Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Religious and Political Vision of Pynchon's against the Day

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Religious and Political Vision of Pynchon's against the Day

Article excerpt

Since V. appeared in 1963, Thomas Pynchon has exemplified American postmodernism, and Against the Day carries on the process of undercutting our ontological assumptions and denying us the stability that would support claims of truth or authenticity. Its 1085 pages, its several hundred characters, and its settings--stretching from Colorado to New Haven to Venice to Siberia--combine to deny us the comfort of mastering this textual mini-world. In its religion and politics, however, this book differs from Pynchon's earlier novels. From V. (1963) through Mason &E Dixon (1997), many characters express their own ideologies or moral values, but Pynchon as author rarely pushes his own views. His political sympathies are Leftist and pro-Labor, and his spiritual concerns are attuned to non-material realities, but they remain backgrounded, if only because his characters project so many different kinds of belief--Buddhist, Jewish, Orphic, and Gnostic, as well as Christian. Critics have constructed political stances from Gravity's Rainbow, but its ideology is not immediately evident, and neither is a religious program of action, beyond that of encouraging a sense of wonder. Vineland's values are more obvious in that it decries totalitarianism and encourages us to think well of Labor, but mostly through individual characters' voices. Mason & Dixon trumpets a disapproval of slavery so persistently that we presume this to be authorial sentiment, but the argument that the Enlightenment scientific enterprise has done more harm than good had to be extracted by experts. (1)

I argue that Against the Day represents a new departure for Pynchon. Not only is this his least paranoid novel, (2) but in it he also articulates a stance on both politics and religion. He does so often enough and with sufficient prominence that the statements do not disappear into the background, even though he overwhelms us with an untidy tangle of plots and a grotesque number of characters. If one approaches Against the Day expecting just another Pynchon blockbuster, one can read right over the politics of violence and the religion of penance. Of the thirty-some major reviews electronically available, only six get beyond plot summary when dealing with the anarchist dynamiting, and even those reviewers basically brush aside the book's apparent commendation of industrial terrorism as practiced during the book's time period, 1893 through 1922. (3) I too failed to register the seriousness with which Pynchon appears to support political violence because of my hostility to terrorism, but second and third readings persuade me that Pynchon is more aggressive here than in earlier novels, if only out of despair over lack of effective peaceful alternatives. (4) When D. L. and Frenesi engaged in acts of violence in Vineland, they were incompetent and ridiculous, or undercut with slapstick; Against the Day's Webb Traverse is not thus compromised. Pynchon's support--at least within the novel--for violence has been ignored, perhaps because those politics and the religious views do not mesh well with postmodern relativism, possibly because they contradict our previous understanding of Pynchon novels as essentially ambiguous and infinitely complex, and probably because the reviewers do not wish to contemplate either a serious call to violence or a life of penance. His changed sense of what should (and should not) be explicit and unambiguous appears to reflect intensified personal convictions or increased desperation over the direction America is taking. (5)

I would like to try to disentangle Pynchon's presentation of religious and political positions in Against the Day, and articulate the vision I understand him to be offering in this novel. Its political program appears to favor attacking industrial infrastructures as the way to slow or derail capitalism, and he intertwines this program with a Christian and often specifically Catholic set of doctrines. (6) If I am correct, for this novel we are no longer dealing with the infinitely scriptible Pynchon, whose many luscious phrases can be arranged to harmonize with most of his readers' ideologies. …

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