America as Glyph: Thomas Pynchon and the problem of multiplying cultural contexts

Piazza, Nathan Frank , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia

No one can inject fear and loathing into the heart of a literary critic like Thomas Pynchon. His is the Las Vegas of literary ouevres -- blindingly bright, alive with activity -- a chilling playground of distraction and detail. It follows from this that the body of criticism known derisively as the "Pynchon industry" is filled with embarrassing and frequent displays of second-guessing, self-questioning, and qualification, the onset of which is usually explained by reference to Pynchon's peculiar erudition, his rhetorical gamesmanship, his syntactical slippages, or his elusive biography. However, it is most accurate to say that Pynchon is so problematic because he puts critics in the shoes of Djuna Barnes' Nora. He manages to embroil readers not in a single preoccupation, but in an endless stream of them. One presumes that there must be a problem somewhere, but which preoccupation qualifies?

It may be that there is no "theme" that one can reliably identify as the central or revelatory problem in Pynchon's work, but rather that what the author offers is a series of related encodings. The complexity and multiplicity of these encodings and the difficulty of their decipherment suggests the importance of scrutinizing the process of code-breaking itself as a model of interpretation in any approach to his work. In such a model, one assumes that there is some discrete message to be discovered, if only one might find the correct key. This is the mode of most literary interpretation, and it is one that Pynchon takes pains to resist, making it difficult to perform literary analysis of his work that does not collapse under the weight of its own conclusions. This much, however, is certain: near the center of the swirl of both The Crying of Lot 49 and V, Pynchon's two first published novels, is the figure of the glyph. In the first, Herbert Stencil discovers a reference to a personage named "V", presumably a woman, in the journals of his deceased father. In the second, Oedipa Mass stumbles upon the signature of what she will call the "Trystero", a mysterious marking that suggests a muted horn. Between and inside the multiplicity of characters, subplots, themes, and variations, "V" and the posthorn call attention to themselves as usable decoder rings. In both books, they behave as malleable figurative containers which embody or touch every other strand of meaning. Their effect is to train the reader's focus on the meta-problem of the act of signification, and so they are as promising a site of "central" significance as any symbol in the book. Serious analysis of "V" and the posthorn, in other words, just might bear real fruit.

The glyph, or hieroglyph, has long held an urgent fascination for the American intellectual tradition, one rooted in colonial protestant interest in the Christian "Logos" and in Jean-Francois Champollion's successful decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs with the aid of the Rosetta stone in the 1820s. In American Hieroglyphics, John Irwin traces this interest through the alleyways of what may loosely be called the American Romantics: Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, and Melville. As Irwin makes clear in great detail, the glyph employed by the American Romantics figured the journey of an isolated new country into the unknown physical and cultural space both within and beyond its shores. It simultaneously symbolized a gaze backward toward European origins and westward toward a murky wilderness. And as the century wore on, the glyph was pliable enough to then embody the death of the hegemony of Christian ideology, and the rise of a new faith in science and progress.

As I hope will become clear, the most compelling reason for an analysis of Pynchon through the lens of the glyph is his clear and particular debt to this American intellectual tradition and the manner in which he goes about constructing his relationship to it. While Poe (as Pynchon's most direct forbear) writes the glyph as a problematic encounter between an American and the spaces in the far wastes of the unexplored globe, Pynchon writes the glyph as a particular kind of encounter between America and itself. The "foreign" cultures of Pynchon's quest stories are both more familiar and more strange than Poe's, comprised of those cannibals and head-shrinkers commonly known as attorneys, doctors, scientists, actors, activists, and even literary critics. Pynchon's glyph, then, will signify the many subcultures of America. It will represent the noise those cultures produce through their discursive habits and rules of engagement. And it will problematize the totem and taboo of participation in the intellectual schemas many of them advocate. Call them "counter" cultures. Call them "corporate" cultures. Call them "expert" cultures. I will call them cultural contexts. But it is their secret and irresistible sway that Pynchon attempts to capture when he endows his multiple encodings with glyphic inscrutability.

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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