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  • Reading Gravity’s Rainbow After September Eleventh: An Anecdotal Approach

This essay asks two primary questions: what and how can Gravity's Rainbow tell us about the world we live in after 9/11? Do anecdotes gain currency in times of war? Specifically, this essay seeks to read a sampling of the profuse post-9/11 anecdotes about children who break their piggy-banks and donate money to relief funds alongside Thomas Pynchon's graphic sexual depictions of children in the setting of World War II. How do each of these kinds of representation affect a state's ability to establish itself as innocent and to prosecute war? Centering on the figure of Zwölfkinder, a miniature of the state run by children in the novel, the essay explores how the state launders its institutions and its finances through its children. This state-in-miniature is akin to the diminutive form of the anecdote, which functions similarly as a site of innocence creation. Gravity's Rainbow's refusal to constitute children as either innocent or experienced blocks the kind of innocence production that post-9/11 "piggy-bank" anecdotes help to establish in the context of the state-written innocence/experience narrative. Children in such multiply mediated anecdotes become points of contact for the diverse desires of the public, the media, and other institutions, where the state takes its ultimate pleasure. In fact, rather than a recent phenomenon related directly to the 9/11 disaster, this specific form of piggy-bank anecdote has a history and is tied to specific ideological responses to war, as demonstrated in an early nineteenth-century anecdote that is structured almost identically to these newer ones. At the same time, however, the essay discusses the delicate historicity of this form and asks how history expresses itself in these and other anecdotes, questioning generally how these anecdotes are poised at an important nexus between event, narrative, and history.--dr

Since the September Eleventh airplane attacks on the World Trade Center, it is difficult to imagine American readers responding to the opening sentences of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in quite the same ways as they had previously. “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now” (3). Suddenly these famous words are thrust into new contexts, and yet, I would like to argue that the idea of “comparison” still pervades our ways of understanding. Who can forget the horrifying doubling and déjà vu of the images of the second airplane crashing into the second tower? That scene of doubled impact and destruction at once creates the desire for and, with its sense of radical singularity, denies bases of comparison. Pynchon recognizes that in the face of traumatic or devastating events we seek refuge in the comfort of comparison, in our sense that what bears similarity offers solace.

Indeed, the events of September Eleventh were first brought into sense through frames of comparison, or metaphor. Immediately, evocations of the attack on Pearl Harbor shot through the media. That the movie Pearl Harbor enjoyed recent success at the box-office only helped to prime the American imagination for that easy parallel of surprise attack. Among other functions, the Pearl Harbor comparison helped to locate September Eleventh within an archetypal American loss-of-innocence story. But Pearl Harbor did not offer a metaphor for thinking about the vulnerability of a major metropolis, terms that newly pressed themselves upon the imagination. For this reason, it is fitting that New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the first person to invite comparisons between New York and London during the Battle of Britain. “I think people should read about the Battle of Britain and how the people of London lived through the constant daily bombardment by the Nazis,” Mayor Giuliani told Barbara Walters in an interview that aired on September nineteenth. “They took terrible casualties, terrible losses. They never gave up. They never gave up their spirit and they figured out how to go about their lives and they prevailed. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid, but you don’t give in to it.” Mayor Giuliani probably does not have Gravity’s Rainbow in mind when he urges New Yorkers to read about London during World War Two. What Mayor Giuliani’s interview reinforces, however, is how tenaciously the mechanism of comparison occurs to us in the light of contemporary events and how transparently we appeal to the relations between events, texts, and contexts.

In the wake of September Eleventh, the questions that literary criticism has asked about the precise nature of the relationship between text and context, events and history, and narrative and culture take on a new kind of urgency. In this essay, I would like to take seriously Mayor Giuliani’s suggestion that we turn to texts and history in order to make sense of current events. Specifically, I want to set the discourse of childhood and innocence in Gravity’s Rainbow in dialogue with the proliferation of post-September Eleventh anecdotes about children who selflessly break their piggy banks to contribute to relief funds. It seems as though each news organization and each local newspaper has its own version of this familiar kind of story. What is the relationship between these anecdotes of innocence and charity, the devastation at the World Trade Center site, and the United States’ present military campaign in Afghanistan? How are anecdotes such as these poised in an important position at the nexus of event, narrative, and history? How can understanding these recent anecdotes help us to understand Pynchon’s sexualized depiction of children in Gravity’s Rainbow? Conversely, what can Pynchon’s discourse of innocence in that novel teach us about how the recent piggy-bank anecdotes do cultural work in our current war? Finally, how might a new understanding of the function of anecdotes in general contribute to broad efforts in literary criticism to comprehend the connections between texts and history? In the process of addressing such questions, I mean to develop a space within anecdotes and the anecdotal where texts and history can have demonstrable and substantial connections in literary criticism through specific metonymical and metaphorical devices, where other historicist methodologies only project metaphorical connections.1 Anecdotes, which form at the very skin between history and narrative, may illuminate such connections by points of contact as well as by comparison.

The status of children in Gravity’s Rainbow continues to be a problem for critics. How do we account for Pynchon’s graphic sexualization of children such as Bianca, Geli Tripping, or Ilse Pökler? Take, for example, these sentences from Slothrop’s sexual encounter with Bianca on the Anubis:

Her eyes glitter through fern lashes, baby rodent hands race his body unbuttoning, caressing. Such a slender child: her throat swallowing, strummed to a moan as he grabs her hair, twists it...she has him all figured out.


Though this is not one of the more pornographic sites in this passage, these sentences are otherwise typical of Pynchon’s manipulation of childhood and sexuality in this and other scenes. “Baby” and “slender child” function as constant reminders amid sexual depictions that Bianca is a small ten- or eleven-year-old girl. Set off by the word “glitter,” the doubling of consonants in the words “unbuttoning,” “caressing,” “swallowing,” and “strummed” sustain both a sensuous prolonging of sounds and induce a miniaturizing effect through doublings that work similarly to the “-ette” suffix. “Fern” and “rodent” align Bianca first with flora, then with fauna, while the particularization of “lashes,” “hands,” “throat,” and “hair” disperses the subject into diffuse objects in an erotic field.

The second sentence is especially resistant to grounding in sense. Pynchon seems to signal a fundamental violence in the representation of Bianca through the apposition of “strumming” and “twist.” Have we gentle effects (“moans”) from a violent cause (“twisting”), or rather, is the moan a moan of pain? If it is pain, how does the gentle sense of “strum” find expression in the passage? In one sense, at the level of trope, twisting and strumming are irreconcilable images. The strings of an instrument, mapped as hair, cannot be strummed when grabbed in a fist. The gap left in this trope, I suggest, is symptomatic of the scene’s resistance to becoming settled or brought into sense within either discourses of sex or of childhood. Most vexing of all is the final phrase, “she has him all figured out.” This is startling considering that Slothrop seems more the actor or agent as he grabs and twists Bianca’s hair; the switch within the same sentence of Bianca from acted upon to orchestrator prolongs the passage’s unsettled representations. Of course, it matters greatly through whom this final phrase is focalized. Is this Slothrop’s sexual projection onto the little girl or does it express Bianca’s machination and complicity? I believe that the shifting narrative positions and the self-destructing tropes purposefully leave this question unanswered. Pynchon is very careful not to polarize Bianca as either innocent or experienced, victim or seductress, subject or object, though it is not immediately clear why this strategic destabilizing of oppositions is structurally important to Gravity’s Rainbow.

From local scenes like the one between Bianca and Slothrop, it is important to move out and consider the various contexts that frame them. What are the narrative contexts to which we might relate such scenes? One way to answer this question is to place these sexualizations within Pynchon’s larger project of producing a taxonomy of sexual alternatives with which Gravity’s Rainbow is rife. While the episodes with Geli and Bianca share qualities with other sexually deviant scenes in the novel, however, I would like to cordon the children off from this order temporarily and try to understand them in the context of Zwölfkinder. Zwölfkinder, where “Ilse” brings Franz Pökler during her visits, is the state-sponsored construction site of childhood and innocence in Gravity’s Rainbow.

In a corporate State, a place must be made for innocence, and its many uses. In developing an official version of innocence, the culture of childhood has proven invaluable. Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical place, such as at Zwölfkinder. Over the years it had become a children’s resort, almost a spa. If you were an adult, you couldn’t get inside the city limits without a child escort. There was a child mayor, a child city council of twelve. Children picked up the papers, fruit peelings and bottles you left in the street, children gave you guided tours through the Tierpark, the Hoard of the Nibelungen, cautioning you to silence during the impressive re-enactment of Bismarck’s elevation, at the spring equinox of 1871, to prince and imperial chancellor...child police reprimanded you if you were caught alone, without your child accompanying. Whoever carried on the real business of the town—it could not have been children—they were well hidden.


Zwölfkinder becomes a matrix from and to which all of Pynchon’s descriptions of children issue and must return. The “official version of innocence” is both state created and state sustaining. Zwölfkinder resembles a factory where the state generates its innocence, a palpable, deployable cultural construct that may be put to “invaluable” uses. Pynchon does not offer in expository form an explanation of what uses these may be or the mechanism by which constructed innocence serves the state. We may infer, however, from the cultural and historical miniaturization and re-enacting, that Zwölfkinder is the state’s laundering service for its history and its actions. Just as illegal money may be laundered by channeling it through legitimate enterprises, so can the state launder itself innocent by re-enacting itself through the medium of children. The children of Zwölfkinder do not just play “mayor” or “city council.” They do not quaintly copy the institutions of the state. Through the children’s performance of these roles, “mayor” and “city” are actually brought into being, constituted as innocent. Pynchon shows us that the innocence of the state relies upon what only looks like the cultural and historical repetition and secondariness of Zwölfkinder. In fact, the centrality of state and corporate institutions to the function of Zwölfkinder is signaled by emphasis upon the “child city council of twelve,” hence the “Twelve children” of the city’s name.

On some level, Pynchon represents Zwölfkinder as though it were consciously and unproblematically established by the state in order for it to invest itself with an official innocence. Verbs such as “making,” “developing,” “adapted,” and “embodied” seem to attach to unseen agents, a paradigmatic “Whoever” that clenches its fist unseen. On another level, however, Pynchon recognizes that Zwölfkinder can only generate innocence to the extent that it mediates between two different desires, not only the desire of the state but that of the public as well. The public’s desire and pleasure are figured in the recreational and resort-like dimension of Zwölfkinder, crucial both to its function in the fiction and to the efficacy of Pynchon’s figure in the narrative. The public agrees to bear witness to the performative production of innocence because its desires are fulfilled in turn. The accompanying adult visitors enjoy the leisure of a theme park and a reprieve from the all-consuming World War waging outside of the cordoned-off Zwölfkinder. It is a place where state and public desires can meet across a single object, their children. Not to be discounted is the public’s own desire to see its state’s roles and its history laundered in the children’s performances of them at the very moment that the state prosecutes its war. In the children the state sees everything it desires its public to be. In the children the public sees everything it desires the truth about its state to be. The very coincidence of state and public desire establishes a context in which the children’s performances can be contracted as performatives. Without this contract the children’s acts would be mere reenactment or mimicry. Zwölfkinder, like the anecdotes I discuss below, must serve desire at both ends and at every point in between in order to have the generative power that Pynchon insists upon.

It is no wonder that Zwölfkinder serves as the setting where Franz Pökler nearly acts upon his frustration and anger about being used by the state in an act of “incest,” with “Ilse,” who may be his real daughter, or who may just be another invention of the state. In fact, through the state’s appropriation of the innocence produced when children enact the state, in a sense, both the imposter Ilse and the real Ilse are functions of the state. Which is to say that innocence is punctuated with state structures manufactured by Zwölfkinder while the state is riddled with innocence. In Gravity’s Rainbow the two can seldom be disentangled. The complicity of innocence with the state underwrites Pökler’s fantasy of rebellion, dooming it:

He hit her upside the head with his open hand, a loud and terrible blow. That took care of his anger. Then, before she could cry or speak, he had dragged her up on the bed next to him, her dazed little hands already at the buttons of his trousers, her white frock already pulled above her waist. She had been wearing nothing at all underneath, nothing all I’ve wanted you, she whispered as paternal plow found its way into filial furrow...and after hours of amazing incest they dressed in silence, and crept out into the leading edge of faintest flesh dawn, everything they would ever need packed inside her flowered bag, past sleeping children doomed to the end of summer, past monitors and railway guards, down at last to the water and the fishing boats, to a fatherly old sea-dog in a braided captain’s hat, who welcomed them aboard and stashed them below decks, where she snuggled down in the bunk as they got under way and sucked him for hours while the engine pounded, till the Captain called, “Come on up, and take a look at your new home!” Gray and green, through the mist, it was Denmark. “Yes, they’re a free people here. Good luck to both of you!” The three of them, there on deck, stood hugging....

No. (420–421)

The startling negotiation of sexuality and childhood in this passage bears remarkable similarity to the scene on the Anubis between Slothrop and Bianca. Here again we observe physical violence, miniaturization, and dazed complicity. More remarkable, perhaps, is how Pökler’s supposed route to freedom, Ilse’s body, might be said to compose nothing save figures of enclosure, masquerading in human name and shape. First, Ilse “takes care of,” or contains Pökler’s anger. Then she encloses him as a “furrow.” Next, everything needed for his survival gets “packed” in Ilse’s bag. “Stashed” below the decks of the ship, Ilse “snuggles” Pökler further yet, until, with the vista of freedom finally in sight, Ilse “hugs” Pökler on the deck. Pökler’s fantasy of incest and escape, then, is bound to fail. The more he resorts to violating innocence, the more firmly he is bound in his servitude to the state. Ilse can facilitate neither transgression nor rebellion. It is merely the vulnerable-looking construction of her innocence that makes her appear to Pökler as though she can. In violently rending the innocent mirage “They” have created of his daughter, Pökler fantasizes a route of escape. Realistically, Pökler’s maneuver can never constitute more than a repetition of the innocence-to-experience story, a tale already thoroughly written by the state, both backwards and forwards. Pökler’s desire for rebellion through a temporal movement that passes chronologically from innocence to experience can never hope to elude the state’s spatial sense of the narrative relations of its own story. The resounding “no” that dislodges Pökler’s day-dream is an acknowledgment that the premises of his fantasy—that Ilse is his daughter and that innocence/experience stories indeed exist, with the state’s children in starring roles—are from the beginning illusions cultivated by the state. The character in the dream cannot outdream the dreamer. Pökler’s day-dream cannot function as a source of wish-fulfillment because neither the wish nor its subject are stable or tangible materials. We remember, of course, Slothrop’s second Proverb for Paranoids: “The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master” (241). The greater a role innocence plays, the more experienced those who “carry on the real business of the town.”

If it is true that the state produces and consumes stories of innocence and experience, the transgressive hypothesis about such sexualized children in Gravity’s Rainbow begins to unravel. If innocence is already complicit with the state, we are bound to learn as Pökler does that its violation is already a familiar subplot in the state’s narrative structure. In order to understand more fully Pynchon’s sexualization of children, then, it is necessary to examine sites similar to Zwölfkinder, places where innocence is actually produced, in order to establish a narrative context against which to read Pynchon’s scenes.

I would like to suggest that the narrative form most uniquely suited and situated for examining the instantiation of innocence in the state context is the anecdote. Easily mistaken for a miniature or an innocent itself, the anecdote renders the private, gossipy, or hidden in the process of becoming narrative and public as it fills the vacant spaces in more esteemed public histories. The anecdote, though typically imagined as representational and primarily metaphorical, is also composed of a metonymical narrative field where we can read constellations of contiguity as they settle into narrative logic.

Do anecdotes gain currency in times of war? Gravity’s Rainbow argues that they do when Pynchon suggests that “the true war is a celebration of markets” (105) and “information [has] come to be the only real medium of exchange” (258). In the following, I would like to imagine these concepts in both their literal and figurative senses to show that there indeed exists an information market which uses innocence for its currency in the United States since September Eleventh. Like all markets, this market is an instrument that registers the ebb and flow of desire. After September Eleventh, anecdotes about innocent children gained measurable value, beginning immediately with the piggy-bank anecdotes. As a market, multifarious desires drive the stock of children higher, yet each piggy-bank anecdote functions as a miniature Zwölfkinder where innocence is produced around state exigency. Like Zwölfkinder, these anecdotes are mediated by various desires that coalesce around the children that star in them. Though they serve the state’s desire for an innocence that would let it wage war with impunity, these anecdotes are of course not state-issued, nor do they directly serve the state’s interests. Rather, the stories are more directly mediated by various public, institutional, and journalistic desires that can all take their pleasures in the same nexus of childhood and innocence, as the wildly diverse interests of Chaucer’s pilgrims once found fulfillment in the same pilgrimage. The journalists that press the acts of specific children into a predictable form do so because there already exists a public market for patriotism, sentiment, stability, and perhaps even for a willful blindness to the actions of its state. Organizations such as the Red Cross have something to gain in the market as well. These institutions take their pleasure on the anecdotal dimensions of charity while the journalists take theirs in the consumption of the stories. Once again, the public and the state invest their various desires for stability in the object of their children. State and public look up lovingly over the shoulders of their children and their gazes meet, though their fantasies are different. Part of what Zwölfkinder teaches is that the proliferation of certain stories after September Eleventh is neither unique nor unpredictable. As a result of this predictability, however, we can read our own historical condition in the characteristics of this common form that do seem unique or in the formal peculiarities that could not have been predicted. It is precisely because the discourse of childhood that follows September Eleventh is really no exception at all that our close attention to it and its variant in Gravity’s Rainbow can uncover what is peculiar in both.

Although they exhibit important variations, all of the anecdotes of innocence presented here are structurally similar. Typically, a small child between four and eight years old is deeply affected by the disaster and, in what he or she sees as an act of patriotism, contributes his or her savings to relief funds for World Trade Center victims. These stories often demonstrate communal effects in which adult members of the community are inspired by the innocent children’s donations and are thus strengthened in their own patriotic and nationalistic resolve. While these anecdotes were profuse immediately following September Eleventh, I will also try to demonstrate that this structure of anecdote has a history and may be said to constitute a transnational and, to some extent, a transhistorical genre of its own. I treat these little newspaper narratives as anecdotes because each is a private story made public that fills a gap in the “official” narrative of history. They answer to anecdote’s Greek sense of “things unpublished” and the French root of “to give out” or “publish.” As these two nearly contrary senses emphasize, “anecdote” is a word that tends toward and finally subsumes its own opposite meaning in regard to the hidden or the revealed. The anecdote is never wholly free from the pull of either its private or its public pole but oscillates instead suspended between the two. In its form there is always something public about the secret anecdote as there is something that remains private in the form of the published anecdote. Journalism often takes the anecdotal form because of its position between current events and narrative, thus “the secret, private, or hitherto unpublished narratives or details of history” (OED), and because it serves public desire for the kinds of narratives it wants to consume.

By exploring these anecdotes of innocence in the context of state exigency, I hope to demonstrate that the manipulation of children in Gravity’s Rainbow should be read as a means of resisting the state’s long history of appropriating the innocence of its children for its prosecution of war. Certainly, Pynchon entertains no illusions that sexually violating the innocence of children can be a means of eluding or subverting state power (as demonstrated in Pökler’s failure to escape and in his utter servitude). Instead, his insistence on representing children as already startlingly experienced blocks the state’s Zwölfkinder-type production and use of innocence, which is especially useful to the state when it attempts to justify military action. Pynchon’s achievement with respect to this discourse is to have rendered the state’s and the public’s mutual desire for innocence visible by making the representation of that desire literal and sexual. He underscores the investments that the public and the state make in the innocence of children by confronting us with the sexual dimension of desire and by forcing us to acknowledge its resemblance. The discourse of innocent children, though mediated in multiple ways, plays a role in producing favorable circumstances for war whose violence is just as palpable as Pynchon’s discourse of sexual violence. While the latter discourse elicits shock and disgust, the violent aspect of the former discourse remains concealed. The invisibility of violence depends upon the perception that there is indeed an essential difference between sexual and non-sexual desire, a denial of the fact that every desire is shot through with other structures of desire. Pynchon enables us to perceive the violence in both categories of childhood representation through a kind of commutative law that lets the discourses cross at the object of desire. His overturning of sexual innocence provides a means for rethinking the easy stories of innocence in which various interests take their pleasure, finally, by a commutation of our responses to the two discourses. Pynchon challenges us to read the following stories of innocence alongside our shocked and disgusted response to his own experienced children. How do we bring such divergent stories into sense when juxtaposed? What will become evident is how the post-September Eleventh anecdotes constitute and do not merely represent innocence in the first instance. In other words, while I do not doubt that the particular instances reported in these anecdotes actually occurred in some manner or another, I wish to emphasize instead how they already conform to well-established literary and anecdotal forms. Further, there never was a time when the opposite was true, that such anecdotes became structured by events that were unmarked by or innocent of this narrative structure.

The most basic form of these anecdotes of innocence may be expressed in the following four examples:

  1. 1. John DeCristoforo, in charge of fundraising at the New York chapter [of the Red Cross], said he’ll never forget one of the first visitors to his donation booth.

    “A 4-year-old girl walked up and opened her Pokemon backpack. She pulled out a matching Pokemon wallet, which she unzipped and dumped on the table,” DeCristoforo recalled. “She donated $4.37 in quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies to the disaster relief fund. We saw many young people make sacrifices like this, but that little girl was one of the first, and one of the youngest.”

  1. 2. Katelyn Riant is broke.

    Her mother couldn’t be more proud.

    The 4-year-old Decatur resident carried her piggy bank to the Decatur Fire and Rescue headquarters at Flint and dumped her life savings—$22.30—into a shoebox. She handed it, along with a hand-drawn picture, to a firefighter.

  1. 3. Flowers and notes left by well-wishers have become impromptu shrines to the World Trade Center victims at area fire stations. Last week, an angel piggy bank was left outside a National City fire station. A child’s note was attached:

    “My name is AnnaLuz Montano. I am 8 years old. I am very sorry for what happened to New York City. So I’m donating my savings to help the family [sic] that went through so much tragedy. God bless America. I will be praying for all the family [sic] and to the firefighter.” [sic]

    Inside her bank was $53.17.

    Touched by her generosity, eight members of National City’s Firefighters Association visited AnnaLuz in her third-grade classroom at Lincoln Acres Elementary Thursday. They introduced themselves, gave her a commendation and proclaimed her a firefighter for the day. She gave them each a hug—and there were tears all around.

  1. 4. Sami Faqih, an 8-year-old McKinley Elementary School student of Palestinian descent, turned his sadness over the terrorist attacks into action on behalf of the relief effort.

    On Saturday, Sami went to the Corona Fire Department station of McKinley Street with his father and donated his piggy-bank—filled with $40 to $50 worth of coins—to the New York City firefighters’ relief fund. Sami also gave a firefighter a crayon drawing depicting a frowning sun and a row of tombstones with the inscription: “I wish you can com [sic] back Please.”

    Sami’s father, Wael Faqih, who emigrated to the United States in 1990 from Palestine, said his son was deeply moved by the terrorist attacks and felt compelled to help.

    “That’s our civic duty, isn’t it?” Faqih said. “He had a lot of emotions. He wanted to help America.”

(Press Enterprise)

Anecdote one begins with the adult frame of the story, which is central to this genre of innocence anecdote. The fundraiser occupies a knowing, experienced position with respect to the child. This relationship is requisite if the child’s gesture of patriotic charity is to move him or to spill over into the adult world, as all of these anecdotes are situated to do. They must be so situated because there is a public market that desires this effect, which precedes their service to newspaper, charitable organization, or state. The child must leave an indelible impression upon an adult. There is usually great detail about the child’s precise age, about the dollar amount of the contribution (often about the denomination [1, 2, 3], nearly always some mention of coins [4]), and also about the money container. Citation of age, instead of simply evoking “children,” functions as naturalistic detail and also deploys a specific category of the four or the eight year old that is already marked as small and innocent in our culture. It is provocative to think that Pynchon’s nearly categorical refusal to mark his children with precise ages somehow works to disrupt our recourse to this cultural association. The Pokemon backpack and wallet may be said to function as similar naturalistic and categorical markers, but its naming, like the naming of the piggy banks in the other anecdotes, alerts us to the importance of the actual money container. It is vital that the currency the children donate be as innocent as they are. It must not have previously circulated in markets of exchange, but have grown penny by penny in the cordoned-off space of the piggy bank. As the children at Zwölfkinder launder history, so do these children launder currency by storing it in a non-circulating or innocent space. The precision of dollar amounts, besides affording us unprecedented knowledge about our nation’s piggy banks, reinforces the innocence of both the child and the transaction. The uneven denominations both signal a child giver (adults are more liable to give even, calculated amounts) and tell us that every last penny has been sacrificed. The emphasis on coins, it almost goes without saying, lends a miniaturizing effect to the donation and the child. The focus in the first anecdote on the physical act of “unzipping” and the “dumping” of “quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies” further establishes the innocence in the child’s unrefined mode of transaction.

The second anecdote exhibits many of the above features but has some interesting variations. For one, while the first child donated in Manhattan, this precisely named child donates in a Decatur, Illinois fire department, reinforcing the idea that the attacks of September Eleventh were a national and not simply a local tragedy. The donation to the Decatur Fire Department assumes a unified civil or state service with national connections, although fire departments are usually thought of in the most local or municipal of terms. That a donation can be made to a universal fire department strengthens the idea of a large state structure that the child can make her innocent contact with. The hand-drawn picture, which also appears in anecdote four, compounds the sense that the children give more than money. The drawing lends a certain emotionality or expressiveness to the dollar amount to create an effect that the money could not accomplish alone. None of these anecdotes, nor any that I found, features solely creative drawings or notes without money, however.

Anecdote three puts extra emphasis on the community impact of the donation when it stages the resultant visit of the firefighters and their conferral of an honorary “firefightership” upon the child. Also of note is the inclusion of the text of the child’s letter, which links to the inscription in anecdote four. In anecdote three, the grammatical mistakes of the letter tend to singularize plural and diffuse entities. The many families of the victims and the many firefighters become a single family and a single firefighter. This note, then, is remarkably articulate, if unwitting, about the general unifying function that these anecdotes perform.

Anecdote four shows the potential in this form for adaptation and for variations upon a theme. Like anecdote three, the ungrammatical note produces real affect, especially when coupled with the disturbing depiction of the “frowning sun” and the “row of tombstones.” It is unclear whether the inscription, “I wish you can com back Please,” appears inscribed on the tombstones, or appears as a caption for the drawing. In either case, the inscription plays on categories of innocence, both in the misspelling of “come” and in the innocent conception of death. The inscription conveys a perfectly adult, or experienced sentiment until the capitalized “Please” suggests that the dead possess the agency to return. Though it is possible to read this inscription with religious emphasis or in innumerable other contexts, in the newspaper sphere the inscription is formulated to produce an affect of innocence.

What seems most striking about anecdote four, however, is that unlike the three previous examples, the child in this case is of Palestinian descent. This anecdote performs many of the moves that the others do, but its improvisation with the form makes it exemplary of the uses to which the form may be put. In the context of the war and other exigencies of national interest, the other anecdotes perform an important unifying and innocence-generating function. Here, the form varies such that it performs very specific work in a specific context while the general effects become peripheral. Before the military campaign in Afghanistan even began, the Bush Administration took every opportunity to reiterate the fact that they were not at war with all Arab people or with Islam. This rhetoric was vital for American and foreign support for the war, regardless of how the Administration may have thought of its goals. The anecdote of the Palestinian child maps innocence onto race and performs the idea that the category of “American” supersedes more refined categories of identity and identification. “Civic duty” cuts across the child’s Palestinian origins (and perhaps his Muslim faith, which I believe we are meant to identify in the form, whether or not this particular Palestinian family is Muslim). Perhaps more disturbing than the fact that this anecdote enacts or performs the rhetoric of the state is that it so transparently situates itself in relation to the rhetoric of metonymy between Arab and terrorist. This anecdote enacts what it supposes is a necessary intervention in this rhetoric by appealing twice to the “terrorist attacks,” each time in opposition to “Palestine” or “Palestinian.”

In order to demonstrate the longevity of the anecdotal form that I have discussed above, I would like to examine the following anecdote of an innocent Silesian peasant girl from an anonymous 1815 book review, which appeared in the Quarterly Review, of Gentz’s On the Fall of Prussia. It is instructive for its marked structural similarity to the above anecdotes and because it wears more plainly the mechanisms of metaphor and metonymy implicit in the World Trade Center charity anecdotes:

An anecdote of a Silesian peasant girl deserves to be recorded, as it shews the general feeling which pervaded the country. Whilst her neighbours and family were contributing in different ways to the expenses of the war, she for some time was in the greatest distress at her inability to manifest her patriotism, as she possessed nothing which she could dispose of for that purpose. At length the idea struck her, that her hair, which was of great beauty, and the pride of her parents, might be of some value, and she accordingly set off one morning privately for Breslau, and disposed of her beautiful tresses for a couple of dollars. The hair-dresser, however, with whom she had negociated the bargain, being touched with the girl’s conduct, reserved his purchase for the manufacture of bracelets and other ornaments; and as the story became public, he in the end sold so many, that he was enabled, by this fair maiden’s locks alone, to subscribe a hundred dollars to the exigencies of the state.


I like this anecdote in particular because the first sentence explicitly recognizes the way literary, specifically metonymical, reasoning stands between the representative anecdote and the general “feeling” of Silesia. The anonymous critic divulges the metonymical mediation between the anecdote and the real. It is worth trying to sort out how different discourses and powers exert themselves in complex configurations on the Silesian girl. “Parents” and “neighbors” converge in the second sentence amid a rather elaborate metonymical logic. The familial discourse about the girl’s relationship to her parents slides into apposition with “neighbors” until her relationship to her neighbors can substitute for familial relationships. This is a familiar way of thinking about how the idea of the nation as an extended family gets figured. On the other hand, we have the contiguity of “war” and “expense,” which are cemented to the neighbor and the family through the discourse of “contributing” and “patriotism.” Patriotism is constituted as contributing to the war effort, from within an economic scale of “possessing” and “dispossessing.” “At length the idea struck her,” suggests that the truthfulness of these relations must be arrived at by careful consideration and, conversely, that careful reasoning ensures, rather than interrogates, these metonymies. “Pride” abuts beautiful hair until, under the parental/national value system, the hair becomes currency that can be contributed to the war effort. The hairdresser, a neighbor, completes the metonymy of hair/ornament/capital, perhaps motivated by the same powers that moved the girl, but more probably moved by discursive principles that the girl herself brought into being for him.

As was vital to the function of the post-September Eleventh anecdotes, the child’s innocent patriotism, constructed by the form itself, spills over in the adult world in which a hundred dollars are generated for “the exigencies of the state.” The previous anecdotes do not cite so openly their state affiliations, nor do they so easily lend themselves to obvious analysis. This is so because in the fully modernized present the anecdotes must accommodate greater varieties of desire. They cannot simply direct themselves toward the “exigencies of the state” because, while these exigencies are their cumulative object, the anecdotes must first act as ringbolts for more local desires as diverse as those for sentiment, patriotism, political insulation, financial profit, notoriety, stability, and so on. While this form might be said to recur as a kind of ideological response to war, its formal attributes are deeply historical in character and suit themselves to their own peculiar historical climate. This would account for the distortions of the form in the current anecdotes relative to the Silesian peasant anecdote, which in turn is itself a historical distortion of a prior form. For instance, to take just one example, it seems significant that the Silesian girl’s hair is translated quite causally into money through the economic inventiveness of the hairdresser. This is markedly different from the insistent emphasis that the new anecdotes place upon the child’s direct issuing of funds, innocent and uncirculated in character. This emphasis is perhaps the point in each anecdote marked by the specific historical conditions of our present war in which economic interests and motivations have and likely will continue to be questioned. Perhaps the fact that the September Eleventh disaster occurred quite pointedly at the financial center of the United States also contributes to the necessity for representations of economic fortitude and economic innocence. Still, long before this local detail contributes to the state, it serves the purposes of an organization like the Red Cross that has more uses for money than it does for locks of hair. Further, these stories are less likely to elicit subscriptions of money directly to the state, as in the Silesian peasant’s story, than they are to profit the news media. If these piggy-bank anecdotes do not cite as openly their state affiliations, then, this is because their affiliations are much more numerous and fractured than those of the 1815 anecdote. Anecdotes like these are necessary because local desires and the global desires of the state do not merely line up, one behind the other. They come from multiple angles, directions, and interests so various that it is imperative they all cross at least once at a common point. A stable society becomes adept at finding such points of common desire, and children are perhaps most commonly desired above all.

Despite its historical differences, however, the anecdote of the Silesian peasant girl is very much at work all around us today, and the modes of innocence production remain structurally unchanged. Anecdotes do indeed gain (and become) currency in times of war, especially if we follow Pynchon in imagining war as a celebration of (especially information) markets. Such anecdotes direct our attention to the important line where power leaves its mark on children, whose little lives are pressed into the shape of discourse. Pynchon gives us means for sustaining dialogue with the categories performed and produced at this line with his refusal to ground his children in either innocence or experience. Near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, the return of the child Ludwig, whom Slothrop found searching for his “lost lemming Ursula,” is representative of Pynchon’s deliberate destabilizing of children’s categories:

It is fat Ludwig and his lost lemming Ursula—he has found her at last and after all and despite everything. For a week they have been drifting alongside the trek, just past visibility, pacing the Africans day by day...among trees at the tops of escarpments, at the fires’ edges at night Ludwig is there, watching...accumulating evidence, or terms of an equation...a boy and his lemming out to see the Zone. Mostly what he’s seen is a lot of chewing gum and a lot of foreign cock. How else does a foot-loose kid get by in the Zone these days? Ursula is preserved. Ludwig has fallen into a fate worse than death and found it’s negotiable. So not all lemmings go over the cliff, and not all children are preserved against snuggling into the sin of profit. To expect any more, or less, of the Zone is to disagree with the terms of the Creation.


Like Slothrop when he finds the long-lost harmonica that he pursued down the toilet years earlier, Ludwig finds Ursula for another unexpected reunion. Even the category of return, however, refuses to stabilize without irony. For Slothrop, the reunion is only another moment of misrecognition: “It happens to be the same one he lost in 1938 or -9 down the toilet at the Roseland Ballroom, but that’s too long ago for him to remember” (622–23). Ludwig’s discovery of Ursula, however, might reify the idea that everything eventually returns (an innocent faith), though from the beginning Pynchon’s string of story-book formulas such as “at last,” “after all,” and “despite everything” cautions against such a reading. In displaying literary formulas that are related to children’s discourse and its various productions of innocence, Pynchon brings them to the fore of our cultural associative consciousness precisely so that the remainder of Ludwig’s story can be read against them.

What has the boy who found his lemming been doing since we last saw him? He has been following Enzian and the Zone Hereros, “watching...accumulating evidence, or terms of an equation...a boy and his lemming, out to see the Zone.” We do not know why or for whom Ludwig accumulates evidence or terms for an equation, but such calculated and precise behavior seems at odds with the last part of the sentence. “A boy and his lemming, out to see the Zone,” plays upon the formulaic “boy and his dog, out to see the world.” This locution connotes carefree wonder and openness, which at once ironizes and is ironized by the calculation of “evidence” or “equations.” The substitution of “lemming” for “dog” enacts similar categorical transgressions and keeps the tone of the passage unstable, allowing neither the clichéd structures of childhood nor the defiance of these structures to dominate it. The syllepsis of “seeing” “a lot of chewing gum” and “a lot of foreign cock” also defies structures and values in both directions. The possibility that the chewing gum may have been Ludwig’s payment for sex acts with men further complicates the assignment of category and value by suggesting that modes of exchange exist between the two dissimilar “markets” of chewing gum and sex. The innocent market overlaps the experienced one. Further, children do not usually “negotiate,” especially not with “fates worse than death.”

All of these suspensions and reversals culminate in the moral of Ludwig’s tale: “So not all lemmings go over the cliff, and not all children are preserved against snuggling into the sin of profit.” The myth of sexual and financial innocence is comparable to the myth of lemming suicide; neither is true, but both are powerful and therefore enduring. Pynchon’s attention to the Zone context in the final sentence of this passage is of great importance. The war created the Zone where the innocence of children like Ludwig is demythologized. As the post-September Eleventh anecdotes and the Zwölfkinder show us, however, the state relies for its very prosecution of war on the production of innocence through its children, though it does so as the cumulative result of diverse and often disparate desires along the way. Pynchon draws this paradox out in his children’s sexual figurations and in the disfigurations of children in the Zone. Thus, by shuttling between fiction, piggy-bank anecdotes, and historical events, we can make the middle term exfoliate and name connections between the former and the latter term. We can allow Gravity’s Rainbow and September Eleventh to call to one another across a narrative and historical divide, over their common points of contact, in the unassuming assembly hall of the anecdote (where plenty of work gets done).

David Rando
Department of English
Cornell University


1. I think specifically of the charge against New Historicism that the untheorized spaces between texts and contexts are bridged by various metaphorical maneuvers. Alan Liu expresses this best:

A New Historicist paradigm holds up to view a historical context on one side, a literary text on the other, and, in between, a connection of pure nothing. Or rather, what now substitutes for history of ideas between context and text is the fantastic interdisciplinary nothingness of metaphor.... What is merely “convenient” in a resemblance between context and text...soon seems an emulation; emulation is compounded in analogy; and, before we know it, analogy seems magical “sympathy”: a quasi-magical action of resemblance between text and context....

Works Cited

“Gentz—On the Fall of Prussia.” Rev. of On the Fall of Prussia. Quarterly Review 13.26 (July 1815): 418–442.
Bell, Diane. “A Little Angel, Age 8, Appears and Lifts Spirits.” 29 Sept. 2001. 16 Nov. 2001. <>.
Giuliani, Rudolph. Interview with Barbara Walters. “American Fights Back: Interview with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.” 20/20. ABC News. 19 Sept. 2001.
Huggins, Paul. “4-Year-Old Girl Empties Piggy Bank for Relief Aid.” The Decatur Daily News Online Edition. 21 Sept. 2001. 16 Nov. 2001. <>.
Liu, Alan. “The Power of Formalism: The New Historicism.” English Literary History 56.4 (1989): 721–71.
“Palestinian-American Donates Piggy Bank.” The Press-Enterprise. Online. 22 Sept. 2001. 16 Nov. 2001.>.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Ward, Christina. “America’s Children Reach Out: Across the U.S., Young Americans Raise Money for Relief.” American Red Cross. Online. 27 Sept. 2001. 16 Nov. 2001. <>.

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