- “The Feathery Rilke Mustaches and Porky Pig Tattoo on Stomach”: High and Low Pressures in Gravity’s Rainbow
It is mid-July 1945, and at the same time it is some time after March, 1973. The readers of Gravity’s Rainbow (those still aboard) have just passed halfway. A bunch of Argentine anarchists—having hijacked a German U-boat in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and trying to make it to Lüneburg Heath near Hamburg, in order to make there a film version of Jose Hernandez’s epic poem, Martin Fierro, their anarchist gaucho saint—have been forced to launch a torpedo (Der Aal, ‘the eel’ in German submariner slang) against the U.S. war vessel John E. Badass. The narrator continues: “Der Aal’s pale tunnel of wake is set to intersect the Badass’s desperate sea-squirm about midships.” (389)
But something surfaces, a new drug to tell the truth, one called Oneirine. Seaman “Pig” Bodine, this profane picaro, who stubbornly keeps popping up in many of Pynchon’s texts, has apparently spiced the war vessel’s coffee grounds with a massive dose of this celebrated new intoxicant. What are we to think of the Bakhtinian chronotopes, the space-time combinations peculiar to narratives,1 when we are told:
The property of time-modulation peculiar to Oneirine was one of the first to be discovered by investigators. “It is experienced,” writes Shetzline in his classic study, “in a subjective sense...uh...well. Put it this way. It’s like stuffing wedges of silver sponge, right, into, your brain!” So, out in the mellow sea-return tonight, the two fatal courses do intersect in space, but not in time. Not nearly in time, heh heh.2(389)
Here we have Bakhtin describing one of his main concepts: “The chronotope is the place where knots of narrative are tied and untied.”3 In this case, however, readers deal with a 20th century chronotope. This chronotope illustrates Heisenberg’s undecidability principle in a self-inflicted, hallucinogenic way typical of the 1960s. As is widely known, Werner Heisenberg postulated in 1927 that it is impossible to determine both the position and the velocity of a nuclear particle at the same time: the more accuracy is used in specifying one, the more indeterminacy results in stating the other quantity.4 The knots of narrative are never completely tied or untied, readers never know exactly where and when the crucial events take place in the narration. Or?
Sticking to knotting: on its first page Gravity’s Rainbow makes a possible commentary on itself, as many have noticed: “this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into[...]” (3). Will all the threads of the text, its myriad storylines, then, get into an unsolvable tangle? Or will they instead finally integrate into one final plot, which would lead to the final chronotope, to the literally and/or metaphorically final time and place? As so often in Pynchon’s big novel, these very questions seem to be overtly thematized at the end of the same Oneirine episode:
Now what sea is this you have crossed, exactly, and what sea it is you have plunged more than once to the bottom of, alerted, full of adrenalin, but caught really, buffaloed under the epistemologies of these threats that paranoid you so down and out, caught in this steel pot, softening to devitaminized mush inside the soup-stock of your own words, your waste submarine breath? It took the Dreyfus Affair to get the Zionists out and doing, finally: what will drive you out of your soup-kettle? Has it already happened? Was it tonight’s attack and deliverance? Will you go to the Heath, and begin your settlement, and wait there for your Director to come?(389–390)
“Will you go to the Heath?”—a crucial question that points in many directions, not all of which could possibly be named. As first time readers in the middle of Gravity’s Rainbow might not know, the Lüneburg Heath, Lüneburger Heide, is most possibly a place of central importance in the novel. It is just there that the Faustian Nazi-figure Captain Blicero apparently launches...