This paper was delivered at the International Pynchon Week conference in June 2017. It stands as the most succinct summary of where my research had arrived at that point. Suffice it to say, my position has changed since then: Firstly, moving away from the theme of humanity to that of its dissolution, which can be seen in formation in this paper. Secondly, moving toward a more radical reading of Pynchon as a political writer, beyond the political themes discussed here. Substitute any references in this paper to “consumerism” with “capitalism” and you’ll have an idea of where things have changed. Nevertheless, this paper remains the kernel of my current writing, and a worthwhile re-appraisal of Pynchon’s most popular novel.
The theme which dominates The Crying of Lot 49 is that of loneliness, and beneath its shadow, the theme of love. Oedipa Maas is struck by the death of her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, and in her grief searches the city of San Narciso for some shred of his passing. What she finds instead is not Inverarity’s ghost, but a newfound love of the lives around her and a care for the world they have in common. Although the novel ends in paranoid anticipation, the course charted up to that point is one of emergence from isolation and desperate reconnection to a world on the brink of oblivion.
Leaving her ordinary life to discover a world wracked by consumer excess, Oedipa is forced to engage in acts of creation and connection that enable her to reshape the world anew. Thus, I identify in The Crying of Lot 49 a dual project of critique and creation, which damns the world as it is while providing grounds for a world worth loving. Central to my reading of the novel are the theories of consumerism and political community developed by Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt. In particular, I will deploy Benjamin’s ideas of cultural critique, identified by Margaret Cohen as a form of Gothic Marxism, which privileges the spectral, and the marginal, and the psychic as zones of cultural importance over their more solid and rational counterparts. In addition, I will use Hannah Arendt’s particular definitions of the world, community, and love to interrogate Oedipa’s own relation to these concepts and her creative re-engagement with them in her moment of despair.
To expand upon this theme of love, it is first necessary to follow Oedipa in her isolation. I identify in the novel an almost Gothic concern for haunting presences, terrifying absences, and the ghostly relation between past and present. At the core of these themes is the figure of Pierce Inverarity, who at once disappears from life and ceaselessly re-appears as a spectral presence in Oedipa’s world. Quite literally fulfilling his last persona, Lamont Cranston as “The Shadow,” Inverarity is cast into Oedipa’s story as both an entity which haunts her and as an emptiness which opens out before her. “Silence, positive and thorough, fell […] Its quiet ambiguity shifted over, in the months after [Inverarity’s final] call, to what had been revived: memories of his face, body, things he’d given her” (6). In her grief, Oedipa experiences Inverarity as a ghost: Missing from the world, yet unbearably and inexplicably still there. What is devastating for Oedipa in Inverarity’s death is not that he is gone, but that he is weirdly present yet incommunicable.
This sense of haunting is present throughout the novel, and over its course expands from Inverarity to encompass Oedipa’s entire world. Looking over the city of San Narciso, she is reminded by the swirl of houses and streets of the complex inside of a transistor radio:
[There] were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. (14-5)
The world cries out to Oedipa but cannot be heard. I wish to argue today that this anxiety around communication is not merely a dramatic element of the novel, or purely an element of Oedipa’s psychological trials, but rather that it embodies a broader attitude toward the political power and limitations of the word. Politics, as defined by Hannah Arendt, is birthed from the communicable presence of people among other people. It is the talking into existence of a common world. As Arendt writes:
For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life […] lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance. (Arendt The Human Condition 50)
For Arendt, what is unable to be communicated is in a sense unreal. It may be neither presented to another for recognition in conversation or preservation in memory, nor represented in the political sphere. All that Oedipa sees in the expanse of the city, in the intricacies of the radio, and all that she remembers of Inverarity, are terrifying precisely because of their dark and distant silence. Imagining herself as a damsel trapped in a tower, Oedipa is overcome by the weight of her isolation, but yearns to descend “Rapunzel-like” and escape her haunted world (12).
Here I stress the possibility of reading The Crying Lot 49 as a Gothic novel to better bring it into conversation with another proponent of the Gothic mindset in the twentieth century. Here I owe a lot to Margaret Cohen’s reading of Walter Benjamin as proponent of a kind of Gothic Marxism. Of Cohen’s formulation of this critical Gothicism I wish to highlight three main features that are applicable to Pynchon’s novel. The first of these is the valorisation of ghosts and spectral presences of the past as rich sources of “social production rather than [mirages] to be dispelled” (11). The second is “the valorization of a culture’s detritus and trivia as well as its strange and marginal practices” (11). And thirdly, Cohen identifies in Benjamin’s work “a notion of critique moving beyond logical argument and binary opposition to a phantasmagorical staging more closely resembling psychoanalytic therapy” (11). In Oedipa’s obsession with finding traces of Inverarity scattered in the world, her search comes close to these first two methods of cultural interrogation. The ghost of Inverarity is not a void or lack which Oedipa attempts to fill with her conspiracies, but is rather a locus of productive and creative energies by which she learns to “project a world” (56). The materials she uses in this creation are precisely the detritus and trivia swept aside by the culture at large. Out of trash, graffiti, battered paperbacks, and the whispers of the underground she fashions a narrative to justify it all.
Yet, recalling Cohen’s third point, Oedipa does not simply enact some rational interrogation of the world, but looks directly into the psychological and societal roots of her isolation. What is at stake, and what is most Gothic about Oedipa’s search, is that it walks the line between the productive irrationality of a creative world-building and the bottomless depths of the non-rational realms of consumerism and excess in which Oedipa finds herself. Walter Benjamin likens the consumer’s world to that of a dream, in which fragmentary and ephemeral products emerge and dissipate before our eyes, with no clear relation to their place of origin or final destination. Benjamin writes that:
Capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and through it, a reactivation of mythic forces. (Arcades 391)
What remains of communication is the transmission and discussion of trends, as a form of communication which treats commodities as both its object and medium. The human subject finds expression in soon-discarded trinkets, and, as in the haunted shells of Mucho’s caryard, leaves itself scattered across the many fragments it leaves behind. The consumer sinks away from the world which, as per Arendt, is held in common in the conversation of politics, and finds themselves at the mercy of the myths of an isolated dream-world. As Arendt describes it:
[If] we were truly nothing but members of a consumers’ society, we would no longer live in a world at all but simply be driven by a process in whose ever-recurring cycles things appear and disappear, manifest themselves and vanish, never to last long enough to surround the life process in their midst. […] The danger is that such a society, dazzled by the abundance of its growing fertility and caught in the smooth functioning of a never-ending process, would no longer be able to recognize its own futility. (The Human Condition 134-5)
Futility is the key word to describe the danger which hangs over Oedipa. As in Arendt’s analysis, the life of consumption is lived alone. Its inconstancy cannot provide stable footing from which to look upon the world, and its practitioners finds themselves on the precipice of a void.
Throughout the novel, Oedipa is made aware of the fragile nature of solitary life. She begins to recognise Inverarity’s fate in all the solitary victims of a wasted world. Meeting a homeless sailor in the city, she understands “that the sailor had seen worlds no other men had seen […] But nothing she knew of would preserve them, or him” (89). But in this very act of sympathy, Oedipa does preserve the man, if only for a moment. Drawn out of her dream life and into the waste heaps of consumer culture, Oedipa finds a spark of community among her fellow outcasts. She finds in the sailor a common thread of humanity, and a common fate. “It astonished her to think that so much could be lost, even the quantity of hallucination belonging just to the sailor that the world would bear no further trace of” (89). Every day, across the world, millions of people sink into oblivion, taking with them entire worlds of memory and imagination. They persist as scattered and fragmented souls, invested in endless, convoluted acts of consumption, subjected to the terror of state machinery and deprived of any meaningful contact with their fellow condemned. Lacking any recourse to community, politics, or law, all that remains for the human spirit is, according to Arendt, the “incalculable grace of love, which says with Augustine, ‘Volo ut sis (I want you to be),’ without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and unsurpassable affirmation” (The Origins of Totalitarianism 301). It is with this loving grace that Oedipa holds the sailor, and wishes unconditionally for his preservation.
Ultimately, it brings Oedipa out of her haunted sleep and into a state comparable to what Hannah Arendt calls amor mundi¸ or Love of the World. The world, as the space created between people and by people, is in the last resort maintained only by grace of love. The unconditional acceptance of the difference, loneliness, and frailty of another is the last refuge of a common humanity which is made bare by the forces of violence, the isolation of spectacle, and the distractions of consumption. Arendt’s notion of amor mundi is in this sense a reparative attitude toward this bare life, which eschews the further wounds of pity or ressentiment, and instead seeks to affirm and remain open to what remains. By Arendt’s definition a love of the world is not merely the love of one’s own world, but rather that of a world shared by others: amor mundi must include love of this other. Thus, The Crying of Lot 49 is not simply a story of collapse into paranoia, but an examination in hyperbole of the lonely depoliticised state of consumer culture and a lesson on what it takes to build the world anew. Thus, I argue, Oedipa’s journey should be read as a critique of our present conditions, and as a creative attempt to imagine another possible state of affairs. Against the dream-world of Oedipa’s old life is contrasted the dreaming of a different world. At the height of her paranoia, she encounters a circle of children in the Golden Gate Park who typify this regenerative approach:
[They] told her they were dreaming the gathering. But that dream was really no different from being awake, because in the mornings when they got up they felt tired, as if they’d been up most of the night. […] The night was empty of all terror for them, they had inside their circles an imaginary fire, and needed nothing but their own unpenetrated sense of community. (81-2)
Echoing Arendt’s ideas and politics with gathering maintains itself by its collective power. The fire at its centre is said to be imagined, yet it keeps the gathering safe to continue imagining it. Only together does their world take form as both the space and the product of their tiny political community. In the shadow of Inverarity’s death, it is this sense of community which pulls Oedipa out of the depths.
Like all great Gothic novels, The Crying of Lot 49 tells the story of an escape from myth into modernity, but a modernity haunted by that myth. Oedipa imagines herself as one of the girls in Remedios Varo’s painting, locked in a tower, haunted by ghosts, and desperately attempting to fill the void outside. From her tower, she does not so much project a world as, like the girls of Varo’s painting, weaves one together out of the disparate fragments, detritus, and dreams of modern America. The world outside is framed not so much as a world, in the sense of a space shared and maintained in community, but as a depoliticised morass of consumption and waste. In her relation to this shifting dream-world, Oedipa figures herself in the dual roles of lover and loner. While she yearns for someone to bring her down, “Rapunzel-like,” from her tower, she cannot help but realise that her isolation transcends any simple tale of love (12). It is not, as she once thought, her lover Inverarity who frees her from her isolation, but rather her interrogation of precisely the conditions of her loneliness.
Throughout the novel, Oedipa not only attempts to piece together a conspiracy, but navigates a multitude of attitudes toward the world, and among them makes a narrative of her own. Oedipa’s paranoia functions in a similar way to Benjamin’s idea of the historian, whose task is to “[appropriate] a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger” (Lowy 42). Which is to say that Benjamin’s historian must endeavour to redeem the lives and memories which are lost in each era. The voiceless, the exploited, and the discarded exist in histories of progress and glory as ghosts, but for both Oedipa and Benjamin are refigured as sites of recuperation and redemption. The paranoia of her search is not merely the creation of a fiction, but the composition of a worldview which promises something other than “death and the daily, tedious preparations for it. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none” (126).
Although her story ends in anticipation, awaiting the titular crying of Lot 49, her journey itself has already come to a close. Aware of the forces which have kept her in her tower, like some Gothic heroine caught in machinations beyond her control, she embraces the affirmation of love that is required to break through the dream-world of consumer spectacle, and piece together the fragments and whispers that constitute a world worth loving.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 1958. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
—. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. New York: Harcourt, 1976.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. 1999. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002.
Cohen, Margaret. Profane Illumination. 1993. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Lowy, Michael. Fire Alarm. 2001. London: Verso, 2016.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. 1965. London: Vintage, 1996.
1 thought on “From Isolation to Affirmation: Love of the World in The Crying of Lot 49”
fantastic post. loved how you weaved in the images, they fit perfectly. succint analysis. great use of ole benji. definitely earned a sub there :~)