Uncertainty: Poe’s Means, Pynchon’s End

February 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

A statement becomes intelligible when its component elements integrate into a unified structure. Stories, then, would convey meaning insofar as they fufill the conventions and boundaries of their genre. Jacques Derrida, however, deconstructs this law of genre, explaining that inherent within it is the “law of overflowing, of excess, the law of participation without membership” (228 Law). As Derrida exposes the intrinsic contamination, blurring, and disintegration of the boundaries of genre—which could only have been echoes of traces of distinction from their origin—he posits différance at the heart of postmodern discourse. It is this sentiment of essential uncertainty which Thomas Pynchon perpetually explores in his pulsing novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Edgar Allen Poe is credited with the emergence of the detective fiction genre, which runs counter to the genre of the marvelous. In the marvelous, the reader’s perception is unwittingly filtered through a narrative frame until appearances to the narrator are accepted as reality. In detective fiction, magic and mysteries are exposed as subjective illusions. The detective’s deciphering function enables the reader to observe through the other side of the lens apparatus, demystifying the unexplainable. One genre exploits and celebrates the human observer’s sublime subjectivity while another hails the unshakable truth of objectivity. With Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the uncertainty of the narrative function is explicitly foregrounded to establish a threshold of possibility between these fundamentally distinct realms. Eventually the boundary miraculously collapses altogether, forming the trans-genre known to readers as the Fantastic, and known to Tzevan Todorov as the prototype of literature’s quintessential feature: to free language from its referents.The Crying of Lot 49 not only establishes and approaches this liminal horizon of the Fantastic; it enters and explores this zone, this lot, as an uncertain mesh of proliferating signs. If uncertainty was Poe’s means, it is Pynchon’s end. As Oedipa Maas navigates and constellates her labyrinthine world in a quest to execute the will “one Pierce Inverarity,” (1 Crying) she begins to falter: a mysterious plot appears at the margins of her awareness and refuses to be either realized or forgotten. She believes to have encountered a worldwide conspiracy— which may be either an alternative communications system to the monolithic U.S. postal system, or an elaborate, equally incredible hoax. After chasing the horizon for a geographically, historically and politically indeterminate plot, Oedipa falls into despair, and attempts suicide. Soon afterwards, recovering, Oedipa finds a semblance of serenity in contemplation of weather patterns by first losing her bearings in the following key passage:But she’d lost her bearings. She turned, pivoting on one stacked heel, could find no mountains either. As if there could be no barriers between herself and the rest of the land. San Narciso at that moment lost (the loss pure, instant, spherical, the sound of a stainless orchestral chime held among the stars and struck lightly), gave up its residue of uniqueness for her; became a name again, was assumed back into the American continuity of crust and mantle. Pierce Inverarity was really dead.She walked down a stretch of railroad track next to the highway. Spurs ran off here and there into factory property. Pierce may have owned these factories too. But did it matter now if he’d owned all of San Narciso? San Narciso was a name; an incident among our climatic records of dreams and what dreams become among our accumulated daylight, a moment’s squall-line or tornado’s touchdown among the higher, more continental solemnities – storm-systems of group suffering and need, prevailing winds of affluence. There was the true continuity, San Narciso had no boundaries, (147). Both a magician and a detective’s continuous narration are curt, compared to Pynchon’s prose. His convoluted, digressive paragraphs fold inwards like the grey, murky wrinkles of a human brain. Folds are marked by the interrupting dashes or parentheses— “at that moment lost (the loss pure, instant, spherical…” as thresholds to a deeper (but sometimes paradoxical) level of description. In this case, the fold hinges on the stressed concept of loss. Later, when Pynchon discusses anomalous features among “continental solemnities—storm-systems of group suffering and need,” the dash is used as a continuer, and the hinge rests on connective punctuation: commas, semi-colons and colons. Tracks of brief, dependent-clause observations which relate—but never actually touch—form clusters of correlations, systems of signification with each other. These non-lists, such as the cluster of San Narciso, dreams, climatic considerations and social patterns, seem to be composed only of spurs from a railroad track of thought. Yet the spurs are all there is for the reader to follow; a unified track of thought may exist only in the links formed between these spurs.As Oidipa experiences a loss of bearings, barriers and boundaries, the reader must maintain, or obtain, unified meaning from the maze of associated yet fragmented clusters of thought. The loss of San Narciso’s distinction for Oidipa then becomes a fertile ground for the cultivation of meaningful, unifying connections; it returns to the “continuity of crust and mantle.” As Maxwell’s Demon may sort information but require a sensitive to complete transmission, so does Oedipa require a sensitive in the reader to find a sensible continuity in the metonymic structures she constellates. The passage begins with Oidipa’s loss of bearings. Yet it ends with a realization of “true continuity”. In this way, Oedipa and the reader concurrently navigate and map The Crying of Lot 49 through correlations and associations, coincidence and metaphor, and cross-references and puns.Certainly the most common, and perhaps the prototypical cross-reference in Lot 49 is the humble pun. Puns exploit the homophonic, homonymic or even metaphorical ambiguity of words by activating multiple meanings in one context. The following self-admonishing pun sequence graces this essay from the current Wikipedia entry on puns: “I moss say I’m taking a lichen to that fun-gi, even though his jokes are in spore taste. Algae the first to say that they mushroom out of control.” Puns are well-known as the detritus of literature, emerging from witless humourists as the inevitable waste that arrives with so much other, more worthwhile material—at least to those who did not think of them first. As Poe eloquently stated in Marginalia, 1849, “The goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability.” Plays such as lot fitting into plot, San Narciso doubling as narcissism, Dr. Hilarious, Mike Fallopian or my personal favorite Genghis Cohen highlight the communications gap, and twist in perspective between the laughing reader and puzzled, if not frantic narrator. Ancient rival postal company to the Trystero Thurn and Taxis doubling as the triumphantly certain death and taxes is not a witty insight to Oidipa; it is simply an understood part of her literary world. As in the genre of the fantastic, Pynchon foregrounds the narrative frame or apparatus. Puns undermine the normal suspension of disbelief that fiction normally presupposes. Paradox and ambiguity are cultivated by the notion that a word can mean not one thing or another, but somehow both. Todorov strikingly exclaims while nearing his conclusion, “Literature is how language commits suicide,” (167 Fantastic). In Lot 49 puns tend to mushroom out of control; not only in the multiple interpretations of specific words, but also the proliferating associations a reader may draw between them. Thus the maddening binary, unsolvable from Oedipa’s perspective, is penetrated by the reader—not ones or zeroes, a hoax or a conspiracy— but “ones and zeroes” (150): somehow, miraculously, both. The moment of miracle, a convergence of worlds in Pynchon’s words, recurs in several key passages wherein Oedipa loses herself, but chiefly in the passage above. As multiple modes of narration are entertained by Oedipa—who reads the world, thereby assuming the role of both Todorov’s reader of the Fantastic genre, hesitating, and Maxwell’s Demon, sorting— Pynchon’s reader finds that the contesting values assigned to each symbol undermine and contaminate each other. Without disambiguous reference points or steady boundaries it would seem impossible to chart the narrative world even as one navigates through it.When, as Anne Mangel delineates in “Maxwell’s Dream, Entropy, Information,” symbols “point in a thousand different directions and never lead to a solid conclusion” (90 Maxwell) (because of the tendency of entropy to multiply faster in the act of perception than it can be reduced with sorting), Oedipa is forced “into a closed system of perception,” (92). All that Oedipa sees is thus filtered through the invisible lens of paranoia about the W.A.S.T.E. (We Await Silent Trystero’s Empire) conspiracy. In such an enclosed system, the ultimate entropic state seems inevitable. David Seed selects a standard, modern definition of entropy to explain this state: “inert uniformity of component elements; absence of form, pattern, hierarchy, or differentiation,” (158 Order) which conspicuously reflects Oedipa’s loss of bearings as she stands in the night, “her isolation complete,” (146 Crying).Consider, however: even in the process of disintegrating the invisible Tupperware boundary which insulates and separates Oedipa from the rest of the land, new boundaries proliferate. Even while demarking the distinctions between Pierce’s factories and San Narciso; San Narcisiso and America; and Pierce and the “crust and mantle” in which he lays; new distinctions are drawn. Even while miraculously blurring the binary between hoax and conspiracy, Pynchon establishes the division between a world of perfect, continuous unity, and a nihilistic world devoid of values. Just as the first page’s hotel door being permanently slammed wakes “two hundred birds down in the lobby,” the “stainless orchestral chime” signal of loss entails an echo among the stars, a proliferation of signals which continues to divide across the universe.The muted post-horn announces its presence as a symbol to Oedipa and nothing more: no sound emerges. When music, for example, is synthesized only as a copy of a simulation of a sound, it would seem some authenticity is lost in the process, perhaps meaning distorted entropically. Recurrently, Oedipa may “recognize signals like that, as the epileptic is said to—an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure” (76), yet “never the central truth itself,” which has been deferred once again, displaced by its own trace.Or, perhaps, traces are all that remain and have remained since some original orchestral chime among the stars. Perhaps in the very course of its birth, language has committed suicide; as Derrida outlines in his groundbreaking metaphysical treatise, “The monument and the mirage of the trace, the trace simultaneously traced and erased, simultaneously living and dead, and as always, living in its simulation of life’s preserved inscription,” (24 Différance). That is, the essence, or original transcendental signified from which the symbols and signifiers perpetually defer, also divides and displaces itself. The essence of any metaphysical consideration of essence is thus contaminated, differed and deferred.As in Mucho’s recurring nightmare of the post reading N.A.D.A. against the blue sky, only signposts and symbols seem to remain in this world – at least the contemplated post-modern world posited in Lot 49. Perhaps Pynchon foresaw the monolithic hegemony of symbolic representation in this age: Wikipedia, Facebook, Google and so on. Physical processes in this information age, such as love, birth, death, and even digestion are rendered incomplete. As Pynchon tolls the bell to signify this loss, he relinquishes the potency of the symbolic chime—highlighting the symbol’s essential différance. By charting the fantastic’s liminal p[lot] on the horizon, where plural modes of meaning overlap and undermine each other’s certainty, Pynchon produces both a quintessential postmodern text and a playful satire of the postmodern world.Works Cited:Veale, Tony (2003): “Metaphor and Metonymy: The Cognitive Trump-Cards of Linguistic Humor”

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