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  • Ekphrasis, Escape, and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
  • Stefan Mattessich (bio)

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Remedios Varo, “Bordando el Manto Terrestre,” 1961. Reprinted by permission.1

Always follow the rhizome by rupture; lengthen, prolong, and relay the line of flight; make it vary, until you have produced the most abstract and tortuous of lines....

—Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (11)

Near the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas recalls a trip to Mexico City with the recently deceased real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity, and in particular an art exhibition she saw there by the Spanish surrealist Remedios Varo. The text, in a moment of ekphrastic digression, describes one painting in detail:

[I]n the central painting of a triptych, titled “Bordando el Manto Terrestre,” were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world.


This room in Varo’s tower assumes for Oedipa the fatal and enigmatic attraction of a destiny from which there is no escape, a point of departure and arrival that exposes the illusion of movement between a here and a there, between life “among the pines and salt fogs of Kinneret” (20), California, and the imagined or imaginative freedom of Mexico. Time as both a causal sequence and a signifying chain suffers its catastrophic involution, turns in on itself, immobilizes or suspends the presumption of an animate nature, a substantial self and an autonomous desire. The experience precipitates in Oedipa an immediate paranoia:

Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried.... She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape. What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all.


If Oedipa’s tower is “only incidental,” however, it is also omnipresent—that is, she finds it everywhere. It is a human condition, the human condition as incidental, as nonessential subordination, remainder, residue or “W.A.S.T.E,” that spectral communication system which Oedipa comes to encounter as a kind of destiny in the novel. Pynchon’s metaphors here signify that displacement or paratactic placement beside or to one side of one’s self that characterizes the feeling of subjection to a fundamentally irrational externality. Oedipa is an incident person, a projection, a kind of hologram whose point of origin, that which “keeps her where she is,” suggests a terrifying complicity between “anonymous” gravitational force and “malignant” social power, between ineluctable physical law and fantasmatic structures actively vitiating (to borrow a Marxian locution) the social field in which self-recognition (as a subject, as a citizen) is possible.2 Oedipa’s imprisonment in the tower, at least on one level of implication, cannot be understood apart from this reified estrangement from a labor that quite literally comes to figure the alien object of paranoid investment, and which the paranoid subject can only reconsummate in a continual fabrication of that external world which “keeps her” in her place. To be “incidental” is therefore to experience alienation in the form of a fantasm installed at the center of being, a fantasm that destabilizes any clear sense of the human or the real. The novel specifies this experience a little later on in the figure of Metzger, who relates to Oedipa his dual career as an actor-lawyer in...

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