By James Berger
Department of English
George Mason University
Postmodern Culture v.5 n.3 (May, 1995)
Nostalgia has a bad reputation. It is said to entail an addiction to falsified, idealized images of the past. Nostalgic yearning, as David Lowenthal writes, "is the search for a simple and stable past as a refuge from the turbulent and chaotic present" (21). The political uses of nostalgia are said to be inevitably reactionary, serving to link the images of an ideal past to new or recycled authoritarian structures. And it is true that nostalgia has played major roles in many of the reactionary and repressive political movements of this century -- in Nazism's reverence for the "Volk," in socialist kitsch, and, in the United States, in Reaganism's obsession with idealized depictions of family life in the 1950s. Most recently, nostalgia has been described as a masculine response to feminist threats to patriarchal privilege.
Nostalgia has certainly kept some bad company. And yet, it seems to me, the critiques of nostalgia have not addressed important questions concerning the mechanics of how the past is transmitted into the present and how it might best be used. Postmodern texts and readings, as Michael Berube has noted (with reference to Gravity's Rainbow), place great emphasis on problematics of "transmission and reinscription; not on overturning the hierarchy between canonical and apocryphal but on examining how the canonical and apocryphal can do various kinds of cultural work for variously positioned and constituted cultural groups" (229). In this essay, I will reevaluate nostalgia as a form of cultural transmission that can shift in its political and historical purposes, and thus bears a more complex and, potentially, more productive relation to the past than has generally been allowed in recent discussions.
I will reconsider the possibilities of nostalgia through a discussion of Thomas Pynchon's 1990 novel, Vineland, a book whose low critical reputation parallels that of the term in question. In fact, Vineland has been criticized precisely for its nostalgia, for a politics that exhibits an overly comfortable longing for those good old days of the Movement and the attempt at revolution. Indeed, Vineland seems, in its story's emphasis on repairing the broken family, to veer toward an almost Reaganesque nostalgia. The novel ends with a family reunion; its final word is "home."
Vineland works its way, however, to a very troubled home, and its "sickness" is not a conventional nostalgia for idealized sites of origin. Its concern, rather, as it returns to the 1960s from the vantage of the Reaganist 1980s, is with how cultural memory is transmitted, and it portrays the ideological distortions, marketing strategies, and the variety of nostalgias through which Americans in the 1980s apprehended the 60s. Central to Pynchon's conception of how the past inhabits the present is the notion of trauma. Vineland returns to the 1960s not as to a site of original wholeness and plenitude, but, rather, as to a site of catastrophe, betrayal, and cultural trauma. Moreover, the past in Vineland is not simply a place to which a nostalgic text may return. Rather, it is the traumatic past that persistently leaps forward into the present.
And yet, as Pynchon presents it, along with the traumatic return of the past into the present (a return which is necessarily marked according to the prevailing Reaganist and consumerist ideologies) is another, utopian, element. The utopian, or revelatory, moment is simultaneous with the traumatic moment. And so, in effect, Pynchon's nostalgia is a nostalgia for the future, for possibilities of social harmony glimpsed at crucial moments in the past, but not ever yet realized. Pynchon's portrayal of this congruence or simultaneity of trauma and utopian possibility resembles Walter Benjamin's use of the term jetztzeit, the critical moment of historical, redemptive possibility which continues to erupt into the present even after many previous failures. Like Benjamin's use of jetztzeit, Vineland's nostalgia possesses an ethical and political urgency, an imperative to use its glimpse of utopian potential to try to change an unjust history. And, like the jetztzeit, Vineland's utopian/traumatic vision constitutes a kind of pivot or wedge by which a given historical record can be loosened, opened, made available to change. Where Pynchon's account of nostalgia chiefly differs from Benjamin's treatment of jetztzeit is in Pynchon's attention to the mechanics of how the traumatic/utopian cultural memory is transmitted. Through his pervasive use of popular culture imagery and tone, Pynchon emphasizes that historical trauma and the possibilities of working through the trauma do not, as would seem to be the case in Benjamin's "Theses," burst unmediated into the present. Rather, the insistent return to, and of, the past as a site both of catastrophe and of redemptive possibility will always take particular cultural and ideological forms. In Vineland, these will be the forms of American consumerism and Reaganism in the 1980s.
In Vineland's first sentence, Zoyd Wheeler (Frenesi's ex-husband, father of their daughter, Prairie) wakes up in the summer of 1984, and prepares for an odd ritual. Each year, in order to receive his mental disability check, Zoyd must commit some public act that testifies to his insanity. A hippie, pot-smoking, small time rock and roll playing, long haired freak of the 60s, Zoyd is a picturesque character; he is very 60s. In fact, Zoyd is part of a government funded program designed to keep the memory of the 60s alive as a memory of insanity, and the opening scene of the novel is a comic conflation of representations of the 60s in the age of Reagan: A hippie wearing a dress, wielding a chain saw, performing a self- and property-destroying act which is broadcast live on television.
One of the greatest threats of the 60s, according to the Right, was its blurring of gender divisions. The hippie was already feminized by his long hair and lack of aggressivity (although at the same time he was -- inexplicably -- appealing to many women). Zoyd's dress heightens the gender confusion but, through its absurdity, disarms it. This hippie, in his ridiculous K-Mart dress, can be no threat to traditional masculinity -- he's just crazy. But with his chain saw, the 60s representative is also a physical danger. He's Charles Manson, the hippie as Satanic mass killer. And with the reintroduction of a physical threat, the sexual threat also returns as Zoyd, now armed as well as cross-dressed, enters the loggers' bar.
The figure of Zoyd at the Log Jam brings together parodies of feminism, gay activism, and senseless 80s violence all as progeny of the old 60s hippie. And this is precisely the Reaganist view of the 60s: a source of political and especially sexual violence and chaos. As this opening scene of Vineland suggests, Reaganism had (and the New Right continues to have) an overriding interest in subsidizing and perpetuating the memory of the 60s in these terms. And so the 60s enter the 80s in Vineland as the Reaganist 80s would want to see them, as an aging hippie wearing a dress hurtling through a window for the local news.
The social upheavals of the 1960s -- centering around rapid changes in thinking about race, gender relations, sexuality, nationalism and the American military, the power of corporate technocracy and marketing -- constituted America's central trauma for the New Right. All the Reaganist themes return to the 60s and attempt in some way to undo the incomplete changes of that decade. As the feminist historian Rosalind Pollack Petchesky describes it, the New Right is in large part "a movement to turn back the tide of the major social movements of the 1960s and 1970s" (450). And this view from the Left no more than reinforces the Right's own self-description. Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966 largely by campaigning against student radicals. A hippie, Reagan said, was someone who "dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah" (Cannon, 148), and he promised to "clean up the mess at Berkeley," in particular the "sexual orgies so vile I cannot describe them to you" (Gitlin, 217). Richard Viguerie, the right wing fund raiser, claimed in the early 80s,
It was the social issues that got us this far, and that's what will take us into the future. We never really won until we began stressing issues like busing, abortion, school prayer and gun control. We talked about the communist onslaught until we were blue in the face. But we didn't start winning majorities in elections until we got down to gut level issues. (Quoted in Davis, 171)
These "gut level issues," which revolve primarily around race, sexuality, and violence, point directly back to the social conflicts of the 1960s and define that decade as the central site of trauma in recent American history.
But Zoyd is not the only relic from the 60s who returns. While Zoyd's return is an orchestrated, well-funded gesture of propaganda, Pynchon shows also how the traumatic memories of the 1960s return involuntarily and somatically, as historical symptoms which inhabit and haunt the 1980s. It is in this symptomatic sense that ghosts play such important roles in Vineland, and ghosts are, indeed, ideal figures to portray the return of historical traumas. The ghost is propelled or, more accurately, compelled from the past into the present, and bears a message, invariably of a crime. Yet, in another sense, the ghost does not bear the message; it is the message: a sign pointing back to a traumatic event and forcing that event, in a disguised or cryptic form, back into memory. The ghost is an urgent, intolerable reminder of trauma: in other words, a symptom. And it is usually a symptom not only of an individual crime, but also of an underlying social sickness which extends into the present.
In Vineland, ghosts appear in several forms. Watching the documentary footage that her mother, a radical filmmaker, shot during the 60s, Prairie becomes possessed by Frenesi, as by a ghost.
Prairie understood that the person behind the camera most of the time really was her mother, and that if she kept her mind empty she could absorb, conditionally become, Frenesi, share her eyes, feel, when the frame shook with fatigue or fear or nausea, Frenesi's whole body there, as much as her mind choosing the frame, her will to go out there. . . Prairie floated, ghostly light of head, as if Frenesi were dead but in a special way, a minimum-security arrangement, where limited visits, mediated by projector and screen were possible. (199)
Frenesi's vision of the 60s, as a bodily experience, inhabits Prairie, and time -- and the supposed barrier in time posed by death -- is porous, a "minimum-security arrangement," so that the past can actually exist, physically, in the present. History, for Pynchon, is the alien, uncanny presence which is also that which is most familiar; it is what has formed and informed the present suddenly encountered as Other, as dead. History is the living dead, buried once but come out of its grave, so that the line between living and dead (at least as they function historically) becomes blurred.
The most prominent ghosts in Vineland are the Thanatoids. Although dead, these beings are physical and social. They eat, live in communities, watch television, and can hold conversations with living people. And the Thanatoids are, for the most part, victims of traumas of the 1960s. Weed Atman, betrayed by Frenesi during the rebellion at the College of the Surf, returns as a Thanatoid. The text notes that "since the end of the war in Vietnam, the Thanatoid population had been growing steeply" (320), and Vato and Blood, the wreckers/ferrymen who convey the disoriented, traumatized dead/undead to Thanatoid Village, are themselves Vietnam veterans strangely in thrall to a Vietnamese woman who (in more ways than one) balances their accounts. The Thanatoids' traumas, as in psychoanalytic descriptions of the symptom, are not in their memories -- indeed, the Thanatoids are only dimly aware that they may be dead -- but on their bodies. On seeing her first Thanatoids, DL tells Takeshi, "some of these folks don't look too good." "What do you expect?" Takeshi replies. "What was done to them--they carry it right out on their bodies--written down for--all to see!" (174).
The Thanatoids are symptoms -- physical marks on the social body -- of the traumatic 60s now haunting and contributing to the traumas of the 80s. And yet, the Thanatoids are also ridiculous, another absurd remnant (like Zoyd at the novel's opening) of the psychedelic 60s. And in this tension, between a serious, portentous return of historical trauma and its representation as a comic schtick enacted under the aegis of mass media, we see a crucial feature of Pynchon's literary technique in Vineland, his representation of history, and his version of nostalgia. A ghost of the 60s can return in the 80s only as its own simulation: a ghost playing a ghost, a "Thanatoid," a ghost expressed in technical jargon, a mediated, postmodern ghost of the Reagan era with an alarm watch that beeps out "Wachet Auf." Yet, the 60s continued to return, albeit in these ridiculous, ideologically tinted, "fetishized" forms, because of their traumatic, indeed apocalyptic, place in American history.
Having shown, through the returns of Zoyd and the Thanatoids, how the 60s were rewritten as chaotic, infantile, and ridiculous in the Reaganist 80s, Pynchon also sets out in Vineland to explore why the 60s failed. The social movements of the 60s failed, in Pynchon's account -- as did earlier radical movements -- because of certain betrayals. And political betrayals in Vineland are inevitably linked to sexual betrayals; in fact, to failures of sexual purity or chastity. Both Zoyd and Frenesi describe political loyalty in sexual terms. Zoyd asks Hector Zuniga, the DEA agent, "Why this thing about popping my cherry, Hector?" Frenesi says to Flash, her second husband, "Tell you what . . . I'll cross your picket line if you'll go get fucked up your ass, OK? 'N' then we can talk about busted cherries--" (352). This stress on political or sexual purity, ultimately, I will argue, is intentionally misleading. As is the case with Vineland's language and its depiction of how the past enters and inhabits the present, purity is never in fact an option, and Pynchon derails even those myths of purity that he describes most compellingly.
Frenesi, nevertheless, does betray the Movement, her lover Weed Atman, her husband Zoyd, and her daughter Prairie as a result of her sexual obsession for her worst political enemy, the federal prosecutor Brock Vond. Frenesi's failure, her "helpless turn toward images of authority," is at the center of Pynchon's portrayal of the failures of the 1960s. And Frenesi fatalistically conjectures that "some Cosmic Fascist had spliced in a DNA sequence requiring this form of seduction and initiation into the dark joys of social control." Indeed, Frenesi fears "that all her oppositions, however good and just, to forms of power were really acts of denying that dangerous swoon that came creeping at the edges of her optic lobes every time the troops came marching by. . ." (83). Reciprocally, Brock Vond's authoritarian politics are based on a fear of women and of physicality that seems typical of right wing politics in general. His sadistic control over Frenesi is a form of revenge against a feminine part of himself and an expression of rage against his own vulnerability -- all of which we see in his recurring dreams of being raped by his feminine alter-ego, the Madwoman in the Attic (274).
The full revelation of the connection between sexuality and power comes during the "apocalypse" at Tulsa, when Frenesi joins Brock for a weekend of sex and strategy. What is unveiled, as the "weathermen" of Tulsa nervously acknowledge "the advent of an agent of rapture" (212) and the radicals at the College of the Surf feel the sense "of a clear break just ahead with everything they'd known" (244), is the gun: "Sooner or later," says Brock, "the gun comes out" (240). And the gun, as Frenesi understands it, is an extension of the penis: "Men had it so simple. When it wasn't about Sticking It In, it was about Having the Gun, a variation that allowed them to Stick It In from a distance. The details of how and when, day by working day, made up their real world" (241).
What is further revealed at Tulsa is the link between Brock's gun/phallus and Frenesi's choice of revolutionary technology, the camera. Frenesi had believed that the camera worked in opposition to the gun, that its focus made possible a form of "learning how to pay attention" which could "reveal and devastate" the sources of social injustice (195). Brock, however, persuades her that the camera is simply another way, alternate but parallel, of "sticking it in from a distance." "Can't you see," he tells her, "the two separate worlds -- one always includes a camera somewhere, and the other always includes a gun, one is make-believe, one is real?" (241). The full revelation that emerges from Frenesi and Brock's relationship is that the world, and all possibilities of human action and desire, are circumscribed by destructive, interconnected, and all-encompassing logics of sex, power, and representation.
Frenesi can see no way out of this sexual, political, representational impasse. The only alternative would seem to be a kind of Heideggerian withdrawal from politics, sexuality, and representation -- which is, in effect, also a nostalgia for some pure, aboriginal condition of Being untainted by human imprint. Such a withdrawal and nostalgia is the effect of the parable that Sister Rochelle recites to Takeshi Fumimota, retelling the story of the Fall. Originally, in Sister Rochelle's account, "there were no men at all. Paradise was female." And the first man was not Adam, but the Serpent.
"It was sleazy, slippery man," Rochelle continued, "who invented 'good' and 'evil,' where before women had been content to just be. . . . They dragged us down into this wreck they'd made of the Creation, all subdivided and labeled, handed us the keys to the church, and headed off toward the dance halls and the honkytonk saloons."
Finally, drawing her moral with regard to DL, with whom Takeshi is now linked through their attempt to undo the effects of the Ninja Death Touch, Sister Rochelle solicits Takeshi not to "commit original sin. Try and let her just be" (166).
Rochelle's admonition to "let her just be" -- free, that is, from impositions of notions of "good" and "evil," and from all conceptual subdivisions and labels -- recalls Heidegger's dictum in the "Letter on Humanism" that "every valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivizing. It does not let beings: be. Rather valuing lets beings: be valid -- solely as the objects of its doing" (228). From Rochelle's Heidegerrian perspective, all forms of inscription -- the gun, the camera, the phallus -- are equally guilty. All constitute forms of "enframing," through which the world is not encountered on its own terms but as a standing reserve" available strictly for use. And all contribute toward the construction of the "world picture," the representation whose reality replaces that of the world itself:
Hence world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture. What is, in its entirely, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth. (130)
What is necessary, Heidegger contends, is to create a kind of openness or clearing in which Being can become present on its own terms, which can be accomplished by humanity's maintaining combined attitudes of alert passivity and nurturing. In Vineland, this role is taken by Zoyd, who both nurtures his (and Frenesi's) daughter Prairie and is able to let her be. Zoyd is a father with the qualities of a mother, a father without the Phallus, whose penis is only a penis. He is not quite a void -- some figure for feminine absence entirely outside the symbolic order; he is...a Zoyd: passive but capable, a laid-back fuck-up but a good parent, out of the loop but very much in the symbolic. And Prairie, as her name implies, is the clearing, the opening, which Zoyd allows to come into presence and who may become the site of a new political-sexual-symbolic order not based on the gun, the camera, and the Phallus.
This would be a straight Heideggerian reading, for which Pynchon has provided plenty of cues. But the book is too complex and excessive to allow us to stop here. In the first place, Prairie is not simply a clearing. She is also a subject, and a daughter in search of her mother -- more importantly, as it turns out, in search of her mother's history. She is aided and guided by DL and Takeshi, who have their own history to work through, and who do not just let Prairie be. If Prairie is the opening out of the closed sado-masochistic symbolic-political system embodied by Brock and Frenesi, she achieves this status not merely through the Heideggerian presencing suggested by Sister Rochelle's injunction. She needs the help of a man and woman whose relation, like that of Frenesi and Brock, is mediated by a Death Touch.
Pynchon, then, advances Sister Rochelle's Heideggerian alternative but does not, finally, accept it. At the same time, however, Pynchon suggests the importance of Heideggerian attitudes of withdrawal in the late 1960s as the New Left was falling apart. For Heidegger's opposition to all forms of "enframing" can be translated in the context of the late 60s to two instances from popular culture: to the Beatles' quietist slogan, to "Let it Be," and to the Rolling Stones' parodic response, to "Let it Bleed." That is, the Heideggerian position in the late 1960s suggests attitudes both of passive withdrawal and of terrorism.
The Beatles' song and album of 1969 spoke of a miraculous epiphany "in my hour of darkness" when "Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let it be, let it be." Like the sentiments in "Revolution" ("If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You're not gonna make it with anyone anyhow"), "Let it Be" advocates a withdrawal from a political activism which, in 1969, appeared to have utterly failed. And political activists in 1969 seemed to be faced with two alternatives: either to retire into some more private world of small community, religion, family, graduate school and let the larger world be; or to immerse themselves in the political chaos and violence, break down the barriers of their own scruples and repressions, not resist violence but become violent. To become a terrorist in that context was to "go with the flow," or as the title of the Rolling Stones' song put it, to "Let it Bleed."
"Let it Bleed" was released apparently in response to the vapid quietism of "Let it Be," but the tone of the song seems to belie the violence of its title. It is reassuringly melodic, without the sinister, if theatrical, edge of songs from "Beggar's Banquet" (such as "Street Fighting Man" and "Sympathy for the Devil") which was released a year earlier. In fact, it seems in its tone and lyrics to reassert the sense of community that by 1969 had all but disappeared from the radical movements: "We all need someone we can lean on/And if you want to, you can lean on me..." But there is a strange sarcastic drawl that Mick Jagger gives to the word "lean" that immediately puts the assertion of community in question. And as the song continues, it appears to be not about community but about dismemberment and the unencumbered exchange of bodily fluids. "We all need someone we can lean on" is succeeded by "...dream on," "...cream on," "...feed on," and finally "...bleed on." In the verse, a woman tells the singer that her "breasts will always be open," and Jagger responds that she can "take my arm, take my leg/Oh baby don't you take my head." And at the end of the song, having sung, "You can bleed all over me" he sings "You can come all over me." The sarcastic emphasis on "lean" indicates that the mutual dependence and reciprocity implied by the opening line will in fact resolve into a mutual disintegration and a dissolution of both subjectivities into an undifferentiated flow of desire. The song proceeds from the mutuality of "lean" to a succession of self-shatterings: the unconscious (dream), orgasm (cream), cannibalism (feed), and bleeding (whether of a wound or of menstruation), and finally conflates the emissions of blood and semen. By the end of the song there is nothing but flow, unrestricted by any physical or social structure. To "Let it Bleed," then, means to eliminate all distinctions and values: to let desire desire, to let flow flow. It is, though with a shift of emphasis, really not so different from letting Being be. "Let it Bleed," I suggest, constructs a rock and roll version of the desiring machines of Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus.
Deleuze and Guattari are named in Vineland at the wedding of Mafioso Ralph Wayvone's daughter as authors of The Italian Wedding Fake Book, to which Billy Barf and Vomitones (disguised as Gino Baglione and the Paisans) resort when it becomes clear that they do not know any appropriate songs for an Italian wedding. They are only mentioned once, without elaboration, and it may be only another Pynchonesque throwaway, but if we follow the logic from Sister Rochelle's "Let her be" to Heidegger, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, the reference to Deleuze and Guattari extends the Vineland's exploration of how to contend with the "Cosmic Fascist" which has contaminated sex, politics, and representation.
Published in 1972, Anti-Oedipus, like "Let it Be" and "Let it Bleed," responds to the perceived catastrophic breakdown of the 60s social movements. It is to the political, and libidinal, utopianism of Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown what the Weathermen were to the earlier communitarian idealism of the SDS. That is, it is a form of theoretical terrorism conceived in the collapse of hope in effective politics. The major problem Deleuze and Guattari address, and the problem which for them invalidates conventional political action and belief, is precisely the problem raised by Frenesi and Brock's relationship, that of an inner fascism which structures sexuality, politics, and representation and which is apparently inseparable from these latter structures. As Michel Foucault writes in his Preface to Anti-Oedipus,
the major enemy, the strategic adversary is fascism. . . . And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini -- which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively -- but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us. (xiii)
For Deleuze and Guattari, there is no structure, no boundary, no form of identity which is not a blockage of the flow of desire, a flow which they posit as the only and necessary alternative to inner fascism. Desire alone is revolutionary. It is not governed (contra Freud) by the Oedipal conflict and its subsequent repressions, nor (contra Lacan) by some even more primal lack. Desire is nomadic and universal, and "does not take as its object persons or things, but the entire surroundings that it traverses, the vibrations and flows of every sort to which it is joined, introducing therein breaks and captures"; it is only "through a restriction, a blockage, and a reduction that the libido is made to repress its flows in order to contain them in the narrow cells of the type 'couple,' 'family,' 'person,' 'objects' (292-93).
This relation between structure, desire, and inner fascism seems to describe the political sadomasochism of Brock and Frenesi and to provide a theoretical context for the catastrophes of the New Left in the late 60s. And if the problem is structure per se, any solution, as Deleuze and Guattari elaborate, must begin with destruction. What follows seems impossibly vague -- the creation of subject (rather than subjugated) groups which can cause "desire to penetrate into the social field, and subordinate the socius or the form of power to desiring-production" (348) -- but the initial task is clear: "Destroy, destroy. The task of schizoanalysis goes by way of destruction -- a whole scouring of the unconscious, a complete curettage. Destroy Oedipus, the illusion of the ego, the puppet of the superego, guilt, the law, castration" (311).
Anti-Oedipus marks a point in the history of theory which, both temporally and in spirit, parallels the moment of fragmentation, catastrophe, and apocalypse when, for the New Left, all forms of reasonable politics -- either of working within the system or even of resisting it -- became impossible. "Let it Be" or "Let it Bleed." And yet, oddly, the quietist Beatles/Heideggerian position blurs into the revolutionary or terrorist Stones/Anti-Oedipus position. Both are post-apocalyptic responses to catastrophes perceived as all-encompassing and irreversible, as coterminous with the entire existing order. Both are complete rejections of that order, and embrace instead some incipient revelation outside of what the current, failed order is able to articulate.
It is only during times of massive cultural despair that such attitudes can appear as workable political positions, and Pynchon presents these absolute critiques of a phallic economy in the context of that late 60s moment when the counterculture tried utterly to divest itself of "Amerika" only to find those same forces of power and sexuality in itself. Yet we are not meant to see a Heideggerian or Deleuze-Guattarian position as providing the novel's moral or political or redemptive energy. These positions, rather, represent initial, immediate, post-apocalyptic spasms. Heidegger's is a voice from the grave (in Heidegger's case, the grave of the German national dasein) in which all human acts appear flattened in the radiant (non)perspective of Being. Deleuze and Guattari's is the voice of the revenant who has risen from the grave to devour the living. Both, in fact, are variations of Thanatoid postures, the resentful, traumatized, passive-aggressive (or aggressively passive) attitude of the living dead.
The moment of trauma, the apocalypse of the late 1960s -- the moment that returns and is returned to -- contains the revelation that all social structures, all human acts and culturally inflected desires, are inhabited by the Cosmic Fascist. At this same traumatic-apocalyptic moment, however, Vineland also depicts alternatives which entail neither quietistic withdrawal nor terrorism. The first of these alternatives is Karmic Adjustment, Vineland's parodic combination of psychoanalysis and Eastern religion. The second is the recurring vision of utopian possibility which, in Vineland, emerges at the same moment as does cultural trauma and inevitably returns with it as well. And these two forms of return -- the working through of trauma and its symptomatic reincarnations by means of Karmic Adjustment, and the returns of utopian vision -- in combination constitute Vineland's revised nostalgia.
DL Chastain and Takeshi Fumimota are the first characters in the novel to attempt to "balance" their "karmic account" (163). Their whole relationship, it must be noted, doubles that of Frenesi and Brock Vond. In fact, when they first meet, in a Tokyo brothel, Takeshi has accidently taken Brock's place as a customer, and DL (who was to meet and assassinate Brock) is disguised as Frenesi. In this role, DL mistakenly administers to Takeshi the Ninja Death Touch, an esoteric martial arts technique which results in death up to a year after its application -- acting, as doctors later tell Takeshi, "like trauma, only--much slower" (157). DL and Takeshi's relation, like that of Frenesi and Brock, is marked by trauma: the Death Touch stands in for the Cosmic Fascist.
But while Frenesi and Brock arrive at a point of apocalyptic resignation whose dual forms are quietism and terrorism -- "Let it Be" and "Let it Bleed" -- DL and Takeshi, with the help of Sister Rochelle, enter the business of Karmic Adjustment. Although Sister Rochelle advises Takeshi to "let her just be" (a strategy which, as we have seen, is insufficient), she also insists that DL and Takeshi remain together, and that they balance their karmic account through DL's "working off the great wrong you have done him" (163). This work involves, first, intensive therapy for Takeshi on what appears to be an enormous high-tech acupuncture machine, the "puncutron." Ultimately, however, the process of healing consists of DL and Takeshi, gradually and with great resistance, creating for themselves a sexual relationship outside the reach of the Death Touch.
While working on balancing their own karmic account, DL and Takeshi encounter the Thanatoid community and transform their personal karmic labor (as the Reaganist entrepreneurial spirit would have it) into a small, high-tech, service industry based on treating unresolved Thanatoid traumas. The Thanatoids, they observe, are victims "of karmic imbalances -- unanswered blows, unredeemed suffering, escapes by the guilty" (173). And in the course of their work, DL and Takeshi
became slowly entangled in other, often impossibly complicated, tales of dispossession and betrayal. They heard of land titles and water rights, goon squads and vigilantes, landlords, lawyers, and developers always described in images of thick fluids in flexible containers, injustices not only from the past but also virulently alive in the present day. (172)
The injuries and betrayals to be healed, then, are sexual and personal, but also social and historical; and Pynchon's portrayal of Karmic Adjustment suggests that similar therapies can be applied to both types. Karmic Adjustment resembles, though on a broader scale, the Freudian process of "working through," of learning to substitute a narrative remembering of trauma in place of a symptomatic repetition. As Freud wrote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a victim of trauma "is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past" (18). In Vineland, Frenesi and Brock, DL and Takeshi, the Thanatoids, and American culture as a whole in the 1980s all are engaged in repeating traumatic conflicts of the 1960s (which themselves, in Pynchon's view, repeated such earlier traumas as the suppression of the Wobblies and the McCarthyist purges), and Karmic Adjustment provides a way to work back to those traumatic moments and retell them so as to make possible new histories and new futures.
At the same time, the whole Karmic Adjustment business is somewhat dubious. It is, after all, partly a scam. As Takeshi explains to DL, "they [the Thanantoids] don't want to do it, so we'll do it for them! Dive right down into it! Down into all that--waste-pit of time! We know it's time lost forever--but they don't!" (173). It is also, as the Thanatoid Ortho Bob Dulang reminds the two entrepreneurs, "wishful thinking" (171). Moreover, Karmic Adjustment, the Ninja Death Touch, DL's whole martial arts education, Sister Rochelle's Kunoichi sisterhood all are part of Vineland's comic treatment of the American interest in Eastern religion which took off in the 60s and reached a commercialized apotheosis in the 80s. Like the Thanatoids as symptoms of historical trauma, Karmic Adjustment as the working through of those symptoms is a joke, a bit of recycled 60s absurdity.
And yet, it is precisely as joke, as absurdity, that we can see Karmic Adjustment as a figure for Pynchon's novelistic technique in Vineland. Traumas of the past return and are repeated as symptoms; but these symptoms may be outfitted in ridiculous historical costumes and take bizarre cultural forms. Indeed, Vineland itself is one of these ridiculous costumes and bizarre forms. Vineland's structure and style, its status as comic routine, an 80s parody that approaches Fredric Jameson's notion of postmodern "pastiche" -- a parody that has lost its moral axis and become indistinguishable from what it presumably had set out to satirize -- enact the novel's sense that postmodern cultural memory will be linked, inevitably and inextricably, to the consumer culture in which it is formed. As a "postmodern historical novel," Vineland occupies a cultural position analogous to that which it creates within itself for Karmic Adjustment.
In its persistent and affectionate use of the cultural forms which it at the same time identifies as traumatic symptoms, Vineland verges on becoming what Michael Berube calls, in his discussion of Gravity's Rainbow, a Pynchonian "pornography." Berube describes this "pornography" in political and historical, rather than in sexual, terms as a "regressive anamnesia that recreates illusory, prelapsarian (or prelinguistic) unities through a complex mechanism of dismemberment and reconfiguration; and since," Berube continues, "nostalgia itself works by much the same dynamic, Pynchon's 'pornography' gives us fresh purchase on the cultural critique of nostalgia as well" (248). If Vineland did nothing more than show the inescapability of postmodern cultural forms, then it would be a "pornography" in Berube's sense. Hanjo Berressem comes close to making this claim when he argues that "Vineland's main theme is the complicity of the subject with power" (237) and that in its inscriptions of popular and media culture, the novel "acknowledges thematically as well as structurally that literature (as well as criticism) is never innocent" (236). While the latter statement is certainly true, what needs to be added to Berressem's Lacanian examination of Pynchon's aesthetic strategies in Vineland, and what removes the novel from the status of nostalgic "pornography," is the decisive role of historical trauma in helping both to create and to destabilize the postmodern cultural forms that the novel employs. The novel cannot help but be complicit, nostalgic, "pornographic," -- a part of the symbolic order -- and yet it consistently returns to those historical moments that disrupt its "regressive anamnesias." It continually stumbles on what Slavoj Zizek calls the "rock" of the Lacanian Real: "that which resists symbolization: the traumatic point which is always missed but none the less always returns, although we try . . . to neutralize it, to integrate it in to the symbolic order" (69).
Vineland's stylistic and thematic insistence on its whimsical deflections through American consumer culture, its role as schtick or pastiche, should not blind us to its historical seriousness and accuracy. Consider that DL is an American military brat who puts the Death Touch on an Asian man through a displacement of American domestic concerns, then is linked to him by guilt. This sounds historically familiar. And the novel's depictions of betrayals and repressions of and within the old and new lefts are essentially accurate: The I.W.W. in the Northwest really was brutally repressed by local and federal authorities during the First World War. The F.B.I. in the 1960s really did infiltrate and subvert leftist movements. Hanging the "snitch jacket" on radical leaders (as Frenesi did to Weed) really was a common tactic. Lenient regulations regarding federal grand juries in the early 1970s really did allow federal prosecutors (like Brock Vond) to conduct open-ended investigations of people and organizations who had not been accused of any crime. And, most generally, as historians such as Sara Evans have pointed out, much of the New Left's failure was, in fact, due to its inability to conceive of an egalitarian sexual politics.
Part of Vineland's project, then, is to represent the transmission of the social traumas of the 1960s into the 1980s, and to suggest a method -- which, in the 1980s, can only be parodic -- of coming to terms with these traumas. But trauma is not all that returns in Vineland from the 1960s. Pynchon also describes a utopian, communitarian, vision and energy as having provided the basis for 60s radicalism, and then returning to indicate a moral and political axis for confronting neo-conservative and Reaganist politics of the 1980s. Frenesi, in the mid-60s, "dreamed of a mysterious people's oneness, drawing together toward the best chances of light, achieved once or twice that she'd seen in the street, in short, timeless, bursts..." (117). The model for such a community is Frenesi's radical film collective, 24fps, and it is important to note that this group explicitly dedicates itself to a kind of visual-political revelation:
They went looking for trouble, they found it, they filmed it, and then quickly got the record of their witness someplace safe. They particularly believed in the ability of close-ups to reveal and devastate. When power corrupts, it keeps a log of its progress, written into that most sensitive memory device, the human face.Who could withstand the light? (195)
Frenesi's vision is a form of witnessing and is meant to be transmitted -- as it is, twenty years later, to her daughter, Prairie, who, seeing her mother's films, "could feel the liberation in the place that night, the faith that anything was possible, that nothing could stand in the way of such joyous certainty" (210).
These utopian moments, "timeless bursts" of light, liberation, and possibility, are the sites of Pynchon's revised nostalgia. Along with the disasters and failures of the 1960s, whose traumatic residues continue to haunt the landscapes of the 1980s, Pynchon also locates moments of vision that leap outside their traumatic histories. These moments, in the first place, oppose the social injustices of their time. Secondly, they indicate alternative, communitarian, non-domineering, non-acquisitive forms of social life. We see these forms partly embodied in the social fabric of 24fps and in the early days of the "People's Republic of Rock and Roll" at the College of the Surf. These forms of idealistic, politically committed communal life resemble the ideal Sara Evans describes in Personal Politics as the "beloved community." And, finally, the "timeless bursts" of utopian feeling are unsuccessful; they are never achieved, but exist and are transmitted primarily as vision -- and so it is fitting that Pynchon portrays this utopian vision as the work of radical filmmakers.
Pynchon's revised nostalgia, then, is for sites of unrealized possibility; and it is a nostalgia which, as if akin to the social traumas that surround it, returns of its own accord, together with those traumas, and opposing them. In this revised nostalgia, it is not so much that we seek to return to a site of original wholeness; rather, the unrealized possibility of social harmony and justice itself compulsively returns, providing an alternative to existing conditions and a motive for changing them. Vineland describes a post-apocalyptic (or post-traumatic) and utopian nostalgia whose longing, amid the traumatic effects of historical crisis and disaster, is for yet unrealized forms of community. This nostalgia shoots into the present as a "timeless burst," but it entails the effort to work through historical trauma and to construct the social relations which it has imagined.
Vineland's revised nostalgia, then, is quite distinct from the nostalgias attributed to it by its critics -- the "60s nostalgic quietism" attributed to it by Alec McHoul. Pynchon does describe in Vineland these more conventional processes of nostalgia, the ways in which specific traumatic and political memories are obscured by memories of fashion and by universal laments about "the world," "the business," and human nature. And Pynchon shows how the nostalgic machinery which has already obscured the Wobblies, the Second World War, and McCarthyism is now at work on the 60s. Pynchon's nostalgia for the "timeless bursts" of the 1960s is, rather, more akin to Walter Benjamin's idea of "jetztzeit," that urgent "time of the now," the pivotal moment in which the history of oppression can be rewritten. And we should note that Benjamin, anticipating the fate of the Thanatoids, writes that "even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins" (255, Benjamin's emphasis).
Pynchon, like Benjamin, gives a new political meaning to the pain of the returning past, and demonstrates that nostalgia need not have only a negative or reactionary value. Pynchon's revised nostalgia does not constitute (as, for instance, does Reaganist nostalgia) a leapfrogging back past historical trauma to some imagined age of solid family values. It emerges, rather, directly out of the moment of greatest trauma, out of the moment of apocalypse itself. Thus, the family reunion with which the novel ends is not, despite superficial resemblances, a paean either to the "family values" of the New Right or to a middle-aged New Leftist's yearning for vanished youth. Even Prairie's eventual reunion with her mother, Frenesi, turns out to be, ultimately, beside the point. Her more important encounter, and reconciliation, is with the Thanatoid Weed Atman, the former revolutionary whom Frenesi had caused, or allowed, to be murdered back at the College of the Surf. Weed, in turn, "still a cell of memory, of refusal to forgive," can only work through his "case," his obsession "with those who've wronged [him], with their continuing exemption from punishment" (365) by means of this relationship with the daughter of the woman who betrayed him. Prairie, touching Weed's hand, is "surprised not at the coldness . . . but at how light it was, nearly weightless" (366). It is this relationship that gives his existence weight and allows him, like the tails of the Thantoid dogs, to "gesture meaningfully in the present" (367).
The physical presences and meaningful gestures of these ghosts of history in Vineland allow us finally to distinguish Pynchon's revised nostalgia from the genuinely regressive nostalgia of a work like Forest Gump. Gump, of course, brings the 60s back to the present through its extraordinary "documentary" special effects scenes that show us Forest shaking hands with Lyndon Johnson, as well as Forest participating both in the Vietnam War and in anti-war protests. Forest redeems the traumas of the 1960s, but the redemptive formula in that film lies in being oblivious to politics -- and to adult sexuality -- altogether: in simply (that is, very simply) being "human." This vision of an apolitical, virtually infantile, "humanity" that can redeem a damaged national history is probably, unfortunately, the source of the movie's enormous appeal. This vision is also a large part of the appeal of Reaganism and of the current neo-Reaganist Republican ascendency. In Vineland, however, every human feeling and relation springs from political-historical premises and is laden with political consequences. While Forest Gump firmly separates the traumatic from the redemptive, in Vineland the two are always fused. The real reunion at the end of Vineland is of the living with the dead: a reunion with the traumatic past (now at least partially "karmically adjusted") and with the utopian sense of possibility that flashed into being at the same apocalyptic moment.
Thanks to Michael Prince and to the anonymous readers for Postmodern Culture for their help in revising this essay. Back
"In the imaginative past of nostalgic writers," write Janice Doane and Devon Hodges, "men were men, women were women, and reality was real. To retrieve 'reality,' an authentic language, and 'natural' sexual identity, these writers fight the false, seductive images of a decadent culture that they believe are promoted by feminist writing" (3). Back
See, for example, Brad Leithauser's ridicule: "How delightful it is as one's joint-passing youth is now revealed to be no mere idyll but--Wow! Neat!--the stuff of great art" (10). Alec Mchoul criticizes Vineland's politics as "60s nostalgic quietism" (98), and Alan Wilde writes that "by locating the ideal in the lifetime of his characters, Pynchon betrays again his nostalgia for the regretted time before the eclipse of 'the analog arts . . . by digital technology'" (171). See also Ellen Friedman's more sweeping critique of Vineland as an example of an American male nostalgia for the vanishing privileges of patriarchy, in which "even the most radical expressions of rebellion and discontent . . . are suffused with nostalgia for a past order, for older texts, for the familiar sustaining myths" (250). Back
Recall that "nostalgia" was originally a medical term designating a physical illness experienced by travellers far from home. Back
Pynchon's fiction has continually returned to historical trauma, and has presented historical trauma in terms that are both catastrophic and revelatory -- that is, in apocalyptic terms. The German colonial genocide in Southwest Africa (treated both in its own right and as a precursor to the Nazi genocide of European Jews), the slaughters of World War I relived by Brigadier Pudding in his masochistic, copraphagic encounters with Katje at the White Visitation, the ongoing bureaucratic-scientific control procedures practiced by "the Firm" in Gravity's Rainbow, and the implicit emptiness and oppression of the tupperware America presented in The Crying of Lot 49 all stand as portents for some potentially all-encompassing and definitive disaster. Further, they are revelations that this disaster has, in reality, been present all along; that we live, as Gravity's Rainbow would have it, always along the trajectory of the rocket. Vineland's complex response to the apocalyptic question that ends The Crying of Lot 49 -- "either there was some Tristero . . . or there was just America" -- goes beyond the binarism of that question and, I believe, beyond the curative potential contained in the vague countercultural "Counterforce" of Gravity's Rainbow. In Vineland, there is "just America"; but there is a great deal to be retrieved and reworked in that traumatic legacy. Back
It is hard to remember now, only nine years later, all the cultural weight attached to that Orwellian year. For forty years, 1984 served as the measure of our social fears. Especially during the crises of the 1960s, 1984 loomed ahead as a prophecy. People could say in 1968, either there will be a revolution or it will be 1984 -- either way, the apocalypse. 1984, in effect, replaced the millennium. In Vineland, 1984 marks an ironic conflation of the anticlimax of Orwellian prophecy and the high water mark of Reaganism. For a discussion of the millennial significance taken on by Orwell's novel, see Hillel Schwartz' Century's End: A Cultural History of the Fin de Siecle from the 990s Through the 1990s. Particularly useful is the bibliographic note 75 on page 356. Back
See also John B. Judis, who writes that "Reagan invented the tactic, which became a hallmark of the new right, of targeting the white working class by campaigning against the civil rights, antiwar, and countercultural movements of the 1960s" (236). Finally, Gary Wills suggests that for the Right, "the 'lifestyle' revolution was the more serious [threat] because it was the more lasting phenomenon: it changed attitudes toward sex, parents, authority, the police, the military" (340). Back
Think, for example, of literature's most famous ghost. Hamlet's father is "doomed for a certain term to walk the night" first in order to purge his own sins; then he appears to Hamlet to narrate the trauma of his murder; but finally, his appearance goes beyond just personal and familial trauma and is a general sign that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Back
In a similar way, the Becker and Traverse families, in Eula Becker's narrative, become living memorials to the labor movement: "Be here to remind everybody -- any time they see a Traverse, or Becker for that matter, they'll remember that one tree, and who did it, and why. Hell of a lot better 'n a statue in the park" (76). And for Frenesi, of course, "the past was on her case forever, the zombie at her back..." (71). Back
For the Right, the apocalypse of the 60s lay in the very fact that those radical social movements took place and, in part, succeeded. The conservative commentator Robert Nisbet pounded this apocalyptic chord when he wrote, "...it would be difficult to find a single decade in the history of Western culture when so much barbarism -- so much calculated onslaught against culture and convention in any form, and so much sheer degradation of both culture and the individual -- passed into print, into music, into art and onto the American stage as the decade of the Nineteen Sixties" (quoted in Kevin Phillips, 18). For the Left, of course, the catastrophe of the movements of the 1960s lay in their apparent failures. Although historians like Petchesky, Maurice Isserman, and Michael Kazin have pointed out that the Reaganist reaction to the 1960s presupposed that the radical movements in some measure had succeeded, the presence of Reaganism as the dominant political force in the 1980s led the Left -- and certainly led Pynchon -- to conclude that they had failed. Back
See especially "The Question Concerning Technology": Enframing "banishes man into that kind of revealing which is an ordering. Where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing. . . . Where Enframing holds sway, regulating and securing of the standing-reserve mark all revealing. They no longer even let their own fundamental characteristics appear, namely, this revealing as such" (27). Back
Cf. Freud's earlier essay, "Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through," in which he describes at greater length the roles of memory and narrative in treating neuroses. Back
See Frank J. Donner's The Age of Surveillance, as well as Todd Gitlin's and Tom Hayden's accounts of the 1960s. Back
Pynchon is historically accurate in pointing to sexuality and gender relations as particular problems for New Left politics. As Stokely Carmichael commented in 1965, "The only position for women in SNCC is prone." Sara Evans, Barbara Epstein, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Alice Echols have written compellingly of the sexual turmoil and contradictions in the New Left as rebellion against the restrictive gender roles of the 1950s had very different implications for men as for women. As Echols writes, "by advancing an untamed masculinity - -one that took risks and dared to gamble -- the New Left was in some sense promoting a counterhegemonic . . . understanding of masculinity," but one at odds with any feminist sense of gender roles (16). A very interesting text from the 60s that treats this problem is Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, in which Cleaver, a convicted rapist, argues that sexuality is always incompatible with political action, that the political activist must be a kind of eunuch in order to be effective and uncorrupted -- an extreme position taken by a man with his own extreme problems, but its implications are still part of current debates, as when Andrea Dworkin in her discussion of pornography writes, "The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too" (217). Back
The vision of a "beloved," or "redemptive" community that informed the early civil rights movement, Evans writes, "constituted both a vision of the future to be obtained through nonviolent action and a conception of the nature of the movement itself" (37). In showing how this sense of community was taken up by the New Left in the early 1960s, and then adopted by feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s after the New Left's fragmentation, Evans, much like Pynchon, tells the story of the historical transmission of a utopian vision. Back
For Prairie, the 1960s are initially just a set of cliches. She watches her mother's films of demonstrations and remarks on the "'dude...with the long hair and love beads, and the joint in his mouth...' 'You mean in the flowered bell-bottoms and the paisley shirt?' 'Right on, sister!'" (115). Or, as Hector Zuñiga, the former DEA officer and aspiring film producer tells Zoyd, "Caray, you sixties people, it's amazing. Ah love ya! Go anywhere, it don't matter -- hey, Mongolia! Go way out into smalltown Outer Mongolia, ese, there's gonna be some local person about your age come runnin up, two fingers in a V, hollering, 'What's yer sign, man?' or singin 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' note for note" (28). And we should note in Hector's ridicule of 60s nostalgia the repeated presence of Pynchon's favorite recurring consonant, perhaps a parodic nostalgia for his own productions from the 60s. Back
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---. "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through." S.E. 12:147-156.
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---. Vineland. New York: Penguin, 1990.
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