Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Oedipa's Unsentimental Journey: Preempted Pathos in the Crying of Lot 49

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Oedipa's Unsentimental Journey: Preempted Pathos in the Crying of Lot 49

Article excerpt

"I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?"                       --Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (1871) 

Pierce Inverarity is dead. All that is left of him is a memory. A memory of a trip to Mexico City. A memory of "an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo" (Lot 11). A memory, most importantly, of a woman standing in front of a piece of art and feeling something. In the early pages of The Crying of Lot 49, not long after Oedipa Maas learns of the death of her former lover, the narrative recalls this affective and affecting encounter, effectively supplanting any present mourning of Inverarity's death with an elegiac memory of a past life, and in doing so, crystalizing--through Oedipa's tears--Thomas Pynchon's fraught relationship with sentimentality, which this essay will be exploring. In first describing the work itself, and then turning its attention to Oedipa's visceral response to it, the scene is one of ekphrasis that quickly gives way to what Emma Barker calls the communicativeness of the "sentimental aesthetic," the fundamental aim of which is "to dissolve the barrier between the work of art and the observing subject, between fiction and reality" (qtd. in Jervis 44):

In the central painting of a triptych, titled "Bordando el Manto Terrestre," were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she'd wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there'd been no escape. (Lot 11) 

I quote this passage in full here because it showcases several crucial components of The Crying of Lot 49's nostalgic engagement with the power of art to evoke emotive responses. At its most fundamental level, perhaps, Oedipa's physical response of looking at the painting and crying--figured here in direct causal relation--introduces the Aristotelian notion of catharsis into the text, thereby putting itself in conversation with both the classical conception of tragedy and the contemporary investment of novelists and critics in the return to feeling in art. But what is Oedipa feeling, exactly? Once considered "the supreme metonym for the expressivity of interior states," the tear in the twentieth century comes to be regarded, according to Eugenie Brinkema in The Forms of the Affects, "principally as an exteriority and as something that must be interpreted or read" (2, 4). Aiding our interpretation and reading of Oedipa's corporal response, the narrative provides some access to her interiority, the nature of which suggests that Oedipa's affected reaction is prompted, first and foremost, by a feeling of recognition: in the frail girls in the tower, Oedipa sees herself. Put in the concurrent New Critical context of Wimsatt and Beardsley's affective fallacy, Oedipa's identification with the subjects of the text that she is engaging is a decidedly uncritical one--the sentimental stuff of bad reading. As Oedipa loses herself in the work, its tapestry of tropes envelops her. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.