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Pynchon, Satire, and "The Moral Instinct": Globalization Invites Global Satire

Charles Hollander

Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon's Counternarratives

Munich, 10-14 June, 2008

Recent articles about "The Moral Instinct" trigger my opinion that such an instinct would elevate Pynchon among the world's writers. If we humans have a propensity for moral judgment, satire becomes the art form that is its vehicle. And Pynchon, as satirist, becomes a designated watchdog who keeps us in touch with our moral center. A Jedi knight, if you'll allow me. Reviewing Pynchon's fifty-year career, from his juvenilia; through his collegiate short stories; all the way through his mature œuvre, novels, articles, and promotional blurbs; and finally through Against The Day, demonstrates that Pynchon is and has been, from high school on, a moralist and a satirist. And not without some cost to himself. For decades, "Biographical and psychoanalytic critics tend[ed] to account for satire ... as a manifestation of personality disorders, thereby ignoring the art of the text and simultaneously defending the societies and individuals under attack by satire as the unfortunate victims of the anger of maladjusted scribblers." (C&C p4)

Early on Pynchon, the man, was tagged by the media as a writer who fled interviews, a maladjusted neurotic, a recluse, who got off attacking the Establishment with nasty black humor. Pynchon's work fell under similar attack when (for the first and only time) the Pulitzer Prize board reversed the decision of its committee to award the 1974 prize to Pynchon for Gravity's Rainbow (1973), which the board ironically deemed unworthy for similar reasons. Peter Kihss, in The New York Times (8 May 1974, p. 38), wrote the article, "Pulitzer Jurors Dismayed on Pynchon," in which some jurors reportedly "described the book during their debate as ‘unreadable,' ‘turgid,' ‘over-written,' and in some parts ‘obscene.'" [ftnt] Less than a year later, Josephine Hendin, an academic at the New School for Social Research, wrote in Harper's Magazine (1975-03) an article entitled, "What Is Thomas Pynchon Telling Us?" She begins with, "Pynchon is the evil genius of our time..." And ends, after a well-written article that ignores any recognition of allegory, or Menippean satire, or any allusions that might question her conclusion, which is: "He is the Antichrist who offered up his own destructiveness to illuminate yours. Pynchon is the one man who realized that the moralist of our time would have to be the devil." [ftnt] It's ironic that the media, at least one academic, and to a greater extent, the Pulitzer Prize people, would use the tactics of satire (denunciation, hyperbole, ridicule) to discredit the satirist. By using this irony, this reversal, the Pulitzer Prize refusal anointed Pynchon as the era's most effective satirist.

While scouring the second-hand bookstores of my town, I found a mixed bag of titles on satire. Leonard Feinberg's The Satirist (ftnt), is of interest because it attempts, in part, to decipher the temperament and motivation of the author, leaving the impression that satirists write as a neurotic bid for immortality, and out of "some moral sense." Matthew Hodgart's Satire (ftnt), is an historical attempt to trace the origins and developments of the genre from the Greeks and Romans on; a handy volume, a description of the usual suspects. The next two are nearly all about English language authors: Ronald Paulson's collection, Satire: Modern Essays in Criticism, is an excellent survey of critics writing from 1912 to 1968, with many familiar contributors (ftnt). And the most recent anthology I could find, Theorizing Satire (ftnt), a fine collection of essays (edited by Connery and Combe), first cites Northrop Frye in the second paragraph of the introduction. In itself, the introductory essay is a terrific review of "satire studies" from 1586-1994. The remaining essays are of an equally high order.

Despite the Pulitzers and their prize-winning decision, Pynchon is the satirist of our generation. It's highly likely Pynchon read Frye as an undergraduate because: his works seem to follow the model of Menippean satire as Frye outlines it; and one of his favorite Cornell teachers, Prof. M.H. "Mike" Abrams, was an outspoken champion of Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (ftnt). In the alphabetized index of A.C. Hamilton's Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism (ftnt), Abrams heads the list with eleven entries, and he is quoted in the preface, saying; "Frye has proven himself to be the most innovative, learned, and important literary theorist of my generation." (Ham. Ftnt).

Moreover C& C point out, in Frye's terse definition of satire, Frye "demands a fiction [or a narrative] as drapery over the moral standard that acts as the framework for the satire. Fantasy, humor, and attack appear to be the primary factors in subsequent definitions." (C&C p8) When I use the terms "Menippean," "satire," or "satirist" with reference to Pynchon, I mean them in the sense that Frye used them in his Anatomy. (Frye ftnt)

None of the above books or essays entertains the possibility of a "universal moral instinct," a new concept that is just now the rage in neurobiology, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and legal studies; a topic that will likely provoke debate through the next generation of satire studies. In the 9 May 2008 issue of Science (Vol. 320, p. 735), an article surveys the recent multi-disciplinary literature on the subject. In it is a carefully worded observation that the various disciplines involved might be drifting toward a consensus. With data from over 200,000 persons from 120 countries, "it's looking like there's a lot of similarity across widely different cultures." I find the concept of a "universal moral instinct" valuable even if it is merely an hypothesis.

If there is a "moral instinct," satirists may merely possess a keener sensitivity, a shorter fuse, than most to folly, injustice, or malfeasance in office. This view might disarm the notion that satirists are necessarily neurotics motivated by the splenetic's need to vent, which would make satire an extra-literary symptom at best, and at worst a sub-literary genre, like artless pornography. Either way, writing satire has always been somewhat dangerous.  The use "in speaking or writing, of sarcasm, irony, ridicule etc., in denouncing, exposing, or deriding vice, folly, abuses or evils of any kind" (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) implies a potentially vengeful group or person that is the target.

That target may be a whole socio-economic class as in satires of manners (social) and morals (sexual), or – in political satire – a political regime, an administration, or even the head-of-state.  Attacking such highly ranked targets has resulted in litigation, prison terms, even beatings and death, inviting the maxim; "The wages of satire are hard."  Such retribution must have appeared a very real danger to young Pynchon, who grew up during the McCarthy purges in America. I have tried to explain this in more detail in my previous work, and there have been a number of journal articles (about 24), and PhD dissertations (eight), that particularly address Pynchon's use of satire as well. [For this search, I thank Michel Ryckx, the indefatigable Master of the Vheissu] One fact stands out: No one gets rich writing political satire.

Pynchon has been written about in various languages for international journals. His work has been translated into different languages, together into twenty-seven in all (and counting). The dramatic action of Against The Day takes place in numerous countries around the world, and at various moments of history.  These phenomena demonstrate Pynchon has transcended the space/time continuum of the contemporary United States. I don't know of any other contemporary writer who gathers such attention. This colloquium has drawn people from 43 countries, speaking 15 different languages, to spend four days reading papers on Pynchon. Perhaps only Shakespeare has more literary "star-power." Pynchon has become a World Figure.

And Why? Pynchon's concern with the difficulties of American society's relationship of State and individual, a recurrent theme in his work, seems to anticipate a common path likely to be followed by scholars whose countries are becoming more and more sophisticated in methods of social control. Scholars in those countries seem to find Pynchon's oeuvre most interesting. In this light, as technology will likely have an increased presence for the world's children and grandchildren, it is also likely Pynchon's international popularity will increase.

For example, more and more regimes (or nation-states) are using technology to keep track of their own "citizens of concern." These regimes are also using many devices Pynchon alerts us to in his novels: surveillance, personal and electronic; telephone tapping; email, passport, and surface mail monitoring; observations collected into dossiers, available via a few computer keystrokes to certain state operatives. Such instruments of social control became overt in his writing as the underground mail system, W.A.S.T.E., in The Crying of Lot 49; the corrupt "war on drugs," in Vineland; etc. In Against The Day, the local interventions, by which the Chums are sometimes able to redress the grievances of the oppressed, stress the global situation in which we all find ourselves.

Pynchon, as satirist, feels free to "attack" anywhere on the planet, in any era, where the State is now (or ever has been) abusing its powers. He sees this tension between the few and the many, the rulers and the ruled, as an archetypical situation of history. Pynchon has The Chums travel through time to accomplish Karmic readjustments, and this time-travel meets Frye's "fantasy" requirement (Frye, p 223 & ff). The child Jesse Traverse expresses his perception about the lot of miners near the end of Against The Day [ftnt]. When asked to write an essay on "What It Means To Be An American," young Jesse writes; "It means do what they tell you and take what they give you and don't go on strike or their soldiers will shoot you down." This character speaks for Pynchon, fulfilling Frye's requirement for "wit or humor" (Frye ftnt) and establishing the higher moral ground for the narrator, as well.

Because various nations are recapitulating the state/individual situation Pynchon wrote of earlier in his career, his early works seem to be speaking to those countries, now. Pynchon has made of himself a satirist of universal (global and timeless) proportions. Miles Blundell speaks for him when Miles opines he sees humanity as it might appear "to some [superhuman] Being... [that had arrived in] a curious vessel ... that appeared to have neither sails, masts, nor oars,  ... [a Being that might have taken]a false turn along the Pilgrimage he knew, by then, that he was on." ... "It [the Being] wanted us to know that we [The Chums], too, are on a Pilgrimage."

The grammatical vagueness in this passage implies Miles Blundell means himself and The Chums when he says "we": but "we" also stands for Pynchon (the writer), and us (his readers); and, by extension, all people world-wide. Human existence is a Pilgrimage. And we Pilgrims have been buying into various cultures' explanations of an"afterlife" "to save us from the blinding terror of having to make the real journey, from one episode to the next of the last day of Christ on Earth, and at last to the real, unbearable Jerusalem." This is Miles Blundell/Pynchon's way of telling us we are all in the human situation together (AtD, p. 250-251), and each individual is likely to face an unbearable death, and knows it. This is a universal characteristic of human nature, being able to anticipate our individual ends. What else defines our human nature?

Steven Pinker, a former student of Noam Chomsky's at MIT, has written a strongly convincing book, The Language Instinct (Harper Perennial), originally published in 1994, which seems to have survived the test of time. His methodology and interpretation of others' methods forward the claim that certain (M.R.I.) observable centers in the brain become active while processing language, even "seem designed" to process language. The Darwinian inference is: Those of our ancestors whose lines didn't survive failed to have the genes that accounted for a "speech center" in the brain. Language is a facility that helped us survive, a developmental facility especially active in early childhood, that helps define our humanity and (being passed on in the genes) defines our brain structures.  In language, the evolutionary process may have developed a function as important as seeing or hearing. And we might conclude, the language instinct is another characteristic of our collective human nature.

More to the point, recently Pinker also wrote, "Evolution has endowed us with ethical impulses." In his article, "The Moral Instinct," (The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 13, 2008, p. 32) he pursues this line. Taken at face value this article is, if brief, a provocative work; just Google "Steven Pinker, Moral Instinct" to see how much commentary this "Manifesto" (really, an hypothesis) has generated. Here's a small sample of the text.

"Today, a new field is using illusions to unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense. Moral intuitions are being drawn out of people in the lab, on Web sites and in brain scanners, and are being explained with tools from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. ... The human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations."

"... According to Noam Chomsky, we are born with a ‘universal grammar' that forces us to analyze speech in terms of its grammatical structure, with no conscious awareness of the rules in play. By analogy, we are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness" [of the rules in play].

"The idea that the moral sense is an innate part of human nature is not far-fetched. A list of human universals collected by the anthropologist Donald E. Brown includes many moral concepts and emotions, including a distinction between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; admiration of generosity; rights and obligations; proscription of murder, rape and other forms of violence; redress of wrongs; sanctions for wrongs against the community; shame; and taboos." (Ftnt)

This way of looking at the moral impulse sees it in activity that lights up (upon M.R.I. imaging) certain physical portions of the brain when moral thinking is going on. If these brain functions are indicative of certain genetically transmitted cortical structures, we might say the moral impulse is an "instinct" common to humans, that makes us sensitive to the kind of things Brown lists above. It may explain why, in hard times, we don't just eat our young as some other creatures are reported to do, and Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal (ftnt) suggests. We don't cannibalize our children, even in famines, because of the moral instinct to "protect the helpless" of our species.

This line of reasoning, the universality of "the moral instinct," eventually brings us back to satire. It used to be assumed for satire to work, the author and the audience/readership had to share a learned moral horizon which was culturally determined. That might have been true in Oscar Wilde's time, where great attention was paid to solecisms that amounted to having a floral arrangement improperly positioned, or to having selected specific flowers that sent an inappropriate message in the "language of the flowers." Satire was most often seen as limited to morals and manners, hence to the time and place of that culture; in Wilde's time, Edwardian England. But, if our moral sense is part of a "universal moral sense"; then, as Dante provided a moral code for all of Europe in the fourteenth century, Pynchon may help provide a moral code for (what Marshall McLuhan calls) The Global Village, in the twenty-first century.

To hold a World Figure, say, a President of the United States of America, accountable, for what 81% of one recent poll believes is taking the country "in the wrong direction"; for a combination of vices that are universally seen as "wrong" (such as alleged lying? cronyism? war-time profiteering? election tampering? torturing? damaging the nation's international relationships? unconstitutionally expanding the powers of the presidency), and to hold this "folly and abuse of office" up for ridicule and other insults, is the defining activity of the satirist. The satirist, by mocking the faulty rhetoric of carefully spun official press releases, by re-classifying the behaviors of the office holder into universally held "wrongs," can be seen as seeking redress of Brown's "wrongs against the community" which now comprises the global village.

The least the satirist can do is heap shame upon the administration. Without directly naming names, as Pynchon seldom does, early in Against The Day (p. 5), Pynchon flips his first dart by merely mentioning The Chums' Washington D.C. adventure book, The Chums of Chance Meet The Evil Half-Wit. Artfully using synecdoche, (that figure of speech whereby the part is understood to represent the whole, or vice-versa), Pynchon means for us to understand, D.C. is the seat of government, and the "Evil Half-Wit" would be the head-of-state. This fulfills Frye's requirement for "attack."

What makes this bit of satire operational is not that all readers of Against The Day are New Yorkers, Cornell graduates who share with Pynchon a provincial, outdated, hippy moral outlook; but rather (following Pinker's hypothesis), that hypothetically we all may be members of a species that shares a particular moral instinct: a world-wide,genetically-based, brain-function-utilizing, moral instinct that condemns injustice, particularly injustice cloaked as mere folly. Pynchon seems to have incorporated intuitively the universal moral landscape that Donald E. Brown writes of, long ago choosing to write in the "great satiric tradition," employing the tropes Northrop Frye catalogues as characteristic of Menippean Satire; combined with Dantesque structural elements, degrees of sin and guilt, set in more or less modern times.

I've tried to connect Pynchon's works with the moral impulse, and show how the common moral horizon of the old city-state is what we might have expected if earlier we'd had the concept of the "universal moral instinct." I've tried to enlist this concept to elevate Pynchon's stature in the literary world, and to show how he may yet become acknowledged as the first satirist of the globalized era, our Dante.

Finally, I believe Pynchon views the artist as an active citizen, (in Douglas Lannark's words) "part of the backstop" (the netting that hangs between home plate and the spectators), to protect the populus from the foul balls of history. Due to the availability of inexpensive travel and instantaneous satellite communications, the city-state of the past has expanded to contain the whole planet. As satirist in this most highly literate time, the writer has a chance to shape opinion, to influence events, to safeguard us all from the wild pitches and foul tips of The State. Pynchon, is one of the few writers who stands tall enough for the job.

Munich, June 2008.

Permission to publish

Charles Hollander kindly gave permission to publish this conference paper on this site, while we were having a nice conversation in our hotel room until 2 in the morning... It was June, 11th, 2008.