Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

The Three Equations in Gravity's Rainbow

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

The Three Equations in Gravity's Rainbow

Article excerpt

Pynchon's references to mathematics and science attracted early notice among the first critics confronting the unsettling complexities of Gravity's Rainbow. Lance Ozier explicated the mathematical concepts underlying the Pointsman/Mexico dualism (AA) and the transformations of Slothrop and others (CT). Joseph Slade, in his pioneering book-length study, provided the template for much later discussion of Pynchon's interest in and thematic use of mathematics and science. Other critics writing soon after the publication of Gravity's Rainbow also remarked on Pynchon's heterodox preferences in both content and narrative structure. Pynchon's marshalling of film, music, history and religion as well as science, technology and mathematics contributes to the apparent pastiche of Gravity's Rainbow, which--diverse as its contents and methods are--critics increasingly argued was structured with uncommon artfulness.

The purpose of this essay is not to add to the general discussion of how Pynchon uses mathematical concepts, but to focus specifically on the narrative function of the three equations actually inscribed in the novel. Drawing on our professional backgrounds in literature (Schachterle) and physics (Aravind), we aim to show how Pynchon turns mathematical expressions into rhetorical tropes which complicate the text by playing upon the authority the equations convey. Each of the three equations is a different kind--genre, if you like--of mathematical expression, each with a different role in the narrative. Each equation plays upon the expectations readers bring to the text--expectations about how both words and equations normally communicate and with what authority.

In our view, Pynchon inscribes these equations into Gravity's Rainbow to challenge readers with yet another form of authority within the text. For readers whose conceptual and working knowledge of mathematics does not extend beyond trying to balance a checkbook, mathematics may embody a form of authority beyond human control. (Even the Pope, in scene 11 of Brecht's Galileo, acknowledges that the authority of the "multiplication tables" exceeds his own.) Mathematics, to the layperson, by enabling technological practitioners to predict and control outcomes (like making a V-2 land on London), makes things happen in ways both potent and mysterious.

In contrast, we do not usually expect novels to make things happen. Nor do we expect equations to turn up in fiction. The kinds of experience mathematical and verbal symbol systems embody seem entirely different. (The only other novel we know containing an equation explicated at length is David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. (1)) But precisely because mathematics furnishes such powerful tools for manipulating nature, the equations in Gravity's Rainbow provide Pynchon with yet another way of presenting and ultimately challenging authority.

Without the scientific analysis and mathematical prediction Pynchon describes at length in the novel, German scientists and engineers could not have controlled the motion of the V-2. The equation of motion discussed below, first developed in the eighteenth century, provided the predictive power for twentieth-century military technicians to direct V-2s to Antwerp and London. Gravity's Rainbow, by contrast, can warn of the horror of a rocket-born nuclear holocaust but not predict or prevent it.

The three equations appear on pages 140, 239 and 450 of the Viking/Penguin edition of the novel. We contextualize the equations within the narrative section (as demarcated by the rows of hollow squares) in which each appears: part 1, episode 17, pages 136-44; 2.5, 236-44; and 3.13, 448-56. Using Pynchon's own descriptors, we have called these equations 1) the "power series" (140), 2) "motion under the aspect of yaw control" (239) and 3) "hilarious graffito of visiting mathematicians" (450).

We will discuss the last of these equations first because its use of mathematics is less problematic than that in the other two. …

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