Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Encountering the Other at Home: Representations of Dora in Pynchon and Mirbach

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Encountering the Other at Home: Representations of Dora in Pynchon and Mirbach

Article excerpt

One of the many obscure passages in part 4 of Gravity's Rainbow mentions an unnamed "spokesman for the Counterforce" who confesses "in an interview with the Wall Street Journal" (738) how he "tasted [his] first blood" (739) in a complex tunnel system. In his attempt to explain this reference, Terry Reilly has identified the interviewee as speaking from the perspective of a sixteenth-century Catholic soldier engaged in the bloody liberation of the city of Munster from the Anabaptist occupation (Reilly 723). Reilly's detailed analysis dismisses, however, various more contemporary clues in the passage, such as the railway lines running through the tunnels and, of course, the Wall Street Journal; likewise, he does not elaborate on the allusions to Christianity or to the final assembly of Rocket 00001. Taking a cue from precisely these latter hints, one may equally well assume that the blood-drinking spokesman is a member of the Schwarzkommando. Toward the end of his statement, the spokesman extemporizes:

   We drank the blood of our enemies. That's why you see Gnostics so
   hunted. The sacrament of the Eucharist is really drinking the blood
   of the enemy. The Grail, the Sangraal, is the bloody vehicle. Why
   else guard it so sacredly? Why should the black honor-guard ride
   half a continent, half a splintering Empire, stone night and winter
   day, if it's only for the touch of sweet lips on a humble bowl? No,
   it's mortal sin they're carrying: to swallow the enemy, down into
   the slick juicery to be taken in by all the cells. (GR 739)

While the description of black blood-drinkers or man-eaters ties in with well-known racial stereotypes held in the West, the subway-tunnel setting seems to displace the act of cannibalism from the African homeland (where the stereotype insists on situating it) to what one imagines is the West. At the same time, the tunnels are reminiscent of the Mittelwerke, where V-2 production began in late 1943, which fact leads to the following question: do the crimes committed in the neighboring concentration camp, Dora, connect in any way with the practice of cannibalism mentioned by the spokesman?

We answer this question at the end, after considering other instances of the encounter, at home, with the Other of German culture. The textual basis for this long detour is provided by Pynchon, whose novels V. and Gravity's Rainbow can be read as prime literary sources for the relocation of this encounter to Germany, and by Willy Mirbach, whose nonfiction report of his experiences as a concentration camp guard helps specify the issue. Both Pynchon's novel and Mirbach's account show that encountering the Other at home has a potential for subversion, one that derives specifically from the displacement of cultural practices associated primarily with foreign locations.

The first of these practices is wearing uniforms to impress and intimidate Others, be they Hereros before the First World War, the citizens of occupied countries during the Second World War or prisoners in the concentration camps at home. A short historical sketch will show how the original function of this practice--that of demonstrating superiority by terrifying the enemy--assumed a self-defeating quality for Germans in South-West Africa and later, around V-E Day, for those wearing uniforms in the concentration camps. The second practice is tattooing, which demonstrates the permeability of the absolute distinction, drawn by the Nazis, between the master race and other, allegedly inferior races. By killing concentration camp prisoners to get at their exotically tattooed skins, SS camp officials seemed to reinforce the racial stereotype in order to disavow the blood-type tattoos in their own armpits. These armpit tattoos might, in fact, betray them to the Allies. Interestingly, in Mirbach's case, the guard was forcefully confronted with this threat by Johnny Nicholas, the single black Dora prisoner. …

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