Pedro Dolabela Chagas

Inhuman Minds and Human Machines: Nature and Daily Life in
Thomas Pynchon’s Novels

In 1973, the American novelist Thomas Pynchon published Gravity’s Rainbow, his lifetime classic. The action follows the end of World War II and its aftermath, even though its overarching theme comprehends the whole of Modern History, depicted as European and (more recently) American History: the history of the expansion of Western scientific, philosophical, industrial, and political domination around the globe.

In the following, I will depart from the intertwining I see in Gravity’s Rainbow between the ideas of the “inhuman” (which evokes a moral tone) and that of the divide between Man and Nature. In Gravity’s Rainbow Man is indelibly separated from Nature, in a divorce that assumes two forms. Epistemologically, being mind-domineered, Man is condemned to interpret his surrounding world, therefore estranging himself from it as he imposes his own order upon it (we will see how that functions). On a sidetrack, as Western history unveils its most destructive side, Man is morally estranged from Nature: as destruction is economically and technologically-driven, and since neither economy nor technology can legitimize themselves under such guise (they will hide their true calling by calling themselves “progress”), what is usually seen as “development” is shown, in Gravity’s Rainbow, as nothing less than Man’s blind manipulation… by Death—one which causes Man to work for earthly destruction without ever even realizing it. This epistemological and moral blindness will bear consequences upon daily life—for how can there be any morally legitimate mode of life under such conditions?

As we will see, there is no optimistic solution on sight. Eventually, Pynchon’s lack of hope will make me consider whether his divide between human and inhuman was not exceedingly tragic. This will lead me to discuss whether the Brazilian novelist Milton Hatoum’s depiction of the body does not dislodge the centrality of the mind still present in his fiction, being directly responsible for its sense of despair.

The reader of Gravity’s Rainbow realizes at some point that the novel’s fictional universe is commanded by a metaphysical force identified with the figure of Death. In its demoniac function, Death strives to destroy Nature, for which it uses humans as its instruments. This means that Man’s anxiety to control is actually Death’s manipulation: his so-called ambition is nothing more than Death’s programmatic extension of its dominion.

The age-old theme of the divide between Man and Nature thus acquires a very negative tone: through his power of invention (which could grant him a status as big as Nature’s), Man is shown not as a master, but as a servant—an inverted slave of destruction. Thence the theme’s moral bias: financial and political greed, futility and waste are not unwanted by-products of otherwise legitimate patterns of action, but only the more evident manifestations of some ontological guilt. Estrangement from Nature that turns Man into a guilty slave: being a slave does not make one less guilty, especially when not everybody engages in programmatic destruction. But this latter fact does not guarantee anyone any kind of reconciliation, because even those who resist their quasi-compulsory engagement in evil will find themselves condemned to perpetuating it forever. People can only refuse to take part in destruction after realizing that there is something wrong in their daily reality, which demands understanding things on a different and better level, that is, demands interpretation—at which point we find out that in Gravity’s Rainbow interpretation, too, estranges Man from his (human and natural) environment, reinforcing the estrangement that was, after all, the original cause of all evil… The argument comes to a full circle: Man perpetuates his alienation either by working or by interpreting, either by acting or by thinking—either as a “body” or as a “mind.”

In Gravity’s Rainbow “minds” are in heavy trouble. Interpretation is in a predicament, since the world’s ultimate meaning simply eludes human understanding. The action begins in London by the time the V-2 rockets have begun to fall, and finds an end in Germany some time after the Japanese surrender. When horror becomes part of routine, no meaning can explain events logically while at the same time justifying them morally. The novel depicts global reality as being geared by many autonomous private and public institutions greedy for self-satisfaction. And as they excel in adapting themselves to ongoing situations they eventually become dependant on the war, which by 1944 had become a self-fulfilling reality—raising the question as to how they would move on after it was over… In other words, what would life be when there was no more war for them to live off? How would the military-scientific-industrial apparatus that had engineered the war adapt itself to peace and civil command? As the novels ends, it becomes clear that the postwar world would be militarily, scientifically, and industrially administered—where Pynchon projects onto World War II’s immediate aftermath the symbiosis between executive politics, the armed forces, scientific research, and industrial development that he saw commanding the United States of the Vietnam era.

That is a world whose logical explanation and moral justification were not easily at hand, and this is where interpretation comes in. Of course many agents of Death—especially their chief agents—will never worry about justifying anything: they will simply do whatever they please. But what happens in the outer circles? What about those who feel uncomfortable, disturbed, guilty or even paralyzed by it? How can they manage to justify or explain the reality they live in, and perhaps find their way out of the oppression? Basically, they can interpret. However—and this is an important point—since Death is the ultimate force to command reality, but given that (as a metaphysical entity) it is invisible, unreachable, and unknowable, all interpretation based on observable reality will be fictional, that is, the mere emanation of one’s own personal anxieties, terrors, and pains. Therefore interpretation calms people down only by producing an illusion, which means to say: only by estranging them from reality and keeping truth at bay. Horror becomes tolerable only through the permanent movement of attribution of meanings to actions, things and events, meanings that pacify people without ever doing justice to their objects of motivation—which might actually turn out to have no meaning at all…

Take the example of Enzian. He is the leader of the Schwarzkommando, a Nazi unit composed of African soldiers from the former German possession of Namibia. If the idea of a Nazi black unit is typical of Pynchon’s sense of humor, what interests us here is the difficulty the Namibians Herero have in applying their old tribal myths to their new surroundings. Enzian is obsessed with grabbing the meaning of their military experience in Germany—which will eventually lead him into providing it with meaning as he re-elaborates the Herero myths into a new mythology, holding technology as its metaphysics and the V-2 rocket as its main Deity. As he learns to associate love to military might, he posits:

Love, among these men, once past the simple feel and orgasming of it, had to do with masculine technologies, with contracts, with winning and losing. Demanded, in his own case, that he enter the service of the Rocket. […] Beyond simple steel erection, the Rocket was an entire system won, away from the feminine darkness, held against the entropies of lovable but scatterbrained Mother Nature.[1]

Turned into a myth, a Western war and a Western corporate ethos are finally interpreted—and then “explained.”

In another example, in a passage situated in the seventeenth century, a character named Frans van der Groov, a Dutch colonizer on the island of Mauritius, feels the need to justify their massacre of the dodo birds. He needs to explain to himself why he had

lost thirteen years toting his haakbus through the ebony forests, wandering the swamps and lava flows, systematically killing off the native dodoes for reasons he could not explain. The Dutch pigs took care of eggs and younger birds. Frans carefully Drew beads on the parents at 10 or 20 meters, the piece propped on its hook, slowing squeezing at the trigger, eye focused on the molting ugliness. […] And the stupid, awkward bird, never intended to fly or run at any speed—what were they good for?[2]

It seems that killing dodoes had indeed been a good pastime, but at a certain point it becomes disturbing—as a justification, Frans comes out with this:

Perhaps a more comely beak, fuller feathering, a capacity for flight, however brief… details of Design. Or, had we but found savages on this island, the bird’s appearance might have then seemed to us no stranger than that of the wild turkey of North America. Alas, their tragedy is to be the dominant form of Life on Mauritius, but incapable of speech.[3]

The horror about such explanations is that they can be satisfying enough to set matters at ease. Interpretations can pacify as they allow one to manage outer reality (an outer reality that includes not only Nature, but also man-made reality and the subject’s own deeds). As a mental construction, interpretation can dehumanize the natural, human, and historic worlds by forcing them or making them fit into rational schemas. If the term “inhuman minds” appears in the title of this paper, it is because in Gravity’s Rainbow the mental operation of interpretation, in its often spontaneous strategy of meaning-attribution, works as a means to objectify reality, thus bearing paradoxically humanizing and inhumanizing consequences—both of which will prove to be morally bad. Interpretation surely becomes morally inhuman whenever objectification covers up truth, but it is also (in a Nietzschean sense) psychologically and epistemologically all-too-human whenever it fosters Man’s compulsion to give reality his own shape either to master it or to defend himself against it. Interpretation has a two-fold character: epistemologically, as it molds up reality it estranges Man from the surrounding world; through the same process, as it serves to justify negative deeds it presents a morally negative tone. In their worse achievements, men are “human machines” in Death’s service; in their daily lives, they are “interpreting machines” in search of the meanings that might allow them to feel comfortable in the world they care so much to destroy. As we see, this is not an optimistic scenario.

But in Gravity’s Rainbow we also find characters working, dwelling, falling in love, in routines full of expectations, hopes, claims, anxieties… We see such a thing as normality after all, embedded (as it is always the case) in memories of the past and anticipations of the future. This means that all his pessimism was not enough to make Pynchon erase the possibility of people moving on somehow. But still the question remains: what normality can flourish in a war-like world? If Death hides itself behind human deeds and if interpretation is either foolish or morally suspicious, how can normality be cognitively lucid and morally positive at the same time?

In other words: would it be possible for us to be less human, less rational and interventional, and so re-establish some direct interchange with Nature and our surroundings—as perhaps we did in the Garden of Eden? On the moral side, could we be more human, and not objectify and dehumanize the world—as perhaps we did not do before the advent of civilization? Or is it the case that these demands are too severe? For it might well be that Pynchon’s pessimism comes from conditions that are too ideal, too stark distinctions between Nature and Culture, Men and artifacts, spontaneous and rational patterns of action, distinctions which leave us no elbow room, forcing the choice between radical change or utter decay. For if we cannot stop being ourselves, what politically legitimate lives are still left for us?

Well, there is the case of Geli Tripping. When she decides to bring her lover back to her she makes a hex, for which she amasses

a few of [his] toenail clippings, a graying hair, a piece of bedsheet with a trace of his sperm, all tied in a white silk kerchief, next to a bit of Adam and Eve root and a loaf of bread baked from wheat she has rolled naked in and ground against the sun.[4]

Geli is a witch, and so she can be Nature: she can make things happen—she can produce reality—according to her own design. But this is exactly why she cannot serve as a model: she is too exceptional. Like many nineteenth century novels, Gravity’s Rainbow strives to equate from the world’s ethical conflicts some patterns of conduct that could be deemed universally positive, as a way (as Wolfgang Iser) to counterbalance the world’s overall deficit of meaning—with the difference that now, in the late twentieth century, such models are nowhere to be found…

If Geli is too special or extraordinary to fit such role, then there are also the people, the “common people” who pinpoint the narrative in its background. They are “naïve" but also “spontaneous,” “authentic,” “honest.” This means that they do provide an answer to the question as to how normality can be morally positive: by never being cognitively lucid. Because the “people” can, indeed, lead happy and morally positive lives, but only as long as they remain ignorant of anything that exceeds their immediate scope. Echoing an old topos, to lead a happy ordinary life and to achieve daily satisfaction come at the cost of political ignorance: how can that serve as a model?

In V., Pynchon’s first novel, the same themes and ethical entanglements appear. The novel is full of references to the possibility of technical change of the body (motivated either by physical damage or pure vanity), as well as to the old literary topos of technology escaping from Man’s control to become a self-feeding destructive power. The Human destructive machine receives a physical metaphor, while the Human interpretive machine is given two archetypical characters. The physical metaphor for inhumanity is incarnated in V., the mysterious woman that gives the novel its title. As she performs the neutral and demoniac role of making evil happen (once again without making herself visible), she grows up with the century. Following European most tragic and barbaric events from the colonial nineteenth century to World War II, being always there whenever evil shows its face, actively dehumanizing anything or anyone she laid her fingers on, V. progressively becomes a machine, her once natural body being almost thoroughly replaced by prostheses and artificial organs. She finally dies by dismantling: as some kids take her for a gadget among many others within the ruins of the bombarded city of La Valetta, Malta, they start to move her plastic and mechanical pieces apart—until she is no more. In V., showing technology as a dehumanizing threat serves as a bleak metaphor of modern history.

Walking parallel to this allegory of modern history as modern inhumanity, the novel illustrates two versions of the interpretive machine operating in daily life. On the one hand, there is Herbert Stencil and his search, his horror vacui that leads him to compulsively projecting patterns upon things. On a radically opposite path, Benny Profane “lets go with the flow.” As he delivers himself to whatever comes to happen, Profane never attaches himself to anything: he is never compromised, never involved, always unable to see meaning anywhere—which eventually makes him inactive. So in V., the mega destruction-engine is mostly accompanied, in daily life, either by resignation or by a compulsive (and meaningless) pattern-search.

Gravity’s Rainbow complexifies this choice. Roger Mexico, for example, one of the novel’s great pattern-searchers, is capable, as a statistician, of dealing with events that are unmotivated—that are random and meaningless, despite being repetitive. A pattern searcher, Mexico is by no means an interpreter: since random events are not motivated by any “deep” or “superior” cause, as a scientist he does not need to see through the data in order to understand it: it is what it is. This non-tragic conceptual acceptation of randomness, however, leads to tragic personal consequences: as he is not a meaning-hunter, as he does not impose causes and reasons to things, he becomes almost incapable of regular communication.

Still, it is from characters like him that positive patterns of action appear. He is suspicious of interpretations—and so he interprets them. Pushed into loneliness, his isolation eventually provokes him into suspecting other people’s motivations and plots—so that he is able to react to them. Besides V.’s dichotomy between compulsion and resignation, now stubbornness, intransigence, and resistance find room as possible positive practices: in self-reflexive loops, all of them reflect one’s capacity to interpret first-order interpretation as stupidity or dishonesty. Even if it is impossible for a side-participant of the game to overcome his or her own lack of lucidity, every minimal suspicion leads to personal isolation, which in turns leads to finally realizing that they can either remain trapped forever or perhaps run free… This is the point when interpretation is used against the status quo—but with what effectiveness, exactly?

This question imposes an analytical distinction between the macro and the micro-scales. As in V., no major structures can really be changed. In its incapacity to fully understand their enemy, anti-systemic collective resistance tends to be naïve: Full of intensity but lacking strategy, it tends to be too festive to make a serious opponent. Also, compromise is a major problem. No counterforce can be strong enough to make an impact because no compromise can be strong enough to counteract its own tendency to disintegrate, to be corrupted or—which is even worse—to rigidify into hierarchy and dogma. Just as energy runs down entropically, compromise and commitment freeze an initial momentous outbreak or momentary personal relations into permanent life forms, making them routinized. This is why in Gravity’s Rainbow all political movements are eventually co-opted, and this is also why only individual resistance can be inherently strong. If your inner motivations have to rely on mutual agreement, they are not yours anymore but the property of a group, whose demands of security and consensus are themselves (independently of anything external) a form of co-opting. But even Pynchon’s narrow openings for individual resistance as a tentatively positive political path do not grant it any kind of macroscopic effectiveness: quite to the contrary, being macroscopically hopeless, it is only—but nevertheless—microscopically positive.

In love as in politics, in Gravity’s Rainbow even love relations should not crystallize in compromise, under the risk of submitting the present to an prescribed idea of future. Instead of “love” (which is too full of contract, that is, too connected to the future through some kind of compromise), camaraderie and trust appear as possible positive forms of attachment. Devoid of future planning, time and law do not interpose themselves in-between the affective exchange they establish. Again the same idea applies: limited as a long-term prospect, camaraderie, in its immediate affective power, is nonetheless positive—and once again positive action and behavior is circumscribed to the individual.

But still these possibilities do not erase Man’s finitude, originally founded upon his estrangement from Nature and the outside world. We can only be thorough again if we become one with Nature, but unless we are witches like Geli one can only do so by dissolving oneself completely in it—as when Slothrop, the novel’s main character (and a paranoiac pattern-searcher) finally lets himself vanish, finally (and literally) disintegrating himself. Once he was a full-time interpreting machine, during the times of the Great Depression:

He used to pick and shovel at the spring roads of Berkshire […], picking up rusted beer cans, rubbers yellow with preterite seed, Kleenex wadded to brain shapes hiding preterite snot, preterite tears, newspapers, broken glass, pieces of automobile, days when in superstition and fright he could make it all fit, seeing clearly in each an entry in a record, a history: his own, his winter’s, his country’s…[5]

Now, at the end of the novel he is able to stop interpreting, to stop “humanizing” the world—but only by stopping to think, by stopping to be as he dissolves himself in the landscape of a pre-Modern German town:

At last, lying one afternoon spread-eagled at his ease in the sun, at the edge of one of the ancient Plague towns he becomes a cross himself, a crossroads, a living intersection where the judges have come to set up a gibbet for a common criminal who is to be hanged at noon.[6]

Only as he loses his bodily and cognitive “humanness” does he recover his “natural” one—to never again have any possibility of interpersonal contact, of normalized social life, of “human” life indeed.

It is a tragic abyss, then, one that leaves little room for hope. Perhaps the interest in reading Gravity’s Rainbow resides not so much in its configuration of the gap between Man and his environment as in the consequences of its exaggeration. As Pynchon depicts a world condemned to such narrow chances of betterment, one is allowed to question its premises. If Man’s condition is not “natural” anymore, does that forcefully mean that Man and his environment linger in a position of reciprocal alterity? Are they strictly opposite poles? Is the natural, social, and political world really blocked away from us? Is “reality” really inaccessible? In Pynchon (as in many others before him), the dichotomy between Man and his surrounding world reads as a dichotomy between the “me” and the “not me,” supported by the role conferred to the mind in guiding human life. What happens if the mind becomes less decisive?

Perhaps we are now beginning to witness a form of presentation of the “human” that eludes the centrality of mental life—the representation of inner life—that was still so decisive for authors such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, or Virginia Woolf. Some recent narrative works explore the presence of the body as such, one that is appreciated in itself and that matters for its own sake, eluding any privilege in literature of the mind as representative of the Human essence. In Pynchon, bodies are objectified and functionalized through racism, genocide, sexual perversion, which appear as different varieties of the same process of imposing power-relations through meaning-attribution. In contrast, in the works of novelists such as the Brazilian Hatoum, the Portuguese Gonçalo M. Tavares or of the recent Philip Roth, the characters’ bodies merge their social (and therefore codified) condition into their physical (and initially uncodified) disposition. Theirs are bodies on which meaning is physically incarnated, and that therefore expose by themselves (or on themselves) a life’s history—while at the same time directly determining interpersonal relations.

In the works of Hatoum, a body is an individual’s history made concrete. In Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers), in a moment of jealousy Omar stabs his twin brother Yaqub on the face. It takes only a few seconds of rage for Omar to attack him and scar him forever, but now the scar is part of Yaqub—determining his behavior and changing his personality: Yaqub’s scar is a permanent presence. At school, he falls prey to other children’s jokes; at home, having been a victim of his brother, his scar is a permanent reminder of a family trauma. His own face becomes a taboo subject; once talkative, Yaqub becomes silent. An outcome of a past event, his scar determines his future life; more than only evidence of his personal history, it determines the plot: as it is first determined by the plot as much as it subsequently comes to determine it, Yaqub’s scar is a strong narrative fact.

Hatoum’s bodies thus expose the stories of individuals among their personal, social, and natural environments (for the rainforest too builds the characters’ bodies). The “Human” is not shown as an autonomous entity standing opposite to the outside world. Man is not an artificial biotechnical machine, nor an interpretive “intervening machine.” Hatoum’s bodies are ancient, not modern; they show the “Human” as nothing more—but nothing less—than a set of “personally historical” relations with his immediate human and natural environments, relations through which a person modifies his environment as much as is modified by it. Such bodies do not “belong” to the individuals, they are the individuals they so immediately express, and since bodies are hairy, colored, sweaty, have sizes and weights and odors, physically attract or repel, through their natural and socially codified physicalities they co-build their surrounding environments and their own future paths.

For example, altogether with one’s psychological dispositions the mere self-deliverance to the Amazon might metamorphose a body, in a physical change that necessarily involves some acquisition of knowledge. The jungle is rough and aggressive, and to be able to live in it demands learning how to do it—some apprenticeship that gets imprinted on the body. After the time he spends hiding in the forest with his lover, Omar, the one who had stabbed his twin brother on the face, comes back. “Bald and bearded. Tanned, almost black of sunburn. Thinner, slimmer, on the chest a necklace of guaraná seeds. Barefoot, he wore some dirty bermudas, full of holes. He didn’t look like [his mother’s] sweet-smelling ‘Furry One.’”[7] All of Omar’s past tragedy and future decay pass through his body—they are incorporated by it and become visible on it. His final downfall is portrayed when the once charming ladies’ man is seen working in the garden. “He had only his briefs on, was full of grazes and disguised as a slave. The children started to whistle; then they threw mango pits on him, that smashed on his body.”[8] If the history of the relationship between an individual and his environment becomes so embodied in him, can we still say that he and his environment are external to one another? This opposition can perhaps be true for “minds,” but does it also hold true when bodies gain prominence?

This does not mean that the “inhuman” is not present in Hatoum’s literature, especially on the moral level—we know how much the most inhuman aspects of the occupation of the Amazon abound in his works… On its cognitive aspect, however, Hatoum’s bodies are not interpretive machines, and as they contribute to conduct the narrative they share the mind’s narrative relevance. The age-old abyss between Man and his environment (between the “me” and the “not me”) loses its foundational position. This surely does not make Man “natural” once more. But it is also true that instead of an “either/ or” approach to the position of the “human” before the non-human and the “inhuman,” we can now envisage some kind of “and/ and” approach, one in which we might proceed not through oppositions, but through additions and transitions.

[1] Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow. New York 1973, p. 324.

[2] Ibid., p. 108.

[3] Ibid., p. 110.

[4] Ibid., p. 717.

[5] Ibid., p. 625.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Milton Hatoum: Dois Irmãos. São Paulo 2000, p. 129.

[8] Ibid., p. 165.

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