Symbols and Meaning in The Crying of Lot 49

April 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

Although the postmodern classic The Crying of Lot 49 is known for its obscurity and lack of a single interpretation, it should not be seen as an experiment in a tortured narrative of curve-balls that destroys the reader’s assumptions without leaving anything in place. Rather, its very indefinite structure is part of the novel’s meaning, the writing medium carrying the message more than the book’s content or plot. We can gain insight into what Pynchon is trying to accomplish by considering the “sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west” (p.1). Here the old epistemological problem, the zen koan of a tree falling out of earshot, cues us into a discussion of our relation to reality. Rather than arguing extreme objectivity (the sun rises regardless of an observer) or subjectivity (there is no sunrise for the student stuck in the library), the novel will argue a middle path: sunrise is a process of an observer watching the sun. When Oedipa watches the circuit of houses from a San Narcisco slope, she sees the limitless possibilities of what she can see – “There’s seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she tried to find out)” (p. 14). Both the sun and the city are covered by clouds and haze, breaking her “religious instant”, suggesting that the towers of isolation suburban life brings prevent the process of communication. This tells us that Oedipa’s calling in the novel is toward communication, in the larger meaning of the word as information interchange, between human beings and the world at large. Communication is accomplished through symbols (information), but the symbols themselves are ambiguous and the act of interpreting them is more important than deriving their source, meaning, or purpose. The symbols of “concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate” that Oedipa tries to divine in maps, circuits, and later books, are mysterious, holding infinite promise in their very secrecy.1

It is limited to see the novel as a ridicule of suburban life; rather the suburban towers enclosing Oedipa point to the larger problem of isolation that all human beings face. The danger of retreating into solipsism can only be balanced by listening and believing in other human beings and the world itself. Oedipa’s men struggle with the same issues, but often get bogged down by drug use, media, and hallucinations. Still most of them have less trouble interpreting symbols than Oedipa, who keeps retreating to limited logic and insistence on objectivity. Paranoia – seeing connections that are not there – is familiar to most characters who have no trouble making infinite connections in the symbolic world. Even predestined events like the plot of a film are appreciated each time anew. Oedipa sees no point in betting on the outcome of a film with Metzger, but he remids her that she hasn’t seen it yet – it’s new to her. This again underscores the emphasis on interpretation – Metzger’s film sits uselessly in a Hollywood vault until someone tries to watch it. Oedipa is stuck in her binary logic: either the film has a happy ending or a bad one, either the plot is predestined or waiting to unfurl, either she is mad or Tristero is real. Her salvation must lie in not ignoring the excluded middle – the only way to interpret the world to full capacity.

The issue of symbolic communication naturally affects the text itself: how can the author effectively communicate his intention to the reader? A linear plot would not work; neither is an ending necessary when the theme relies on process rather than tautology. The names of characters are natural signifiers, giving us two choices of interpretation: the metaphorical or literal. Literal implies the name is real or common; metaphorical implies one symbol pointing to another – a one-to-one mapping. The Duke kisses the image of Saint Narcissus and Mucho “enigmatically” sings “I Want to Kiss Your Feet”. Do we solve the enigma by saying Mucho is the Duke in The Courier’s Tragedy (after all, the play has a “bizarre resemblance” to what happens in the novel)? The text warns us of this danger: “Heretofore the naming of names has gone on either literally or as metaphor. But now… a new mode of expression takes over. It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance” (p. 55). Just as Oedipa must transgress either/or choices, so must the novel replace the literal/metaphorical interpretation of names (and symbols) by something in between. The text has no choice but to give names to characters (ritual reluctance), but nothing more will be implied than the reader chooses to imply (new mode of expression). The novel doesn’t allow easy substitutions; its allusive qualities are only meant to tantalize the reader into trying to solve the mystery, as if by calling Oedipa Oedipus or reversing the letters of KCUF, we can get what the plot is really trying to tell us. But no such solutions are available to us. If we try to look up the etymology of Tristero we only get bogged deeper into the mystery, and that is part of the point – not solutions, but the process of solving the detective mystery; seeing connections that may not be there but hold the book together. Pynchon has said that in writing Crying he forgot most of what he learned up to that time.2 This may suggest he was breaking away both from linear plots and allusions/metaphors; this is as much his journey of words and symbols as Oedipa’s. This interpretation is supported by Driblette’s comments on the play, “It isn’t literature, it doesn’t mean anything” (p. 60). Of course the play is literature – it’s part of the novel – but does it mean anything in the novel? We are warned not to take words seriously: “You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where the play exists, not in that file cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for, but [the head]” (p. 62). Some pages back, the play alluded to the Puritans, but we are told it was “a useless gesture since none of them ever went to plays” (p. 53). The novel is asking us to consider the good of metaphors or words themselves without an audience. Placing too much emphasis on choices of words and intended meanings leaves the reader and his interpretation behind, forgetting that he/she gives the “spirit flesh”.

We may wonder why “communication is key” if intended meanings are ignored and certainty is hard to come by. Part of the answer lies in entropy: communication is the loophole in the Maxwell’s Demon thought experiment that allows for order and coherence to emerge in a disintegrating system. The demon absorbs information while sorting molecules, which offsets the loss in entropy he is trying to accomplish. The “sensitives” feed back energy by communicating information. Sharing information is therefore equivalent to reestablishing order. Mucho is described as “sensitive”, as are other characters, while Oedipa is desperately trying to communicate. The more one is willing to share, receive/transmit, and interpret information, the bigger the network of connections can be established. This network is the “tapestry was the world” that holds everything together; indeed there is nothing outside of this tapestry because consciousness is equivalent to processing information. The link between world/word is evident enough when we consider that the process of reading is much like experience; Oedipa’s world and personality is communicated to us through the text. Oedipa’s duty (and the reader’s as well) is to unfurl her hair, weave the tapestry far beyond the ivory tower of her isolation. Simply observing is already a start; Oedipa tries to “‘bring something of herself’—even if that something was just her presence” (p. 72). Before she wonders throughout the Bay Area, searching for meaning, she begins to realize that the “repetition of symbols was to be enough… she was meant to remember”. As she gropes through the mysterious world around her, she allows the symbols to pass through her, but she must also act and get tangled in the mystery, forming her own connections. Her mind can not be a “pool table”; she must leave her binary logic in order to see the forgotten stories and memories of the street people in the Bay. The memories of everyone who has passed away still hangs in the whirlwind, just as the bones of American troops killed in an isolated part of the world are breathed by the living world through a filter. Oedipa must remember their story even if it is unheard. Like Whafinger’s play, the lives of the past keep affecting us and our duty is only to recognize the excluded middle. That is not only Oedipa’s journey but the reader’s as well as we project Oedipa’s world in our own planaterium.


1) Pynchon links the obscure word “hierophany” (p. 20) with the secrecy of symbols. It was originally coined in Micea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane:

“Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifest itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany. It is a fitting term because it does not imply anything further; it expresses no more than is implicit in its etymological content, i.e., that something sacred shows itself to us… From the most elementary hierophany… to the supreme hierophany… there is no solution of continuity. In each case we are confronted by the same mysterious act—the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world.” [emphasis added].

The term is fitting because it implies the experience of something other-worldly without regard to reality or meaning. The experience comes from some odd connection in the objects of our ‘profane’, day-to-day world and that connection solely implies an alternative reality that Oedipa is meant to experience. The religious origin of the word suggests a reason for the religious imagery in the novel – interpreting symbols of the unknown realm in our world or beyond is revelatory.

[Source: Grant, J. Kerry. A Companion to The Crying of Lot 49. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1994.]

2) See Introduction in Slow Learner. [Source: Pynchon, Thomas. Slow Learner. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.]

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