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  • Textual Indigence in the Archive
  • Jed Rasula

The adjective “encyclopedic” is equivocal: as an enticement to comprehensiveness and mastery, it is awkwardly shadowed by its Enlightenment provenance and tainted by its association with master narratives. Yet the sort of narratives associated with encyclopedism are the very ones most insistently cited for their burlesque heterogeneity; and, inclining to pastiche, this has made Gravity’s Rainbow seem paradigmatically postmodern. Our distance and our proximity to the thought of encyclopedic narrative is patently linked to the publication date of Pynchon’s novel. In 1976 Edward Mendelson published “Gravity’s Encyclopedia” (in the Pynchon festshcrift Mindful Pleasures) and “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon” (in MLN), establishing a cogent vocabulary and a rationale for viewing Gravity’s Rainbow as the latest in a line of singular narratives exceeding the bounds of the novel. Ronald Swigger had previously written “Fictional Encyclopedism and the Cognitive Value of Literature” (Comparative Literature Studies, 1975), citing Pynchon as example but concentrating on Flaubert, Broch, Borges, and Queneau. Hilary Clark’s doctoral study, published in 1990 as The Fictional Encyclopedia: Joyce, Pound, Sollers, was given concise theoretical recapitulation in “Encyclopedic Discourse” (SubStance, 1992). Despite its relevance to the prodigious debate occasioned by Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives, “encyclopedic narrative” (or “discourse”) has not been assimilated to studies in postmodernism. But the appearance of Underworld by Don DeLillo raises the spectre once again—if only by virtue of its thematic scope and sheer length—imposing itself on the postmodern because DeLillo’s work has been instrumental in weaning the novel away from the gambit of metafiction and, by doing so, staking a claim for a more patently contemporary postmodern fictional practice—one attuned to “waning of affect” (Jameson) and epistemological ungrounding, yet oddly sensitized to glimpses of the sublime.1 Insofar as the sublime is an anti-representational concept, it appears antithetical to the encyclopedic impulse. But as I will elaborate here, encyclopedism is a more complex legacy than its proximity to the household Encyclopedia suggests; its archival propensity is subject to a paradoxically restorative disabling which I will call “indigence.”

Mendelson’s portrait of encyclopedic narrative is descriptive rather than prescriptive, drawn from a select core of authors (Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Goethe, Melville, Joyce, Pynchon). Indexing features common to these writers, Mendelson contends that the encyclopedic narrative offers a robust depiction of the knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while at the same time exposing its underlying ideological orientation, thereby providing a tacit theory of social organization. In this endeavor such narratives assume a polyglot dimension, since their ideological analysis is contingent on a broad understanding of linguistic variety (being polyphonic, as Bakhtin would say), and they assimilate various generic protocols as a way of integrating linguistic perspectivism into their structures. Encyclopedic narrative is therefore formally indeterminate, exemplifying the double function of prophecy and narrative and thereby tending towards an epic dimension—a dimension marked by gigantism. Its prophetic and satirical enterprise is at once intrinsic and extrinsic to the society depicted, so Mendelson indicates that encyclopedic narrative is set near the immediate present but not in it (Pynchon’s 1973 novel takes place during World War Two, Underworld traverses the 1950s and early ‘60s, with stroboscopic bursts of the ‘90s); but such works display a temporal elasticity commensurate with their formal indeterminacy. Finally, in what might seem the most specific and thus most exclusive feature of the encyclopedic narrative, Mendelson claims that it offers a full account of at least one technology or science.2

Where Mendelson’s approach is content-oriented, Hilary Clark’s anatomy of “encyclopedic discourse” is formalist and cognitive. With “unreadability” as its signature trait, such discourse is made evident in its compulsiveness, its impetuous desire, and its adoption of encyclopedic material as a pretext for philosophical speculation. Encyclopedic discourse is self-defeating, in Clark’s view, because its investigative energy is finally directed at its own premises and its own performance, and these are necessarily found wanting: “any text (fictional or not) that we would call encyclopedic must speculate on its own discursive processes of discovery and arrangement and on the limitations of these processes” (Clark 105).3 Ronald Swigger characterizes the resulting...

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