- Escaping the Politics of the Irredeemable Earth—Anarchy and Transcendence in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon
But staggering subsets, fellows – you see what this means don’t you? Those Indian mystics and Tibetan lamas and so forth were right all along, the world we think we know can be dissected and reassembled into any number of worlds, each as real as ‘this’ one(Against the Day, 1212).
In her discussion of Orwell’s 1984, Judith Shklar makes a compelling case for the use of literature in political theory contra the Platonic opposition to the poets. She concludes that political theory is not tied to an external reality, but rather is part of the ‘languages of the republic of letters’ and that it is by ‘attending carefully to all imaginative and scholarly literature’ that one can ‘establish the historical identity of ideas’ (Shklar, 1985, 17). The advantage of widening political theory’s compass to include literature is that this allows a greater capacity to play out the potentialities inherent in political theory, as literature, ‘illustrates, dramatizes, personalizes, and raises the questions that political theory asks and the ideas it suggests. It even helps us to tell our stories, and indeed may even help us to decide what story to tell and how to go about it’ (Shklar, 1985, 17). Richard Rorty goes further when he states: ‘Fiction … gives us the details about kinds of suffering being endured by people to whom we had previously not attended. Fiction … gives us the details about what sorts of cruelty we ourselves are capable of, and thereby lets us redescribe ourselves. That is why the novel, the movie, and the TV program have, gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principal vehicles of moral change and progress’ (Rorty, 1989, xvi).
Perhaps the most eloquent testimony regarding the benefits of using literary texts in relation to politics and ethics is that of Martha Nussbaum: ‘certain truths about human life can only be fittingly and accurately stated in the language and forms characteristic of the narrative artist. With respect to certain elements of human life, the terms of the novelist’s art are alert winged creatures, perceiving where the blunt terms of ordinary speech, or of abstract theoretical discourse, are blind, acute where they are obtuse, winged where they are dull and heavy’ (Nussbaum, 1989, 5). America, the ‘Applied Enlightenment’ according to Ralf Dahrendorf (Hoffman, 1995, 219) and dedicated above all to the concept of democracy, almost as a consequence has to produce political literature, as Deneen and Romance express it, ‘it is hard to imagine such a democratic society not producing a literature that is decidedly political’ (Deneen and Romance, 2005, 1). Allowing that literature provides us with alternative realities and vocabularies from which to extract lessons and to play out the logics and narratives of political life begs the question, which of our contemporary leading authors can lay claim to the mantle of being the successor to politically aware writers such as Huxley, Koestler, Orwell, Nabokov? Thomas Pynchon, the National Book Award winner and perennial Nobel Prize for Literature candidate, is one such figure in that his writings, to varying degrees, exhibit both literary excellence and also consistent engagement with political questions, such as the role of the state, the possible emancipation of the individual and society and ultimately the transcendence of politics itself. Such is Pynchon’s cultural significance that Harold Bloom has described Pynchon as, ‘the crucial American writer of prose fiction at the present time’ (Bloom, 2003, 1). In addition to his cultural importance, Pynchon is a significant political thinker because, as Samuel Thomas expresses it in Pynchon and the Political, ‘he is a novelist capable of startling political insight. Furthermore, he is also a novelist who forces us to rethink what the political actually is’ (Thomas, 2007, 152).
In the absence of a political manifesto penned by Thomas Pynchon those interested in what his works have to say about political life in late modernity are forced to interpret his texts and from them reconstruct a political philosophy. Given that these texts represent some of the most difficult in English literature, this is no...