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Thomas Pynchon: An American Dante?

Charles Hollander

Transit of Venus: International Pynchon Week

Valetta, Malta, June 2004

Dear Mom, I put a couple of people in Hell today....

Fragment thought to be from the Gospel of Thomas

Gravity's Rainbow, 537.

Table of Contents


Edward Mendelson, in his seminal work, "Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante To Pynchon," points out how both Dante and Pynchon authored works with similar characteristics, what he termed the "encyclopedic narrative," often works that defined their national literatures. He identifies other authors of encyclopedic narratives as Rabelais, Cervantes, Goethe, Melville, and Joyce, implying that Pynchon deserves to be in their company. Monika Fludernik, at the end of her arresting study , "Hänsel und Gretel, and Dante: The Coordinates of Hope in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow," adds: "It will be clear from the above that I emphatically endorse a religious reading of Gravity's Rainbow."

I agree with each of them as far as they go, but I, in my hubris, would ask; "To what end does Pynchon employ the Encyclopedic Narrative form, and the hope of salvation?" Paraphrasing Orwell's title, "Why I Write;" I'd ask: Why does Pynchon write? Why does he write as he does?

I propose a series of hypotheses here and spend the rest of this essay in an attempt to justify my conclusion: from his undergraduate days, Pynchon saw Dante as his literary ancestor. My hypotheses are:

  1. Pynchon comes from a family of sometimes free-thinking Colonial settlers who opted to be on the "loyalist" side of two American Revolutions, those in the 18th and 20th centuries. As an undergraduate at Cornell studying Dante's work with Professor Joseph Mazzeo, Pynchon discovered a parallel between his family's political situation and that of the Florentine Alighieri family.
  2. Graduating high school in 1953, Pynchon came of age at the height of the McCarthy era and later felt the need to write in an encrypted style lest he fall victim to the political blacklists, de facto censorship, and prison terms visited upon some writers of that period.
  3. Following Dante's example, Pynchon developed a personal style for himself in his short stories —a style that often oscillated between high seriousness and farce featuring grotesquerie. That combination allowed him to later develop encoded multiplex condemnations of his family's perceived political and ideological enemies under the cover of lofty religious sentiments and/or black humor. All this was subsumed under the genre of Menippean satire —in Northrop Frye's sense — that appears in pockets within the larger structure of the encyclopedic narrative—in Edward Mendelson's sense).
  4. Though Harold Bloom's model of how the pupil internalizes the methods of the teacher in The Anxiety Of Influence may be seen as outdated Freudian drama (with Freud having fallen into disfavor these last thirty years, so has Bloom's interpretation.), Bloom still has remarkable utility. I'll attempt to show how Pynchon uses Dante, internalizes his methods, and eventually uses variations on them to his own purposes.
  5. Having developed the argument that far, I'll assert that Dante was a great influence, perhaps the greatest influence on Pynchon's writing, providing him with
    — a form: the encyclopedic narrative;
    — a genre; a variant on Menippean Satire;
    — a fascination with the literary grotesquerie, as a means of immortalizing his damnable enemies;
    — and a time honored outlet for his genuine religious impulse (even as if only cover for exposing the high crimes and misdemeanors of his political enemies);
    all this beginning in the short stories, and appearing —to varying degrees— throughout his novels.

Pynchon and Dante: Parallell Backgrounds

Among Pynchon's ancestors were a few influential persons in the colonial period. In the 1600s, William Pynchon established the town of Springfield, Massachusetts with a land grant from the English crown. By the end of the 19th century, there was a Pynchon Bank in Springfield, and by the early 20th century Pynchon & Co. became a very influential stock brokerage house in New York, an apparent satrap of the J.P. Morgan group. The House of Pynchon was forced into bankruptcy after the stock market crash by the Chase Bank (forerunner of the Chase Manhattan Bank), a noted Rockefeller institution. The vying for dominance between the Morgan group and the Rockefeller group was a likely topic of discussion in the Pynchon household. Upon the death of Pynchon pčre, an obituary stressed he was the last living resident of Oyster Bay, N.Y. who remembered the former President, "trust-buster" Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt's daughter taught Pynchon pčre Sunday School in his childhood. His son, Pynchon fils, married Melanie Jackson sometime around 1990. Her mother was Nancy Dabney Roosevelt, granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt. From these facts and inferences I conclude the extended Pynchon family was involved in high levels of high finance during the '20s and was brought low by the doings of their rival group in the '30s. Our author was born in 1937.

This family history finds some parallels with the Alighieri family history in 13th and 14th century Florence. Born into a family of decayed nobility, Dante found himself in the midst of a dispute that began before he was born, in 1265. The Guelphs and Ghibbellines feuded in Florence until the Ghibellines were expelled in 1289, by losing a battle in which Dante fought on the winning side. The Guelphs later broke into two factions, White and Black, and Dante remained loyal to the White. After the decisive victory by the Black Guelphs in 1302, Dante was dispossessed of his wealth, banished, and even sentenced to death in absentia, which meant he could be summarily executed if found in Florence or any of her holdings. So both the Pynchon and the Alighieri families lived during political-economic feuds over which they had no control, but upon which their position and well-being depended. I see another parallel in the deaths of Dante's best friend Guido Cavalcante, and Pynchon's sometime roommate, Richard Farińa, who died at the peak of the '60s "movement" due to an apparent motorcycle accident. Many believed neither death was an accident.

Pynchon's Survival Strategy

Writing a nineteen page introduction to a recent edition of George Orwell's 1984, Pynchon mentions McCarthy in the third paragraph. As Orwell, or Eric Blair, was a British subject, he never ran afoul of McCarthyism, so it seems mentioning McCarthy was more important to Pynchon than Orwell. With Nixon in the House and McCarthy in the Senate (both being fed information by Allen Dulles, soon to be Director of the CIA), there were a series of "purges" of Morgan men from positions of importance in Washington during the late '40s and early '50s, in the name of "Anti-Communism." The most notorious of these was the case against Alger Hiss, who was framed by Whitaker Chambers. The courts later found Hiss innocent on appeal, but not before Hiss lost his State Department job and served a prison term. The implications of this much publicized case were not lost on Pynchon. By the time he wrote "Entropy" (1960) at age 23, he seemed to know his destiny was to become what was then called a "political satirist." He knew for Hollywood writers during the McCarthy era the "wages of satire" were hard. It may have been then that he adopted his reclusive posture toward the media, following the example of fellow Cornellian Vladimir Nabokov, a survival strategy from which he has not wavered.

Anxiety's Influence

Pynchon's mature style descends from a collegiate insight. According to one of Pynchon's professors, Mike Abrams at Cornell [6], Pynchon wrote an undergraduate paper discussing the styles of Voltaire as a farceur, and Samuel Johnson as a moralist. Having analyzed and contrasted their works, Pynchon set about to write stories that alternately employed their techniques in one work. The first successful attempt was "Entropy," alternating farce and moralizing. Over the years Pynchon continued to refine his style. Not coincidentally, both Voltaire and Johnson got themselves in some youthful trouble by satirizing the corrupt and sometimes powerful men of their day, and that wasn't lost on Pynchon. His new style was called "black humor." It was original and much copied by other writers of his generation, and for a while it seemed Pynchon would be pigeonholed as a "black humorist" who derived his style from Voltaire and Johnson. But it was to Dante he was ultimately drawn, and though he sometimes alludes to Orwell and to T.S. Eliot (and a host of others), it is not as literary heir to ancestor. It is to Dante he owes his largest debt.

In "Mortality And Mercy In Vienna", his second published story (1959), Pynchon seems to experiment with how to have characters get their just deserts. Briefly, his cast of somewhat grotesque characters are a collection of, in Dante's sense, the damned. He has a group, his first "Whole Sick Crew," but little overt moralizing. Instead, their accumulated sins read almost like a checklist of the Seven Deadly Sins, and Pynchon writes-in their execution at the hands of a deranged Ojibwa Indian. A bit of Gravity's Rainbow makes explicit what is implicit in "Mortality And Mercy In Vienna." "Dear Mom, I put a couple of people in Hell today."

One of the major figures in Vineland, Brock Vond, bore a striking organizational resemblance to a real historical figure, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Director (at the time of the novel) Louis Giuffrida [7]. (see: Thoreen) At the end of Vineland, Brock Vond has his bones removed from his flesh, and we're left with the image of Vond-Giuffrida's spineless sack of skin and muscles, with a face like a wrinkled, rubber Halloween mask for posterity. This is reminiscent of many scenes in Dante's Inferno [*], where real life personages (mostly Black Guelphs) are found and remembered by the punishment for their sins, like Count Ugolino's gnawing on the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri these past seven hundred years. Vond's fate is but one example of Dante's influence, if one with a particularly Hieronymus Bosch flavor. Throughout his works Pynchon has other Boschian descriptions: Major Marvey's castration, Brigadier Pudding's coprophagia, Esther's nosejob, Slothrop's dive down the toilet. These gruesome episodes follow Dante as his model, but Pynchon isn't always using his literary ancestor in a one-to-one fashion. To demonstrate Pynchon's gradual assimilation of Dante over time, I will rely on the typology of developmental stages Bloom calls the "Six Revisionary Ratios" in his The Anxiety of Influence (2nd Edition, 1997).

Bloom's Six Revisionary Ratios

Bloom believes nearly all "strong poets" go through stages on the way to identifying their literary predecessors and internalizing them so that each can evolve an individuated voice. Bloom follows the Freudian model of the resolution of the father-son Oedipal struggle. Paraphrasing the stages for brevity's sake (Bloom offers a chapter on each), they are [8]:

  1. Clinamen, a cybernetic self-correction, or swerving first toward and then away from the writer one sees as the literary ancestor;
  2. Tessera, or the imbedding of the ancestor's shards (or name, or characters' names, or place names) into the archaeological dig (or text) in such a way as to pay a recognizable token of respect (doffing of the cap) and yet to use these earlier names and tropes in another, newer sense;
  3. Kenosis, a rejection of, or a purposive movement toward discontinuity with, the ancestor to avoid a foolish consistency;
  4. Daemonization, or a movement toward a personalized (usually inverted) Counter-Sublime, in reaction to the ancestor's Sublime;
  5. Askesis, "a movement toward self-purgation which intends the attainment of a state of solitude"; and, finally,
  6. Apophrades, or the return of the literary ancestor (by invitation of the later to the earlier poet) into the new realm where it now seems as if the later poet could have written the precursor's characteristic work.

It is in Bloom's sense, following (if not exactly) his schema —for a foolish consistency is a little bit of a hobgoblin— we can see how Pynchon adopts Dante as his literary ancestor.

Clinamen: Mortality And Mercy In Vienna

In the first line of "Mortality And Mercy In Vienna", Pynchon mentions someone named only Rachel. Rachel Owlglass will become important later, in V., as diminutive mother-figure to The Whole Sick Crew, as Sister Rochelle will be spiritual leader and Head Ninjette at the Kunoichi Retreat, in Vineland. In Dante's scheme, Beatrice sits beside the ancient Rachel in the light of glory. For Dante, Rachel is the Hebrew type (in the sense of Patristic typology) of the virtuous woman, as Beatrice will be the exemplar of the Christian type. Pynchon has already layered pagan, Hebrew, and Christian names and levels of significance in his earlier story, "The Small Rain." In Mortality And Mercy In Vienna" Pynchon mentions hell a number of times in passing; "what the hell," "Hell's kitchen," "where the hell," and "give him hell." Siegel also remembers, "that final trio from Faust, where the golden stairs come down and Margarethe ascends to heaven." Siegel's thoughts are of Heaven and Hell. At different moments in the story Pynchon has Siegel think, "I'll be damned," and "Jesus Christ, here we go again." All of which isn't too overtly Dantesque. But eschatology is just below the surface, and that is the essence of Dante.

Early in "Mortality And Mercy In Vienna" Pynchon has a Lucy narrate the recent history of The Group. She tells of Sybil's sexual betrayals, Paul Brennan's wrath, Harvey Duckworth's mayhem, Paul Brennan's (a two-time loser) false counsel, hers and Sam Fleischmann's false witness, gluttony in the form of alcohol and drug abuse by various members of their circle, and lust by "sex machine" Debby Considine. This catalogue —Pynchon cites Leporello's catalogue aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni to keep us mindful of catalogues— is one that alludes to (if it fails to match) Dante's catalogue of sinners. In the text Pynchon mentions two near-contemporary and highly visible clerics who noteably influenced Dante, Churchmen Albertus Magnus (Saint Albert the Great) and his disciple St. Thomas Acquinas. Finally, near the end of the story, Siegel thinks, "...maybe he should tell all these people to go to hell." He not only thinks it, he does it. By his failing to intervene in the actions of Irving Loon, Pynchon has Siegel put these sinners in Hell.

The Gravity's Rainbow (1973) citation beginning this essay shows Pynchon later became very outspoken about putting people in Hell. This early (1959) short story is one in which the unnamed Dante figures prominently through indicative names (Rachel, Acquinas, Albertus Magnus), catalogue of sins, the juxtaposing of heaven and hell (if in an offhand way), and the impulse to tell people to "go to Hell." Perhaps Pynchon knew he was attracted to Dante as his literary ancestor, but didn't know how to handle it. When he got older this story seemed to make him self-conscious and may have been too revealing of Dante's influence for Pynchon to include it in his anthology of short stories, Slow Learner (1984). This early embracing of Dante and subsequent moving away (I don't think there are any obvious similarities in any of the other short stories.) are Pynchon's Clinamen.

Tessera: V.

Tessera, or imbedding of Dantean names, is found in V. A relatively short while after Mortality And Mercy In Vienna," Pynchon offers us Beatrice the barmaid on page eleven —actually the third page of text of his first novel, V. (1963). This immediate tip of the hat to Dante demonstrates Pynchon now admits and appreciates his debt to Dante. As Dante immediately introduces Virgil as his guide, Pynchon introduces Beatrice as a proxy for Dante. It has become the custom of the owner of The Sailor's Grave (analogue for Dante's underworld), one Beatrice Boffo, to call each of her barmaids "Beatrice"; and, by her example, she gets all her patrons to call her barmaids "Beatrice," making all sailors who enter The Grave analogous to all humans on our collective journey to Beatrice. Cute. Later in V., in an important episode in Florence, having to do with the attempted theft of Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus from the Uffizi Gallery, an assignation begins at the intersection of Via del Purgatorio and Via dell'Inferno. Then and there the narrator muses on,

"the notion of the wraith or spiritual double, happening on rare occasions by multiplication but more often by fission, and the natural corollary which says the son is doppelgänger to the father."

V., p. 199

In the narrative the question is raised of father and son spy team, Hugh and Evan Godolophin; but at the subtextual level it seems to refer to the paternal relationship of Dante to Pynchon. Isn't Pynchon saying he recognizes himself as the heir of Dante? Otherwise, why have that thought in that place in the narrative?

Is this Pynchon's moment of Tessera? Of Tessera Bloom writes:

Tessera, which is completion and antithesis; I take the word not from mosaic-making, where it is still used, but from the ancient mystery cults, where it meant a token of recognition, the fragment say of a small pot which with the other fragments would reconstitute the vessel. A poet antithetically "completes" his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough.

The Anxiety Of Influence (1997, 14)

Pynchon is now ready to admit Dante as his spiritual double and ancestor by inserting Dantesque shards into his text for us to dig out, by castrating Major Marvey (if not having his head gnawed on by some other sinner) and the like. If we fail to see it here, he will make it clearer to us because, "For some people, you can't be too obvious." Toward the end of V., the narrator is listing the various competing political cliques active in Malta at the time, and he breaks down the Mizzists as "comprising three clubs: Giovine Malta, Dante Alighieri, Il Comitato Patriottico..." (V., 472). This is, I think, an admission that recognizes, as Thomas Mann wrote,

"his own life, his productive conduct of a career which after all is often nothing but a reanimation of the hero under very different temporal and personal conditions..."

(Quoted in Bloom, 1997, 54).

In Mortality And Mercy In Vienna he is indirect; we are given Rachel, church fathers, and casual mentions of heaven and hell. In V. he is more direct; we are given Beatrice, Dante Alighieri by name, Via del Purgatorio and Via dell'Inferno. More importantly, he introduces the notion that the "son is Doppelgänger to the father." Pynchon is warming to the mantle of Dante.

Kenosis: The Crying of Lot 49

His Kenosis or going away from Dante might be seen in The Crying Of Lot 49 (1966). I have combed this novel over and over for Dantean clues about retribution, and there are few. Only one passage is paraphrasing Dante. There is one passage that pretty much resembles the "Mystical Vision" Dante has in Canto XXXIII of Paradiso. This is a pretty famous passage, recognizable in an instant to those who have spent time studying Dante. It is:

From that moment my vision was greater than our speech, which fails at such a sight, and memory too fails at such excess, like him that sees in a dream, and after the dream the passion wrought by it remains and the rest returns not to his mind, such am I for my vision almost wholly fades...

(Sinclair, XXXIII)

In Pynchon's hands it is developed to be much less a verbatim translation and speaking of Oedipa, it results in this:

She could, at this stage of things, recognize signals like that, as the epileptic is said to - an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure. Afterward it is only this signal, really dross, this secular announcement, and never what is revealed during the attack, that he remembers. Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back.

The Crying Of Lot 49, 69

Rather, the novel seems a purposive moving away from the literary ancestor by developing a new narrative strategy, one of extreme indirection by allusion. Perhaps Pynchon was moving away from Dante as model for some other reason, like a preoccupation with the recent JFK assassination, as David Seed suggests in his "Media Systems in The Crying Of Lot 49." [9]

Askesis/Daemonization/Apophrades: 1973 and later

In Gravity's Rainbow (1973) we have the beginning stage of Daemonization, or the personalized Counter Sublime, the often inverted version of the ancestor's Sublime (in Bloom's terms), such as Slothrop's trip down the toilet into the sewer system of Boston, as contrasted with Dante's trip up to Heaven. From the little we know of Pynchon's hiatus from writing after Gravity's Rainbow we can safely say that those seventeen years match up with Bloom's Askesis; the author's "movement toward self-purgation which intends the attainment of a state of solitude." By the time Pynchon wrote Vineland he was so self-assured he could return to Dante as his literary ancestor, using his own version of Dante's tropes with such fluidity that it was as if he could have written Dante's characteristic work. And this is what Bloom calls the Apophrades.

When Pynchon wrote Vineland he had internalized Dante well enough to use him for whatever purpose suited him. Dante's penitents must purge themselves of the urge to commit each of the Seven Deadly Sins by meditating on how they had sinned in life as they walk around and around the seven levels of Mount Purgatorio. Pynchon's Thanatoids are the army of the undead, who must purge themselves of the impulse toward vengeance by meditating on how they had been sinned against before they can find their final peace. "Maybe forget, but never forgive," is Pynchon's proverb to suit that situation. What Pynchon terms "karmic adjustment" in the secular here and now seems much like Dante's retributive justice in the afterlife. Most of the Thanatoids have been undone by the government; directly as Weed Atman, or indirectly by unwise policy such as the Vietnamese War.

Another example of daemonization can be seen in the contrast between the manner of Dante's taking us ever downward through Inferno, then upward along the trail to the top of Mount Purgatorio, and still upward into the heavens until we see Beatrice in the sublime Paradiso. Pynchon inverts the ultimate mystery. Instead of using the ludibrium (or Zen koan), the unsolvable holy riddle designed to send us purring into transcendence, to religious rapture -and God!; Pynchon inverts the sacred and profane by using secular mysteries to lead us around, down, and under, to increasingly cramped spaces, paranoid thoughts, and sphincterial shivers, due to creepy matters of the National Security State-our secular Hell!

In one section of Vineland, D.L. Chastain has to rescue Frenesi from a government detention camp. We find D.L. on a road measured by commemorative plaques, one honoring the failed assassin Virgil "Sparky" Ploce; and we recall the shade of the Roman Virgil was Dante's guide through the underworld. As if on cue, D.L. has to descend into "a subterranean complex known as the Office," a secular place with a more than few resemblances, albeit inversions, to Inferno's presence-chamber of Satan.

They were down in the Cold War dream, the voices fading from the radios, the unwatchable events in the sky, the flight, the long descent, the escape to refuge deep in the earth, one hatchway after another, leading to smaller and smaller volumes... And right now, still this side of the Unimagined, also offering deep privacy for whatever those in command might wish to do to people they brought down here.

Vineland, p. 255

At the time of release many reviewers saw these passages as leftist rant of an old, unreconstructed hippie from the '60s. Now, with more information about what has been going on in our prison system, and more documented abuses at the Abu-Ghraib prison by "intelligence" officers, we find, again, this is less a flight of Pynchonean fancy than could be imagined.

Dante permeates Vineland! The Wayvone villa consists of eight levels built into a mountainside, as in Purgatorio where the mountain has seven (for contemplating each of the Deadly Sins) levels toward the eighth, or Edenic paradise, from whence purged souls ascend to heaven. In his inimitable style, linking eight levels to paradise in an offhand fashion, Pynchon describes it thusly:

The house, dating from the 1920s, was in Mediterranean Revival style, presenting to the street a face of single-story modesty while behind it and down the hill for eight levels sprawled a giant villa of smooth white stucco, with round-topped windows and red tile roofs, a belvedere, a couple of verandas, gardens and courtyards, a hillside full of fig and olive trees, apricot, peach, and plum, bougainvillea, mimosa, periwinkle, and, everywhere today, in honor of the bride, pale plantations of jasmine, spilling like bridal lace, which would keep telling nose-tales of paradise all night, long after the last guests had been driven home.

Vineland, p. 92


Back in Vineland, Pynchon offers a short catalogue of sinners (just enough for us to see it is in fact a catalogue) of governmental "independent contractors," a list of "Long Bihn Jail Alumni: old grand-jury semi-pros, collectors of loans and ladies on strings who'd been persuaded to help entrap soon to be ex-customers, snitches with photographic memories, virgins to the act of murder, check bouncers, coke snorters, and ass-grabbers..." He implies another, darker list of those willing to murder, but it's the same impulse, the same alluding to Dante.

Dante's greatness, Harold Bloom avers, lies in his boldness as a poet, in his nearly heretical assertion that through Beatrice -his childhood love and literary creation, and not through the Virgin or Christ himself; therefore through the creator of Beatrice, through him, Dante-lies the path to God ... or Hell. The second coming is at hand; in The Commedia A Day Of Judgment is indeed at hand, and Dante is the rough beast. Woe to those who've wronged him or Florence. Woe! A mind-set analogous to Dante's drives Pynchon. Woe to those who've wronged him, or his clan, or the idealized America of his youth (Vineland, the good), perhaps before he was born, which means to some highly placed figures in the public and private sectors, woe. Woe!

In Gravity's Rainbow he mentions Dante only once, which in Pynchon's works often signifies the highest significance. He writes, "...a touch of Dante. Simple talion," derived from the Latin lex talionis, for retributive justice-an eye for an eye. Pynchon flags Dante in terms of retribution, which isn't too far from plain old getting even.

In Vineland Pynchon writes: "Far above them some planetwide struggle had been going on for years, power accumulating, lives worth less, personnel changing, still governed by the rules of gang war and blood feud, though it had far outgrown them in scale." And: "A camera is a gun. An image taken is a death performed. Images put together are the substructure of an afterlife and a Judgment. We will be architects of a just Hell for the fascist pig."

Pynchon is indebted to Dante for his Encyclopedic Narrative form, his Menippean Satire genre, his use of grotesqueries to punish his ideological enemies, his use of catalogues of sins, punishment to fit the crime, and the rest. This Encyclopedic organizational schema allows Pynchon to utilize his erudition, and the Menippean genre allows him to change from topic to topic as it suits him in the development of the narrative, the use of grotesquerie in describing his thinly veiled enemies, his preoccupation with sin and punishment fitting the crime, all develop from his motivation, which is to get even. I think this is the answer to the question "Why does Pynchon write." And the corollary, "Why does he write as he does."

—Valetta, Malta

Permission to publish

Charles Hollander presented this article at the International Pynchon Conference, Valetta, Malta, June, 2004. He kindly granted permission to have this paper reproduced on this site.