Thomas Pynchon’s Science

Thomas Pynchon’s Science – a call for a scientific Baedeker, and diverse observations (plus a tangent about Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão and his airship La Passarola).

This is a letter I sent to a reviewer who often writes about books with scientific or technological subjects. It was not for publication and was more in the nature of a suggestion I wanted to make to someone I don’t know personally. For this reason I have removed the person’s name and particular references, and left only my substantive remarks.

I enjoyed your recent article … especially your … summary (of the history of science). As an artist, I like the idea of beauty lighting the way to truth. It may not be a scientifically sound notion, but if it inspires us in science or art it is valuable. It has always been a source of relief to me that art is less rigorous than science – or rigorous in a different way.

What I wanted to suggest, which … came to me while reading the review, was that you write a piece on the scientific issues dealt with in Thomas Pynchon’s work, especially his latest, Against the Day. I am plowing through it now, and though I enjoy it immensely, at times wish I had an informative reference on such scientific ideas such as Quaternionism, Vectorism, ether (not the gas), imaginary numbers, and parallel realities. If not you, someone with a similar grasp of the subject and a similar ability to express things in terms non-scientists can understand. Ideally it should be a scientist, or historian of science, with enough imagination about the subject to grapple with Pynchon on his own terms. I am thinking of an article, but the subject could easily fill a book. I have checked a few things on the web, of course, and could spend days at it, but this seems a subject worthy of serious treament by the right author. (Please excuse my presumption; you may not even like Pynchon.)

Pynchon is unusual in being one of few writers for whom science and technology are important themes, and one who is at the same time very fanciful about their implications, but who could nonetheless never be described as a science fiction writer. I don’t have his technical background, but I tend to believe that his respect for the science is too deep to allow him to misrepresent the science for the sake of his stories. (Not that he doesn’t take liberties.)

For example, I wonder if his often comical representation of scientific society around 1900 is too great a caricature of the reality. (I’m thinking of the theoretical controversies, e.g., about whether the ether exists, and the scientists taking sides.) I wonder also whether some scientists of those times associated their ideas and areas of research – sometimes considered “fringe” science – with any notions of subversion of the established political-economic-technological order (another favorite Pynchon theme). (1)

Pynchon gives us many episodes of the miraculous, the visionary, the physically impossible, the occult. In the context of the books they are convincing, and work very well to get across his vision. But he is no table-rapper or gullible new-age type, and I’m confident he does not believe the vast majority of his extraordinary inventions to be actually possible. (2) Which makes his use of the paranormal all that much more interesting. After all, he is not doing this to merely entertain, as does most popular occult fiction and science fiction. He is doing it to assert something about our lives which is true even if there are no ghosts, time-travel (other than the routine), alternate realities, or colossal adenoids that eat London.

Sincerely yours,

Allen Schill

Torino, June 5th, 2009

Footnotes (not included in letter):

(1) Most of us, without looking too deeply into the matter, think of science as ideologically neutral. We may or may not like certain applications of science or what they imply, but we probably suppose the (pure) science itself to be value-free, and to have little or no relevance outside science. We suppose we are far removed from the days of Galileo and Giordano Bruno, and even from those of Darwin; their ideas and observations were intolerable to many because they challenged religious dogma.

But in fact we are not so far removed at all, as we realize with just a little consideration. The Vatican rehabilitated Galileo only a few years ago – but not Bruno, who was burned alive at the stake for his philosophy. As for Darwin, there are still astonishingly many who, for “reasons” of dogma, refuse to accept evolution as an established fact, or any of its implications, such as the true geological age of the earth. And today we find abundant examples of ideological partisanship associated with scientific research: think of the notion of intelligent design. It’s clear to me that in civilization, religion evolved long before science, and so served a function that eventually was usurped by science. Faith and belief once had a much broader scope. Received religion is fighting a rear-guard action to defend what’s left of its age-old monopoly, not on matters of faith, but on matters of fact.

(2) Take, for example, his mind-bending notion in Against the Day of a device that applies the principle of integration to still photography in order to let us see through the photograph and into time, future and past. As a photograph is a record of an image formed by light in a particular interval of time defined by the opening and closing of a shutter, and thus a sort of derivative, if we start with a photograph and carry out the opposite but complementary operation (do the integral), we have a record of movement through time. Leaving aside (as we must) the technical details of such a device and the eventual logistical problems of its use, it is still a stunning idea. I recall being really charged-up, as a high-school senior taking calculus, by the dual notions of the integral and the derivative. I saw them as tools that enabled a multidimensional appreciation of the phenomena of existence. I‘d be hard put now, 40 years later, to say much more on the subject (or to do an operation in calculus), but I remember very well its effect on me then, and so I can appreciate Pynchon’s invention.

If I may go off on a slight tangent here, let me comment on the use of the device of time travel in narrative art. (I’m thinking mainly of films, and not so much of books, as I have read little science fiction other than a few classics like H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.) It has always bothered me when time travel is used as a narrative device in that usually it gets impossibly complicated and paradoxical. If I try to resolve things logically, I end up with my head spinning with contradictions, even allowing liberally for alternate or parallel universes. Of course I remember that this is only popular entertainment, just a tease, and that I shouldn’t expect much coherence, only that the more banal narrative conventions be observed (e.g., the hero, the girlfriend, the conflict, etc.). The paradox of time travel is usually addressed only superficially, by milking the subject enough to give the viewers the momentary, flattering impression that they are thinking about something Big. (Audio: Twilight Zone theme.) Further complications are too difficult and would only slow down the development of the plot.

For example, in Against the Day, Pynchon carries forward the adventures of Kit Traverse on board the Stupendica, a passenger liner that metamorphoses into an armored battleship, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Maximilian, in some action in the sea opposite Morocco. Or rather one ship undergoes some sort of mitosis or meiosis (or parthenogenesis?) into two. At this time, it seems that we and Kit enter an alternate reality, because after the action the warship is not transformed back into a passenger ship, and there is no longer on board any sign of Kit’s would-be sweetheart Dally and the other passengers. (They are still on the passenger ship, which is now elsewhere.) Eventually Kit escapes from the dreadnought, but it was never clear to me when (or if) Kit returned to, if not a “real” and definitive reality, at least the one he and Dally started out in, and they do get back together. (Kit’s entire career in the book seems to be one nightmare, or at least very weird dream, after another.) This confusion may be the result of my weakness in simply parsing out what I’m reading. (I always had trouble of this sort with Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason and the like, which exist in a strictly rational and Cartesian space-time.) But even if Pynchon is not immune to the difficulties of integrating parallel universes and time-travel into his fiction, the overall effect of the novel is so great that I happily forgive him any of these little problems.

© 2014 Allen Schill. All rights reserved in all countries. No part of this document may be reproduced or used in any form without prior written permission from the author.

P.S. - On a related topic, lately I’ve been reading in José Saramago’s wonderful novel, Baltasar & Blimunda (Memorial do Convento was the original title in Portuguese), set in Portugal of the early 1700s, in which the two protagonists are involved for years assisting Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, a priest, to build a flying machine. Gusmão is a real historical figure, and was involved in the attempt to fly. According to the novel, the apparatus owes more to alchemy than to aerodynamics (magnets, amber, and the power of some 2000 human wills stored in a couple of glass phials), and in real life never would have flown. But Gusmão still made some designs for a hot air balloon or other airships that had some real potential. But he constantly feared the Inquisition, which saw the wish to fly as blasphemy, and flying itself, if it should prove possible, as sorcery.
The topic is related because Gusmão seemed to belong to two worlds, scientifically speaking. One, a medieval world in which alchemists labored with primitive and elaborate notions, often mystical, of the laws of physics and chemistry - motion, attraction, the nature and composition of substances. Another, a slowly emerging world which was starting to have new, better ideas of these laws based on observation.

I couldn’t visualize Gusmão’s ship very well from the novel, and was curious about this figure from the past, so I looked into it. Below is an old engraving that illustrates his invention:

Don’t strain your eyes to read. As well as I can make out the writing, and with my Long Island French, the legend indicates:

A. Sails to sustain the ship. (Voilure pour Soutenir la Barque.)

B. Rudder. (Gouvernail.)

CC. Bellows to substitute when the wind fails. (Soufflets pour suppléer au defaut du Vent.)

D. Wings to steady the ship. (Ailes pour maintenir la Machine.)

EE. Magnet sealed inside two metal globes, which attract the body of the ship, lined with sheets of iron. (Aimant renfermè dans deux Globes de Metal, attirant le Corps de la Barque, double de lames de fer.) (“double” - sic, should be doublé, no? There are a few missing accents aigus here in this 300-year-old French.)

F. Overhead brass wire from which are suspended quantities of pieces of amber that must attract plaited rye straw which carpets the interior of the ship. (Imperial en filet d’Archal a la quelle sont suspendus quantité de morceaux d’Ambre devant attirer une Natte de paille de Seigle qui tapisse l’interieur de la Barque.) (“devant attirer”? For me it’s a mess. But was fun to find “natte”, which I suppose must have something to do with “natty”, as in “natty dreadlocks”, which are braided.)

G. Compass. (Boussole.)

HH. Pulleys to release l’Ecoute of the windward side. (Poulies pour larguer l’Ecoute du coté du Vent.) My best guess for “l’écoute” would be “ear”, an idiom to indicate the enfolding, air-collecting canopy of the sail. Can any French sailors or hang-gliders out there help me?

I. Room for ten voyagers and the pilot-inventor steering his course. (Espace pour dix Voyageurs et le Pilote-Inventeur dirigeant sa route.)

The Smithsonian has a brief entry about this engraving, with a transcription of the legend (but only in French - and there are a two mistakes: “définit” for “defaut”, and “attire” for “attirer”.) Oddly, the description describes it as a design for a “hot air balloon”. However, there is nothing in the design to produce hot air, and much to suggest a very different notion of how to elevate a vessel. Amber? Magnets? Straw mats? Bellows to fill the sails when the wind drops? With the iron plates the thing would have weighed a couple of tons. Talk about a lead balloon.

La Passarola of Saramago’s book is for the most part based on this historical design, but he seems to have added the 2000 human wills, collected from the crowds of Lisbon during an epidemic, and they evidently are what made the difference. In the novel, it flies, and how. (On Saramago’s part, it’s a brilliant and beautiful narrative invention as well. In his novel, it is the priest-inventor who determines the need for the human wills, which I suppose is also Saramago’s invention.)

Below is another of his designs (also called, confusingly, La Passarola), with its pyramid-shaped canopy-sail:

This vessel too is usually described (mystifyingly) as a sort of hot air balloon, though it looks more like a sort of hang-glider, and also doesn’t seem to have any means of producing hot air. It’s obviously much lighter and more aerodynamic than the Passarola, and shows that Gusmão had at least one foot in the modern era. (I’ve also seen an old illustration of some mechanisms he devised for bailing water out of ships, and they look like they might work.) And yet he knew how to make a hot air balloon that worked, and made a small one, as shown in an old painting in which he is demonstrating this invention in the presence of the King and his court. It looks like any hot air balloon you’ve ever seen.

© Copyright Allen Schill

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