By Michael Gurnow
Submitted to Southeast Missouri State University
When considering a novel that is commonly placed alongside James Joyce's Ulysses, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Cervantes' Don Quixote, and William Gaddis' Recognitions in terms of complexity, metaphor, allusion, and content in general, everyone and his brother would like to claim they have an inkling about what is going on in such a text (Mendelson 1267). The scope of the text is astounding; as Elaine Safer attests, "Gravity's Rainbow is encyclopedic in scope, detailing activities by characters from the United States, South America, Africa, Central Asia, Russia, and Europe. There are over three hundred characters [my emphasis] in the novel, connected to all aspects of society, including the military (the Allies and the Axis), scientists, politicians, secret agents, and nonprofessionals [ . . and] just ordinary folks, little fellows. References are made to chemistry, mathematics, film, song, art, and literature. And various languages are used: French, German, Latin, Italian, Herero, to name a few" (98) and "Hebrew, . . . Kazakh, Russian, Spanish, Japanese . . . (Weisenburger 5). As an indication of its complexity, critics cannot agree upon the actual number of characters in the novel. According to Tony Tanner (74), one of the foremost Pynchon scholars: "There are over 400 characters [my emphasis] -- we should perhaps say names,' since the ontological status of the figures that drift and stream across the pages is radically uncertain."
In a novel where reviewers, critics, and casual readers can only hope to emerge from the labyrinth of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow with an impression of a character sketch (bolstered by numerous 30-plus-page plot synopses that have been published), there are methods which can be employed that will reveal the genius of a novel that was labeled "obscene and unreadable" and "turgid and overwritten" by the Pulitzer advisory board after having been unanimously selected by the preliminary judges for the Pulitzer Prize in Literature (Dew 3). The dispute ended in such controversy that there was no Pulitzer awarded that year (1973). One particularly revealing method for reading Gravity's Rainbow is through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis.
A Freudian Reading of Pynchon's Masterpiece
The premise of the text (so described by the back cover of the 1995 Penguin edition):
" . . . British Intelligence discovers that a map of the city pinpointing the sexual conquests of one Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, U.S. Army, corresponds identically to a map showing the V-2 impact sites."
Thus, from merely skimming the back cover of the text, we can already derive a sexual motif in relation to V-2's -- a type of German missile.
The missile itself, especially one missile in particular dubbed "Rocket 00000," is the primary concern for Slothrop, numerous characters throughout the story, and the reader. Within the first section of the text we discover that Slothrop possesses extrasensory perception: he obtains an erection, regardless of the absence of sexual stimuli that would normally cause such a reaction in a male, for an indefinite period of time prior to a bombing in the area where he is located. Thus the connection between the phallic-shaped missile and sex is brought together, rather cohesively, under one book jacket.
It is never revealed why Slothrop searches over a period of several months, and through countless death-defying events to find this particular implement of death -- Rocket 00000. One might think that Slothrop is seeking his own demise, a motif in Freudian psychoanalysis referred to as the death instinct or death drive. Terry Eagleton defines this theme as follows: "The final goal of life is death, a return to that blissful inanimate state where the ego cannot be injured" (161). This longing for death is oftentimes used to explain the seeming irrationality behind "war, suicidal intentions, drug-abuse, alcoholism and the sort of risk-taking that is suicidal . . ." (Osborne 112). The motif of the Freudian death instinct is well implemented and a quite appropriate, given the historical setting of the novel: Freud came to this conclusion late in his career after witnessing the effects of both World Wars. The entirety of Gravity's Rainbow takes place during the Second World War. The death instinct is a reaction that occurs after the realization that one is unable to seek the security of his or her mother's womb. When one recognizes the nonsensical nature of either proposition (that death is a solution or that one may return to the prenatal state), one is confronted with a dilemma: since absolute security is no longer obtainable, what is a person to do now that he or she is faced with a world of indefinite, though prolonged, suffering? For Freud the answer lies in escapism.
Freud viewed escapism in several ways. One could escape through the methods of denial, sublimation, or repression, to name three. The manner and method by which one achieves one's escapism is highly individual as it is personal. In Slothrop's case, he uses the venue of sex, not directly but symbolically. To make this theme more readily apparent, another of Freud's theories, that of the Oedipal complex, must be considered.
Freud theorized that after the male child realizes that there is a world that exists outside of himself and his mother (namely the presence of the child's father), the child deduces that the father is attempting to gain the favor of his mate. The child rationalizes that if this were allowed to occur, that he would be left alone to fend against the forbidding world. Ultimately, the child's sole hope is to form the definitive bond with his mother so that no one will be capable of taking her away from him -- his source of hedonistic pleasure and absolute security. The strongest bond the child can formulate, due to instinct, is procreation with the mother. The child grows to hate the father until the child recognizes that he (the child) is inferior in all ways to the father and that the latter possesses the ability to take the child's most prized possession: his penis. The little boy's penis, aside from his mother's care taking, has been his only medium for pleasure. If the mother is taken away and the boy's penis is removed, the child is left with nothing. Thus, the child makes the self-interested action of aligning with the father in order to gain his favor. This is the only method through which the child might hope to save his relationship with his mother -- to successfully imitate his father's actions, clothing, and speech, all of which is obviously what his mother desires.
If Slothrop, whom we discover before the end of the first section of the text, has no "real" mother aside from science (he was sold to a government agency by his father at an early age in order to secure a college education for the child -- Harvard no less), and is in search of his mother, we must ask ourselves who that mother is. Is she is the apotheosis of science to date, that is, the alleged Rocket 00000? Or is he desperately seeking this bomb in order to crawl into the safe haven of death? Because Slothrop is conditioned via sexual arousal (the result of science experiments gone awry) to detect bomb impact sites before they appear, is he out to find the ultimate orgasm (the metaphor of explosion as ejaculation may be applied here)? These literal and metaphorical routes that Slothrop has at his disposal are ways in which he could escape the pain and suffering of the war and of daily life. We can look toward Freud once again for a possible connection between these ideas.
In psychoanalysis the death instinct is closely conjoined with sexual passion (Guerin 150). Freud was merely one in a long line of thinkers to propose that there may be a correlation between our desire for sex and a subconscious drive toward death; similar theories were put forth by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century, right after the French author Marquis de Sade in the late 1700's. Was Slothrop hunting for the "mother of all orgasms" -- the orgasm to end all life? It would seem so. In Slothrop's searching for the ultimate orgasm, we find a converse relationship between the rocket and the character of Slothrop. "The more he (and we) learn about the Rocket, the less of Slothrop remains as a character, until there are left only a 'few [readers] who can still see Slothrop as any sort of integral creature any more'" (Stonehill 143). Indeed, at the opening of the text, we are told through military investigation reports of Slothrop and his erections. We hear nothing for quite some time of the allusive Rocket 00000. As the novel progresses, we see (and hear) less of Slothrop; by the close of the text, we are face to face with the now famous rocket, yet the main character of the text was last mentioned 60-plus pages ago. Why is this?
We can surmise that the character of Slothrop is in search of his father figure in hopes of destroying the symbolic father in order to be mentally free of guilt after having desired his father's death early in the offspring's life. The father figure is symbolized through the Rocket 00000, for it represents the governing principle, that Slothrop has rebelled against since his discovery of his having been sold by his biological father to science. Science took him in, made him a Pavlovian guinea pig, and inadvertently created the monster of Slothrop, a person with extrasensory perception for predetermined rocket blasts. At some point during the narrative Slothrop eludes termination by the government because it cannot figure out what it has given birth to or created. This is quite the converse of the Oedipus complex. Yet Slothrop, in rebelling against the government, a form of control, is ultimately rebelling in Freudian terms against the father (the control principle). The French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan states that the father signifies the Law -- ethical or moral, whether it is epitomized through the form of church, law, social mores, or a father figure (Eagleton 165). So where is Slothrop to go?
Now Slothrop's journey back to "Mother" is not as easy as I might have made it seem. In order to evade various forces throughout the course of 760 pages, Slothrop is forced to don various (dis)guises to elude detection. One might suggest that in Slothrop's masking of his true identity, he thus throws himself into a state of denial and sublimation -- various modes of escapism. Sublimation is defined as taking ordinarily "unacceptable behavior and urges and directing it towards a more socially valued ends" (sic) (Eagleton 152). Thus, society is not willing to accept "Slothrop qua Slothrop," so the character of Slothrop assumes various identities in order to function and survive in society. These various fronts consists of an American lieutenant, an English officer, Rocketman, Plasticman, and finally Pig Man before returning to his original self (which, in Freudian terms, is the only method through which one can hope to achieve mental peace -- the recognition of one's true self and identity). Psychoanalytic theory also applies readily to two specific characters mentioned above: Rocketman and Plasticman.
Rocketman was the creation of Ajax Comics in the early forties. "Rocketman, originally a stunt pilot named Cliff Secord, comes into the accidental possession of a rocket pack coveted by both Allied and Nazi forces, which operates by hand controls" (Weisenburger 179). It is worthy of note that Slothrop's wardrobe is identical to that of the original except for one feature: horns. We are now bombarded with sexual imagery: Slothrop is dressed as a giant phallic symbol -- a rocket -- and is "horny" (slang for lustful), yet throughout the entire period of assuming his Rocketman title, he never once utilizes his rocket pack. His rocket gear, or his ability to use the machinery, has been either incapacitated or he was unable to utilize it from the beginning -- Slothrop is impotent in relation to his rocket gear -- thus not functional in his current environment.
It is also worthy noting that Rocketman is either shipped or driven to every destination throughout the duration of the novel. In Freudian theory, the act of flying symbolizes a desire for sex or participation in the sex act. Thus, Rocketman never "gets up" off the ground once during the course of the novel. He is left grounded with a backpack of machinery (symbolically a heavy burden upon his shoulders -- or his consciousness) that he is never able to implement during his escapades.
The other character that Slothrop attempts to emulate is Plasticman. "Plasticman, or 'Plas' made his debut appearance in a 1941 issue of Police Comics. His real name was Eel O'Brian, a petty crook who fell into a vat of acid while burglarizing the Crawford Chemical works. Eel ran, awoke the next day in a monastery discovered that his entire body had become rubbery and pliable, and thereafter dedicated his life to stopping crime" (Weisenburger 113-4). The image of plastic typically brings to mind the concept of artificiality, which when used as a metaphor for personal identity (as stated earlier) does not suggest internal peace.
Slothrop, in denying his true identity, never comes to terms with his symbolic "father" -- the governing agencies throughout the text -- and never meets his mother (symbolized in the text as Mother Nature). Only after shedding his false identities and rejecting the oppressive father is the character of Slothrop able to rejoin his "Mother." But once Slothrop rejoins his Mother and goes back to his "roots," he blends, literally, into the background (foliage?), and is never seen or heard from again.
The last time we see or hear of Slothrop he is in the wilderness, Thoreau-like, living off the land, unbathed, naked, and playing a harmonica he lost at the beginning of the text. He is free from all restraints. These "restraints" are due to the formation of the ego, which arose from the recognition of the father figure in contrast to the seemingly isolated world of the mother and child (from the child's perspective). Slothrop, alone and without obligatory guidelines or social scripts to abide by, is free to act in whatever manner he chooses. He has retreated into the pleasure principle -- the dominating factor of the male child's world before the appearance of the father. This is hedonism in its purest state. The child's sole initiative is to satisfy any and all desires at all times regardless of cost. Now that Slothrop has alleviated the burden of rules and mores, he is free to bask in a mother-filled world: that of Mother Nature. Truly, Slothrop has found the mother figure, retreated into her womb, and is safe from the war or any type of immediate (and arguably any serious type of) danger. "After a heavy rain he doesn't recall, Slothrop sees a very thick rainbow here, a stout rainbow cock driven down out of pubic clouds into Earth, green wet valleyed Earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural" (626). This is the last time we see Slothrop and, not surprisingly, he is placed alongside the sexual imagery of "a stout rainbow cock" and "pubic clouds."
Still considering Freudian theory, there exist dual plotlines to the text that parallel and compliment one another. As Slothrop denies the bomb while seeking the security of the mother's womb, another character, Gottfried, goes toward the infamous Rocket 00000 for support (whether this is a parallel or a juxtaposed theme depends on one's interpretation of Slothrop's motives and actions). At the close of the novel, 30 pages after we last hear mention of Slothrop, we find the character of Gottfried in the fuselage of Rocket 00000, fetus-like, awaiting death. "Deathlace [sic] is the boy's [Gottfried's] bridal costume. His smooth feet, bound side by side, are in white satin slippers with white bows. His red nipples are erect" (750). Thus, the image of the fetus is placed alongside that of coupling through the idea of marriage (suggestive of the male-female bond between mother and son) and sexual arousal (erect nipples). By the close of the text we are confronted with two contrasting safe havens: Slothrop is allowed to live in security while the character of Gottfried is forced to die in order to escape into his eternal sanctuary.