A Look Back at Thomas Pynchon’s V.
An Essay by John David Ebert
Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 first novel V. is not so much a novel as a series of short novels held together by hinges: the book is composed of 17 chapters (or 16 + an epilogue), seven of which are short novels having to do with the mysterious woman known as “V” while the other chapters function as jointures—like Heidegger’s jointures in his Contributions to Philosophy—which hinge the other seven together. Thus, the book is meant to be symbolically “unfolded” and opened up in a manner similar to the way the wings of a Medieval triptych—also hinged–are opened to reveal a series of panels, each chronicling one or another Biblical iconotype. (Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece of about 1430 is a classic example).
There are thus two narrative arcs: the main picture panels—as it were—associated with the attempts of one Herbert Stencil to fathom the mystery of the woman named V, while the other is composed of the random and chaotic motions of a group of artists and beatniks who call themselves the Whole Sick Crew. Benny Profane, though he has no talents whatsoever to speak of, is the main character associated with this arc, who bounces from job to job and from lover to lover in an endless sequence of hilarious episodes. At one point, in a mock heroic miniaturization of the dragon-slayer myth, Pynchon has him hired on to hunt alligators in the New York sewer system.
Stencil and Profane, between them, then, rehearse the Western philosophical dialectic of the intelligible vs. the sensible worlds, for Stencil, as his name implies, is always sifting through texts looking for meaning, projecting his various theoretical templates onto world history in order to make sense out of it, while Profane—again as the name implies—couldn’t care less about anything, and simply drifts from one aimless adventure to the next, absolutely unaware of the presence of the Higher Mind and all its attempts to translate mere empirical experience into the transcendence of systems of meaning and order. Whereas Stencil yearns for the transcendence of dissolution into the body of the Great Mother, Profane remains a lost and alienated fragment of contemporary consciousness mired in the sense data of the fallen world.
Together, then, they compose the mind and senses of the human physical body in both its animal and suprahuman modalities. If V as modern incarnation of the Great Mother is the body, they are the twin components of senses and intellect which inhabits it in the form of an animate human soul.
The two narrative arcs of the novel therefore trace out their own letter “V” which only come together when Stencil and Profane join forces near the novel’s conclusion in order to travel to the island of Malta, where Stencil thinks he might actually meet the woman named V in person. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen, for at novel’s end Stencil is off to Europe to pursue another clue, while Profane drifts into yet another love entanglement that we know isn’t going to get him anywhere, since Pynchon has gone to great pains to detail for the reader how incapable of love Profane really is.
It is a novel, in other words, without an Event, in either the Heideggerian or Badiouean senses of the term. (For Alain Badiou, an event creates a subject through the subject’s fidelity to a happening of truth, such as quantum physics or the French Revolution; whereas for the later Heidegger, Being itself is an event in which entities are unconcealed in the Clearing in a new way, by poets or thinkers or artists, which sets up new parameters of intelligibility for the Clearing of the culture as a whole).
Herbert Stencil is a sort of scholar who is obsessed with solving the mystery of the identity of a woman whose first initial, V., appears in his father’s journals. His father Sidney was a spy for the British government at the turn of the century, a fact which places Herbert in the tradition of the literary sleuth who gathers clues for the reader to assemble into causal sequence in order to solve a crime. V may, in fact, be Stencil’s mother; he doesn’t know for sure. But then, he doesn’t know anything for certain. He is a middle-aged man who spends his time poring through texts and historical documents, such as letters and journals, interviewing people who may or may not have known this woman, seeking to uncover her identity. He never finds out, though, just exactly who she is, since every time her name comes up, it has changed: at first, it is Victoria Wren; later it becomes Veronica Manganese, Vera Meroving and, at one point, even Veronica the Rat. He is never even certain of her name: only that it begins with the twenty-second letter of the alphabet.
Each of the seven mini-novels—which are all constructions of Stencil’s, based on his research–takes place at a moment of historical crisis. The first one is set in 1898 during the so-called Fashoda crisis, in which the British and the French nearly went to war over their respective colonialist claims in Egypt. V first appears there in the guise of the young woman named Victoria Wren, the girlfriend of a spy named Goodfellow. She also has an eleven year old sister named Mildred, who has a penchant for collecting rocks, minerals and fossils, a fact not unconnected with V’s later fate (although we never hear of Mildred again).
The third of the mini-novels—after a short one involving an insane priest who tries to convert rats in the New York sewers into his flock–takes place in Florence in 1899, where V appears once again as Victoria Wren, only now associated with a plot to steal Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus from the Uffizi gallery. But the plot is entangled with the politics of a Venezuelan uprising, during which Victoria listens to the story of a man named Hugh Godolphin—loosely modeled on H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain—who tells her of his journeys to a mysterious land known as Vheissu that vaguely resembles myths of Shambhala, and of his journey to the South Pole where he encountered, frozen in the ice at the pole, an upside down spider monkey (in place of which Dante, the first to travel through the earth’s core, found Satan, hanging like a bat upside down). Godolphin insists to his listener that the spider monkey meant Absolutely Nothing and indeed, mocked all attempts at meaning, a sort of cosmic joke at his expense.
It thus becomes apparent to the reader very early on that the letter “V” is a sliding signifier in Pynchon’s narrative, a signifier which could refer to the various signifieds of Victoria Wren, Vheissu, Venus, Vesuvius or even Venezuela. As Derrida might point out, the letter V is a signifier whose meaning is uncontrolled by any firm anchorage in a Transcendental Signified, and it has therefore come loose, as it were, from any apparatus of semiotic capture and gone sliding across the pages of Pynchon’s book, constantly deferring and differing in its meaning wherever it appears. It has become a mere trace that is left over from the logocentric age in which its meaning would have been fixed and captured in some binary system of metaphysical origin. But Pynchon’s V is an escaped signifier running amok through his narrative.
In the fourth mini-novel, which is set in South Africa in 1922, a story which Stencil recounts to a dentist named Eigenvalue (in the mode of Conrad’s Marlow recounting one of his long tales to a pipe-smoking listener as the evening sun melts into the horizon), V surfaces as one Vera Meroving, a woman with a glass eye that has a tiny clockface painted onto its iris, during a revolt of the Bondel tribesmen against their German oppressors. The episode is somewhat of a replay of an earlier historical episode set in 1904, during which the Germans brutally suppressed a revolt of the Herrero tribesmen in one of their South African colonies, genocidally exterminating most of the tribesmen. Here, the revolt of the Bondel tribesmen fares somewhat better, and the mini-novel’s protagonist, Kurt Mondaugen, an electrical engineer who witnesses the revolt, heads for the hills and disappears at the end.
In the fifth mini-novel, this time set during the bombing raids on the island of Malta during World War II, and known as a diary entitled “The Confessions of Fausto Maijstral,” which Stencil gives (or recounts) to Benny Profane, the woman named V turns up as an even more mysterious personage known only as the Bad Priest. She drifts around Malta giving anti-Catholic sermons to groups of gathered children, who listen to her with bemusement. During a bombing raid, a building collapses upon her, and the children find her there, pinned beneath the rubble: by this point, she has become a veritable cyborg and they make off with her prosthetic feet, her glass eye, the sapphire sewn into her navel, and a set of false teeth in which each tooth is made out of a different precious metal.
She may, or may not have died in this rubble, but Stencil sets off, toward the novel’s conclusion, together with his schlemihl companion Benny Profane, to modern day Malta (in 1956, during yet another historical crisis, in this case that of the Suez crisis) in order to find her. He has managed to convince Profane to steal the set of metallic teeth from the dentist Eigenvalue (who had somehow inherited it), and Stencil intends to give them to her as a present. Of course, when they get to the island, Stencil finds nothing but “traces” left behind by V’s absence and more clues, which send him off on yet another quest for answers, while Profane entangles himself in another pointless love affair.
There are two other mini-novels concerning V—such as one that takes place in Paris in July of 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I, in which she is known as the “Lady V.,” who falls in love with a ballerina—but the key thing about each is that it is set during a moment of historical crisis. Indeed, V has a knack for turning up at just those moments in the history of Western civilization in which collective violence is about to break out.
And she turns up, furthermore, in each of these contexts, as they evolve over time, with more and more of her anatomy having fused with what Pynchon in the novel terms the “Inanimate.” In 1898, it is only her sister Mildred who is concerned with collecting bits of the inanimate in the form of fossils and shells; in 1899 V has an ivory comb in the shape of a line of crucified British soldiers in her hair; and in 1913, she already has the glass eye, as well as a sapphire sewn into her navel; by 1943, she is a cyborg complete with prosthetic appendages, tattoos and various bits of the Inanimate fused with her physical flesh. The mini-novels, in other words, whatever their Truth value—since they come from unreliable sources and narrators—tell the story of V’s descent into mechanization, a descent that most deliberately parallels the West’s descent as a whole into total mechanization and automation throughout the course of the twentieth century. It is, furthermore, not an accident that this increasing technologization of the West occurs in tandem with scenes of historical violence, since Pynchon is implying that the West’s mechanization has only contributed to brutalizing its sensibilities.
On the one hand, the letter V may be a floating signifier in the narrative, where it can signify all sorts of things (its meaning, therefore, cannot be precisely pinned down), but on the other, the woman V herself, as an image, actually is a Transcendental Signified: namely, the Muse of Western Civilization, who has gone by many names.
And one of those names, of course, is the Virgin.
So, one of the things that Pynchon is doing in this novel is what I would term a “recoding” of the goddess of Western Civilization, i.e. the Virgin Mary, into a sort of Muse of the Machine. Henry Adams, in his autobiography (which we know Pynchon read) insisted in “The Dynamo and the Virgin” that the hall of dynamos that he stood in awe before at the Great Exhibition in Chicago of 1893 was a contemporary equivalent of the same power, force and majesty of the cult of the Virgin that, during the Middle Ages, brought all the great cathedrals into being. The electrical dynamo, in other words, had replaced the Virgin as the primary symbol for the age.
Indeed, we can go even further than Adams and say that the Virgin, in essence, was the cathedral, which functioned in those days as a mighty apparatus of semiotic capture: if you cracked open a cathedral, what you found inside were the various components of saints, altars, niches and stained glass windows. If you were to cut open the body of Pynchon’s V, on the other hand, you would find diodes, cathode tubes, transistors and various mechano-electric components. The primary apparatus of semiotic capture for each age, then, has shifted from the Virgin to V, a.k.a. the Mechanical Bride, as McLuhan dubbed her. Pynchon has taken the Virgin as the West’s most important Transcendetal Signified and recoded, or reterritorialized her to become the Mistress of the Inanimate as Machine. Today’s revelation is not the cathedral, but the Machine as a world unto itself.
Indeed, this recoding or reterritorializing of the goddess has taken place before in the history of the West, several times, in fact. In an earlier incarnation, she was known to the Egyptians as Isis, the mother of the young child Horus, whom she kept on her lap exactly as the Virgin is later depicted with the Christ child on her lap (see image below). Indeed, the Byzantines, around the year 600 took Isis with the Horus child directly from the sands and broken temples of Egypt (the temple of Isis at Philae was shut down in 560 A.D. and reconsecrated to the Virgin) to become one of the main iconotypes of Byzantine art, just as that art itself had been a reterritorialization of the Roman art of painting funerary portraits on Egyptian coffins in places like the Faiyum in the fourth and fifth centuries. The anonymous individuals of those funerary portraits gradually became, as Hans Belting in his book Likeness and Presence has described it, the various saints and Biblical figures comprising the matter of Byzantine icon painting.
So, that was the first reterritorialization of the goddess, in which Isis became Mother Mary, the blue of whose robes was associated with the heavenly vault, just as the red in those same robes became the blood of Christ mapped onto the setting sun in that very same heavenly sky.
After the Fourth Crusade of 1204 AD, the West began to import the art of the Byzantine icons in vast profusion. The iconotype of the Virgin with the Christ child on her lap became the main iconotype (or as Derrida would prefer “Transcendental Signified”) of the age. The body of the Virgin was inflated to the size of a Gothic cathedral, inside which Christ on the Cross became an embryo. And just as Christ was imagined as being on the inside of his Mother’s body, so we too, as worshippers, were contained in Her womb.
But the Virgin was recoded once again during the Renaissance of the fifteenth century when, with the discovery of the laws of perspectival space, the tiny, dollhouse miniature world of the previous art went down the drain and took most of the Medieval iconotypes with it. The Virgin, however—together with God Himself—managed to survive into the new age in which the primary Transcendetal Signified became that of Infinite Space. The Virgin was recoded by Leonardo in his 1504 Mona Lisa (Mona is a contraction of “Madonna”) as the Mistress of Infinite Space, for the key thing about Leonardo’s painting isn’t so much the woman in the foreground as the backdrop of Infinite Space behind her that nearly swallows her up. Other painters, such as Isenbrandt in his 1510 (or so) Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (shown below) or Gerard David’s 1515 version of this same theme, soon follow Leonardo by setting the actual Virgin back into a quaint landscape with distant horizons and vanishing points suggestive of the absolute Infinity of Endless Space, the new Signified of the later metaphysical age.
And so, one of the vectors, anyway, of Pynchon’s novel is to chronicle this transformation of Western sensibilities from an orientation to the possibilities of Infinite Space to that of the possibility of Infinite Machines.
But, of course, there still remains that problem in Pynchon’s narrative with Truth. For all of Stencil’s texts and documents which he uses to reconstruct the history of V. are questionable, and seem to contain distortions, exaggerations and rumors. The floating signifier of the V becomes associated in these documents with so many things—places, people, entities—that the reader, after a while, begins to question the very value of what Stencil is up to. Perhaps he is merely paranoid. Perhaps there is no V except only in the mind of Herbert Stencil. We can never know for sure.
This aspect of Pynchon’s narrative is what marks his novel as a thoroughly postmodern one, for the more Stencil examines V through all his collecting and gathering of documents—like Isis trying to find all the pieces of the scattered body of Osiris—the further she recedes from his grasp, and the more doubts the reader has about his quest. But this perfectly parallels Gadamer’s insistence, in his 1960 work of philosophy called Truth and Method, that there is no such thing as the text-in-itself—just as, according to Kant, the thing-in-itself is forever out of our reach because all our knowledge is predetermined in advance by the limitations of the mind’s faculties—for the text, as an objective understanding of its author’s original intentions, cannot ever be fully reconstructed. Historical layers of preconceptions and biases of each age get in the way of reaching any such purely objective understanding, and so all knowledge of the text, for Gadamer, is merely a function of each age’s attempt to understand the text anew. There is no text-in-itself, and so there is no objective Truth.
Gadamer’s conclusions are, of course, a direct application of Heidegger’s revolutionary theory of truth as aletheia, in which truth shifts from a correspondence theory of ideas matching facts, to a matter of degrees of unconcealment of entities in the Clearing. There is no such thing as a merely binary understanding of truth for Heidegger, since every entity that unconceals itself for us in the Clearing—his term for the intellectual space of encounter between entities in a civilization—does so by showing us only partial aspects of itself, while other aspects simultaneously withdraw into concealment. Every question we put to an entity causes certain of its aspects to unconceal themselves to us, but at the same time, also causes other aspects not addressed by those particular questions to fall off the radar, where they remain concealed in the dark matter of Being. (Awaiting, perhaps, the day in which the proper questions will be asked of them that will pull them forth into unconcealment).
This is simply the nature of Truth in the postmodern age. It is an exact equivalent, in philosophy, of the attempt to measure particles in quantum theory. Every measurement, in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, actually disturbs the particle in such a way that it is impossible ever to get a fully “objective” reading of both position and speed of the particle.
And so, Stencil’s attempt, likewise, to unconceal the mystery of V through his various texts and documents causes her to recede and withdraw ever more thoroughly away from his grasp. V thus becomes a symbol for Truth in the post-metaphysical age of Heidegger and Gadamer. She is a Heideggerian entity withdrawing into concealment in the Clearing, precisely in proportion to how many questions Stencil puts to her. The more we ask of her, the less we know.
And this is a phenomenon that recurs throughout all of Pynchon’s texts, a phenomenon we might call “Pynchon’s Paradox.”
Finally, from a media studies viewpoint, let us not forget that the title of Pynchon’s first novel is not “V” but rather “V.” with a period typed after the twenty-second letter of the alphabet. The font and typeface looks exactly like the letter V as typed by a typewriter, a machine that rendered the Gutenbergian printing press portable so that, as McLuhan put it in Understanding Media, the typewriter enabled both composition and publication to take place simultaneously during the writer’s creative process. Thus, the title refers to the fact that it was the Semitic alphabet that made possible the unfolding of letters into moveable type during the fifteenth century when the printing press was invented as a means of mechanizing the composition of books.
But the alphabet, as Vilem Flusser pointed out, (or rather alphabetic writing) was part of a gobbling up of the mythic world of images by their organization into commentaries in rows of lines of one-dimensional text by the Greeks and the Hebrews, who invented alphabetic writing as a means of criticizing and analyzing and breaking mythical images apart into pieces (just as V in Pynchon’s narrative has fallen, like Humpty Dumpty, from the wall and shattered into the various pieces which Stencil is attempting to put back together again). The alphabet was a machine for chewing up images—indeed, the interior row of metal keys of a typewriter resembles nothing so much as a mouth full of teeth—and gave rise to the texts of the scientific age (along with its correspondence theory of truth as adequatio of ideas with things).
But in the post-Gutenbergian (McLuhan), posthistoric (Flusser) world of today, writing and linearity have been scaled down and peripheralized by the rise of electric media such as the television and the computer. The visual sense which printed writing favors in abstraction from all other senses has been stepped down, while the acoustic and tactile senses have been stepped up. Thus, the acceleration into light speed causes a reversal of letters back into the sculptural, tactile and mythic qualities of the iconic.
Pynchon, in his novel V., transforms the 22nd letter of the alphabet into an icon, in a way that is perfectly consistent with his age’s shift into posthistoric imagistic media. V the alphabetic letter has become associated with the ancient mythical signified of the Virgin goddess, and so the letter V can best be visualized as standing in a landscape on a horizon as a gigantic sculpture casting its own shadow on the ground before it. V, in Pynchon’s narrative, that is to say, has taken on the tactile and imagistic qualities of a mythical icon, like a Byzantine Madonna. It is a letter of the alphabet no more.
The letter V is, of course, an archaic Paleolithic inscription for the mons pubis above the goddess’s vaginal cleft (Pynchon registers this symbolism by organizing the chapter synopsis at the top of each chapter heading in the shape of a pubic triangle). It is one of the oldest written symbols in the world (see image below), a hieroglyphic abbreviation for the power of the Great Mother and existed as such long before the Hebrews killed the goddess and turned her symbol into the abstract alphabetic letter called “vav.”
Pynchon reclaims from the Hebrews the ancient iconic symbol of the goddess and so reading his novel becomes tantamount to a journey through the world interior of her anatomy, as though she formed the novel’s apparatus of semiotic capture, just like one of those cathedrals of the Middle Ages. The chapters and mini-novels thus become the various structures of her internal anatomy.
But now the Great Mother returns at the end of the metaphysical age having been recoded within the paternal womb that began with Plato and the Greek and Hebrew gods—from whose heads sprang goddesses like Athena, or Eve from Adam’s rib—as a paternalized signifier whose anatomy has become encrusted with the Platonic Ideas of gadgets and prostheses. It is not quite the Great Mother anymore, for she has had to suffer the indignity of being reterritorialized by the Platonic Ideas of the paternal womb, and now finds herself as a sort of hybrid or synthesis of maternal and paternal components.
The paternal technologies of Father Science—already fathomed by Mary Shelley in her brilliant novel Frankenstein in 1818–have tried to replace her: now we have in vitro fertilization, test tube babies, cloning and GMO foods that have come from the womb of the male mind as technologized attempts to replace the “natural” processes of her great chthonic bounty.
But then, of course, civilization, from the days in which the Sumerians invented irrigation with canals and artificial rivers to supplement the lack of rainfall (from the Mother’s body) on the deserts of the alluvial plain that gave rise to civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with cultural artifice, has always consisted in the construction of technological supplements and substitutes for the mother’s body.
The difference nowadays is only a matter of degree.
We no longer need the Great Mother, for we can now perform her own uteromorphic feats better without her. In the metaphysical age, technology trumps Nature.