Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Echoes of Narcissus: Classical Mythology and Postmodern Pessimism in the Crying of Lot 49

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Echoes of Narcissus: Classical Mythology and Postmodern Pessimism in the Crying of Lot 49

Article excerpt

The Crying of Lot 49 ends on a seemingly hopeful note. Lot 49 may reveal the existence of an energy source beyond the cultural and existential inertia Oedipa Maas has discovered since she left Kinneret for San Narciso to execute her late lover's will. Shortly before the auction begins, Oedipa anticipates this revelation:

   And the voices before and after the dead man's that had phoned at
   random during the darkest, slowest hours, searching ceaseless among
   the dial's ten million possibilities for that magical Other who
   would reveal herself out of the roar of relays, monotone litanies
   of insult, filth, fantasy, love whose brute repetition must someday
   call into being the trigger for the unnamable act, the recognition,
   the Word. (180)

The capitalized "Word," culminating as it does the catalog of chaotic din that constitutes Oedipa's world, underscores the desire for transcendence and a return to the coherence and order embodied in the originary Logos.

The hope for transcendence implied in Oedipa's thoughts grows in part from her uneasiness with the binary structuring of her world built on difference and either/or choices. She would prefer that the crying of lot 49 reveal "another set of possibilities to replace those that had conditioned the land to accept any San Narciso among its most tender flesh without a reflex or a cry," but she would settle "at the very least ... for a symmetry of choices to break down, to go skew." Thus, once and for all, she would know: "Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth" (181). A string of Christian allusions underscores this hope:

   "It's time to start," said Genghis Cohen, offering his arm....
   Loren Passerine, on his podium, hovered like a puppet-master, his
   eyes bright, his smile practiced and relentless. He stared at her,
   smiling, as if saying, I'm surprised you actually came. Oedipa sat
   alone, toward the back of the room, looking at the napes of necks,
   trying to guess which one was her target, her enemy, perhaps her
   proof. An assistant closed the heavy door on the lobby windows and
   the sun. She heard a lock snap shut; the sound echoed a moment.
   Passerine spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the
   priesthood of some remote culture; perhaps to a descending angel.
   The auctioneer cleared his throat. Oedipa settled back, to await
   the crying of lot 49. (183)

Edward Mendelson notes that 49 is the Pentecostal number (135). It signifies the festival commemorating the moment when the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon Jesus's disciples--a moment analogous to the infusion of energy from an outside source that reinvigorates an entropic system, a source so many of Lot 49's characters hope for, theorize about, fantasize about, and despair of ever finding. The auctioneer, Loren Passerine, is at once priest and descending angel, who seems to read Oedipa's mind. His name likewise refers to an order of birds that includes the Passerine ground-dove (Watson 69), further reinforcing the Pentecostal allusion, the dove being the symbolic form of the Holy Spirit.

Yet the novel stops short of this revelation, holding Oedipa and reader alike in suspended anticipation, perpetually on the brink of revelation without ever quite reaching it. Hence Tony Tanner's observation that "Pentecost" derives from the Greek word for fifty, forty-nine thereby leaving us just shy of satisfaction (185).

The portentous climax of the novel could just as likely prophesy a foreclosure of the promise held out by the Tristero. Just as the Pentecostal Passerine is about to spread his arms, the doors are locked, and the sun is blocked out, as if to belie the promise. When a sliver of sunlight does shine on Oedipa, outside the auction room, it reveals her standing "among brilliant rising and falling points of dust" (183) swirling about in the very entropic randomness the upcoming moment is supposed to transcend. …

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