:: Article

Pynchon, Philosophy, Ethics

By Martin Paul Eve.


Thomas Pynchon ranks among the most critically acclaimed American authors of the past fifty years; certainly so when viewed in terms of academic scholarship. He has two academic journals devoted solely to his work and influence (Pynchon Notes and Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon), over twenty monographs exploring his writing and, since 1978, there have been 23 doctorates awarded in the United Kingdom alone on, or in major part concerning, his fiction. This trend shows no sign of stopping; with apologies to the well-known formulation of James Joyce, almost a century ago, it seems as though Thomas Pynchon will continue to keep the professors busy.

The reasons for this critical proliferation are not hard to fathom. Pynchon is a man of mystery, refusing to be photographed or interviewed, who has published some of the finest works of post-war literature, particularly V., Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49 and Mason & Dixon. His novels have most frequently been type-cast as exemplary of the postmodern – saturated as they are with paranoia, indeterminacy and failed quest-narratives – but this seriously underplays the scale of Pynchon’s writing. Consider that Pynchon is also a writer of enormous historical scope. V. spans the defining moments of crisis in the twentieth century, Gravity’s Rainbow re-casts the sixties in terms of World War II and the history of Calvinism (including a flashback to a Mauritian Dodo hunt) while Mason & Dixon explores the interrelation of its eponymous protagonists with the Age of Reason and slavery in America. If this weren’t enough, his novels are interdisciplinary, incorporating metaphors from science and technology, cartography, popular culture, cartoons, aural puns, mathematical in-jokes, outrageous character names (and sexual practices) and sublime prose poetry.

More important than any of these preceding aspects, though, is the fact that Pynchon is a politically engaged, ethical writer. Gravity’s Rainbow is not just a dense, postmodern sprawl, but instead makes one of its central observations on the fact that the evil of mankind, parallel to nature, “does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation”, a spatio-temporal transposition to a new setting, persisting Beyond the Zero of any Pavlovian deconditioning, and always collecting around centres of power, embodied by the novel’s final, America-bound, transatlantic V-2/ICBM. Through this impossible moment, Pynchon highlights that behind twentieth-century America’s technological and economic supremacy lies the dark negotiations of Operation Paperclip and a re-embodiment of the right-wing politics supposedly vanquished in the Second World War. How many of us notice, inscribed upon our antibiotics, the second label, permanently hidden beneath the surface-level, reading “sulfonamide” and “I.G. Farben”? How many of us see, when we watch satellite television, the German technician crying: “Vergeltungswaffe”?


This mode of history, the excavation of sub-surface, repressed counter-histories, is akin to the style of analysis formulated by the twentieth-century French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault as “genealogy”. Yet Foucault’s philosophy seems to sit, in general, uncomfortably with Pynchon’s work. In fact, although Foucault was the most cited post-War thinker in the academic humanities from 2004-2006, and possibly more recently, there has been relatively little work on Pynchon’s relationship to Foucault. Furthermore, those accounts that do interrelate the two tend to posit a fundamental incompatibility. We are told that Foucault’s concepts of a “discursive” and “productive” power sit ill-at-ease with Pynchon’s model of a dominating, repressive power. However, it’s not the details of this specific engagement that I want to get into here – this will be much better covered in my forthcoming revisionist take on this – but rather the fact that mentioning this opposition to Foucault leads us to a curious aspect of Pynchon’s writing: it seems directly hostile to philosophical thought and interpretation.

This is in some ways odd. Pynchon name-checks a relatively high number of philosophers, from Deleuze and Guattari to Wittgenstein. In other ways, though, it is expected. It is expected because Pynchon’s work trains us as postmodern readers. It thwarts modernist reading techniques by disallowing grand, coherent narratives of one singular truth and instead asks questions about the nature of being. Brian McHale calls this a shift from epistemological, to ontological dominant between modernism to postmodernism and Pynchon’s works here serve as the exemplar. On the other hand again, though, it is unexpected because some forms of theorization seem acceptable. For instance, Gravity’s Rainbow has frequently been read, with its cinematic allusions and moviehouse finale, in terms of film theory. Despite the ironic assertion in V. that “the only consolation he drew from the present chaos was that his theory managed to explain it”, some theories in Pynchon do seem to actually tell us something.

Looking at this further, perhaps a good case-in-point is to examine the use of Wittgenstein in Pynchon’s first novel, V. There have been a large number of scholarly articles that have taken up this theme and, for the most part, they try and read affinity between Wittgenstein’s early work in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (an attempt to logically specify those propositions in language that are actually meaningful) and Pynchon’s writing. As I see it, this effort is misguided and neglects the fact that fiction is not philosophy, but that the two can feed into one another. In Pynchon’s fiction, it seems to me, it is more important to look at the placement and political situation of Wittgenstein, and philosophy, than to attempt to read a parallel of purpose. So then: where and when do we get Wittgenstein?


The answer to this is fairly straightforward: in almost every case in V., Wittgenstein is introduced in situations saturated by Nazism and death. Weissman, who later becomes the sadistic Nazi Blicero in Gravity’s Rainbow, decodes a transmission from the atmospheric disturbances that spells out the first line of the Tractatus. The further parody of the Tractatus song sits in the proximal shadow of SHOCK and SHROUD’s invocation of the Holocaust and Mafia’s anti-Semitic statements. Rachel Owlglass’ invocation of Wittgenstein is locked within a nexus of sterility, abortion and the hypocrisy of the Whole Sick Crew.

Similarly, thinking about Pynchon’s political affiliation suggests the areas in which it would be possible to find a philosophy that stands to resonate more highly with his work. Vineland intimates that the prime situation of the author would be “a step leftward of registering to vote as a Democrat”, but Pynchon is no pure Marxist; Gravity’s Rainbow depicts Marx as a “sly old racist”, perhaps in relation to Marx‘s concept of oriental despotism, and Pynchon’s non-fiction essay, “Is it OK to be a Luddite?” does not chime well with Marx’s notions of appropriating the means of production.

In fact, it seems that Pynchon’s political affiliation sits more squarely with the revisionist accounts of Marx effected in the twentieth century by the loose group known as the Frankfurt School. For instance, Marcuse‘s take on Marx in One-Dimensional Man sits far better with Pynchon’s attitude towards technology, while the philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno is, in some areas, although not all, much nearer to correctness in Pynchon’s universe than those directly cited. This affiliation with the Frankfurt School also helps to understand why Pynchon puts Wittgenstein into these situations. Adorno is heavily critical of Wittgenstein’s logical positivism, believing that it is the assertion of a world that is “all that is the case” that has led the Enlightenment project to the death camps. If you think this seems extreme, then perhaps you’re right. There is, however, a certain logic at work here. If we always accept that what is logical is what is true and right, then no change will ever be possible; a sort of modern Pangloss. There will be no room for a valuation of the human that does not see living beings as objects: objects to be used; objects to be killed and destroyed. Regardless of whether, as readers, we feel this interpretation of a purely logical view is merited (I suspect many do not), the political situations into which Pynchon injects Wittgenstein seem to suggest this critique.


This is, then, the way in which we should re-evaluate philosophical interpretation of literature. Yes, it remains important to work out whether a theoretical worldview seems to sit well with the world depicted by fiction, but it is also key to look critically at the political situation of a philosopher or philosophical concepts.  Fusing this triad of critique, politics and philosophy results in a reading style that I have dubbed, in a forthcoming work, “The Critical Pynchon”. This method also admits the difference between philosophy and literature; it does not attempt a one-to-one mapping. Instead, it triangulates among philosophy; some parts of Wittgenstein are rejected, others are taken. Likewise with Foucault. Likewise with Adorno. Intersecting these stances and acknowledging their convergence and divergence allows us to deal with Pynchon’s polyvocality – for his works are, like Prospero’s island, full of noises and voices – but from a univocal perspective. We don’t go down the route of postmodern nihilism, admitting no truth whatsoever, but we do acknowledge that there are multiple narratives that contribute to our truths and certainties.

Undoubtedly, there will be those who feel that we don’t need another label, another way of reading. Texts are not self-explanatory, though, and authors are not monolithic entities. They contain contradictory multitudes and it is only through drilling-down into niche applications, imposing constraints that help us achieve something (enabling constrains), that the full intellectual pleasure of reading can be achieved. Pynchon is an author who deserves such attention. Beckett and Joyce are others. I suspect that Roberto Bolaño would be a good up-and-coming candidate for those who would like to place bets. Of course, as Derek Attridge has pointed out, we must also be wary of succumbing to a form of literary instrumentalism, wherein we just “use” texts in order to extract an interpretation; we have to chart a course between freedom and authority in our own reading practices. In the meantime, I’ll only bet that we won’t be hearing from Thomas Pynchon himself any time soon. From this, though, I know that he gives us the gift of freedom from authority, to think as critically as we like.


Martin Paul Eve is a researcher and associate tutor at the university of Sussex, where he is finishing his Ph.D. on Thomas Pynchon and philosophy. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Textual Practice, Literature and History, C21 Journal, Pynchon Notes and Insights. In addition to blogging here, he regularly tweets here. Martin is also a frequent contributor to The Guardian Higher Education Network and is the founding editor of Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 29th, 2012.