Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

The Decline of the Baedeker Country: The Representation of Geographical and Cultural Identity in Pynchon's Novels

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

The Decline of the Baedeker Country: The Representation of Geographical and Cultural Identity in Pynchon's Novels

Article excerpt

Inger H. Dalsgaard's mindful "investigation of Pynchon's Spenglerian vision" (97) shows how "[i]n both The Decline of the West and Gravity's Rainbow, prospects of deliverance are radically constricted," concluding that "[o]nly the sense that Pynchon's Rocket State is constructed from the earth as resource whereas Spengler's Faustian culture is a natural outgrowth of the earth as seedbed appears to offer room for some hope" (114). This essay begins at that precise point, also combining Spengler's diagnosis with Pynchon's prose but focusing, unlike Dalsgaard, on the latter's specific geographical representations. Pynchon's landscape depictions, while they stand in obvious relation to the earth as resource/seedbed, rearticulate the crisis of modernity as they lead to ontological incertitude and epistemological dilemmas. A plenitude of historico-cultural layers lies beneath the wastelandish depictions, rendering landscape as substantially more than just contextualized scenery. Indeed, landscape in Pynchon's works figures as a sort of reflective matrix. Although much of this can well be framed with Spengler's rhetorics of decline, decay and disease, the openness and boundlessness often invoked in Pynchon's texts point at the same time to a possible loophole in the pessimistic predicament pace Spengler.

In the tellingly titled None Dare Call It Conspiracy (1971), by Gary Allen, the description of a child's game alludes metaphorically to the "real" conflict of the late sixties and early seventies in the U.S.:

   Usually you are shown a landscape with trees, bushes, flowers and
   other bits of nature. The caption reads something like this:
   "Concealed somewhere in this picture is a donkey pulling a cart
   with a boy in it. Can you find them?" Try as you might, usually
   you could not find the hidden picture until you turned to a page
   farther back in the magazine which would reveal how cleverly the
   artist had hidden it from us. If we study the landscape we
   realize that the whole picture was painted in such a way as
   to conceal the real picture within, and once we see the "real
   picture," it stands out like the proverbial painful digit. (7)

The message here is simple: cosmopolitan intellectuals, liberals and a purported Communist conspiracy try to distort and cover up the real picture while painting a fictional world around the present issues. Allen uses the imagery of picture puzzles in which a foregrounded object and its surroundings blur or a portrait is falsified through the means of expression. Landscape, ironically summarized as "other bits of nature," serves as a device to "cleverly" hide the facts by weaving them into a completely different context. Allen wants to show "how to discover the 'hidden picture' in the landscapes presented to us daily through newspapers, radio and television." This indictment of deliberate "camouflage" (7) betrays the paranoia of the Cold War generation, the panic over economic decay, the fear of a plot against traditional values, and more than that, the fear of the decline of social order. In Allen's picture imagery, the fear includes not just the artists and the result of their work, but also the form, the device of concealing. The imagery therefore implies the accusation that aesthetic form serves as a mask that disguises, distorts and finally carries off the truth--before the observer, having long been tricked, manages to recognize the truth. The conflict between the intellectuals and the conservatives of Allen's time is obvious.

This imputation could also concern writers of postmodern literature who tend to shift layers of historical facts, persons and places on a fictional matrix. The images presented in this literature are like picture puzzles: they can present either the image itself or the image plus the determining surroundings that condition, exemplify or circumscribe the former. What you see depends on your point of view. …

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