Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Thematic: Theological Variations

The Far Invisible

Thomas Pynchon as America’s Theologian

Alan Jacobs

THR illustration; Thomas Pynchon, 1953; background: Alamy Stock Photos.

In 1988, the great Lutheran scholar Robert Jenson published a book called America’s Theologian, conferring that honor on the formidable eighteenth-century Calvinist divine Jonathan Edwards. Jenson did not mean that Edwards is the greatest American theologian, though he probably is, but rather “that Edwards’s theology meets precisely the problems and opportunities of specifically American Christianity and of the nation molded thereby, and that it does so with the profundity and inventive élan that belong only to the very greatest thinkers.”11xRobert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), 3.  Quite clearly, a very different America has emerged in the decades since Jenson’s book was published, and the best theologian of our America is by profession neither a theologian nor a pastor. The great theologian of our America, I propose, is the novelist Thomas Pynchon.

This may seem a peculiar claim, and not just because Pynchon is a writer of fiction. No evidence indicates that Pynchon is a Christian, or indeed a religious believer of any kind (though he may have been taken to church as a child).22xBoris Kachka, “On the Thomas Pynchon Trail: From the Long Island of His Boyhood to the ‘Yupper West Side’ of His New Novel,” August 25, 2013, Vulture, But his forebears were believers. Indeed, the first of his ancestors to live on the North American continent, William Pynchon, the founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, was also a theologian, and a controversial one. His 1650 book The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, a fierce repudiation of Calvinism, was burned on Boston Common, then banned—America’s first banned book, some historians say. William escaped the scandal by returning to his native England, but he left behind a son, John, who established a kind of dynasty. The Pynchons would become prominent throughout New England, and even make their way into Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables.

By the time Thomas Pynchon was born, on Long Island in 1937, the family had become thoroughly secularized. Pynchon’s novels—he has published eight of them since 1963—would seem to be dominated by the concerns of a late-twentieth-century secular world: political power and the often secret technologies that sustain it; the strengths and weaknesses of countercultural resistance to such power; the great claims of science and the ongoing suspicion that those claims may not be wholly justified. Moreover, he continually juxtaposes the tragic with the comical, and even the farcical, in ways that might seem to disavow any morally or spiritually serious purpose. Yet more than a trace of the ancestral theological concerns is present throughout his work. Whatever his religious belief or unbelief, theological elements are central to his imagination, and over the course of his long career have assumed a distinctive shape that is worthy of our closest attention, above all because these elements so powerfully address American culture today: a culture that wants to be thought spiritual but never religious, to use history as a weapon but never acknowledge it as an inheritance, to worship its own technologies while simultaneously lamenting their tyrannical power.

All titles by Thomas Pynchon
New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1963.
The Crying of Lot 49
New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1966.
Gravity’s Rainbow
New York, NY: Viking/Penguin, 1973.
Slow Learner: Early Stories
Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1984.
New York, NY: Viking/Penguin, 1990.
Mason & Dixon
New York, NY: Picador, 1997.
Against the Day
New York, NY: Penguin, 2006.
Inherent Vice
New York, NY: Penguin, 2009.
Bleeding Edge
New York, NY: Penguin, 2013.

The Rathenau Séance

The most distinctive element of Pynchon’s account of the late-modern moment, and the element that makes it so vital, is its uniting of theological and technological reflection. His work seems to suggest that a properly theological account of late modernity will also be a technological account, and a usefully technological one will also be theological. That Pynchon seeks the union of these two typically divergent perspectives is made quite explicit in a scene from his most famous novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), set primarily during World War II. There he depicts a séance in which a group of Germans from “the corporate Nazi crowd,” makers of armaments, attempt to contact the spirit of Walter Rathenau, who had been foreign minister in the Weimar government until his assassination by a reactionary terrorist group, Organization Consul, in 1922.

There are certain obvious reasons why these people might want to hear from Rathenau. He had been, as Pynchon’s narrator explains, “prophet and architect of the cartelized state. From what began as a tiny bureau at the War Office in Berlin, he had coordinated Germany’s economy during World War I, controlling supplies, quotas and prices, cutting across and demolishing the barriers of secrecy and property that separated firm from firm—a corporate Bismarck, before whose power no account book was too privileged, no agreement too clandestine” (GR, 164–65). But Rathenau was not merely a wielder of great power; he also “was a philosopher with a vision of the postwar State. He saw the war in progress as a world revolution, out of which would rise neither Red Communism nor an unhindered Right, but a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority” (GR, 165). A philosopher, then, of a world in which government is subordinate to commerce, in which the titans of industry are the real power behind the throne: a cross between Hegel and Henry Ford.

If the corporate Nazis’ interest in Rathenau is thus easily explained, there is something else that intrigues them: “It might almost—if one were paranoid enough—seem to be a collaboration here, between both sides of the Wall, matter and spirit. What is it they [the powers of the material and spiritual realms] know that the powerless do not? What terrible structure behind the appearances of diversity and enterprise?” (GR, 165). An obscurely portentous question—and one to reflect on.

The medium in the séance succeeds in reaching Rathenau, who speaks at some length and gives explicit instructions to the group. Near the end of their conversation, he sums up his appeal to them in an especially powerful and provocative way:

These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs. All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth—I know I presume—you must look into the technology of these matters. Even into the hearts of certain molecules—it is they after all which dictate temperatures, pressures, rates of flow, costs, profits, the shapes of towers. (GR, 167)

Rathenau concludes with this double imperative: “You must ask two questions. First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control?” (GR, 167). It is not too much to say that the theology of Pynchon’s fiction—which is also at least a part of a theology adequate to the Anthropocene era—amounts to an extended commentary on this passage.

What Rathenau says here seems to be self-contradictory. On the one hand, he speaks dismissively of “secular history” as a “diversionary tactic”; on the other hand, he counsels the Nazi titans of industry to “look into the technology of these matters.” In our typical understanding, inquiry into technology, exploration of its power, simply is secular history: To account for events in the world by reference to technology is to assume what Max Weber famously called the disenchantment of the world.

But this is not how Rathenau sees it. Nor does Pynchon. If to “look into technology”—“even into the hearts of certain molecules”—is a refusal of secular history, then the clear and troubling implication is that technology is not a set of disenchanted tools or instruments but rather what the Apostle Paul would call a Power: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). It is not clear whether Rathenau thinks this Power is one for his industrialists to struggle against—perhaps he wishes, rather, that they harness or cooperate with it—but it is clear that for him there is nothing “secular” about the Power that is technology.

Pynchon’s fiction is devoted to inventorying the many ways in which what he sometimes calls “the world” abandons our souls, and the powers it abandons them to. That body of work is primarily, and profoundly, diagnostic in character. It is not the novelist’s job to prescribe a treatment, though Pynchon hints at a few, and suggests further that the motion of our lives may not be Brownian, that is, random, the product of mere entropy. Rather, he implies, that motion is determined by something that from one point of view (we’ll later see whose) might be called a power/knowledge regime, and from another point of view (that of St. Paul) simply a Power. In any case, it is at this pivot from diagnosis to prescription—this point of a great V—where Pynchon’s fiction intersects with Christian theology.

The Point of the V

In the first pages of Pynchon’s early novel V. (1963), a major character in the story-to-come, one Benny Profane, falls in love with Rachel Owlglass, who at that point in the story seems to love only her sports car. Because Profane is, as Pynchon repeatedly reminds us, a schlemiel, he doesn’t drive. (For Pynchon, the schlemiel is defined by an inability to master inanimate objects.) Later in the book, after having lost touch with Rachel, Profane sits on a bench in what appears to be Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, and thinks:

Material wealth and getting laid strolled arm-in-arm the midway of Profane’s mind. If he’d been the type who evolves theories of history for his own amusement, he might have said all political events: wars, governments and uprisings, have the desire to get laid as their roots; because history unfolds according to economic forces and the only reason anybody wants to get rich is so he can get laid steadily, with whomever he chooses. All he believed at this point, on the bench behind the Library, was that anybody who worked for inanimate money so he could buy more inanimate objects was out of his head. (V, 214)

Benny then realizes that “he’d thought himself into an erection,” and then that “his erection had produced in the newspaper a crosswise fold”—that is to say, an inverted V—“which moved line by line down the page as the swelling gradually diminished. It was a list of employment agencies.” He decides to treat the fold as something like the pointer of a Ouija board, determining the agency he should visit. “He opened his eyes on Space/Time Employment Agency” (V, 267).

Benny duly makes his way to the Space/Time Employment Agency. From there he’s directed to a company called Anthroresearch Associates—a subsidiary of a company called, significantly, Yoyodyne—where he is hired as a night watchman and finds himself sitting across the room from something called SHROUD (Synthetic Human, Radiation Output Determined). Testing for radiation absorption is the purpose of SHROUD, and it is composed of, among other things, transparent cellulose skin stretched over an actual human skeleton. It is thus built on a frame of once-but-no-longer-animate material, something organic deteriorated into inorganic.

SHROUD is creepy, but more interesting to Benny is SHOCK (Synthetic Human Object, Casualty Kinematics)—basically, a very lifelike crash-test dummy containing, among many other features, a system for circulating “blood” that allows for assessment of the likely course of bleeding in various crash circumstances. Benny feels “a certain kinship with SHOCK, which was the first inanimate schlemiel he’d ever encountered.” But it’s SHROUD that Benny starts talking to—and SHROUD talks back:

 “You don’t even have a soul. How can you talk.”
“Since when did you ever have one? What are you doing, getting religion?” (V, 286)

Benny soon ends the conversation but keeps thinking. SHROUD tells him that he, Benny, and everyone else, will be like SHROUD and SHOCK one day. “You mean dead?” asks Benny. To which SHROUD replies that if he is dead, then yes, that’s what he means. And whatever living human beings are, SHROUD says, “none of you have very far to go” to be like the dummies (V, 286).

What is being articulated here is a kind of teleology of the human: an account of where human beings are headed, of the culmination that awaits them. This is an essential ingredient of any theological anthropology—though why this anthropology is “theological” may not yet be clear.

We draw closer to understanding what Pynchon is up to here by noting that a similar conversation—between a living human being and something or someone that may or may not be alive—happens in Pynchon’s most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, published in 2013, fifty years after V. In Bleeding Edge, the novel’s protagonist, Maxine Tarnow, is talking to someone in a video game, and thinks it may be a person who has been reported dead. But is he dead? How can she know? This avatar claims to be him—could it be some remnant or simulation of his consciousness? And could it really be her friend Lester that Maxine is talking to? “If it’s really you, Lester, I hate to think of you being lost down here.” Perhaps she should try to bring him back. The reply from Lester, or whoever or whatever: “Lost down here is the whole point. Take a good look at the surface Web sometime, tell me it isn’t a sorry picture. Big favor you’d be doing me, Maxine” (BE, 428).

So we see that, early and late, Pynchon is fascinated by the lines that mark—and especially by those that fail to mark—the boundaries between the animate and inanimate worlds. But in 1963 that boundary is investigated through the portrayal of a mechanical object, while in 2013 the same questions are raised by an encounter with digital reality.

V. has, very roughly speaking, two halves, one set in 1954–56 and tending to center on Benny Profane, and the other set in various times because it consists of historical reconstructions made by a man named Herbert Stencil. (Eventually the two characters converge before diverging again, near the end of the novel, as though a mirror were set up at the point of a V.) Stencil does much of this reconstruction while temporarily attached to the same semicoherent network of friends, acquaintances, and frenemies—called the Whole Sick Crew—that Benny Profane is also temporarily attached to; thus, while the readers of V. spend a lot of time reading about events that happen in Egypt in 1898, Florence in 1899, Paris in 1913, South West Africa in 1922, and Malta in 1919 and 1942–43, in a sense they are all coming to us via Stencil in New York City in 1955–56.

Stencil tells his stories, reconstructs history as best he can either grasp or imagine it, in order to discover the identity of a woman whom his father referred to in his journals only as V. In the chapter of the book called “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral”—which may be a reconstruction by Stencil but which I tend to think is a text read by him, an account more reliable (within the novel’s frame) than his own speculations—we see, or seem to see, the death of V.

In Malta during World War II, a charismatic figure shows up whom Fausto refers to as the Bad Priest. The Bad Priest seems to be especially interested in warning young people away from sex: He wants girls to become nuns, to “avoid the sensual extremes” of pain (in childbirth) and pleasure (in sexual intercourse), and to pursue Jesus as the only worthwhile Bridegroom. He wants boys to “be like a crystal: beautiful and soulless,” like the rock that is Malta itself (V, 340). The animate world—“whatever is begotten, born, and dies,” in Yeats’s words—is to be shunned, though perhaps not, as in Yeats, in favor of “monuments of unageing intellect.”33xWilliam Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), part 1, lines 6, 8.

During a German bombing raid, the Bad Priest is crushed in a collapsed building beneath a fallen beam. Not immediately killed, he is found first by a group of children and then by Fausto. Though he asks for help, the children only mock him (while Fausto stands by, doing nothing). They remove his hat, only to find a wig of white hair, which they also remove, revealing on the scalp a tattoo of the Crucifixion—after which they also realize that the Bad Priest is a woman. The children systematically and chillingly remove everything from her: first her shoes, which are revealed to contain artificial feet, a sapphire stitched into her navel, a glass eye “with an iris in the shape of a clock,” and false teeth. All these the children take (“She comes apart,” they say) as Fausto looks on. Eventually all that is left is the nude body of a dying woman, a body that looks younger than it should, but is also partly “disassembled.” Without holy water or oil, Fausto, who had once thought of becoming a priest, administers the sacrament of extreme unction using the woman’s own blood, which wells up in her navel after a boy has pried away the sapphire (V, 342–44).

This terrifying and eerie scene is at the very heart of the book, because V.’s “progression toward inanimateness,” as it is described later in the book (V, 410), is catalogued here so thoroughly that it intensifies, if it does not clarify, Pynchon’s exploration of the difference between the animate and the inanimate. What does it say about human beings that we can sometimes wish not to be alive? Perhaps we can grasp it if we understand the essential distinction to be not animate versus inanimate, but creature versus artifact.

The Virgin as Dynamo

One book that is clearly very important to Pynchon—he mentions it twice in his introduction to his collection of early stories, Slow Learner (1984)—is The Education of Henry Adams, especially the chapter titled “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” set in the year 1900.

The Dynamo builds modern America; eight hundred years ago, the Virgin built Chartres Cathedral. What strikes Adams is that the Virgin is not an image of beauty, taste, or sublime holiness, but rather an image of power. The Virgin, he realizes, is the force that raised up the walls of Chartres, and deserves to be recognized as such: Even at the start of the twentieth century, “the force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes, and seemed to be as potent as X-rays; but in America neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force—at most as sentiment. No American had ever been truly afraid of either.”44xHenry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York, NY: Modern Library, 1999), 383. First published 1918.  But Adams is perhaps on the verge of growing afraid.

The Virgin and the Dynamo; THR illustration (Shutterstock and Alamy Stock Photos).

As the critic Edward Mendelson points out, V. is the Virgin who gradually transforms herself into the Dynamo, who gradually exchanges the frailties of flesh for the hard, cold soullessness of inorganic, inanimate stuff. Perhaps she despises the power that is hers by (human) nature; perhaps she prefers a different source and model of power. We are not told, at least not directly. There is perhaps a hint when we meet the woman who will become the Bad Priest, who says, “I would so like to have…a foot of amber and gold, with the veins, perhaps, in intaglio instead of bas-relief. How tiresome to have the same feet: one can only change one’s shoes. But if a girl could have, oh, a lovely rainbow or wardrobe of different-hued, different-sized and -shaped feet” (V, 488). This suggests a deep-seated impatience with the given, with what I inherit rather than will and choose.

One way to describe V., the virgin who has become a dynamo, is as a cyborg, a fundamentally ambiguous fusion of the animate and inanimate: It is impossible to say whether it is primarily a supplementing of flesh by technology or a supplementing of technology by flesh. In this light, it is interesting to reflect on something Pynchon wrote in a 1984 essay for the New York Times titled “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?”:

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come—you heard it here first—when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.55xThomas Pynchon, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?,” October 28, 1984, New York Times,

No, we didn’t hear it there first. We heard it first when SHROUD spoke back to Benny Profane and said, “Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday.” The creature metamorphosed into an artifact, and was thereby delivered of any debt to a Maker. We may call this posthuman. Or we may call it subhuman.

Pynchon’s novels return again and again to this fear or hatred of organic life, of time and change, not to celebrate it, but to comprehend it. This fear is at the heart of technological society, and generates an opposing and compensatory compulsion to defer to the inorganic and the human-made. And this is of course a kind of idolatry. As the Psalmist says, “They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them” (Psalm 115:7–8). Pynchon’s lasting and deep inquiries into the lure of the inorganic form an anatomy of idolatry.

Pynchon’s Couriers

Religion is concerned with the transformation of believers, but it is equally concerned with revelation—with the communication of sacred meaning. We now move from transformation to transmission. Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49—written concurrently with V. but published three years later, and described by Pynchon as “a short story, but with gland trouble”66xQuoted in Mel Gussow, “Pynchon’s Letters Nudge His Mask,” March 4, 1998, New York Times, Pynchon made this comment in a letter to his agent, Candida Donadio. is concerned with the possible existence of a secret postal service, the Trystero, which is a kind of rival or shadow or doppelgänger of the Imperial Reichspost and its successor, the Thurn und Taxis Post, the official postal services of the Holy Roman Empire. Postal delivery in its many different forms is a vastly underrated element of the rise and consolidation of modernity, which—like the early Christian faith sustained by the carrying of letters along the roads of the Roman Empire, like the Muslim faith that arises when an angel speaks to a man—requires the transmission of messages.

If the “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral” is at the heart of V., the equivalent scene in The Crying of Lot 49 is the performance of a (made-up) Jacobean revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy. A very plausible case can be made that The Courier’s Tragedy is in some sense a condensation of the whole of Crying. There are multiple analogues.

In what remains, forty years after its first publication, the best essay on the novel, Edward Mendelson comments that “until the middle of the fifth chapter Oedipa”—Oedipa Maas, the book’s protagonist, a young housewife drawn unwillingly and insensibly into what may be world-historical mysteries—“consistently sees the post horn [which announces the mail’s arrival] as a living and immediate symbol, actively present in the daily life around her. From that point on she only hears about its past existence through documents, stamps, books—always second-hand.”77xEdward Mendelson, “The Sacred, the Profane, and The Crying of Lot 49,” in Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Edward Mendelson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978), 164.  This decisive change occurs about three-fifths of the way through the book. Meanwhile, in the intermission of the play, after the third of five acts, “Oedipa headed for the ladies’ room. She looked idly around for the symbol”—the muted post horn—“she’d seen the other night in [a bar called] The Scope, but all the walls, surprisingly, were blank. She could not say why, exactly, but felt threatened by this absence of even the marginal try at communication latrines are known for.” The transmissions have ceased. Thus Pynchon’s description of fourth-act events in the play: “It is at about this point in the play, in fact, that things really get peculiar, and a gentle chill, an ambiguity, begins to creep in among the words…. It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance. Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage” (CL, 55).

Other analogues abound. The play is put on in a Southern California town called San Narciso; certain events in the play revolve around a statue of St. Narcissus of Jerusalem. Before attending the play, Oedipa has just heard about the deaths of Allied soldiers near an Italian lake; in the play, soldiers die near an Italian lake.

Why, though, is the play called The Courier’s Tragedy? Because one of the main characters, Niccolò, the rightful duke whose place has been taken by a wicked usurper, Angelo, disguises himself as a courier. Though he escapes death several times during the course of this exceptionally bloody play, Niccolò eventually dies its most significant death. But maybe there’s more to this courier business than a simple disguise. Maybe we should reflect on what a courier is. A courier bears messages without writing or reading them. In that sense, couriers are necessary to informational exchange but are outside the communicative circuit. In the fourth act of the play, we learn that the dead soldiers, the Lost Guard of Faggio, were ordered massacred by Angelo, who had their bones burned to charcoal and that charcoal made into ink, which he then used to write lying messages to those he wished to manipulate or destroy. The Lost Guard had thus become unwilling and unwitting couriers, transmitters of a message which, being dead, they could not know.

Yet we learn what happened to the soldiers because by an inexplicable miracle the lying words Angelo wrote have transformed into a truthful confession, as though the ink had become conscious and reorganized itself on the paper. The oblivious couriers have somehow become writers, makers of messages. Moreover, this message is found on the body of Niccolò, who thus has in death become not a pretend courier but a true courier indeed. I cannot help thinking here of some famous words from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”—Eliot being a favorite poet of Fausto Maijstral in V., and “Little Gidding” being a poem that hovers over much of Gravity’s Rainbow:

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.88xT.S. Eliot,” Little Gidding,” in The Poems of T. S. Eliot: The Annotated Text (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press), 202. First published 1942.

Tongued with fire: Earlier in the play one Ercole, a wicked henchman of the wicked Duke, captures an informer named Domenico—St. Dominic being the founder of the great order of preachers, and the name Dominic being derived from Dominus (Lord)—and, before torturing him to death, cuts off his tongue, sets it on fire, and brandishes it as a torch, crying,

Thy pitiless unmanning is most meet,
Thinks Ercole the zany Paraclete.
Descended this malign, Unholy Ghost,
Let us begin thy frightful Pentecost. (CL, 52)

This “Unholy Ghost” does not give the gift of tongues, but takes tongues away. Poor Domenico has a tongue of fire, but in all too literal a sense, and the flame here destroys the power of communication rather than enhance and extend it. Ercole and his master Angelo are therefore not anti-Christs but anti-Paracletes, blocking the channels of communication, making people unintelligible to each other.

But the self-reorganizing ink of the message pushes back against the anti-Paraclete forces. And the play strongly suggests that this communicative revelation, this restoration of intelligibility, is the work of the Trystero. More telling still is that the day we call Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the faithful and they could miraculously understand foreign languages as clearly as their own, gets its name from the number fifty—while this book is named for the immediately preceding number, which suggests that whatever revelation is made available here, it falls just short of the Pentecostal completeness of understanding. What is the real tragedy of the courier? That he should be the bearer, the transmitter, of messages he neither initiates nor receives. Through most of the book, Oedipa has been concerned to discover whether there is a message at all, and, if there is, who the “couriers” of that message are—but she is not yet ready to confront what the message is. Not until the last page, when, as the crying of Lot 49 begins, she takes a deep breath—and awaits a possible revelation.

Decades after The Crying of Lot 49, we discover a similar experience in the character of Yashmeen Halfcourt, a “polymorphous mathematical prodigy” in Pynchon’s sixth novel, Against the Day (2006):

It is as if I possessed, without my knowledge, some key to an encrypted message of great moment, which others are locked in struggle to come into control of. Those in whose company I travel but among whom, I fear, I am no longer counted, once presented themselves as seekers after a kind of transcendence…. I believed, for many years—too many—that I might someday learn the way. Now that they have forfeited my trust, I must look elsewhere…. For what mission have I here, in this perilous segment of space-time, if not somehow to transcend it, and the tragic hour into which it is passing? (AD, 749)

This could be Oedipa in the aftermath of a failed “crying of Lot 49,” reckoning with a message unsent or at any rate unreceived, a woman stuck on the number preceding the revelatory Pentecostal fifty. To be poised helplessly at the outset of a “tragic hour” is precisely what calls for a message, and precisely what does not receive it. All suffering is mute, and the role of interpretation is to give suffering intelligible voice (as when the bone-based ink bears witness against the murderer Angelo). When the director of The Courier’s Tragedy says that his role—which, by the way, involves altering the text—is “to give the spirit flesh,” he’s envisioning the possibility of an art that serves as a courier of meaning.

Yet Oedipa Maas doesn’t clearly receive such meaning—not within the scope of the novel, anyway. Oedipa’s quest is largely a quest for consolation—or, failing that, distraction from sadness. Whether the Trystero has a message that has the power to console, or whether Oedipa’s whole obsession with it is just a way of avoiding thinking about the miseries of life, is perhaps the chief unresolved question of The Crying of Lot 49. We leave her waiting to discover—if it can be discovered—whether the story has “transcendent meaning” or is no story at all, just “the earth.” But the waiting is key. Near the end of V., Benny Profane, caught in the endless flow of the sensible world, confesses, “I’d say I haven’t learned a goddamn thing” (V, 454). Meanwhile, Stencil, the man of the intelligible world, has plenty of evidence that V. is dead, died on Malta during World War II in her guise as the Bad Priest, yet he flies away at the end of the book in pointless pursuit of another “possibility.” Oedipa at the end of Crying is neither incapable of understanding nor desperate for a particular meaning. Rather, like her later counterpart Yashmeen, without hope she waits. In that sense she is not like the riddle-solving Oedipus, nor the Oedipus who failed to solve his own riddle, but rather, maybe, Oedipus at Colonus: coming to some sort of resignation at the end of long struggle and suffering.

Worlds Alternative

Our imaginative faculties may be conceived as receptors of otherwise hidden truths, or as conduits of falsehood. Oedipa and Yashmeen both wonder whether their intuitions of meaning are legitimate hopes or merely hopeful delusions—fantasies, we might say. The mode of writing we call fantasy often concerns disenchantment, the draining of magic from the world—this is figured for us in that most famous of fantasies, The Lord of the Rings, as the departure of the Elves from Middle-Earth, the passing of poetry and the leaving of a prosaic world—and because disenchantment is one of Pynchon’s obsessions, the fantastic elements of his stories tend also to emphasize diminishment and loss. Late in Mason & Dixon (1997)—Pynchon’s only novel set before the twentieth century, at the moment when the enchanted premodern world is decisively overcome by the forces of Enlightenment—when our heroes are returning from their adventures in the wilderness, they discover that their companion the poet Timothy Tox is accompanied by a Golem. Or seems to be: “But as ’twill prove, the closer they escort Mr. Tox to the Metropolis, the less Evidence for his Creature’s existence will they be given, till at length they must believe that the Poet has either pass’d, like some Indian Youth at the Onset of Manhood, under the Protection of a potent tho’ invisible Spirit,—or gone mad” (MD, 685–86). The city’s powerful engines of disenchantment overwhelm and dissipate the magic of the unregulated wilderness. Experiences of the supernatural must thereafter be either indiscernible by the human sensorium or a token of insanity. Then, after a while, those who have had such experiences wonder whether they even happened at all. Such wonderments eventually, as Wordsworth wrote, “fade into the light of common day.”99xWilliam Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” (1807), line 77.

This disenchantment, this replacement of the magical by the strictly prosaic, is really Pynchon’s great subject, together with his portrayal of its causes. In Mason & Dixon, Dixon visits the North Pole and discovers a way inside the Earth, where an entire population of strange people live: our mirror images, formed by a concave rather than a convex world. These people live in the shadow of a great prophecy: “Once the solar parallax is known…once the necessary Degrees are measur’d, and the size and weight and shape of the Earth are calculated inescapably at last, all this will vanish” (MD, 741). That is, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, by measuring and inscribing their great Line across the American wilderness, are unwittingly collaborating in the disenchantment of the world.

Curiously enough, this same conceit of another world inside the one we know, to be entered through a “great portal” at the North Pole, returns in the novel that follows Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, set in the period between the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the end of World War I. At one point the adventurers called the Chums of Chance fly an airship to the North Pole, something they have done before—yet now they discern a change. “On this trip, however, the polar ice persisted until quite close to the great portal, which itself seemed to have become noticeably smaller, with a strange sort of ice-mist, almost the color of the surface landscape, hovering over it and down inside, soon becoming so thick that for a short while the crew…were in effect flying blind” (AD, 115). And when they depart the world’s interior—having become entangled in “the byzantine politics of the region,” a story not told in Against the Day but rather, we are told, in a book called The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth—“all remarked the diminished size of the planetary exit” (AD, 118). The Chums speculate on possible causes of this phenomenon, and one blames “inordinate attention from the middle latitudes…. When the interior feels itself under threat, this is a self-protective reflex, all living creatures possess it in one form or another” (AD, 116).

Such self-protective action by the inhabitants of the inner earth—and perhaps by other strange creatures on the surface, Golems for instance—brings disenchantment for us. Pynchon is sketching in these two massive novels something also described in Lord Dunsany’s 1924 fantasy The King of Elfland’s Daughter, what Dunsany calls “The ebbing of Elfland.” We think that the enchanted world has proved to be but a fiction, a fantasy; in fact, it is withdrawing from us. A process that was dramatically accelerating in the era of Mason and Dixon is, in the first decades of the twentieth century, reaching its completion. “If the doors of perception were cleansed,” William Blake said, “every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”1010xWilliam Blake, “A Memorable Fancy,” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790).  But what if those befouled doors are actually closing, leaving us helplessly trapped in what Blake called our “cavern”?


If we understand these elements of Pynchon’s diagnosis of our cultural malaise—our idolatry of the inanimate which closes us off from the richness of the organic world, the communicative blockages that deposit us in a disenchanted world with only the vaguest hints of some possible Beyond—then, and only then, can we grasp the significance of the one topic Pynchon is most famously associated with: entropy.

When SHROUD tells Benny, “Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday,” it is talking about entropy (V, 286). Very early in his career, Pynchon wrote a story called “Entropy,” and in the long introduction to Slow Learner he mentions that he learned about this subject by reading the mathematician Norbert Wiener’s book The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), (SL, 13) a semipopular rewriting of his earlier book Cybernetics (1948). That Pynchon would be interested in such things is unsurprising: He began his university career at Cornell University majoring in physics, only to shift to English after his career as a student had been interrupted by a stint in the Navy (from 1955 to 1957).

A rambling celebration of all the problem solving that would surely be achieved by the application of cybernetics—the science of mechanisms that self-regulate through feedback—The Human Use of Human Beings gives a woefully inadequate account of language. For Wiener, language is a matter of communication, communication is a matter of messaging, messaging is a matter of information, and information (as Wiener learned from his collaborations with the great mathematician Claude Shannon) is a matter of bits. Thus, language is simply the transfer of bits. While Pynchon resists such a model of language—how could he not, as a practicing artist extending the symbolic potentialities of language?—the primary illumination he derives from Wiener is summed up in this passage from The Human Use of Human Beings:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization.1111xNorbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), 21. First published 1950. See also Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1948).

The key point is that entropy comes in two varieties: informational and thermodynamic. Wiener’s intuition that the world of communication and the “external world” are both governed by the relationship between organization and disorganization leads him to conceive of cybernetics as a universal science of control: “Besides the electrical engineering theory of the transmission of messages,” he writes, “there is a larger field which includes not only the study of language but the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society, the development of computing machines and other such automata, certain reflections upon psychology and the nervous system, and a tentative new theory of scientific method.”1212xWiener, The Human Use of Human Beings, 15.

It is worth noting that the ambitions of cybernetics arose from solutions to problems of warfare during World War II, from the encrypting of secret messages to the aiming of artillery. Those who had acquired the know-how to win the war claimed on that ground the privilege of directing the postwar world. In his remarkable book The Cybernetics Moment, the historian Ronald R. Kline notes that even scholars of a humanistic bent, like the anthropologist Margaret Mead and her husband, the polymath Gregory Bateson, were convinced that “cybernetics would bring the rigor of the physical sciences to the social sciences. They thought cybernetic models could realistically explain the behavior of humans and society because they contained the information feedback loops that existed in all organisms.” Because this belief was so widespread and powerful at a key moment in the development of our current technocratic order, Kline observes, “the traces of cybernetics and information theory thus permeate the sciences, technology, and culture of our daily lives.”1313xRonald R. Kline, The Cybernetics Moment, or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 3, 4.

Pynchon’s early fiction demonstrates a complicated and ambivalent response to the claims of cybernetics and information theory. Indeed, V. and The Crying of Lot 49 form a kind of cybernetic diptych, with the former focusing on entropy as a concept in thermodynamics and the latter on entropy as a concept in information theory. Pynchon’s recurrent interest in marginal and chaotic figures, tricksters, and buffoons is, I suggest, an implicit critique of the mechanistic models of thinking and language articulated by Wiener and another cybernetics pioneer, W. Ross Ashby. (Even Pynchon’s penchant for absurd names is, I think, attributable to his critique of system.) The Whole Sick Crew in V. is indeed pretty sick—as one marginal member rightly says, “There is no one of us you can point to and call well” (V, 387)—but the Crew also exemplifies what the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin called the human surplus, that which is left over after the scientists and mechanists have made all their calculations, that which the calculations of cybernetics can never quite account for.

In this light, Pynchon’s praise of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) as one of the great American novels makes a lot of sense. Pynchon stands at the intersection of Kerouac and Wiener, reclaiming the essentially human in defiance of dehumanizing social and political structures—and equally in defiance of our desire to transform ourselves from creatures into artifacts. Buffoonery is a way of resisting that dark morphosis—“morphosis” being a key word in Mason & Dixon, and associated with disenchantment—while awaiting the hoped-for message from the “far invisible.” The clown stalls for time, but not chronos or clock time—rather, he waits for kairos, a word used in the New Testament to identify the appointed moment, the decisive time: an event that can’t be anticipated by attending to the entropy-governed ticking of one’s watch. Entropy is the only measure of time in a disenchanted world, but that just raises, again, the question of whether the disenchanted world is the only world there is. We can only wait and watch and listen—if we have what one might call a “tolerance for mysterious intrusion” (MD, 493) and at least a provisional sense of what to attend to.

Ontological Layers

As Mason, Dixon, and their company of surveyors cut their unswervingly straight line across the chaotic wilderness of the New World, they come across an Indian burial mound and peer inside. Dixon immediately notes that the mound is composed of layers of different materials: earth, sand, crushed seashells. The layers remind him, he says, of “That Device Mr. Franklin show’d us,” which he identifies as a Leyden jar, though it’s more likely that he means a voltaic pile, an early battery made from stacking alternating copper and zinc disks, separated by thin pieces of cardboard or felt. Mason discerns no such correspondence. After all, Mr. Franklin’s devices are built from “Philosophickal Materials,” whereas this mound is made only of “different kinds of Refuse” and is therefore of no interest. Dixon insists, however, that “alternating Layers of different Substances are ever a Sign of the intention to Accumulate Force,” in this case perhaps not electrical force but something “more Tellurick in nature”—something associated with the Earth and therefore “attun’d…to Death and the slower Phenomena” (MD, 599).

This notion of “accumulating force” is an important one. Earlier in the book, before Mason and Dixon set out for America, an Englishman named William Emerson, rumored to be a “practicing Magician,” comments to Dixon that “the Romans were preoccupied with conveying Force, be it hydraulic, or military, or architectural,—along straight lines” (MD, 219). Such straight lines are precursors of and models for what Mason and Dixon are doing in the American wilderness.

But there are other and diverse means, the Indian burial mounds being exemplary among them, and the “ley lines” that supposedly link sites (natural and manmade) of spiritual significance. This is one of Pynchon’s purposeful anachronisms, since the notion that such lines exist for the purpose of concentrating spiritual power seems to have been the invention of an English amateur archaeologist named Alfred Watkins in his 1922 book Early British Trackways: Moats, Mounds, Camps, and Sites. Pynchon doubles down on the anachronism by presenting us with one Captain Zhang, a Chinese master of feng shui who intermittently accompanies Mason and Dixon’s party and warns them that the line they are drawing runs athwart the land’s inner Dragon, its native character and spiritual, as well as physical, shape. No eighteenth-century Englishman could possibly have heard of either ley lines or feng shui, but Pynchon introduces both concepts to indicate the possibility of a world that is laminated, folded, in ways that introduce ontological layers, only some of which are visible to any particular group of people—and all but one of which have been rendered invisible by the progress of Enlightenment.

As Mason and Dixon take their line-drawing enterprise deeper and deeper into the wilderness, “From the Forest now proceed Sounds, real ones, that neither Surveyor has heard before, and that each is too embarrass’d to mention to the other” (MD, 493). But Dixon, “having the finer tolerance for mysterious intrusion, breaks first,” and confesses to having heard what he thinks is an Indian drum but Mason is convinced is “a Dog well known and much fear’d in this Region,” a Black Dog about which the locals will never speak (MD, 493). Hearing their dispute, the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke (the narrator of our story) suggests that they may be the victims of a “Joint Mirage”—he had read of a similar phenomenon in the august pages of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society—because at another point in the story the good pastor makes this comment about any claims from America about “Illuminations” or “Epiphanies”:

These times are unfriendly toward Worlds alternative to this one. Royal Society members and French Encyclopaedists are in the Chariot, availing themselves whilst they may of any occasion to preach the Gospels of Reason, denouncing all that once was Magic, though too often in smirking tropes upon the Church of Rome…. One may be allowed an occasional Cock Lane Ghost,—otherwise, for any more in that Article, one must turn to Gothick Fictions, folded acceptably between the covers of Books. (MD, 359)

Folded—but folding here means enclosing, limiting, setting boundaries around.

So whose side is the Rev’d Cherrycoke on? He seems generally scornful of the “Royal Society members and French Encyclopaedists” in their powerful Chariot of Reason, but on the ground, in America, he is quick to dismiss what Mason and Dixon hear as a “Joint Mirage” (MD, 494). Then what side are Mason and Dixon themselves on? When Dixon soon afterward reports seeing a huge “Glowing Indian…Hatchet and Musket-Barrel and Knife-Blades, all aglow, Steam billowing up when he stepp’d in the Creek,” Mason is so agitated that he can’t speak, but what he tries to say is, “Too far, Dixon, you never know where the Crease of Credulity’s been set” (MD, 496).

The crease, the fold, the point of the V—on one side of which is believable report, on the other side something like madness, subject to “gentle Reproofs and guarded Suggestions, which must sooner or later include the word ‘Physician’” (MD, 358). Yet in his heart Mason believes the Glowing Indian to have been “a Spiritual Demonstration, that Dixon almost certainly has fail’d to appreciate” (MD, 496). A demonstration of certain spiritual truths, a revelation—an Epiphany? Despite Dixon’s “finer tolerance for mysterious intrusion,” Mason does not believe that his colleague understands what is revealed to him. But who can say? Dixon feels overwhelmed by “this numbing torrent of American Stimuli”—and in any case the Stimuli are changing as they move West and the apparitions grow more frequent and stranger.

And here we have another fold. Captain Zhang’s warnings that they should not violate the Dragon start to make sense to them. Thus one of the most eloquent and important passages in all of Pynchon’s fiction:

They know by now where they are, not only in Miles, Chains, and Feet, but respecting as well the Dragon of the Land, according to which anyplace beyond the Summit of the Alleghenies, wherever the water flows West, into the Continental Unknown, lives too far from the countryside where, quietly, unthreaten’d, among the tall gray stalks of the girdl’d trees, beneath Roofs tarr’d against the rain, the Wives Knead and Flour, and the Dough’s Rising is a Miniature of the great taken Breath of the Day… and where voices in the Wind are assum’d into the singing of the congregations, the Waggon’s rumbling upon the roads of pack’d and beaten earth, the lowing, the barking, the solitary rifle-shot, close to suppertime, from over in the next Valley. Here the Surveyors,—as many of the Party,—have come away, as if backward in Time, beyond the Range of the furthest spent Ball, the last friendly Pennsylvania Rifle. The Implication of the ghostly Speech is clear to them both.—They will soon be proceeding, if indeed they are not already, with all Guarantees of Safety suspended. (MD, 635)

So the decisive fold here is the great eastern hydrological divide that runs from north to south and which therefore is transected by Mason and Dixon’s line: the watershed of the “Summit of the Alleghenies” that separates the Countryside—domesticated, ordered, protected from the elements, immensely beautiful in its heimlich way to human beings—from the Wilderness, where anything can happen and probably will, where the Gospels of Reason are unpreached and unknown, where our hymns cannot mask the voices of the Wind, and which for all those reasons is both intoxicating and terrifying. A place where the strange just might draw near—which is a more frightening than encouraging thought.

But, as we have seen, as the surveying party returns to the heimlich world, the “Spiritual Demonstrations” (including Timothy Tox’s Golem) wane and then cease altogether. That Golems (and Black Dogs, and Glowing Indians, and the unnamable Presence of the primeval forest on the other side of the watershed) could be accessible to what the book calls the Sensorium is simply and obviously impossible. Yet it is the extension of this disenchanted world into the enchanted Western one that Mason and Dixon are bringing with their line, what they come to think of as a “conduit for evil” (MD, 701). (Conduits, lines of transmission, couriers—they do not always bear good news, as we have seen.) Mason leads this endeavor even though he had acknowledged, early in his partnership with Dixon, that Dixon’s native Newcastle is “a part of England where ancient creatures may yet move in the Dusk, and the animals fly, and the dead pop in now and then for coffee and a chat” (MD, 313). By contrast, in his own “home soil” of Gloucestershire “the Ground for growing any such Wonders has been cruelly poison’d, with the coming of the hydraulick Looms and the appearance of new sorts of wealthy individual…. My home is no more” (MD, 313). Believing that this process cannot be reversed, Mason decides not to try to go back, but “perhaps toward.” But: “Toward what, then…?”

Toward—if we must be blunt—technopoly. (Though I will later give it another name.) The “hydraulick Looms” are those against which the Luddites protested, and Pynchon was very interested in the Luddites. In his 1984 essay about the Luddites, he explicitly connects their protests against steam-powered looms with the disenchantment of the world, and in turn connects that disenchantment with the rise to prominence of fantastic fictions of various kinds. The key passage needs to be quoted at some length:

In ways more and less literal, folks in the 18th century believed that once upon a time all kinds of things had been possible which were no longer so. Giants, dragons, spells. The laws of nature had not been so strictly formulated back then. What had once been true working magic had, by the Age of Reason, degenerated into mere machinery. Blake’s dark Satanic mills represented an old magic that, like Satan, had fallen from grace. As religion was being more and more secularized into Deism and nonbelief, the abiding human hunger for evidence of God and afterlife, for salvation—bodily resurrection, if possible—remained. The Methodist movement and the American Great Awakening were only two sectors on a broad front of resistance to the Age of Reason, a front which included Radicalism and Freemasonry as well as Luddites and the Gothic novel. Each in its way expressed the same profound unwillingness to give up elements of faith, however “irrational,” to an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing.1414xPynchon, “Is It O.K. To Be a Luddite?”

Thus are many of the themes of Mason & Dixon adumbrated. “Irrational” goes in scare quotes here, not, I think, because Pynchon denies the distinction between rational and irrational belief, but because he knows that the dominant understanding of what counts as rational, in any given time and place, is inevitably tendentious. Michel Foucault, a thinker whose ideas deeply resonate with Pynchon’s, calls the Power that can enforce its model of rationality a “power/knowledge regime”; in turn, the regime whose model of rationality—in a deeply interested formulation we now call the Enlightenment—governed us all is, as Pynchon says, a “technopolitical order that might or might not know what it [is] doing.”

Pynchon encourages our attention to the various groups that for quite different and sometimes irreconcilable reasons resisted the imposition of that technopolitical order—“The Methodist movement and the American Great Awakening…Radicalism and Freemasonry as well as Luddites and the Gothic novel”—not necessarily because he believes they are correct but because they serve as salutary reminders of the interests and the fallibility of the regime. Yet even if we want to discern other possibilities—other layers of reality, other ontological folds—can we?

One of Pynchon’s finest critics, Kathryn Hume, invokes the thought of Aldous Huxley to clarify what’s at stake here. She cites Huxley’s claim—in The Doors of Perception (1954), a book that takes its title from the line of Blake’s quoted earlier—that consciousness operates as a kind of “reducing valve,” shutting out, for eminently practical reasons, such layers or folds of the Real and making us less and less capable of discerning those other dimensions. That valve works silently and almost infallibly unless it is overcome by some powerful external force: Huxley used LSD to open the doors of his perception. Hume writes,

Reading Mason & Dixon offers an experience analogous to suddenly finding our reducing valve open much wider than usual. In life, we exclude data we sense to be unthreatening, but when reading this book we must consciously absorb vastly more data than our valve lets through in everyday life…. Pynchon’s novels generally postulate other levels of reality…. Pynchon suggests that such realities can be glimpsed if we let down our shields or open our valve.1515xKathryn Hume, “Mason & Dixon,” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon, eds. Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman, and Brian McHale (London, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 60.

Or cleanse the doors of perception. Another set of terms for thinking about these matters is provided by Charles Taylor in his great book A Secular Age (2007), in which he describes the gradual transition in the modern West from “porous” to “buffered” selves. This is a vexed transition, because what it offers and what it takes away are notoriously difficult to assess on any common scale of values. No straightforward transaction is possible, because the porous self is open to the divine as well as to the demonic, while the buffered self is closed to both alike. Those who must guard against capture by fairies are necessarily and by the same token receptive to mystical experiences. The “showings” manifested to the English anchoress and mystic Julian of Norwich depend upon exceptional sensitivity, which is to say porosity—vulnerability to incursions of the supernatural. The portals of the self cannot be closed on one side only.

But the achievement of a safely buffered personhood—closed off from both the divine and the demonic—is soon enough accompanied by a deeply felt change in the very cosmos. As C.S. Lewis notes in The Discarded Image (1964), the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” gives way to the modern person who perceives only emptiness and silence.1616xC.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 112. Safety is purchased at the high price of isolation, as we see as early as Blaise Pascal, who famously wrote of the night sky, “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”). Thus the idea, repeatedly hinted at in Pynchon’s fiction and in his essay on the Luddites, that such changes in consciousness alter the world itself, such that what is true, even what is true about geology, chemistry, and physics, may cease to be true later on. It is the disenchantment of the world itself that Pynchon so often reflects on, not our opinions about the world. It may be that whatever was once out there has ceased not only to transmit—to put forth “Spiritual Demonstrations”—but to be. Yet many of us live in hope of better news, of the overthrow, someday, of the power/knowledge regime, the ultimate defeat of the Powers, those strange and imperceptible forces that, in Ephesians 6:12, St. Paul calls “the rulers of this world”: the kosmokratoras.

The Eschaton of Bits and the Far Invisible

Let us return, then, to the North Pole: to the great Portal discerned first by Dixon and later (in its contracted state) by the Chums of Chance. The geography here, or rather the topology, requires further reflection. Dixon discovered that “somewhere between eighty and ninety degrees North, the Earth’s Surface, all ’round the Parallel, began to curve sharply inward,” taking him and his companions “ever downward, and thus, gradually, around the great Curve of its Rim.—And ’twas so that we enter’d, by its great northern Portal, upon the inner Surface of the Earth” (MD, 739). Pynchon seems to be describing the Earth not as a sphere but as something like a Klein bottle, an object folded in on itself—something which now may be merely a mathematical curio, an exercise in topological calculation, but was then The Way Things Were. As I noted earlier, once the calculations of this space are properly made, the Klein bottle of Earth will be unfolded, losing its character as a “non-orientable surface,” become orientable, simple, straightforward, unitary. (Again: “These times are unfriendly toward Worlds alternative to this one.”) The only place to live will be on the outside of the sphere, where—and this is absolutely essential for Pynchon—we are all ever so slightly angled away from one another. By contrast, those resident in what Dixon calls the Concavity arc toward one another. But once our world is unfolded, convergence becomes impossible, and therefore no more sails will appear on what is called in Mason & Dixon “the Horizon of our Exile” (MD, 358).

The residents of the Concavity ask Dixon whether he really wants to entrust his life, his understanding of his life, to “the Daily Harvest your Sensorium brings in” (MD, 742). Dixon evades the question, but for those of us on this side of the great historical fold symbolically marked by the creation of the Mason-Dixon Line, Pynchon seems to be saying, that’s not even a question any more. The Sensorium’s harvest is the only harvest there is. But what does that mean? Did the Klein bottle of the world unfold, or did the Portal seal itself in time, allowing for the Concavity to continue? Either the world itself changed or our relationship to it definitely and permanently altered—but in either case, when did that happen?

In his introduction to Slow Learner, Pynchon describes his early reading of the novels of John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps) and how the writers of thrillers taught him to be interested in a particular period of history: “The net effect was eventually to build up in my uncritical brain a peculiar shadowy vision of the history preceding the two world wars. Political decision-making and official documents did not figure in this nearly as much as lurking, spying, false identities, psychological games.” And this world of books had the further effect of “allowing World War I in my imagination to assume the shape of that attractive nuisance so dear to adolescent minds, the apocalyptic showdown” (SL, 17).

It is noteworthy, first, that this is the period in which several of Stencil’s historical reconstructions in V. are set, and likewise the whole of Against the Day. And it is precisely the period Henry Adams describes in The Education. Moreover, in that aforementioned chapter, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” Adams’s chief interlocutor is Samuel Pierpont Langley, one of the pioneers of aviation, who designed and built airships like the one flown by the Chums of Chance.

So while the contrast between the Virgin and the Dynamo is clearly vital to Pynchon, it is really the whole pre–World War I period that permanently captured his imagination. He seems, like Virginia Woolf, though for very different reasons, to have concluded that at some point in the early twentieth century human nature changed—or, again, the world itself did.

As Louis Menand wrote in an illuminating review, “Against the Day is a kind of inventory of the possibilities inherent in a particular moment in the history of the imagination. It is like a work of science fiction written in 1900.”1717xLouis Menand, “Do the Math,” The New Yorker, November 27, 2006, This sense of being stuck somehow between past and future, of trying to navigate what one has inherited while simultaneously watching much of that inheritance evaporate in the heat of an increasingly technological society, and of not knowing what exactly to think about all the changes and what they mean—all this is in Henry Adams, and it is no wonder he is so important to Pynchon.

Adams also provides Pynchon a model of thinking about the sociopolitical-economic order, not simply in contrast to religion, but as itself religious in scope and force. Pynchon takes up this theme too, especially in his most recent—perhaps final—novel, Bleeding Edge (2013). The story is set in New York City in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, and some of the characters find themselves reflecting on the character of world trade itself:

It’s not a religion? These are people who believe the Invisible Hand of the Market runs everything. They fight holy wars against competing religions like Marxism. Against all evidence that the world is finite, this blind faith that resources will never run out, profits will go on increasing forever, just like the world’s populations—more cheap labor, more addicted consumers. (BE, 338)

I mentioned earlier that this book considers the digital realm as a new mode of the inanimate, and—not but—the digital is primarily of concern to Pynchon as a medium through which the authority of the power/knowledge regime is channeled, and through which that regime actually remakes the world: Some of his characters have “the bleak feeling, some mornings, that the country itself may not be there anymore, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else, some surprise package, by those who’ve kept their wits about them and their clicking thumbs ready” (BE, 339). What to do when burdened with such thoughts? As noted earlier, anarchy—one form of which is clowning, buffoonery—resists the rulers of this world, who have grown not just in capacity but in malice. Technology may once have been neutral, but now it has grown, has commanded more resources, and is demanding further and greater deference, obedience—perhaps worship. In what St. Paul (again) calls “this present darkness,” it has itself become a Power. One may call it technopoly, as Neil Postman did, but its proper name, I think, is metaphysical capitalism.1818xNeil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, NY: Knopf, 1992).

The Second Life–like video game DeepArcher in Bleeding Edge offers the technological sublime—accessible always to the connected user!—and the novel describes the ways our hopes for transcendence have become invested not just in technology generally conceived but in digital technology. The hippies of the Whole Earth Catalogue—who celebrated a pharmaceutical technology rooted in the biological world—were, it turns out, forerunners of the wizards of Silicon Valley, who offer an eschaton of bits, one gladly embraced by Maxine’s friend Lester or a simulacrum thereof. “Lost down here is the whole point,” he says—one of the most quietly sobering moments in all of Pynchon’s fiction. In that light, it is especially noteworthy that Pynchon’s one novel set in our Internet age is the one without buffoons and pranksters. The current Power has long been snuffing them out one by one, and what remains, the culture of “doing it for the lulz,” is interested not in liberation but in digitally boosted cruelty. What Pynchon, in his 1984 essay on the Luddites, called “the emerging technopolitical order” has now emerged, and it is not pretty.

Yet we still remember when other Powers ruled, and other possibilities beckoned—and as long as those memories hold, the history of technocracy is not complete. In Against the Day, the portal to the Concavity is narrowed but not sealed shut. This sense of being in between haunts Pynchon’s fiction and gives it a pervasive melancholy. One cause of the melancholy is simply generational. As his fellow novelist Ken Kesey (born in 1935, two years before Pynchon) once said of himself, he was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie. His life having fallen between two excited and excitable movements of countercultural possibility, Kesey tried to overcome his own in-betweenness by main force: the invention of an artificial community, the LSD-fueled Merry Pranksters. It didn’t work; it couldn’t have worked. Characters like Kesey abound in Pynchon’s fiction, always in the aftermath of some lost vision: old druggies such as Zoyd Wheeler in Vineland (1990) or Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice (2009), becalmed in the doldrums or waiting out the coastal fog on the side of a highway—which is what Doc does at the end of his story, hoping for something, anything, to happen, wondering whether the suspicion that the fog has some form, the crash of the waves some language, is a genuine intuition or one more mere fantasy.

Pynchon’s characters are often half-remembering or hoping to remember some idealized past, some lost Lemuria or Atlantis, and are often half-hoping for some Vision to appear on “the Horizon of our Exile.” The legend of Lemuria, a lost continent supposed to have been located in the general vicinity of what is now the Indian Ocean, was posited by a nineteenth-century zoologist, and that idea captivated the theosophist Madame Blavatsky, who came to believe that it had been the aboriginal home of humanity. Lemuria is a recurrent theme in Inherent Vice, set in Los Angeles and therefore west-facing. (On the American continent’s east coast, the lure of Atlantis would presumably be stronger.) But perhaps the ideal feels neither geographical nor historical. One character in Against the Day feels it more abstractly:

“It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything”.… He did not pause then so much as wait, as one might before a telegraph sounder, for some affirmation from the far invisible. (AD, 165)

As it does for Doc Sportello too, this hope for the “far invisible” briefly flickers in Oedipa in The Crying of Lot 49, a book published forty years earlier: “Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the center of an odd, religious instant…. But she lost it quickly, as if a cloud had approached the sun or the smog thickened, and so broken the ‘religious instant,’ whatever it might’ve been” (CL, 14–15). A little later, though, she remembers that moment: “Some immediacy was there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead” (CL, 20).

As Edward Mendelson comments, Pynchon seems to have borrowed the term “hierophany” from the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, who writes in The Sacred and the Profane (1961), “To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany…. From the most elementary hierophany—e.g., a manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree”—or a printed circuit, or a map of a housing development—“to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity.” That is, there is no possibility of accounting for what has been revealed within the structures of everyday experience, no means of domesticating what has shown itself. “We are confronted by…the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world.” This is what Mason calls a “Spiritual Demonstration.”

Hierophany happens, in other words, within ordinary space, but suggests something beyond ordinary time, something that belongs to or comes from a different temporal order. Therefore, Eliade asserts, “religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites.” As noted above: kairos rather than chronos. Eliade claims that such experiences are “inaccessible to a nonreligious man,”1919xMircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. William R. Trask (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1959) 11, 70, 71. First published 1957. which would suggest that Oedipa is a religious person—yet she shows no evidence of participating in any “rites,” any communal worship. This may help to explain her obsession with the possible existence of the Trystero as an organization, a secret community, which bears and transmits revelations of the sacred. Like Oedipus, Oedipa thus becomes a seeker of truth, a pursuer of religious possibility—a homo religiosus, and perhaps even an anima naturaliter christiana, following her blurry vision from within a great fog.

What matters here for my attempt to make sense of Pynchon as a theologian is that, to return to Eliade, the Christian model of time—“The Christian liturgy unfolds in a historical time sanctified by the incarnation of the Son of God”—effectively repudiates “the myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism.”2020xIbid., 72. To reassert the power and validity of hierophany is at least to begin to emancipate oneself from the claims of metaphysical capitalism to account for and then govern the whole of human behavior. Hierophany is ungovernable—and in this sense is the counterpart of the anarchic Brownian motion of the Whole Sick Crew in V. We could say that the Whole Sick Crew is living in a kind of permanent carnival—which means, as Mikhail Bakhtin never tires of explaining, it is not living a true carnival at all, because the healthy and vigorous carnivalesque never rejects and indeed is wholly dependent on the religious structures that prompt its laughter. Indeed, this is why the Crew is “sick” instead of vital. Its members evade their power/knowledge regime but have no other structure of meaning and value with which to replace it. They have the community but not the hierophany; Oedipa has the hierophany but not the community. The Crew and Oedipa alike enact signs of contradiction, but what they signify is partial, incomplete. Eliade would suggest that lived Christianity, especially in its liturgy, is the truly effectual sign of contradiction because it unites hierophany and community. Pynchon has not stated his views on this topic.

However, what seems to be held out as a possibility in The Crying of Lot 49 is something other than either pure anarchy or formal organizational structure. Jesús Arrabal of the C.I.A.—the Conjuración de los Insurgentes Anarquistas—says that a miracle is “another world’s intrusion into this one” (CL, 101), which clearly invokes Eliade’s definition of hierophany, but then Arrabal explains what happens when such a miracle occurs: “Revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul’s talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself” (CL, 98). The cyberneticists like Norbert Wiener are interested in the simple rules from which complex behavior emerges without being planned or directed. Though not one himself, Arrabal envisions what we might call spiritual emergence: Anarchy is not the goal but the precondition for spontaneous and therefore genuine order.

This is all very suggestive of what happens in the New Testament in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends to empower “the soul’s talent for consensus” among the variegated disciples of Jesus the Christ. As W.H. Auden commented on that passage, “The Christian church came into being at Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit on that occasion is generally called the gift of tongues, but it might equally as well be called the gift of ears…. As writers, readers, human beings, we cannot speak to or understand each other unless we are first prepared to listen. Of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit is able to bestow, the one for which we should first and most earnestly pray is humility of ear.”2121xW.H. Auden, “Words and the Word,” The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose: Volume V: 1963–1968, ed. Edward Mendelson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).  The closest approach Oedipa Maas makes to experiencing such an emergence of spontaneous order from anarchy involves neither speaking nor hearing but, rather, her stumbling upon a group of wildly, incomprehensibly dancing deaf-mutes. The dance to a music that neither they nor she can hear. They dance therefore in hope.

The Dark Crew

Pynchon seems from early in his career to have intuited the existence of a power/knowledge regime that cannot be located in a person or institution but whose control of our world is imperceptibly dispersed—a demonic inversion of the ancient mystical definition of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. This is largely what is revealed in the Rathenau séance with which I began this account. A secret cabal of Freemasons or Communists or Republicans would be comparatively encouraging. As a character in Bleeding Edge, an aging sixties-style radical, notes, “Some conspiracies, they’re warm and comforting, we know the names of the bad guys, we want to see them get their comeuppance. Others you’re not sure you want any of it to be true because it’s so evil, so deep and comprehensive” (BE, 118). Or, as Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice reflects, thinking of those “rigid, unsmiling” men, “dutiful and silent,” at the periphery of every festivity:

Was it possible, that at every gathering—concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever—those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear? (IV, 130)2222xThe same people are involved near the end of Vineland: “the unrelenting forces that leaned ever after the partners into Time’s wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators…stone-humorless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain or accommodate, following through pools of night where nothing else moved wrongs forgotten by all but the direly possessed, continuing as a body to refuse to be bought off for any but the full price, which they had never named” (383).

Not a Sick Crew but a dark one, not chaotic and comic but orderly and tragic, blocking all transmissions except their own. They have drawn the perfect straight Line, and have killed the Dragon of the land.

Or maybe not. At the end of Vineland another crew, this one composed of old hippies and Wobblies, gather to keep the faith, centering their hopes on a read-aloud passage from one of Emerson’s essays: “Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil” (VL, 369).2323xPynchon tells us that the quote was “a passage from Emerson [Jess Traverse] had found and memorized years ago, quoted in a jailhouse copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James” (VL, 369). The passage is indeed quoted in Lecture II of James’s book, in an exploration of “Emersonian religion.” After quoting the passage, James writes, “Now it would be too absurd to say that the inner experiences that underlie such expressions of faith as this and impel the writer to their utterance are quite unworthy to be called religious experiences.” The Varieties of Religious Experience (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1982 [1902]), 34–35. Emerson’s original essay, “The Sovereignty of Ethics,” Here then is another Line, but this time not of closure or domination but of righteousness—a Line in which one can place one’s trust, or try to.

But this is hard. And the distinctive function of Thomas Pynchon as America’s theologian has been to produce an elaborate, raucous, anarchic, and terrifyingly accurate portrait of all the forces, prosaic and demonic, that in our technocratic regime militate against the restoration of our full humanity—and at the same time to show us how resilient and inextinguishable are the energies of hope, generated as they are by the belief that “secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice.” It requires great discipline, of the hope-against-hope kind, to keep us awake and alert and sensitive to any transmission from “the far invisible.” Whether he knows it or not, in tracing so profoundly these countervailing forces of spiritual totalitarianism and a dream of divine justice, Pynchon offers the essential theological account of our era, one unmatched in subtlety, range, and depth. It is not a fully Christian account, and though I am a Christian I do not deplore this. Theology must begin where we are, and where we are is in the fog, waiting and hoping for a hierophantic word from the far invisible.

Near the end of Against the Day we encounter the passage that gives the book its title, a description of a strange meteorological phenomenon that gives people hope for some meaning or beauty or both—but not a lasting hope:

Those who had taken it for a cosmic sign cringed beneath the sky each nightfall, imagining ever more extravagant disasters. Others, for whom orange did not seem an appropriately apocalyptic shade, sat outdoors on public benches, reading calmly, growing used to the curious pallor. As nights went on and nothing happened and the phenomenon slowly faded to the accustomed deeper violets again, most had difficulty remembering the earlier rise of heart, the sense of overture and possibility, and went back once again to seeking only orgasm, hallucination, stupor, sleep, to fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day. (AD, 804)

The exigencies of ordinary human nature and desire reassert themselves, as they always and inevitably do. They silence whatever voices might be transmitted to us from “worlds alternative to this one.” And the ever present “dark crew” works with the grain of those exigencies, exploiting them, “reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday.” But as Rathenau’s spirit told the assembled Nazi leaders, “These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs.” If we could indeed follow the signs, if we could hold ourselves poised for just a few moments, alert, present, what music of “overture and possibility” might wing its way to our ears?