick 173–74). Within the novel, however, their collective existence is attributed to Loy’s three institutional poisons. Pynchon repeatedly links the rapid growth of the Thanatoid population to both the Vietnam War (174–75, 320) and systematic financial exploitation (172); it is this combination that Takeshi invokes when he advises Ortho Bob to defer taking revenge against his commanders in Vietnam in favor of “borrowing against karmic futures” (175). The Thanatoids are even more directly shaped by the influence of television, which they watch incessantly after death and which, “with its history of picking away at the topic with doctor shows, war shows, cop shows, murder shows, had trivialized the Big D itself” (218). What is perhaps most interesting about the Thanatoid community, however, is that its boundaries appear to be as permeable as those between life and death in Pynchon’s novel. With the exception of DL, every major character in Vineland is compared to a Thanatoid or exhibits Thanatoid-like qualities at some point. Takeshi becomes “part Thanatoid” (171) after receiving DL’s ninja death touch; Zoyd Wheeler “haunts” his ex-wife Frenesi by projecting himself into her consciousness (40); Prairie sometimes believes she was aborted by her mother and is now condemned to “haunt her like a ghost” (334); and Frenesi herself, after paving the way for Weed Atman’s assassination, understands that she is “walking around next to herself, haunting herself, watching a movie of it all” (237). Far from representing a distinct community confined to Shady Creek, the Thanatoids are symptomatic of contemporary American subjectivity and reveal its collective poisoning by militarized ill will, capitalist greed, and media delusion.
Frenesi Gates is the most consistently Thanatoid-like of the major characters in Vineland, and her story illustrates how patriarchal gender roles, and the subordination of women to men, are reinforced through the institutionalization of the three karmic poisons. Daughter of politically active parents in the Hollywood film industry, she learns two important truths from her mother, Sasha. The first is that history consists of men “committing these crimes, major and petty, one by one against other living humans” (80). The second is that, regardless of any opposition she might offer to historical power, Frenesi is marked by the “ancestral curse” she has inherited from Sasha, which consists of a “helpless turn toward images of authority, especially uniformed men […] as if some Cosmic Fascist had spliced in a DNA sequence requiring this form of seduction and initiation into the dark joys of social control” (83). Frenesi’s story dramatizes the interdependence of these historical and “cosmic” truths. Although she tries as a documentarian for the film collective 24fps to expose corporate corruption and political injustice, she is drawn into sexual relationships with both Weed Atman, leader of the revolutionary group PR3, and his enemy, the federal prosecutor Brock Vond. Eventually the domineering Vond gains the firmer hold over Frenesi and convinces her to frame Atman as an FBI plant—an act that leads to his assassination. Later, Frenesi’s weakness for Vond also prompts her to abandon her baby daughter, Prairie, while suffering from postpartum depression. Like the Thanatoids, Frenesi spends the majority of her time in the novel’s diegetic present ruminating over her past mistakes and lamenting her inability to escape the “clockwork of cause and effect” (90). Estranged from her mother, she takes every opportunity to surveil Sasha’s house in hope of catching a glimpse of her (82); she also spies on teenage girls in the belief that she might gain insight into the behavior of the daughter she has not seen in over a decade (68). If Frenesi’s regrets about “cause and effect” cast her story as a tale about bad karma, her inability to stop spying also suggests that, as in the case of the Thanatoids, her karmic identity is strongly influenced by the institutionalized poison of the media and television in particular.
Previous scholarship has tended to present Frenesi as a corrupt ideal of passive femininity in contrast to DL’s practicality and dynamism. Patricia Bergh portrays Frenesi as the “ultimate Postmodern Woman” (1) whose function is to serve as a screen for the fantasy projections of others. David Cowart likens Frenesi to “sin free” Eve before the Fall: her temptation by the serpent Vond leads to the end of the radical sixties but also to the survival of the women’s movement through the resourcefulness of her Lilith-like “sister,” DL (106–7). Most recently, Margaret Lynd reads Frenesi as an example of Pynchon’s insistence on the “frailty” of woman, a “lapse in Pynchon’s otherwise comprehensive and sensitive telling of America’s multilayered past” (26). While I agree with these critics that Frenesi’s story represents, in part, a fall from grace or innocence, I disagree that this fall highlights the comparative groundedness or practicality of DL’s character. As I have suggested, DL’s story is itself an idealized rendering of Buddhist feminist arguments about the power of the female sangha and the emptiness of gender. In this light, the significance of Frenesi’s story is that, pace Lynd, it historicizes karma as a counterpoint to the magical interpretive framework provided by DL’s narrative.
Although Frenesi is not a practicing Buddhist like DL, she repeatedly describes her documentary work for 24fps as a search for enlightenment. Like the Kunoichi, Frenesi and her crew place a premium on attending to the minute details of a corrupted world, transforming them into insight about the falsity of political promises. As she tells a TV interviewer, she foresees a future in which her generation will become completely immune to political manipulation “because too many of us are learning how to pay attention” (195). At the same time, Frenesi diverges from Sister Rochelle’s teaching by imagining enlightenment as a kind of epiphany or transcendent experience. In searching out scenes of conflict to film, she dreams of encountering “the people in a single presence, the police likewise simple as a moving blade—and individuals who in meetings might only bore or be pains in the ass here suddenly being seen to transcend, almost beyond will to move smoothly between baton and victim to take the blow instead” (117). Frenesi’s enthusiasm for mystical oneness reflects the attitude of most American Buddhists in the 1960s, when Beat writers and early Zen popularizers such as Jack Kerouac, D. T. Suzuki, and Philip Kapleau portrayed satori as the holy grail of Zen. More specifically, however, Frenesi’s fantasy of protestors and police united in a moment of transcendent violence also appears as a sublimated representation of her sexual attraction to uniformed men. That Frenesi should imagine enlightenment as a transformation of this desire makes sense given Pynchon’s portrayal of her “ancestral curse” as a kind of karmic burden. But her belief that this transformation can take place through the lens of a camera emphasizes one of Vineland’s central themes, which is that karma is socially and culturally conditioned. While Sasha attributes Frenesi’s affinity for men in authority to cosmic and genetic influences, Frenesi’s interactions with men and their images, like her later spying on her mother and daughter, strongly suggest that her sexual proclivity is learned behavior reinforced by television and film. Early in the novel she is interrupted by a knock on the door while masturbating to an episode of the television program “CHiPs.” Upon answering the door she experiences a “Tubefreek miracle” when her televized fantasy of uniformed officers comes to life on her doorstep in the form of a real U.S. marshal, who appears “through the screen, broken up into little dots like pixels of a video image” (84). Frenesi’s televisual “framing” of this man reflects her tendency, when behind the camera, to zone male bodies for erotic pleasure in terms that duplicate the workings of the male gaze in feminist film criticism. As Stacey Olster argues, Frenesi’s documentary films tend to chop up the bodies of Weed Atman and Brock Vond in a manner similar to that by which, according to Laura Mulvey, female bodies are dismembered and fetishized in classic Hollywood cinema (120–24). That Frenesi also views male bodies in this way when not behind the camera suggests that her “uniform fetish” (83) is a product of internalizing the fetishistic gaze of the Hollywood films she watched as a child with her parents. If Frenesi’s bad karma, manifested in her recurring subordination to men in power, is the result of her conditioning by visual media, no enlightenment or release from this karma is possible without her fundamentally questioning her relationship to the camera.
While the international sex trade is rendered with little cultural or psychological detail, Frenesi’s “sex work” with Vond and Weed Atman is portrayed as a byproduct of her unchecked faith in the protective, transformative power of the camera. After acquiescing to Vond’s command that she frame Weed Atman as an FBI spy, she rationalizes her relationships with both men by imagining that she is merely watching a porn film of her own activities: “[S]ex,” she concludes, “was mediated for her now” (237). As late as the night before Weed’s assassination, Frenesi is still able to convince herself that the imminent violence can be transfigured through careful camera work: “Her impulse was […] to imagine that with the gun in the house, the 24-frame-per-second truth she still believed in would find some new, more intense level of truth” (241). In light of these fantasies, Weed’s murder becomes an ironic parody of Buddhist enlightenment in which the death of the self or atman serves to prop up institutionalized delusion, desire, and ill will as personified by Vond.
Weed’s undoing as a result of his sexual relationship with Frenesi also alludes to the sex scandals plaguing American Buddhism at the time of Pynchon’s writing. Weed’s characterization as an impromptu guru who, uncertain of how to lead his flock, winds up having affairs with his female followers resonates with the stories of fallen Zen masters such as Taizan Maetsumi and Soen Sa Nim (Boucher 210–12). His downfall is thus emblematic of the contemporary history of American Buddhism—a history that begins with countercultural enthusiasm for enlightenment and social change in the 1960s and culminates in the 1980s in betrayal, sexual exploitation, and distrust of Buddhist institutions. By calling attention to this history, Pynchon’s aim is not to undermine DL’s narrative of personal empowerment through self-discipline and compassion. On the contrary, the historical elements of Frenesi’s story provide a provisional answer to DL’s final question about the three poisons: the “something else” missing in her magical narrative of gender transformation is recognition of the institutionalized nature of ill will, greed, and delusion that work ideologically to limit social and gender roles for women in patriarchal culture.
Where DL’s story privileges the ultimate truth of gender emptiness as expressed in Mahayana philosophy, Frenesi’s story reminds the reader of the contingent truth of power and gender in American Buddhism, and American culture more generally, at the time of Pynchon’s writing. Perhaps the lesbian relationship between DL and Frenesi, which is little more than hinted at over the course of the novel, is best understood as a figurative unity of these ultimate and contingent truths. If so, Pynchon seems to warn against mystifying even this form of “enlightenment” as a transcendent moment of revelation. The few details provided about their relationship suggest that it is both highly idealized and grounded in the same power dynamics that characterize those between men and women in the novel. One of the most poetic passages in Vineland depicts DL and Frenesi eating and reminiscing in a Mexican cantina, “their fun-house shadows taken by the village surfaces drenched in sunset, as sage, apricot, adobe and wine colors were infiltrated with night” (258). Two pages later DL recalls that, during sex, “I made you do stuff, bitch” (260), while Frenesi takes “mean satisfaction” in having pushed DL into violating her ethical principles and “saintlike control” (260). By simultaneously affirming both DL’s empowering traversal of gender roles and Frenesi’s karmic predisposition to sexual subordination, this scene crystallizes the tension inherent in Pynchon’s depiction of sex and gender throughout Vineland and in much of his oeuvre. Where previous scholarship has tended to examine this tension in isolation from Pynchon’s interest in Eastern and Buddhist thought, I have attempted to demonstrate how Vineland’s sustained engagement with Buddhism and feminism installs a progressive reformulation of karma at the heart of its treatment of sex, gender, and power.
1. For more on the significance of these scandals in the history of American Buddhism, see Boucher 210–56 and Seager 218–22.
2. For descriptions of both monasteries, see Boucher 123–28, 133–36; for an account of the road leading to Tassajara, see Chadwick 264–65.
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