The Lost Word: Decadence In The Fiction Of Thomas Pynchon

According to Lionel Trilling, “modern literature … is directed toward moral and spiritual renovation; its subject is damnation and salvation.… It asks us if we are content with ourselves, if we are saved or damned …” (Beyond Culture). The law of the excluded middle, as it applies to the alternatives of damnation or salvation, has not been revoked. Nor are we permitted to be content with ourselves as we read the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. For the vision of Pynchon is one of apocalypse, of decadence, of a streamlined Doomsday Machine tooling, to the accompaniment of a kazoo chorus, down “the street of the twentieth century, at whose far end or turning—we hope—is some sense of home or safety. But no guarantees” (V.).

At age thirty-nine, Thomas Pynchon is perhaps one of the most accomplished American writers of our time. He has published short stories in various magazines, but his reputation rests primarily on his three novels: V. (Lippincott, 1963; winner of the Faulkner First Novel Award), The Crying of Lot 49 (Lippincott, 1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (Viking, 1973; winner of the National Book Award). Immediately obvious to readers is the remarkable breadth and depth of Pynchon’s fiction. He synthesizes philosophy, sociology, science (he was an engineering major at Cornell), popular culture, the humanities, and theology. And his novels are brilliant collages of literary modes and styles, defying classification. One reviewer commented that it is easier to nail down a blob of mercury than to describe a novel by Pynchon.

The three novels have been aptly characterized as an extended meditation on the twentieth century: When, how, and why have we gone wrong? And where, if anywhere, do we go from here? “What next? What apocalypse?” (V.). Central to all the fiction is the theme of decadence, a word that appears repeatedly in V. and is implicit elsewhere. To Pynchon, the word seems to denote six elements that also may constitute stages of decline.

Basic to the concept of decadence in Pynchon is (1) decline, a falling away—from traditional values. “All shared this sensitivity to decadence,” the narrator of V. remarks, “of a slow falling.…” Because it is a falling away from humanity, decadence is (2) dehumanization. “A decadence … is a falling-away from what is human, and the further we fall the less human we become. Because we are less human, we foist off the humanity we have lost on inanimate objects and abstract theories” (V.). (Gravity’s Rainbow deals with the dehumanizing effect of an apotheosized V-2 Rocket.) “To have humanism,” the narrator of V. says, “we must first be convinced of our humanity. As we move further into decadence this becomes more difficult.”

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With dehumanization comes (3) distortion of traditional human values, most notably love and faith. “Don’t ask me if we’re in love,” Benny Profane remarks; “the word doesn’t mean anything” (V.). Pynchon, like Eliot and various other modern writers, seizes upon pervasive sexual derangement as the most dramatic symptom of a lack of spiritual health. F. J. Hoffman has noted in another context that “a failure of love is a failure of belief; the struggle for a meaningful sexual experience is identical with the search for a satisfactory religious experience” (The 20’s: American Writing in the Post War Decade). In a grotesque scene worthy of Bosch or Brueghel, the mysterious “V”—Venus, Virgin, Victoria Wren, Vera Meroving, Veronica Manganese; doyenne of decadents, goddess of the wasteland, Whore of Babylon—masquerades as “Bad Priest,” transvestite, composed of plastics, glass, metal springs, and jewels. Perverted love and faith become “fashionable during a Decadence.”

Pynchon’s vision of decadence also involves (4) disorder and resultant violence, deracination or uprooting of individuals. Among symbols of decline, as Spengler points out in The Decline of the West, the most conspicuous is the notion of entropy, subject of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, according to which mechanical energy can be converted completely into heat but heat cannot be converted completely into mechanical energy. Entropy, a central metaphor in Pynchon’s fiction, is the unavailable heat energy that cannot be put to work. In any closed system—whether engine or man, galaxy or culture—entropy increases and as it does, the system declines toward disorganization and eventual heat-death.

In Pynchon’s story “Entropy” (Kenyon Review, 1960), Callisto finds “in entropy or the measure of disorganization for a closed system an adequate metaphor to apply to certain phenomena in his own world.… He found himself … restating Gibbs’ prediction in social terms, and envisioned a heat-death for his culture in which ideas, like heat-energy, would no longer be transferred since each point in it would ultimately have the same quantity of energy; and intellectual motion would, accordingly, cease” (pp. 283, 284). Accordingly, the final stages of decadence—(5) deterioration, decay, and (6) death, physical demise culminating long-standing death-in-life—are swift. “Decadence, decadence. What is it? Only a clear movement toward death or, preferably, non-humanity” (V.).

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Pynchon’s vision of decadence, anything but simplistic or banal, poses the question of whether the various conditions are attributable to a real system of evil (with, logically, an opposite system of good) or simply to hallucination or paranoia. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon suggests that mankind waits with Oedipa Maas, and her excluded middle, for illumination: “Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth.… Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting of a true paranoia or a real Tristero.” Transcendent meaning or madness? Revelation or apocalyptic annihilation? Salvation or damnation? Apostasy or parousia? “Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end./What is there to be or do?/What’s become of me or you?… /Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end” (William Empson, “Just a Smack at Auden”). The questions are also Pynchon’s. Is it the end (telos, meaningful purpose) of man or the end (termination) of man?

Perhaps the answer, for Pynchon, lies in how one reacts in the face of increasing entropy. According to Norbert Wiener, so long as man can retain his essentially human nature, he can achieve local enclaves of temporary resistance to the increasing entropy—what Wiener calls “homeostasis” (The Human Use of Human Beings). Pynchon seems to exemplify such homeostasis in his description of deaf-mutes dancing—each to a different rhythm but never once colliding, dancing “to some unthinkable order of music, many rhythms, all keys at once, a choreography in which each couple meshed easy, predestined. Something they all heard with an extra sense atrophied in herself” (Lot 49, italics mine). One character labels it “an anarchist miracle,” defined earlier as “another world’s intrusion into this one.” If this be so, the only hope in the face of decadence/entropy is the recognition that this world is not, or need not be, a “closed system,” that there is “transcendent meaning” beyond the natural. Oedipa comes to realize that “there was nobody who could help her. Nobody in the world” (italics mine), a possible implication being that perhaps someone out of the world, someone outside the “closed system,” transcendent, could help.

By implication Pynchon would seem to corroborate C. E. M. Joad’s summary of decadence as “a sign of man’s tendency to misread his position in the universe, to take a view of his status and prospects more exalted than the facts warrant and to conduct his societies and to plan his future on the basis of this misreading. This misreading consists in a failure to acknowledge the non-human elements of value and deity to which the human is subject” (Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry; italics mine). Oedipa Maas seeks to “make up for her having lost the direct epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night” (Lot 49)—so described perhaps because the epileptic reportedly recognizes signals—“an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure.”

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Failure to acknowledge deity and transcendent value—losing the Word, allowing that “extra sense” to atrophy—leads to decadence. The problem of the lost Word, like “the problem of language, began … with the Fall, when words and things were rent apart” (Max Picard, Man and Language). Eliot asked the same questions in “Ash Wednesday”: “If the lost word is lost … / Where shall the word be found, where will the word/Resound?”


D. G. Kehl is professor of English at Arizona State University, Tempe.

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