Academic journal article Style

Pynchon's Transition from Ethos-Based Postmodernism to Late-Postmodern Stylistics

Academic journal article Style

Pynchon's Transition from Ethos-Based Postmodernism to Late-Postmodern Stylistics

Article excerpt

The Crying of Lot 49 was written while the postmodern ethos was developing. The essence of that ethos, which Pynchon helped shape, was the repudiation of modernity's unconditional faith in the inevitability of human betterment through scientific, technological, moral, and cultural advancement, the rejection of modernity's penchant for sweeping totalizations, particularly about right versus wrong and good versus evil, the refutation of modernity's scrupulous separation of fact from fiction, and its disavowal of modernity's cultural elitism. In the present essay I argue that The Crying of Lot 49 influenced the postmodern American art of the 1980s, specifically that of Robert Longo, David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Keith Haring, which in turn influenced Pynchon's shift to late-postmodernist stylistics in Against the Day. Whereas the ethos underlying The Crying of Lot 49 is onerous, the stylistics inspired by that ethos render Against the Day relatively light-hearted. Not only is style in itself more lighthearted than revisiting historical trauma, but Pynchon's era benefited by the abating tear of total nuclear destruction and scientists' shift from concern for the increasing thermodynamic entropy of the solar system to the celebration of decreasing entropy at the worldly level.

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The Crying of Lot 49, published by Thomas Pynchon in 1966, influenced American postmodern art of the 1980s. That art in turn influenced Pynchon's 2006 novel, Against the Day. The early novel was driven by the ethos or guiding beliefs of postmodernism, while the subsequent art was expressed in styles inspired by that ethos. Because their impact is visual, these postmodern artworks necessarily impart their messages stylistically. Unlike verbal texts, paintings are limited to visual imagery and cannot articulate an ethos, but they can make a stylistic case: or conversely, liberated from language, they can revel in stylistic exploration. Against the Day is more prominently postmodern in style than in the ethos that originally fostered that style. The four artworks I use to support this argument are taken from the exhibition, American Art of the 1980s: Selections from the Broad Collections, held at Washington University Gallery of Art in 2004-05. Curator Sabine Eckmann specifically chose works from the 1980s because that decade represented "the complete arrival of postmodernism in the art world" (i). Likewise, Crystal Downing identifies the 1980s as the period in which "postmodernism bubbled up in the arts," noting that it was not until 1987 that "Boston's Institute of Arts initiated a 'critical overview of postmodernist practices'" (79, 87). The four postmodern artworks, in the order in which they were completed, are by Robert Longo (1953-), David Salle (1952-), Eric Fischl (1948-) and Keith Haring (1958-1990).

That there would be synergies between his novels and postmodern American art of the 1980s is not surprising given Pynchon's professed interest in art in Slow Learner, where he recalled during his college days "taking one of those elective courses in Modern Art and it was the Surrealists who'd really caught my attention" (20). His own artistic inclinations are evident on the double-spread title page of the first edition of The Crying of Lot 49, on the right-hand side of which the number 49 is underlined and flamboyantly displayed in broad numerals four inches tall, suggesting the influence of Jasper Johns, who began his number paintings in 1956 and established an influential prototype for representing numerals as subjects. Not only does the darkening, from left to right of the 49 evoke motion, but the negative space within, between, and around the two numerals generates an aesthetically complementary design. Pynchon's interest in fine art is further confirmed by the intense "ekphrasis" between the paintings by Remedios Varo and the text of The Crying of Lot 49 that Stefan Mattessich describes (12). In Against the Day, Pynchon shifts from the surrealistic Varo to a fictional postmodern artist, Andrea Tancredi, whose technique of "stabbing tiny dots among larger ones" although suggestive of the modernist Seurat's, had "none of [Seurat's] cool static calm," but somehow "got those dots behaving dynamically, violent ensembles of energy-states, Brownian movement" (587). …

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